Thursday, September 1, 2005

Using Thunderbird to Get Things Done

Update 2009-02-05: Now that I've been doing this for a few years, I've refined this tip and its subsequent updates into an article at eHow: How to use Thunderbird to get things done.



In the past few months, I've been trying to apply some of the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done to my own work habits. This article describes how I've been using a combination of Thunderbird's labels and saved searches to facilitate handling my email inbox in a GTD fashion.

Aside: Although I'm doing this on a Mac, there's no reason it shouldn't work with Thunderbird on any OS, once you account for minor menu differences across platforms. Also, in principle it should work with any mail client that supports labels and saved searches.

GTD is heavily dependent on keeping track of "next actions", essentially a comprehensive to-do list. The idea is to know what you're not working on so you can make reasonable choices about what's important to work on right now. The concept of the "In" box is core - for every item you take out of "In", there are only a few options: toss it in the trash, decide on a required next action, or file it for reference. (Technically, there's also "waiting for somebody else" and "defer until later", but these are next actions too.)

Let's start with the labels. (Thunderbird -> Preferences -> Display) I've assigned my labels as follows: Delete, Archive, Action Required, Wait, Defer. Since Thunderbird assigns these as keyboard shortcuts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I can go through my inbox and quickly triage items with an appropriate label. The color coding makes it easy to pick out stuff that needs attention.

Why not just delete items rather than flagging them? Mainly it's an efficiency thing. If I'm punching numbers to triage stuff anyway it's easier to use a number to flag a message for deletion. I'll come back later and wipe them out en masse.

Okay, so this is simple enough so far. But pretty soon you've got this inbox with lots of pretty colors, and there will inevitably be items needing attention that are pretty far back in the list, interspersed with all the stuff you just want to keep around.

That's where saved searches come to the rescue. It's fairly straightforward to see that you can set up a saved search for each label, and in fact I do have ones set up for "Inbox-Action Required", "Inbox-Archive", "Inbox-Defer", "Inbox-Delete", "Inbox-Wait", as well as an "Inbox-Untagged" with a "Label is None" criteria.

That helps, but it still keeps me looking in a couple different places for things that might need my attention. So I also have a saved search I call "Next Actions" to keep up with the stuff I need to pay attention to. The criteria for this one is: "Match any of the following: Label is Action Required; Label is None; Label is Wait". See what that does? Anything I need to do something with, anything I'm waiting for somebody else to do, and anything that I haven't made the first decision on, all shows up in one place. As soon as I mark something as Archive, Delete, or Defer, it disappears from this view on my next refresh. So my to-do list is always up-to-date, always right there. As soon as a task is complete, I can mark the message as Archive and forget about it.

Creating a to-do item is just a matter of sending myself an email. So I can do it from my cell phone, a web mail account, whatever, and I know that it will wind up in the right place. It helps that I'm using this for an IMAP account, so the label state is saved on the server. The net result is that as long as my desktop and laptop systems have the same names & colors for the labels, it doesn't matter which machine I'm using.

Also, I should note that GTD was written from a handling of physical stuff perspective -- like needing to decide what to do with specific pieces of paper. There's one fundamental difference in dealing with email -- you don't actually have to file it. Good search on a pile beats browsing by folder any day, if you're looking for something specific (which is the only reason I've ever had to look back at old emails). I've been using the system described above for about 6 months now, and for all intents and purposes I've stopped using folders in favor of search.

So why do I think this works so well? It's fast - triage is a single keystroke. It's automatic - the saved searches are there to be used whenever they're needed. It's efficient - there's no moving items to folders, no filters, etc. It's distributed - using an IMAP server lets me use multiple machines to track status. And most importantly, it keeps the stuff that requires attention up front & in-your-face, letting me focus on the stuff I need to do.

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic. I started implementing GTD in my email, and doing regular purges of the inbox, but this give me another level clarity so that no matter where I file an email I still have the tracking to ensure I don't lose it in the shuffle.

Anonymous said...

Thunderbird on Linux (1.06) does not support searching on labels on IMAP folders, just local folders. Not sure if this is a limitation of thunderbird or my mail server.

Anonymous said...

I am also using thunderbird 1.0.6 on linux against a cyrus imap server and label searches work. It sounds like you may be dealing with a mail server limitation.

scott reston said...

the "Buttons!" extension for thunderbird is a handy way to add a "label" button to TB's button bar. not as fast as the # keys, but handy.

thanks for the great tips.

Clint said...

Great ideas. One thing I wish is that Thunderbird allowed for background colors as well as text colors for highlighting/labels. It'd be a lot easier to quickly see what needed action, for example, if it was white bold text on a dark green background.

Sean said...

space-age wasteland did a very thorough treatment on his implementation of GTD with Gmail: http://saw.themurdaughs.com/gtd-with-gmail-whitepaper/

SETH said...

Why not just use the "View" menu for each individual label instead of setting up a saved search for each one?

Saved search makes sense for grouping the labels.

Zaza said...

Hmmm, I'm also having trouble getting labels to persist across an IMAP accont between a Win2k and WinXP machine. Any ideas about what the server and/or thunderbird settings need to be to preserve labels?

Rich said...

There is a really brutal bug in Thunderbird that if you have Search entire message up in the search box, the View modes won't work to differentiate between different labels. I don't have the bugzilla number up, but it's there, so go vote for it.

LetterJ said...

If you do a View->Sort By->Label and then a View->Sort By->Grouped by Sort you can get the groupings without the saved search folders.

Anonymous said...

Excellent technique. I used keyconfig to remap shift-1 through shift-5 to apply the label and move to next unread. I was able to plow through my inbox in no time.

lueo said...

If you do a View->Sort By->Label and then a View->Sort By->Grouped by Sort you can get the groupings without the saved search folders.

If you use saved folder, it will show you how many new messages in each category. I found it helpful!

Tim Kaufmann said...

Hi,

I've been using Thunderbird/IMAP for GTD for over a year now, but my approach is different. I didn't dare to rely on labels, they weren't working properly in Thunderbird when I started with GTD (back in August 2004) and I still don't trust in them.

I try to empty my inbox as often as possible.

Mails which are worth to be archived are saved to a folder on my disk, together with all other project- or customer-related information, so I got all the stuff in one place (I'm no friend of spreading information all over the place depending on the way it came in).

I set up mail-folders named "Activities", "Somewhen" and "Projects". Below "Activities" there are folders named "Calls", "Office", "On the road", "Read", "Wait" etc.

For a small donation I had this extension coded:

http://mnenhy.mozdev.org/de/spinoff.html#valueheaders

It let's you predefine custom mail-headers so you can chose from them by mouse or keyboard while editing mail. So to set up a new task, I just send myself an email and set "X-Office: true". A mail-filter moves those mails from Inbox to "Activities \ Office".

Whenever I send email that requires an answer, I set "X-Wait: true" and a copy of them ends up in "Activities \ Wait". Thus, reviewing gets a lot easier. BTW, I should add that I setup Thunderbird to bcc mails to myself instead of copying them to the sent-folder, just to make sure the mail-filters see them.

Just to add my 2 cents

Tim

Justin alcorn said...

I'm using Thunderbird 1.06 on Windoze against a Linux IMAP server using Maildirs. I can only search on Message Headers or Body text, not on Junk status or Label (except on Local Folders)

Junk Status and Label are stored in the Maildir structure in the courierimapkeywords/:list file as tags associated with the email message filename. Is it possible Thunderbird is presenting the search options based on the IMAP abilities? Is there a limitation on Maildir format?

Peter B said...

How well does this work for integrating non-email based tasks, or tasks that need you to refer to some sheets of paper/other notes?

More of my thoughts in this entry (I couldn't find a way to trackback to you).

Anonymous said...

I have an automatic rule to make a copy of every in and out message to an archive file. Then I brutally delete everything stale or not actionable in the inbox. I figure 8 or 10 items in the inbox is enough (these are all things requiring future actions). And should I ever need to find an old message, it's there in the archive.

Anonymous said...

OK - Dumb question from a GTD newbie - if you mark something as archive then your search will put up a lot of archives, but if you're not adding keywords or something how do you find what you're looking for? Without dropping things into folders or adding some sort of metadata then wouldn't you just end up with a big "archive" search that's just as unorganized as your inbox?

a said...

The content of the messages is its own metadata. In my opinion, a big pile with good search has a lower "total cost of ownership" than a rigidly structured sorting system. Sorting is good for browsing, but when you know what you're looking for search is better. The only time I ever look at old email is if I'm looking for something specific, so the fact that it's not browsable doesn't matter to me.

a said...

Regarding brutally deleting -- disk is cheap. The only things I delete are things I know won't ever be relevant. It's way easier to be a digital pack rat than a physical one.

Greogry Grubbs said...

A tip for users of Thunderbird and dovecot IMAP (probably other IMAP servers that don't support keywords well):

Thunderbird does not let me search for 'Label' on an IMAP folder (dovecot 1.0alpha5-1 on Linux) even though that version supposedly supports keywords. However, when I go offline in Thunderbird, the search does support 'Label' since we are now dealing with local folders! There may be a zen to being offline while processing your email, so we shall call this a feature.

amanda bee said...

This is great. I created three labels, "upcoming" and "fleeting" and "contact info" -- I can mark things as upcoming (3) and leave them in my inbox. I don't need to file those. Same for travel plans. And now they are easy to delete when I clean out my inbox.

I set a filter to label some messages that I do want to see but don't want to keep "fleeting" -- a few newsletters, alerts from Move On. I manually delete them en masse from time to time.

Contact info, I don't know if I'm using that as well. Some messages I save b/c they have contact info, no other reason. So now they are orange. We'll see if I get more or less done on that front.

I found this thread in my hunt for a tagging extension for Thunderbird. No luck there yet, alas.

Chris Kenyon said...

Would be great to see the number of supported labels increased to 10 to allow more flexibilty in setting context.

Brett Leber said...

Thunderbird 2.0, which will be released in the next few weeks, supports an arbitrary number of message tags (labels), and 'views' that filter by tag. Should make this approach even easier to achieve in Thunderbird.

Anonymous said...

The new Thunderbird 2.0 does not allow a saved search for "tag is none," so this makes it difficult to do the "next actions" folder. I can individually go through and do "contains any" and check off "action required" or "waiting", but it doesn't allow me to see untagged messages. Any suggestions with the new version?

Anonymous said...

Apparently, this is a known issue. The gory details can be seen here:

https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=353036

It's a bit annoying that you can't easily filter on no tag anymore. Maybe something will be implemented in future?

Anonymous said...

yeah cool

a said...

See how I worked around the labels to tags change in Thunderbird 2 here

Anonymous said...

Nostalgy lets you set up one button shortcuts to move an email to a folder.

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/addon/2487

HiPath Open office said...

Tried using Thunderbird but i had nothing but problems

Anonymous said...

This site is labeled "entropic principal"

It should be instead "entropic principle"

a said...

No, it shouldn't be "principle". Principal is what I meant. There's a pun in there, if you read the tagline: "We don't really own information. We're just borrowing it from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics."

Entropy said...

This was very helpful in organization of my inbox and such. Thanks for posting it. I'm going to try to implement GTD in everything, as I need to stop procrastinating.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Thank you for a VERY helpful method to implement GTD as well as supplying a detailed instruction set. I caught your recent post on ehow, and it hints at something I've been looking to do....you mentioned "some IMAP servers will store tags"......which would eliminate me having to re-tag everything at work, home, etc...I tried to use Google's IMAP server, but to no avail. Do you know of any? Thanks again!

Artsygal said...

Wow. 5 years later and this post is still incredibly relevant. Thank you for the sort of approach that will actually WORK for me and my 20,000 messages sitting in my inbox. I am constantly losing track of emails reminding me of actions I still need to take because they've gotten buried under emails that I've already dealt with but can not delete yet.

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