Another thing that I’d forgotten since the first time I read the GTD book: not everything that advances a project is a Next Action. Some actions are for the future (and hence belong on your calendar or tickler file); some actions need to be carried out by other people.

One concrete effect of this realization is that it gave me a way to flag the current status of all of my projects. I have a list of projects; each project has to have to have at least one item associated to it with the label NEXT, WAITING, or SCHEDULED. I may have multiple such actions, if I’m proceeding along multiple fronts; I may also have items on the project that don’t have any of those labels. (Those items might be ideas for future actions or reference materials.) But I have to have at least one item that’s flagged with one of those labels: if I don’t, that’s either a sign that it’s really a someday/maybe item, not a project, or that I need to sit down and come up with a next action on the project.

This also applies to e-mails. Some e-mails, even e-mails that I have flagged as active instead of archived, aren’t associated to a project; I stick these in a folder called ‘conversations’. But lots of my active e-mails are associated to a project. So I have folders ‘actions’, ‘waiting’, and ‘scheduled’, corresponding to the labels above. (As well as another folder, ‘projects’, for reference material that I don’t want to archive just yet.) (Actually, not every e-mail in actions/waiting/scheduled is associated to a project in my formal project list: some of them are single-action projects that I don’t feel compelled to capture elsewhere. Though some may be few-action projects that really should be captured elsewhere? I don’t think it’s hurting me yet, though.)

The problem is that this requires too much work for some common operations. Say that an e-mail comes in that I’m waiting for. Then it’s a response to something that’s currently in my ‘waiting’ folder; to avoid forgetting that I’ve gotten the response, I typically move the response to ‘waiting’ as well, then (once I’ve finished clearing out my inbox), go to ‘waiting’, look for e-mails that have gotten responses, and characterize them accordingly. Another difficult issue is when an e-mail requires some amount of context to respond to entirely: do I just have a single message in my actions folder, or the whole thread?

I’m starting to think that gmail has gotten it right by replacing folders with (per-thread) tags. But I’m not willing to move even my personal e-mail usage to gmail’s web interface, and I certainly can’t move my work e-mail there. Does Thunderbird use tags, and make it easy to restrict your view to only messages with a certain tag? (Looking at the web page, I think so, but I’m not completely sure.)

For the time being, I am one of the eccentrics who reads e-mail using Gnus. I assume I’ll move off of it one of these years, but that time hasn’t yet come, and (despite Gnus’s folder-centric nature) I don’t think this will push me off of Gnus, either. I spent a few hours digging through the source code and asking questions of the newsgroup; Gnus doesn’t have tagging support, but it looks like it should be workable to add an extra header to saved e-mails and tell Gnus to limit its view to headers matching a certain value on that header. (A nice benefit of having a mail reader written in a scripting language.) I haven’t yet found the time to implement this, so there might be something that I’m missing, but I’m optimistic.

Once I’ve done that, I can get rid of the separate action/waiting/scheduled folders: those messages can all be in my projects folder, and I can add keystrokes to narrow my view to messages with a certain tag. Of course, this doesn’t solve the ‘response to waiting’ problem listed above; I may actually have my inbox be the same as my project folder. (I’m not sure what the effects of that will be.)

Even the current system is a big improvement over what my inbox used to look like. My actions folder never gets very big; when I got back from vacation, I had 50 e-mails in there when I was done with my inbox scanning, but that was an exception, and having those e-mails all in one place was very useful. (In particular, it allowed me to get it down to the normal 5-or-so level by the next day.) And the waiting and scheduled folders are useful views for periodic reviews. But it’s clearly an area where improvement is possible.

Post Revisions: