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Some recent GTD how-tos, tips, and tricks

I often see questions about details in implementing Getting Things Done from a number of sources, including calls and emails from clients and readers, and participants of on-line forums. Here's a collection of some recent answers, which I hope you find useful. (You might also enjoy this list of my GTD-related posts, especially Some common GTD questions, with answers.)

Indexing filing systems

When teaching clients about filing, I sometimes get asked about more complex approaches, including indexing file drawer contents. This is done by creating a master list (on paper, kept at the front of the drawer, or as a file on your PC) that groups files by topic or keyword, and specifies where to find them. Some people find this kind of system helpful (there are some home-grown solutions at Database to my alpha system - is it needed? and commercial programs like Paper Tiger), but generally I've found a simple A-Z system with no index works great for most people. It's simple, inexpensive, and filing and retrieving is fast.

This is a bit controversial, but I believe that indexing slows down both sides: filing something requires entering it into the system, and retrieving requires a separate look-up step. And anything that slows down filing leads to stacking folders, or creating a "to file" pile, which is more work. Also, if the indexing is a pain, it's easy to get out of sync with the actual files.

Adherents claim it's faster (e.g., Index Your Reference System), but I'd suggest starting simply with the A-Z, then trying something more complex if needed. I've not had a problem finding files, and I have about 100 at hand, and another 200 in a second drawer.

Related: Five secret filing hacks from the masters.

When to remove something from Someday/Maybe

Recall that we use the Someday/Maybe folder [1] as a holding place for things that are on our minds, but which we're not currently ready to act on. However, when do you move them out of there? I suggest breaking it down like this:
  • Do I still think I'll want to act on it someday? If not, toss it.
  • If I remove it from my life, will it still be on my mind? If so, keep it.
  • Am I ready to act on it now (have resources/time/energy become available)? If so, create an action and a related Projects entry (if more than one step to complete).
  • Otherwise, keep it for the next review.
Remember, this folder needs to be reviewed regularly. Otherwise it might become a Black hole, and will stop helping to offload tracking from your mind.

Keeping file folder tabs aligned

Another filing question, this one is about whether to try aligning file tabs. Some people prefer keeping them aligned - all on the left, for example - so that they aren't randomly mixed within the drawer. (See File Folder Tabs - Which Side? for a typical query.)

My advice is not to worry about it. The tabs will naturally be a mixture, and it's usually not a problem. Once in a while I'll have a few on the same side, making it a bit difficult to see the one that's behind, but generally it doesn't bother most people. I recommend using 1/3 cut standard Manila folders [2], and not getting hung up on the tab locations. They'll vary depending on random factors, but they're alpha so you'll find them OK.

Move email-based subscriptions to RSS

When I'm working one-on-one with a client, we spend a good chunk of our two days together processing and organizing email [3]. As you'd expect, people tend to have a large backlog of messages in their inbox (thousands, in some cases), and once we're done they're pretty motivated to regularly empty it in the future. In addition to becoming efficient at dispatching each message, it's helpful to also reduce your email volume.

I have a number of suggestions I share with clients, but here's a favorite: Move email-based subscriptions (e.g., newsletters) from your inbox to an RSS feed reader that supports creating anonymous emails, such as Bloglines [4]. Briefly, here's how it works: For each email-based subscription you'll create a custom email address (it's one click in Bloglines), then change your subscription (or unsubscribe and re-subscribe) to the new address. This leaves your inbox for the more urgent incoming "stuff," and allows you to catch up on your news and such as feeds via your feed reader. Each subscription shows up as its own feed - very handy!

Here's Bloglines' entry on this feature: From Why does Bloglines Offer Email Accounts?:
Bloglines free email accounts allow people to receive email newsletter subscriptions within their MyBloglines page. This helps to reduce traffic through your primary email inbox and helps to contain the spam menace. A Bloglines email account gives you a trump card when a newsletter breaks the rules of opt-in marketing. When you unsubscribe from a Bloglines email subscription, the email address disappears. You never have to worry about trying to find the unsubscribe instructions for an unwanted mailing list.
Read more about RSS at HOW TO: Getting Started with RSS. Related: Afraid to click? How to efficiently process your RSS feeds.

How to know you're a GTD master

For those of us who've been practicing GTD for a while, a useful question is "How do I know when I've mastered it?" (see for example the discussion I have mastered GTD when...). I usually say two things. First I suggest checking out my guide: GTD Workflow Assessment/Tips Checklist. If you can check off all items, you are definitely a master!

Second, I emphasize that, like any significant change (in this case, the art of self-management), becoming a master takes time. As George Leonard writes in his great little book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment:
The master of any game is generally a master of practice.
Leonard writes about the universal process of mastering any subject, including the inevitable plateaus, backslides, and frustration. But I've found a practice like GTD can be a tremendous enabler for being living better - being happier, more fulfilled, and ultimately making changes that are congruent with your purpose (whatever it might be - even if you don't know it!)

  • [1] I recommend clients use a paper folder instead of a list, because many potential items show up as paper - classes to attend, purchases to make, etc. So instead of a plain list, I recommend using a folder - this allows you to easily drop those items directly into it without much work. For "one-liners" you can also keep list(s) within the folders.
  • [2] For a complete listing of useful supplies, see my Listmania list: Basic Processing Tools for Personal Productivity/Workflow
  • [3] I tell people I help move them from email checkers to email workers.
  • [4] Although Google Reader is very cool, it does not yet support email-based feeds. This is a deal-breaker for me, so I usually recommend Bloglines.

Reader Comments (12)

Great post, as always.

I don't use bloglines but I have a separate gmail account for list email. I then have to consciously go to that address, which gives me a nice separation between important and "noisy" email.

In addition, using gmail (or any web mail) for all email means it's encourages the behaviour of keeping mail closed until times when I want to look at it. I find using Outlook etc makes it just a bit harder.

July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Hey richard, you gave me an idea: Instead of using a separate account, why not use Gmail's alias and filter features to route subscriptions to a separate "folder?"

You'd set this up something like the following:

1. Subscribe using "myaddress+subscr@gmail.com" (assuming your gmail address is "myaddress@gmail.com").

2. Create a filter that tags messages to that address as "@News" (say), *and* skips the inbox.


3. Periodically click the "@News" link to catch up.


July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

That's not bad. I do like being able to trash the more public one if it gets too noisy (and keep the more private one even more private), and that it's a bit more hassle to see those emails. But otherwise the same result!

A trick I do like with gmail is to filter on in:spam, and trashing those automatically. I'll check the trash every so often just in case, but it's quieter :)

July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

The bloglines tip is gold.

July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher K

Glad you liked it, Christopher. Thanks for reading.

July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great intentional suggestions, Matt. - John

July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Michael De Marco

Thanks for reading, John.

July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I think you alluded to this, but not sure if you are doing the same thing.

For filing, I have a "Quick access" drawer that is built into my desk. It's just normal drawer, but I keep "Active" project files in there and anything I want close. It also contains my 43 folder tickler system. I have a 4 drawer filing cabinet monster next to my desk that is easily accessible, but I like the "quick access" drawer for my active projects, less muss and fuss.

I guess this would depend on the number of your "active" projects and how much space you had for files, but this helps me nonetheless...

July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Hi Russell: Your drawer sounds like the "control point drawer" that Chris Crouch describes in "Getting Organized" ( see [ Matt's Idea Blog: Some thoughts from the book "Getting Organized" by Chris Crouch | http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/06/some-thoughts-from-book-getting.html ] ). He includes in his:

o tickler file (43 folders)
o follow-up forms (for tracking action)
o agendas (boss, spouse, each on-going meeting)
o casual reading (read/review)
o waiting for
o purchases/errands

No current projects, though...

Also, I've seen that idea in other systems. The idea is it's less work looking through a small set of "active" files than through your entire drawer. One recommendation is to return files to the front of the drawer - providing access via frequency (not sure the best wording there).

I sometimes use one of my stacking shelves for this - but just a few files.

Generally, if your at-hand filing is efficient, finding a file should be easy, even if you access it regularly. As always, whatever works for you!

Thanks for the stimulating comment.

July 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I always make things too complicated on myself when I try to create filing systems or the like. This is why I had my husband design the latest implementation of our web site---the one I did before just confused people. Maybe it's the ADD, but I naturally over-complicate things in trying to simplify them. One solution in the email arena that I like right now is using Google mail. It doesn't even have folders---just topic tags, a general archiving feature, and the search function---so it's much harder for me to over-complicate things!

July 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Great blog!! The bloglines tip is fantastic! I look forward to more great tuin the future.

July 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Heather: Thanks for the reminder to keep things simple. And I like Gmail for the same reasons - just topic tags, a general archiving feature, and the search function.

Anonymous: I'm very happy you found the tip useful. Thanks for reading.

July 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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