How to Process Your Inbox in GTD

Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

I don’t over collect but I do usually collect about 10-20 thoughts into my inbox each day. Processing these captures plus email is a something I have been doing daily since I started GTD nearly 15 years ago. This is the way I process the inbox in GTD.

Processing in is an important part of staying productive and of knowing that when you are looking at your todo list, you have all the options available to choose from.

It is important to keep in mind the goal of processing, it’s not to follow a complicated workflow or to input all the fields your app says you should.

The goal is this: To have all the tasks you can do available as an option.

Following this process will get us to this goal.

1. What is it?

This may seem a ludicrously simple question but when you capture something quickly in the middle of doing an important task, you don’t always have time to define it in the moment. I often find captures in my inbox like “Christmas” or “New Client” which are not entirely obvious tasks at first glance.

When I ask myself “What is it” it forces me to remember what I was thinking about when I captured and I may answer “Plan Christmas Dinner” or “Send Welcome Email to the new Client”

After some time doing GTD this question doesn’t need to be asked, your brain will turn your capture into something more defined automatically. Though there are still times when I have no idea why I captured something.

2. Is it actionable?

Remember the goal of processing your inbox is to have all the things you can actually do as a choice to do. So if something is not actionable right now, then you don’t want it on an action list.

If it’s not actionable there are 3 choices for it

  • Trash
  • Reference
  • Incubate

If it’s something you’re no longer interested in or that is no longer relevant just trash it.

If it’s something you want to keep but there is no action to be done it goes into storage as reference. In Getting Things Done David Allen talks about filing cabinets with labeled filing folders but for most people that is no longer an option. Reference for the most part is going to be on a hard drive somewhere or on a bookshelf. An invoice or instruction manual is a good example of something to put in reference.

Incubate is the third option for non-actionable items, it’s for something you want to do but you can’t do now. You can either remind yourself after a certain amount of time or put it on a someday maybe list.

In GTD David explains how to use a 43 folder tickler system to create a physical reminder system. Now though you are most likely going to use an app on your phone to remind yourself about a task in the future.

Keeping a someday maybe list, on the other hand, is still a great option for non-actionable tasks. Anything from projects that you’re just too busy to get to at the moment to bucket list items you might want to do before you die can all go on a someday maybe list.

Trash, incubate and reference are important to keep your system only containing tasks you can actually do, which is our goal in processing the inbox.

3. What’s the Outcome (if multi-step)

If you look at what you’ve captured and know that you can’t do it in one step, you have a project on your hands, not a task. In GTD a project is defined as anything that takes more than one step task and you want to complete within a year.

When you realize you have a new project, write the outcome on your projects list and go to the next step.

4. What’s the Next Action

In Making it All Work David says “If people take only one thing away from GTD it should be What’s the next action?

If there is any magic in the GTD system, this question is it.

When you ask “What is the next action?” while processing, it forces you to break down what ever it is you want to accomplish into a byte size action that you can just do later without any thinking. The genius in this is:

  • When you’re working you don’t need to define your work just act
  • Everything is broken do into a manageable action step – reduces overwhelm for big tasks/projects
  • Easy to get started when the specific action is defined
  • You can still be productive when tired or brain-dead because the thinking has already been done.

The 2 Minute Rule

2 Minute Rule

If the next action will take you less than 2 minutes to complete, do it while processing the inbox rather than putting it in your system to do later. The idea here is that managing something that will only take two minutes to complete is inefficient. spending 30 seconds entering it into your system is a waste for something that will only take two minutes to complete, so do it right then and there instead.

The hidden benefit of this is that your action lists becomes clear of small tasks, meaning that when you are working from your list, you are not constantly changing from one small task to the next because the tasks left on your list are longer. This allows you to get into a flow state much easier, which is where your peak productive energy is found.

For a more in-depth article on the two minute rule, check out What is the 2 Minute Rule.

Often the difference between stuff that you capture and a next action is only a few seconds of thinking but can make a huge difference when you’re looking down at a list of next actions rather than a list of undecided stuff to do. Here are some examples

StuffNext Action
DinnerBuy steak
JohnCall John
TiredResearch energy supplements
Read MoreBuy a Kindle
PortraitCall Photographer
Shoulder PainResearch Local Physiotherapists
RaiseSchedule a Meeting with Boss
PresentationMemorize Presentation
New SofaGo To Ikea

5. Organize it

In the last step of processing your inbox you just need to move the next action onto the list the you will be looking at when you can do the action. These are defined by context which are the location, person or tool.

If it’s something you can do in the office, put it on an @office list, if it’s something to buy, maybe an @mall list or @supermarket list.

A tool context would be something that you can only do with that tool e.g. @laptop and a context like @boss would be useful if you have many tasks that you need to be with your boss to do.

Does Processing the Inbox Take Too Much Time?

It might seem a lot of work to go through these 5 stages for every task you come across or every thought you capture. In reality though, it only takes a few seconds to go through these 5 stages.

I captured “Brandon’s Birthday” when he mentioned yesterday that it’s only a month away. Now I’ve come to process my inbox and see the capture.

I don’t need to ask myself if its actionable or what it is, I know the outcome immediately. ‘Give Brandon a Birthday Present’ and I know it’s not a one step action because I don’t know what to buy him. So the first thing I do is to add ‘Give Brandon a Birthday Present’ to my projects list. Then I realize immediately that the first action is to ask him what he wants.

I add “Ask Brandon re Birthday Present” to my @home list. Done

It may seem like a complex or lengthy process but actually it took me about 20 seconds.

And that’s how to process your inbox in GTD!

Tips for processing the Inbox

Set a Time to Process

Don’t think that you can process whenever you want to without forgetting or putting it off. If you accept the importance of processing your captures then you need to also accept that processing consistently is the only way to make sure you are doing the right thing at the right time.

So set a time to process everyday!

Process Your Inbox to Zero everyday

No matter how busy you get, make it a habit to process to zero everyday. If you can empty your inbox everyday, you know there will never be a task older than 24 hours in you inbox. You can be confident that your action lists are complete and that your choices are the right ones.

Process in order

It can be tempting to process the biggest tasks first, or the one that seems most important. If you are processing to zero though, you know you will get to all of them so process in the order they came.

Process before you start working

If you process your inbox before you start work you have those new tasks as options to work on. If you process at the end of the day, those tasks are sitting in your inbox all day. Remember the goal of processing is to have everything you could do as an option, if you process before you start work, they will be.