My Current Workflow System

Several people have written to ask how I am managing my current workflow. Most of those writing are “GTD practitioners” (inspired by David Allen’s bestseller, Getting Things Done [affiliate link]) who are specifically interested in what software tools I am using. So, I thought I would I would dedicate a post to providing an overview of my current practices.

GTD Workflow Diagram (Modified)

My current computer is an Apple MacBook Pro with a 2.4 GHz processor and 4 GB of memory. I installed the new Leopard operating system a week and a half ago, when it first came out. I made two complete backups of my hard drive before I installed it, and so far I am enjoying it.

I continue to use Microsoft Entourage as my basic e-mail and calendering program. I am not particularly happy with this software. It has been nearly four years since Microsoft has updated it, and it is showing its age.

If I could completely switch to Apple Mail and iCal, I would. However, we run on a Microsoft Exchange and Outlook based system. While I can get Mail to run with Exchange, I have not been able to use iCal. In any event, Microsoft is promising an upgrade to the complete Office suite in January.

I live in e-mail, as do most of my colleagues. I generally get 80 messages or so a day. That’s not as many as many people get, and it is down considerably from what I was getting just a year ago. However, I have proactively worked to get my name off of distribution lists that contain irrelevant content.

I make liberal use of e-mail rules. I let the software do the heavy-lifting. For example, I have an e-mail rule called “CC Mail.” This rule evaluates every message that arrives in my inbox. If I am only CC’d in the message and not addressed directly in the “TO” field, the rule marks the message as read and moves it to a folder called “CC Mail.”

I assume that these messages are lower-priority, FYI-type messages. I scan this folder every few days, just in case there is something important. Frankly, this information is rarely urgent and most of it is irrelevant. This rule alone reduces my message count by 30 percent.

I also use Entourage’s Mail List Manager to move email newsletters and other low-priority messages I eventually want to read to my “Bacn” folder. (Bacn is a term that some people are using to describe that class of email that is kind of like spam, except you actually subscribed to it.) I also use the program to mark the message as read, so it doesn’t sit in the folder as unread and tempt me to go read it now.

When I process e-mail, I try to deal with each message only once. I employ a simple rhythm of read, act, read, act—kind of like breathing. With every message, I ask, “Is this message actionable?” If it is, I take one of three actions:

  1. Do it. If the task suggested or required by the message will take less than two minutes, I do it right then and there. This is the primary reason why my to-do list is so short. The key is to learn how to define the next action. This is the antidote to procrastination. Every project is made up of numerous discrete actions. You don’t have to complete the entire project. You just have to identify the next appropriate action and do it.

    If I can’t do the task in two minutes or less, I add it to my to-do list. Currently, I am using iGTD. Is a great program for implementing David Allen’s system. It works well with Entourage, so I can just press an F-key (user-definable), and it will copy an email message to the program and set up a new task.

  2. Delegate. Often I am not the best one to do the task. If so, then I delegate to someone else. By the way, don’t think that because you don’t have an assistant, you can’t delegate tasks. People delegate to me all the time. Even if you don’t have an assistant you can do this. If you can’t afford to hire an assistant, you should consider a “virtual assistant” as described in Tim Ferris’s excellent book, The 4-Hour Workweek [affiliate link]. I recommend in Bangalore, India. I have personally used them and found them to be excellent. You can buy ten hours a month for $120 a month. This is more than enough for many people.

    By the way, whenever I delegate a task, I BCC myself. This creates a copy of the message in my inbox. I then use an email rule and an Apple script I developed to add the message to iGTD as a “waiting for” item. This is like a pending file, so that I can track every single delegated task. It is so efficient it is scary. It is the cornerstone of my follow-up system and insures than nothing falls through the cracks. By the way, the same email rule marks the message as read and files it away. The whole process is invisible.

  3. Defer. Sometimes things are actionable, but they are not actionable now. For example, if I want to buy tickets to an upcoming David Wilcox concert, but they don’t go on sale for two weeks. I simply enter the task on my calendar on the day I want to take the action. I indicate that it is an “All Day” event, which simply means that it is not assigned to a specific time. It just appears at the top of my calendar.

If the message is not actionable, I take one of two actions:

  1. File. If I think I might want to refer to this message later, I file it. If I am in doubt, I file it. But here’s the key: I file everything—and I mean everything—in one single file called, “Processed Mail.” I have seen people create an elaborate system of folders and subfolders. All this does is slow them down. “Should I make a copy of the message and file a copy in both Sam’s folder and Jeff’s folder since it relates to both of them, or should I just file it under the project name?”

    These kinds of questions lead to unnecessary complexity and procrastination. I file everything under one folder and let Spotlight find the messages I need whenever I need them. (There are similar programs for Windows.)

    Nothing will speed up your email processing more than using this technique in combination with the two-minute rule described above. They will cut your email processing time down to a fraction of what it was.

  2. Delete. If I don’t think I will need the message again, I simply delete it. However, if in doubt, I file it. Hard disk space is plentiful and it is not worth spending more than a second on this decision.

The above process is kind of a “snapshot” into my world. It may be different next week or next month. I am constantly on the lookout to gain more efficiency, so I am always trying new things.

Question: What software or techniques are you using that work well? Some of the best tips I have learned from my readers, so please share your insights!