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Using Outlook Tasks for “Getting Things Done” (GTD)

If the phrase “getting things done” (or GTD) is foreign to you, I would strongly suggest that you read up on it. Basically, it is a time management system that focuses on recording things that need to be done, getting them out of your mind, and letting you focus on the tasks at hand. There are tons of online resources on GTD, but I’ll just point you to Wikipedia’s entry.

Out of all the task management programs and systems there are, I am stuck to Microsoft Outlook. Why? Simply put, I rely so much on my Palm PDA that I must have a desktop system that quickly and easily syncs with it. Outlook does it like a pro.

Next v. future actions

One of the problems I have faced when trying to implement GTD with my law school studies and other life projects is managing future actions. GTD focuses on knowing the next action for a task or project. Basically, ask yourself the next thing you need to do in order to move a project along. That is the next action. A given project could have multiple next steps, but a lot of the time there is only one thing you can do next.

After the next action, you will undoubtedly have a lot of future actions that need to be done. In keeping with GTD, you need to get these out of your head and recorded somewhere, so you can focus on the next action.

Boiling all this down to a silly example, think of the “project” as buying groceries. You need to: make a list, get in the car, drive to the store, purchase your listed items, drive home, put things away, etc. You can’t purchase your grocery items until you drive to the store. You could skip making the list, but I definitely wouldn’t. Thus, your next action here is to make a list. Everything else is a future action.

Outlook to the rescue

Back to Outlook tasks, the method I have derived to keep track of all this is quite simple. Create a new task and make the “subject” be your next action (make grocery list). Inside the notes/body of the task, list out all of the future actions that you have in your head right now. The list doesn’t need to be complete, but you should dump everything you think of off-hand in there. Then save your task. Once you finish the next action, open the task and find the next action from your list of future actions. Copy and paste this into the “subject” field. Once you have no more future actions, the project is done and you can delete the task. Simple, right?

Applying it

Ok, you’re thinking that I am crazy because I need a complicated system to get groceries. Try applying this method to something more intense like writing a journal article, merging two law firms, setting up a business deal, etc. You’ll definitely find it easier to manage any project at hand when you can brain dump all your future actions and just focus on what to do next.

Do you have a good Outlook tip to help with GTD? Please post a comment or drop me a line.

[tags]legal andrew, gtd, getting things done, microsoft outlook, outlook, taskpad[/tags]

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7 Responses to “Using Outlook Tasks for “Getting Things Done” (GTD)”

  1. Manny Hernandez
    October 17th, 2006

    It’s the first time in less than a week that I see the GTD methodology talked about. I feel I have missed something. I will definitely pick up a David Allen book. Which one would you recommend?

  2. Manny Hernandez
    October 17th, 2006

    BTW, I use the same system you use, so you are not alone! 🙂

  3. Andrew F
    October 17th, 2006

    As far as GTD goes, I honestly haven’t read any of David Allen’s books. I have looked for them at our local libraries and at used book stores, but I have come up empty. I’m not usually one for buying new books, especially when the gist of the content is available online for free. The classic Allen book is “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity“. If you want to learn more about it in general, the Wikipedia article is helpful, as well as lots of blogs and sites on the subject.


  4. Lars
    September 11th, 2007

    I prefer using the “Flag To” option to indicate the Next Action. You can write in your own flag to message as the default ones are mostly for the receiver of emails. Then I list the “flag to” field on my taskpad/to-do bar as well in the Task list for easy reference.

  5. neudatum
    September 24th, 2007

    I’ll try this, sounds simpler than the other outlook gtd implementations I’ve come across – with macros and all out customization. Thnx.

  6. Monique
    January 16th, 2008

    The new Outlook lets you establish categories, so I’ve created an Action category and a Waiting For category. I set the one-click category to go to Action by default, which makes it super easy.

  7. Business Review
    May 11th, 2009

    I have searched high and low for an easier way to track projects with outlook. I tend to make things overly complicated. Reading this is like “DUH”. How easy and simple!! Thanks for this post!

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