The main premise of Getting Things Done by David Allen is that you work through a five-step process of Collecting, Processing, Organizing, Reviewing and Doing. Using your email inbox you can learn how the process works so that you can apply it to other areas of your life. Your email is just a small portion of everything you have to keep track of, but focusing attention to this one area can help you learn the GTD process.
Email Inbox Collecting
One of the beautiful things about email is that it collects itself. Of course, often we become overwhelmed by how much it collects.
Because it does collect itself, this may be the hardest part of using email to learn the Getting Things Done system. You need to learn to collect everything into one place to make GTD work. It is a good lesson in that you can see the effectiveness of everything collecting in one place. You never have to worry about whether all of your email is shown. It is automatic. If it exists, it is in your inbox.
How many inboxes? Most people who work for a company will have their work email and personal email addresses. If you do much work online, you may have many email addresses. If you are able to pull all of your email into a single tool, that will help in processing; even if they are not all in one email inbox. There are "unified inboxes" in many email programs that allow you to pull multiple email accounts into one inbox. Gmail lets you get mail from any email account right into their system. When mailing to and from Gmail it will come from the assigned address you choose, but you can use the Gmail interface to work with just one tool.
If you prefer an email client installed on the computer, Thunderbird is a good choice. It is multi-platform, meaning you can run it on Windows, Mac and Linux platforms to have the same user experience in all locations. If you do prefer this type of client, you can pull your Gmail and other online accounts into it.
Email Inbox Processing
The Processing stage is where you decide what to do with each piece of mail. This is often where getting to the bottom of the email inbox breaks down. There are emails we don't know what to do with because we don't have a system in place. By learning how to process your email inbox, you will be much better prepared to process the physical inboxes in your life.
When Processing you need to plan to handle every item, or email, only once. It is important that you don't skip over an email just because it is something you don't want to deal with at the time. It is OK to not to do anything about the email, but you need to at least make a decision about when you will deal with it.
Ask yourself about every email: "Is this email actionable?" You are wanting to know if this is something that requires you to do a task, or is it just information.
If the answer is No: If it is junk, throw it away. If it is information to be filed, file it. If it is reference material, print it and place it with other reference material. If it is support material for a project, print it and file it with the project. If it is a calendar item, schedule it.
If the answer is Yes: If it can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it right then. If it needs more time, schedule a time to do it. If it can be delegated, forward it. If it is part of a project, print it and file with the project.
If you have properly dealt with that email message, you no longer need it.
One of the mistakes we often make with email is that we don't schedule time to process it. We look at it several times during the day and try to deal with things as they come up. It is best to set specific times to process your email.
Email Inbox Organizing
It is somewhat hard to separate the Processing and Organizing steps since each item you process has to go into your organizational system. Email organization may mean printing the email to put in a file connected to a project. It could mean copying and pasting an address from the email into your address book. There are several things that can be done with Organizing and Processing at the same time.
When Organizing, you want to have different types of places that everything gets put. In the book David Allen gives seven specific places. Most of these will be physical folders, while others may be a file on your computer. His organizational places are: "Project" list, "Next Actions" list, "Waiting For" list, "Someday/Maybe" list, project support material, calendar and reference material.
Each of these represents a type of list or location where each of your emails should end up. Of course, one place is missing from his list-trash.
Email Inbox Reviewing
Reviewing email is a little different than other types of reviews in Getting Things Done, but again, this is helping to teach you the process. The normal daily reviews will be the same. Because there is constant input into your email inboxes, you may schedule three or four times a day when you review everything. It may be possible to just review and process your email inboxes a couple of times a day. It depends on how critical email is to your work. By scheduling time to review, you might find that you really don't need to constantly have email open.
The difference between email reviewing and the GTD process as a whole is that there is no need for a weekly review, which is critical in GTD. Because email is just one part of a whole system, you will collect, process and organize into the bigger system that does get the weekly review. Your email is not an end to itself. Everything gets dealt with and put into the rest of your GTD process.
Email Inbox Doing
Like in the review process, all emails get processed and organized outside of the inbox. Therefore the action items will be taken care of when they land on other lists that you work through. But, if you are using your email to learn GTD to begin with, then you need to know what to do with the action items.
All action items will be accomplished based on four criteria of Context, Time Available, Energy Available and Priority.
Context means that you have a list telling you all the things you need to do when at home. Another for when running around town, etc. Context specific lists allow you to look at only that list when you are in a position to do something about it. It does no good to go through the grocery store context list when you are in a meeting with the boss.
Time Available and Energy Available are criteria that limit what you can and can't do at that moment. If you only have 15 minutes free, you can't do a task that takes 45 minutes. You have to know your time limitations. The energy you have available will also dictate what you may or may not be able to accomplish. If the email requires a sympathetic thoughtful response, then writing it immediately after having to fire an employee may not be the right time. The energy you have available for the task is low and probably focused the wrong direction.
Only you can figure out what is most important on your list-priority. Don't fall prey to doing things just because they are urgent. Do things that are important and stay in control of your tasks. Don't let other people's problems dictate what you must do next.
Learning GTD through email is a great way to get started. But remember, that this is only one inbox of your whole life. There are many other projects and tasks that must be dealt with that don't live inside email.
If you would like to read more about the Getting Things Done process, I wrote a couple of detailed articles about it. One is about Collecting and Processing. The other is a more in-depth look at Organizing, Reviewing and Doing.
Of course, the best way to become familiar with the system is to read David Allen's book, Getting Things Done. It is a great book that you will want to read again and again.