GTD Email: Reach Inbox Zero With This Simple 3-Step Workflow (2019 Updated)

GTD-Email-Inbox-Zero-Header-Mailbutler

Getting Things Done (GTD) has long been proven to be an effective productivity system that helps you keep your life and work commitments under control – and your emails are no different. If you’ve come here for a guide on how to get things done and reach Inbox Zero, this is definitely the right place.

Our complete guide on Inbox Zero and GTD will guide you through:

  1. The basics of GTD
  2. The power of GTD + Inbox Zero
  3. Actionable steps to start your GTD email system
  4. 3-step GTD email flowchart

If you’re already familiar with GTD but interested to know how it works with email management, feel free to jump to Part 2!

Part 1 – 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.

GTD allows you to have 100% trust in a system for collecting ideas, tasks and projects. When implemented correctly, it’s a foolproof method that lets you keep track of what you need to do, should do, or should consider doing.

GTD Email Getting Things Done with Focus

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, 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 slowly 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 your highest level of awareness.

In the age of constant flow of information, GTD is not just about getting things done, but meaningfully engaged with what you do.

The 5 steps of 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-do’s, ideas, recurring tasks… 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, get it done immediately!

3 – Organize your clarified items: Organize these items by category and priority. Assign due dates, set reminders so you will follow up on them.

4 – Review your system regularly: Reflect on your to do 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 all your commitments and knowing what you’re doing right now is the best thing to do.

GTD is about being aware of your commitments, with 2 priorities: what you do now, and everything else. When you trust your system, you can allow your subconsciousness to free up brain space, instead of constantly keeping track of tasks.

Part 2 – The power of GTD + 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,

‘Well crap. I’m never gonna go through all of this.’

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 it 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 quickly handled.

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 of emotions. Anxiety and frustration can build up when we open a full inbox, but it’s not what we should focus on, but the act of doing.

5 – Set realistic expectations and priorities. Learning when to say no and what deserves your time is crucial in achieving Inbox Zero.

You’ll quickly realize the basic principles behind Inbox Zero  is the same as GTD:We should focus on what’s important now, and accept that not everything can be accomplished. Instead, decide which emails are your priority.

Part 3 – Set up your GTD email workflow

Now that we have 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 most recent unwished newsletters. To speed things up, make use of your inbox features, such as Unsubscribe from Mailbutler, that lets you quickly opt out from unwanted email lists.

2 – Decide on 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 for times when you’re not checking them.

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 all 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.

Part 4 – Deal with incoming emails with this simple 3-step GTD workflow (Click to enlarge)

GTD-Email-Inbox-Zero-Flowchart-Mailbutler

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 that we need to regularly check 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 services like Email Notes.

Supercharge your GTD workflow with Mailbutler

Whether it’s email, projects, or daily chores you want to regain control in 2019, 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 & Gmail to help you and your team manage emails flexibly the way you want. Make use of Unsubscribe, Tasks, Snooze, Follow-up Reminders to enhance your GTD workflow even more.


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Mailbutler is a powerful productivity extension for Apple Mail and Gmail that helps professionals and teams email smarter to get more meaningful work done. Get started today for free.

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