Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting Things Done with Thunderbird


Let me ask you a question: have you ever used todo lists? I have. Lots of them. And I don't like them. Some require singing on to an online service, and collaboration is clunky, or require money. And then they require your team members to use the same service, let alone people outside of your organization. Some are just downright too basic, and don't sync between multiple computers. But there is a bigger issue, so let me tell you what I do instead and why.

Many of my tasks (stuff on my plate) come to me through email. So, if you have a todo list that is separate from email, you will end up copying and pasting a lot back and forth. Yes, I know you can create todo items from email, but you still need to make sure your todo list stays in sync with your email.

Yes, I have read David Allen's "Getting Things Done", and I love the book. I have tried the paper approach he describes, but I ended up having to write down things that come in through email. And then when the piece of paper shows up on top of my list, I have to dig through the email and locate the item so I can work on it. In all fairness, David's book is not so much about using paper, it is more about the process.

My Approach

So, a far easier approach is to overlay the todo list with your emails. To do so, I am using labels, and I do that in Thunderbird (There are a few tutorials on the web, e.g. : see here).

I have been using this setup since the Summer of 2011 and haven't modified it since the initial setup.

I have renamed the standard thunderbird labels to

"DoNow" and "Do". I really see no need for more than two categories of urgency. You either have to do it NOW or do it a little later. DoNow versus Do only refers to time, both are important. I do not believe there are unimportant things you need to do. If they are unimportant, you don't need to do it. If you need to do it, it is important.

'WF' : Waiting For. I use it to mark emails that I have sent to someone asking for some action. I also use it to track purchases I have made when the order confirmation email comes in, or when the confirmation of a paper submission comes in.

'Someday/Maybe' : I use it for keeping interesting things around for later. Say: a funding opportunity that may be interesting in the future, or a new journal asking for submissions.

Email Triage

I have 'new mail' notifications turned off, so I only check my email when I'm done with something. Yes, I split up my work in 15 minute chunks, so I never miss out on something really urgent. Most of the triaging goes on in the morning though.

So, once I open email, I hit 'N' to go to the next unread email.

If an email comes in and I can do what is being requested in less 2 minutes, I do it right away. This is on of the most powerful things in the David Allen strategy.


So, an email comes in requesting if I can review a paper. I decide whether I want to do it, and if so, I hit the key "2", the shortcut for applying the label 'Do' in my label setup. 

An email comes in asking for some information, I hit '2'

An email comes in saying we are out of gold for our evaporator, I hit '1' for 'DoNow'

An email comes in with a confirmation that I purchased something, I hit '5' : WF

I ask somebody to do something, I mark that email with 'WF'

Actually Doing Stuff

Now the time comes to do something. I hit the use the Quick Filter bar, and select 'DoNow' and do whatever is there. Afterwards, I hit 'Do'. I also have search folders setup, but prefer filtering my inbox instead. That way, if there was more communication on that task, I can quickly navigate the message thread.

WF : Waiting For. At the end of the day, I see what I have been waiting for. If things have been completed, I clear the label. If there has been no response, I choose to either send a reminder, or wait a little.

Someday/Maybe. Every once in a while, I revisit this list (about every week), and see if there are things that I want to work on now. In that case, I change the label to 'Do' or 'DoNow'.

Closing The Loop, Capturing Off-Line Action Items. So, what do you do if there is something on your plate that did not have an email that originated it? Send yourself an email! Like I said, most of my action items originate in email, so this rarely happens. But, if someone asked you in the hall to do something, ask them to send you an email, or, what I do, is send them an email with a summary of what you discussed and what actions were agreed upon. And apply the appropriate label. WF for if they need to do something, or 'Do'/'DoNow' if I have to.


What was the action? The problem with using 'email as todo list' is that you need to remember what action was required based on an email, or you'll have to reread the email every time you see it. This is a little bit out of line with the Zen approach to todo lists: only put things on there that are actionable, and use language that is action oriented ("Follow up", "Read", "Think about", "Do", "Write", "Google"), but it works for me. Besides, this is not too much of an issue, as long as you remember what action item was required. As a workaround, you could respond by sending an email to yourself, where you write what action is required and apply the label to that mail.

Dates: No capturing of due dates. If it is really important, and requires long stretches of work with not too many little tasks, use your calendar.

Final thoughts

And it's portable! Since I use thunderbird to access my google mail through imap, both thunderbird on my mac as well as linux machines are always in sync, and that includes the labels. Just make sure you name the labels the same on all thunderbird installs. Sometimes I need to restart the applications to force reloading labels, especially when coming to work, when I have been applying and changing labels on my laptop, and want to continue on my desktop.

Threading provides history and context. One of the greatest advantages of using this method is that you can always use the threaded message view to see the history and context of that action item. In addition, that also helps if you forgot to clear the WF label if you forgot to do so, because you see the follow up messages right below it.

Thread hijacking and multiple action items per email. Sometimes threads get hijacked, or you get a message with multiple action items associated with it. In that case, forwarding separate emails to yourself with separate action items may be advisable.

Cross-platform and -organization. As all my communication is through email, the collaboration and communication aspect of this todo list comes for free and it works across organizations! 

No context. A lot of David Allen's framework is about contexts: At Home/At Work/Behind Computer. I don't use them, as I almost always have my computer with me, or I know I can only do a certain task when I'm physically at work or at home. If you want, you could have a third label 'AtHome', yes, you can have multiple labels, and use that to provide some context, but I don't. I do minor triaging on my cell phone, adding stars to things I need to apply labels to when I'm behind the computer. Yeah it is not ideal, but my silly phone email does not do mail labels and I'm not in the market for a new phone just yet.

No associated files. I wish there was a nice way to link files and folders to action items. So when you start work on a certain task, you automatically open the right file and folder. This would be especially useful for actions that have a long lead time, and documents don't get revisited until a few months later. If possible, I keep the attachments around and work off that. 

Finally. Always be aware of the 'next thing'. When you clear a label, always ask yourself if there is a next action item that is supposed to follow after this one. Rinse, Repeat, Enjoy :)