This is not the first time that I’ve found myself writing a blog entry about “managing e-mail”. However, it is the first time that I’ve written about managing e-mail and felt that I have a workable solution, for me at least. For the last 18 months or so, I have been trying to push Getting Things Done into my life – too many e-mails, an ever-growing to-do list and clutter have been putting a lot of weight on my shoulders. Something had to be done to alleviate that weight, GTD seemed like a popular/successful fit.
Whilst I have managed to enjoy the short-term benefits of Inbox Zero, reaching it a few times over the last 18 months, keeping on top of a fast filling inbox kept getting the better of me. As such, most of my “e-mail time” was spent processing immediate actions or fire-fighting. Working like this means somethings do slip under the radar and can come back to bite you where it hurts most. Something had to be done – it had to be simple, effective and something that I could run with for a long time.
I chose to stick with the GTD filing advice whereby tasks/items are organised into four pots: Action, Deferred, Someday and Waiting For, as explained in a little more detail over here (with thanks to Richard Peat over on Twitter). These folder names are working for me, your mileage may vary.
Dragging and dropping into these folders is fine, however it is a little cumbersome and mouse-intensive – it’s easy to make mistakes with drag’n’drop. I really wanted an more integrated solution that was better than drag’n’drop and better than the keyboard shortcut for Move To Folder (Control+Shift+V). After a little hunting around for GTD solutions, I settled on my own home-grown solution. I say home-grown, I actually took some inspiration from Chewy’s Blog – where you can find an Outlook macro that invokes a “move to folder” action in Outlook. With a little modification I found myself with a handful of Outlook macros that would let me select one or more e-mails, run one of the GTD macros and hey presto, the e-mails would then magically file themselves in the appropriate GTD folder.
However, I wanted more than “running macros”, I wanted toolbar icons that would run these macros and offer me keyboard shortcuts. Fortunately, Microsoft Outlook allows us to create macros that can be run from a toolbar icon and these icons can have keyboard shortcuts associated with them.
Creating a Microsoft Outlook macro is fairly painless: simply click on the Tools, Macro, Macros menu item (or press Alt+F8). Enter a macro name that reflects your action, e.g. MoveGTDAction and then click on the Create button. With a little care, you should be able to cut’n’paste the code from this example into the VBA code editor.
One of the modifications that I made to the Chewy’s original code was the introduction of a separate routine that is capable of moving e-mail items to a given folder. I needed to be able to call this routine such that it would operate on at least four different folders (the GTD folders), so a separate routine seemed logical. Here’s the code behind MoveToFolder:
Sub MoveToFolder(objFolder As Outlook.MAPIFolder) On Error Resume Next Dim objItem As Outlook.MailItem If objFolder Is Nothing Then MsgBox "This folder doesn't exist!", vbOKOnly + vbExclamation, "INVALID FOLDER" End If If Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection.Count = 0 Then Exit Sub End If For Each objItem In Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection If objFolder.DefaultItemType = olMailItem Then If objItem.Class = olMail Then objItem.Move objFolder End If End If Next Set objItem = Nothing Set objFolder = Nothing End Sub
Making use of MoveToFolder for each of the GTD folders necessiates the creation of routines for each of the folders. Here’s the code for MoveGTDAction – be careful to get the folder hierarchy correct.
Sub MoveGTDAction() On Error Resume Next Dim objNS As Outlook.NameSpace Set objNS = Application.GetNamespace("MAPI") Call MoveToFolder(objNS.Folders.Item("Mailbox - Murphy, Craig").Folders.Item("@ GTD").Folders.Item("Action (respond or process)")) Set objNS = Nothing End Sub
Another minor tweak that I use is the notion of an “Archive 2008” folder. I delete e-mail when it needs to be deleted, but there are a lot of e-mails that you may want to hold on to for any number of reasons. Of course you don’t want them hanging around your Inbox or your GTD folders…so I have a folder called Archive with sub-folders 2008, 2007, etc. Equally, I don’t want the archived e-mails hanging around in my corporate Exchange folders, so I use Microsoft Outlook’s Personal Folders instead (with an appropriate backup regime in place!) Here’s the code that I use to move such e-mails into my Personal Folders for year 2008:
Sub MoveArchive2008() On Error Resume Next Dim objNS As Outlook.NameSpace Set objNS = Application.GetNamespace("MAPI") Call MoveToFolder(objNS.Folders.Item("Personal Folders").Folders.Item("Archive").Folders.Item("2008")) Set objNS = Nothing End Sub
Microsoft Outlook’s toolbars are very customisable. Simply right-click on any area of the toolbar and you’ll be presented with a list of the toolbars that are currently available and those that are visible (ticked). You’ll also see the Customise menu option (yes, yes, Customize if you’re elsewhere in the world). Clicking on the Customise menu option will give us the option to add a new toolbar, one with buttons that run the macros created earlier. I have two toolbars, GTD and Organise. The GTD toolbar handles the four GTD folders whereas the Organise toolbar handles Archive 2008, Outlook’s built-in Move To Folder icon and the frequently used Delete icon.
Using the Customise dialog, it’s easy to create a new toolbar, simply click on the New… button.
Once you have a toolbar, getting the GTD macros on to that toolbar is also a simple step. Click on the Commands tab and choose the Macros category, as shown below.
It’s possible to drag the macros (e.g. Project1.MoveGTDAction) onto your ‘GTD’ toolbar – a toolbar button will appear. If you were to right-click on the newly created button, you’ll be able to change its name such that it has a keyboard short-cut, simply by prefixing the letter that you would like to use with an ampersand (&). The screenshot below demonstrates how we might use Alt+A to invoke the “file to Action folder” button.
Repeating this process for all the GTD actions, you might end up with a toolbar that looks similar to this one:
For the sake of completeness, my GTD folder structure looks like this:
I’ve used these folders, macros, toolbars and keyboard shortcuts to clear down both my corporate inboxes and my personal inbox (which was by far the worst). I have a few more tricks that I’m using to keep my inbox “flowing”, I’ll share those in a follow-up blog post. In the meantime, if you have any tips and tricks that you would like to share, please feel free to leave a comment!
GTD Action/Deferred/WaitingFor/Someday folders in Microsoft Outlook – Show Item Count
Making e-mail simpler and easier to handle: using Microsoft Outlook rules
Elementary GTD using Microsoft Outlook “move to folder”