How many emails are piled up in your Inbox right now? Do you sometimes forget to follow up on action items? What’s your strategy for keeping you digital life organized?

At eimagine, we provide a lot of cross-training, teaching and learning opportunities for our staff. One format that happens pretty regularly is called a “Brown Bag Lunch Session,” where employees can educate their peers in all sorts of areas. I recently taught a session on how to efficiently manage your inbox using a system of my own design, called 4-D Task Management. It’s a easy-to-use strategy for keeping a clean and clear inbox, while not dropping the ball on your responsibilities. 

Background

4-D Task Management was originally born out of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book on how to be more productive. In the book, he presents an organized system on dealing with what he calls “Life’s Random Inputs.” I really liked his system, and started using it. However, the problem was that it was far to complicated for me to remember without having a diagram with me at all times. Over the years, I began to streamline the system to make it easier to use and simpler to remember. The more recent iteration is today what I call “4-D Task Management!”

Benefits

There are three main benefits to my system:

  • Simple! It’s easy to remember and use, without the need for visual aids or reference charts
  • Inbox Zero! It allows you to quickly process your inbox to zero, and keep it that way
  • Mobile! It works relatively well with mobile phones and tablets, especially the iPhone/iPad iOS platform

The 4 Ds

Here’s how it works: Every time you start to read an email message, you simply decide which “D” applies to it:

  • Done! means “I’m done with this.” You do this when get an email that warrants no response, and you’re finished with it.
  • Do! means “I’m going to do this right now.” You do this when you get an email you can reply to or complete a task within a few minutes. If it’s quick, just get it done right now.
  • Defer! means “I’ll do this later.” You do this when the email requires more than a quick effort to complete. This might mean reading a long message at a later time, or it requires some thought and tasks before it can be done.
  • Delegate! means “Someone else can do this.” You do this when you want to reassign responsibility to another person to complete the task.

Setup

Creating a foundation for this system in Microsoft Outlook is easy, and only requires a few steps to set up. First, create a “Done” folder for all your general (unfiled) “Done” messages. Feel free to keep any other folder-based filing structure you have. Personally, I use search functionality to find messages and do not use a folder-based filing system at all (other than a Done folder). The great part about this system is it works great with either methodology!

Next, set up Quick Steps in Outlook for each of the 4 Ds. Quick Steps perform a series of actions in Outlook and turn each “D” into a one-click step. I also assign shortcut keys to my Ds so I can call them up with the keyboard. Control+Shift-“One” is “Done,” “Two” is “Do,” “Four” is “Defer,” and “Eight” is “Delegate.”

Here are screenshots of how each of my Quick Steps are configured:

Done Do Defer Delegate

Once you get your steps set up, start processing your email! With the more simple steps you can select multiple emails to process them all at once. Keep going until your Inbox is empty!

Other Tips

Need delegated task follow-up? The “Delegate” Quick Step creates a task so you can keep track of who owes you what when you delegate. This lets you stay on top of any tasks owed to you by others.

Dealing with Deferred items? Be sure to regularly review your Deferred messages, which I denote by flagging the message. Outlook has a view that shows you flagged messages, and I review this at least twice a day. Typically, every time I get to Inbox Zero I switch over and review my Deferred list. Ready to work on one? Just run it through the appropriate D when ready!

Prefer to Delete messages? I keep all my emails ever received. EVER. If you’re a person who prefers to delete, you may want to add a fifth “D” for Delete. Personally, I don’t trust myself to actually delete anything :)

Prefer not to flag emails? I use a combination of flagging email message and Outlook tasks. Some people prefer to use tasks only. If that’s your style, you can make that change to your Quick Steps.

Prefer multiple folders? If you use a folder filing structure, Outlook can ask you each time you file a message. Simply change your Quick Step to do this and you can file easily and even create new folders on the fly. You can also create additional Quick Steps for commonly used folders; do this and make your own strategy!

Missing reminders? By default, tasks don’t pop up as reminders. Make life easier by setting a default reminder to be automatically on new tasks. You can change this in your Outlook Settings.

Search not working? Default search scope is the current folder. That doesn’t work so well in an empty inbox! You can change the default scope to the entire mailbox in your Outlook Settings.

Tasks too complex? With complex or multi-step tasks, I manually create Outlook tasks with reminders to help me stay organized. Typically, I Defer the message as a second reminder that I have tasks still pending. This works well as often I have to reference the email and it’s easy to find on the Deferred list.

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