In Part 1 I outlined a way to make sure:

  • You have a reliable way to archive all your email so you never have to worry about deleting an email again.
  • You have a way to unclutter your inbox.
  • You have a way to process your inbox.
  • You have a way to track everything you delegate and everything you are ‘waiting for’ via a Pending folder.

In this post I want to outline how to manage and track all of your next actions so you never have to worry about dropping the ball again.

As mentioned previously, efficiently processing your inbox involves doing one of four things with each email:

  • Read and delete. No action needed.
  • Do. If I think it will take me less than 2 mins to respond to an email, I will do it then and there and then delete.
  • Delegate. Forward and ask someone to do something based on the email, and then delete.  As per my previous post on this topic, remember to copy yourself when you delegate over email so you have a list of everything you’re waiting on someone for in your Pending folder!
  • Queue up for next action needed. These are the emails I need to spend more time on, and that I haven’t been able to delete, delegate or do within the 2 mins rule.

The focus of this post is on that last point, how to queue up things for next action needed.

One of the core tenants of “Getting Things Done” is to group all your next actions by context.  For example, there might be some things you can only do when you are at home.  When you’re not at home you don’t need to see those next actions because there’s nothing you can do about them.  However, when you are at home you do want to see them, because in that context (“I’m at home”) all of those next actions are fair game for follow-up.  Grouping all your next actions by context helps you focus on only the things you can do in that moment, without distracting yourself with all the things you can’t do in that moment.

Constructing Contexts

Everyone will have a different set of contexts they want to work across (see below for mine).  The trick here is to define those contexts in a way that makes sense for you and are as simple as possible.  It is also important to define them in such a way that each next action only goes into one context.  This keeps the overhead of managing next actions by context to a minimum. Here are mine:

Calls Calls I need to make when I have the time and am with my phone (typically when I’m driving)
Work Things I can only do when I’m physically at the office
Home Things I can only do when I’m physically at home
Errands Things I can only do when I’m out and about, typically near where I live
Laptop Things I need to do when I’m at my laptop (or on my phone)
Read Things I need to read
Agenda Things I need to talk to someone about in person or at an upcoming meeting
Someday Things not important to me now, but worth considering ‘someday’ when I have the time

The way that I implement this for my email is  by creating an email folder for each ‘context’ and then moving each ‘next action’ from my inbox to that folder.

Here are a few examples:

  • A friend emails me and wants to catch up. I simply drag the email from my inbox into my Call folder.
  • My wife emails me and asks if I can pick up paper towels. Into the Errands folder.
  • My colleague emails me and requests I review a presentation. Into the Laptop folder.
  • Someone sends me an interesting article on Vegemite. Into the Read folder it goes.
  • My boss emails me and says he wants to talk about an upcoming site visit. Into the Agenda folder for when I meet with him next.
  • Someone emails me to recommend walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea but I don’t have time to think about it now. Into the Someday folder. (More to come on that, later!)

Hopefully you get the idea.

Later, when I find myself out and about driving to the grocery store, I check my Errands folder and go buy paper towels.

When I meet with my boss I go to my Agendas folder to remind myself of all the things I need to speak with him about.

When I have a spare moment, I hit my Read folder for all the catch up reading I need to do, including how to make Vegemite at home.

Then, when I’m done with all my projects and have time to breathe, I check my Someday folder for new things to do.

Never drop the ball again.

Creating a Code

Now, the above works great when you are receiving emails and taking action on them, but what if you want to create and manage next actions for things not associated with an email you have received?  For example, you think of something you need to do at home, or you think of something you want to read.  How do you get those next actions into your email system?  Here’s what I do.

Let’s take a ‘work’ next action as an example.  If I want to remind myself to print a presentation the next time I’m in the office, I simply send myself an email with a Subject of “Print out presentation $w”.  I have a rule that looks for emails from myself with a “$w” in the subject line, and which then automatically moves that email into my Work folder.  Voila!  Next time I’m in the office I check my Work folder and there’s my next action to print out the presentation.

To break this down further, for each context:

  • Come up with a code you can put in the Subject for any next action you want to automatically move to the folder for that context.
  • Create a rule for the context that will look for that code as part of the Subject and then do the move.

For the example above the rule would look like this:

See below for the codes I use for all the contexts mentioned above.  All you need to do now is to create a rule for each code that is exactly the same as for the work example above, but with the corresponding code for each context.

Calls $c
Work $w
Home $h
Errands $e
Laptop $l
Read $r
Agenda $a
Someday $s

With the above in place you can also handle the following scenarios:

  • Someone sends you an email to ask you for something, and when you respond to say, “I’m on it!” you tag the subject with “$l” so your ‘next action’ is automatically put in your Laptop folder for follow-up. This saves you from having to respond AND manually moving the original email to Laptop yourself.  Yes, it’s only a few extra steps, but over the course of a day or a week or a year it all adds up.  And these posts are all about being an email ninja, not an email grasshopper. 🙂


Final Reminders

Now, just two more things and we’re done, but these are very important to remember.

First, the ordering of your rules in your email system matters.  It’s important that the first rule is the rule to move all received emails to your Received folder.  This ensures you will continue to archive all received emails as explained in my first post.  Then come the rules to manage context based next actions as explained above.  Finally, the last rule should be the rule to manage Pending emails; those emails you copy yourself on when you want to track or monitor that something gets done.  Ordering your rules in this way ensures they are applied in the right order so that the system works.

Second, you will need to update your Pending rule so that it doesn’t also move all these next action emails to your Pending folder.  To do this, simply exclude all these emails from the rule as shown below.

That’s it!  You now have a way to track next actions by context.  Whenever you complete a next action you can simply delete it out of the context folder and move on to the next one!

At this point:

  • You have a reliable way to archive all your email so you never have to worry about deleting an email again.
  • You have a way to unclutter your inbox.
  • You have a way to process your inbox.
  • You have a way to track everything you delegate and everything you are ‘waiting for’ via a Pending folder.
  • You have a way to track next actions by context.

Stay tuned for part 3 on how to use this system to manage projects and deliverables that require lots of ‘next actions’ to complete, with maybe a few additional advanced techniques to move you into black belt territory.

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