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Reach inbox zero with the Getting Things Done 3-Step workflow

Mailbutler discusses how the Getting Things Done workflow can help you reach inbox zero, organise your emails, and help you manage your time effectively.

First published

16.02.2021

Last edited

31.08.2021

Read time

11 minutes


By James

James has five years' experience as a Content Marketer, bylines on Left Foot Forward, Submittable, and INOMICS, and a Master's in History. In his free time he likes to read, play guitar, and write for his personal blog.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a tried-and-tested productivity system that helps you keep your life and work commitments under control – which of course includes email management. If you’re constantly overwhelmed by email and never-ending tasks, this is the guide to help you regain control of your inbox and to put your task management on auto-pilot! It’s predominantly a way of achieving inbox zero, which is a way of managing your inbox to save you time and help you be more productive. So without further ado, let’s check out exactly what inbox zero and Getting Things Done are and how you can utilise them in your work life.

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What is inbox zero?

Inbox zero is a method in email management. It’s all in the name – you should get no emails (or almost no emails) as a result.

The approach originates from the book by Merlin Mann, a well-known productivity expert, which was published back in 2014. There are five actions that Mann recommends to follow to achieve inbox zero:

  • Delete: you need to get rid of (or archive) emails that serve no further purpose. 
  • Delegate: if someone else can answer the email better, forward it to them. 
  • Respond: you need to respond immediately to emails and not keep them open. 
  • Defer: move the messages that will take some time to respond to a separate category.
  • Do: make sure you set time to emails that require a timely response. 

Following this approach especially helps those who’re running a freelance business or a business which relies on email communication and regularly communicate with dozens of clients. So how can you maximise your chances of reaching inbox zero?

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

Getting Things Done is a productivity framework for organizing and tracking tasks and projects, developed by business productivity consultant and author David Allen. The original book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity has been published in over thirty languages globally. The GTD system, when implemented correctly, is a foolproof method that lets you keep track of what you need to do, should do, or should consider doing.

What makes GTD so special?

Unlike most productivity methods, GTD is not about time-saving hacks or quick fixes. Instead, GTD focuses on being present, mindful and confident that your current action is the correct one. Many of our tasks and duties, such as creative thinking, strategies, and ideas, do not necessarily take our time, but they take up a lot of room in our brain.

What does this mean?

When we have multiple tasks in mind, we lack the mind space to actually focus on any of them. This causes us to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and eventually discouraged to work on important tasks. But when you have external storage for ideas, your brain is no longer clogged by future or past to-dos. This leaves you a clear headspace for what you should do right now.

When your mind is clear, you are calm, focused, present – and able to maintain a high level of awareness. In an age of constant information flow, GTD is not just about getting things done, but meaningfully engaging with what you do.

The 5 steps of the GTD workflow

What’s great about GTD is that it’s flexible and suitable for any kind of workflow. It doesn’t matter what tools you use, as long as they allow you to go through the following steps:

  1. Capture everything that has your attention: to-dos, ideas, recurring tasks, etc. You can use pen and paper, a to-do app, or anything that helps you stay organized. Capture everything so you don’t have to think about it until it’s time to do it again.
  2. Clarify what you have to do: Break down your ideas into actionable steps so there is no barrier in doing the task. If the action can be done right away, you can already get it done immediately!
  3. Organize your clarified items, and rank these items by category and priority. You can also assign due dates and set reminders so you will follow up on them.
  4. Review. With your tasks sorted and ready to be completed, don’t forget to take the time to review your system regularly and reflect on your list. Look over what your next action should be. If you have clarified your list correctly, you should be able to pick upcoming tasks accordingly and efficiently. If a task is still vague in the actions you can take, break it down further. Then give your list an in-depth review to see where you’re making progress, where you need to adjust priorities and how it’s working for you.
  5. Engage and get working! Your system is now set up and your tasks have been broken down in manageable chunks with varying priority. You can now comfortably engage with the world knowing what all your commitments are and what you’re doing right now is the best thing to do.

The power of GTD and Inbox Zero

The average office worker receives 121 emails daily and sends out 40. Even if you’re not alarmed by this number, at least you’d know how it feels to stare at the unread count in your inbox and think, ‘I’m never going to get all this done.’

Yes, there are countless ways to approach the ultimate dream of Inbox Zero – many focusing on creating folders, filters or multiple inboxes. But first, let’s quickly review the 5 commandments of Inbox Zero, originally coined by Merlin Mann:

  1. Time is precious. We won’t be able to take action on every email we receive.  Accepting this fact allows us to concentrate on what actually matters.
  2. 20/80 principle: not all emails are created equal. 20% of our emails consume 80% of our focus. The remaining 80% of less important emails can be handled quickly.
  3. Less is more. The longer your emails, the more time it takes for you to write them and for your recipients to go through them. Write concisely and straight to the point.
  4. Cut loose emotions. Anxiety and frustration can build up when we open a full inbox. That’s not what we should focus on: we should focus on getting stuff done.
  5. Set realistic expectations and priorities. Learning when to say no and what deserves your time is crucial in achieving Inbox Zero. We should focus on what’s important now, and accept that not everything can be accomplished. Instead, decide which emails are your priority.

Set up your GTD email workflow

Now we’ve gone through the basics of GTD and Inbox Zero, setting up a GTD email workflow is easier than ever.

We designed the following GTD email workflow incorporating many of Mailbutler’s features, but they’re entirely optional and only serve as additional helpers for this GTD email system. Feel free to use any productivity tools you like!

5 steps to kickstart your GTD email workflow

  1. Block out a few hours of your day to first unsubscribe from your unwanted newsletters. To speed things up, make use of inbox features that let you quickly opt out from unwanted email lists.
  2. Decide how often you want to check your inbox. We recommend you to set up intervals during the day that won’t disturb you from focusing on deep work.
  3. Time block yourself for these intervals, so you have dedicated and undisturbed times only for your emails. A key is to disable your email notifications when you’re not checking them – or, if you are strict and always check during your email time, disabling them completely.
  4. If you find your current unopened emails to be a little too overwhelming to begin your GTD workflow, try moving all your ‘pre-inbox zero’ emails into a separate archive folder. (To further prove the point of inbox zero, we guarantee you won’t actually need to look back at this folder after you started sorting your emails with GTD.)
  5. GTD requires you to act upon each email that either needs action or can be immediately archived. While we believe the search functionality is powerful enough to look for any email, depending on your needs, you can also set up the following folders, which act as archiving locations:
    • References: This is a folder for important documentation, receipts, invoices – anything you might need for later referencing.
    • Project: If you receive emails constantly about a certain project (or email campaign), you might want to put them in specific projects folder.

Deal with incoming emails with this simple 3-step GTD workflow

Step 1: Capture

Your email inbox is where potential tasks, ideas or projects enter your workflow.
We need to first establish that our inbox is an in-basket we need to check regularly in order to stay on top of things. An actionable email will result in a next step that can be broken down to smaller tasks.

Step 2: Clarify each email by asking, “Can I do something about this email?”

  • No: delete or archive it.
  • Yes: move onto the next step.

Step 3: Organize. “Can I do this under 2 minutes?”

  • Yes: Do it now.
    • Reply it  -> Archive it, or move it to an appropriate folder
      • If the sent email requires a follow-up, set a Follow-up Reminder, and/or add it with your task manager app .
    • Or Delegate it -> Archive it.
    • Or Do the required task -> Archive it.
  • No: Do it later.
    • Defer it -> Add a Reminder to the email and sync it with your preferred task manager -> Archive it.
    • OR Use inbox features like email snoozing to have them reappear in your inbox later.
      • If preferred, attach a note for yourself in the email so you don’t have to read the entire email again. You can do this with Maibutler features like Email Notes.

Tips for reaching inbox zero

It’s not just GTD that can help you reach inbox zero, though. To really get there, it’s all about your attitude. Read on to learn more about how a change in perspective can help your chances of getting your inbox totally organised.

Adopt the right attitude

Right now, there is a big chance that your inbox has at least 20 unread messages. If yes, you need to adopt the right attitude for the inbox zero approach. 

Here’s where you can start.

  • Understand that your inbox is a communication method. Right now, you probably can compare your inbox to a trash cabinet, where you keep miscellaneous items, which you never really clean. “To get to the zero inbox, you need to start treating your email as a means of communication and react to every email you get,” says Neightan White, a marketing specialist at SupremeDissertations
  • Keep in mind that you’ll have to follow this method every day. This is not a one-time-only approach, inbox zero method is like an exercise you will have to devote your time to every day. 
  • Adopt the clear-of-clutter mindset. You might have noticed how a clutter on your table always distracts you from getting the job done. Cluttered inbox works the same way. The more unread and unanswered emails you have, the less productive you will be. 

The inbox zero approach is all about establishing a routine and adopting the right attitude to follow through with this routine every day.

Work out the schedule

How often should you sort your emails? When is the right time to do it?

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is sorting their emails every time they get an alert. Instead of boosting productivity, you take it away from you. The study by the American Psychological Association has shown that multitasking like this can cost us 40% of our productivity. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that you should dedicate your evening to de-cluttering your entire inbox. There is a chance that you won’t be done until morning. 

Instead, dedicate a few minutes every two to three hours. This should be enough to follow through with the five-step approach to cleaning your inbox that we mentioned above. 

Automate! 

Automating will help you spend less time on archiving, forwarding, and answering your emails. Thus, it will take you less time to achieve inbox zero. 

If you use Gmail, you can create auto-replies by going to Settings, clicking on Advanced Settings, and enabling the Templates option:

Next time, when you need to send an autoreply, you can create a template for it in a Compose toolbar:

If you use Gmail or any other email service, you can also get autoreply templates from Mailbutler service, which will help increase your productivity and cut the number of emails in your inbox. 

There are, however, quite a few things to keep in mind to make your emails look professional. 

First of all, you need to pay attention to the subject line and the body of your email. 

  • Create a straightforward subject line. It should not be vague and should reflect the purpose of the email. 
  • Cut to the chase. When it comes to the body of your email, you should also make it short and straightforward. Two or three sentences will be enough for an average template. 
  • Make it a tad more personal. One of the ways you can do it is by adding your personal information in case the person needs your urgent response. 

To make the body of your autoreply email brief, yet professional, check it for wordiness with online tools like TrustMyPaper, Studicus, or Hemingway App. This will help you exclude unnecessary information and communicate the message correctly. 

Getting to inbox zero also presupposes replying to urgent emails, which you will have to do every two or three hours. 

To speed up this process, you can download Chrome extensions like Grammarly or Easy Mail that will help you draft emails quicker and mistake-free. 

Following these simple steps will help you quickly manage your incoming emails and achieve inbox zero. 

Be persistent 

Working on achieving inbox zero on a daily basis brings you a lot of benefits in the long run:

  • With this approach, you won’t miss important emails in the pile of unread messages. 
  • Recipients won’t wait forever for your response. 
  • If you’re a freelancer, unread emails won’t create a bottleneck in your business. 

On top of that, cluttered inbox won’t cause you unnecessary stress, and you won’t lose productivity paying attention to every email alert. 

Work out the inbox zero schedule and benefit from email automation to answer and categorize emails faster. 

But more importantly, adopt the attitude that will help you follow through with this method every day. The inbox zero method requires consistency, so be persistent and follow the schedule. 

Supercharge your GTD workflow with Mailbutler

Whether it’s email, projects, or daily chores you want to regain control of, GTD is the fool-proof and most effective way to get started on your inbox zero journey.

Mailbutler‘s inbox features are powerfully designed for Apple Mail, Outlook & Gmail to help you and your team manage emails flexibly the way you want. Make use of Notes and Tasks, Snooze, and Follow-up Reminders to enhance your GTD workflow even more.

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