Getting Things Done with Outlook/Exchange and iPhone/iOS

In my earlier post »A System for Getting Things Done« (in German language) I have laid out my electronic implementation of the self organization method »Getting Things Done« from David Allen.

Since meanwhile I change a central element, it is time to re-write the post from scratch.

This post is available in German language, too.

Basic Principles of Getting Things Done

  • The stuff must get out of your head.
  • Define actions and results when the stuff comes up first.
  • Regularly check the open ends in life and work and update.
  • Sort actions according to their context they can get done.

For Skimmers

My environment: Outlook with Exchange and iPhone

My Getting Things Done productivity environment is that of a “normal” employed computer user: email, calendar and tasks reside in Microsoft Outlook 2010/2013, that being connected to an Exchange server. Whatever happens has to be embeddable into that system.

As mobile device the iPhone comes along, which plays nicely with Exchange in terms of email and calendar, and roughly with tasks through the Reminder app but not as I need it.

Disclaimer: I don’t pay for my copy of Outlook and Exchange. My employer does, it’s MathWorks, maker of MATLAB, the language of technical computing, and also of Simulink, the platform for Model-Based Design


Productivity Loss through Over-Organization

Many people are organizing their email too much. They create cathedral-like structures of folders in their inbox and waste a good portion of their time sorting mails in specific folders for projects, particular customers, area or customer’s department. And what if an email belongs to a customer and a project? In how many folders do you need to search for mails until you find the right one?

Most people whose inboxes overflow and for whose the idea of vacation immediately trigger a thought about the hundreds of emails they will have to process after vacation, they all suffer from over-organization. When I have to draw the difficult decision which department, project or customer context an email belongs to and this not always is unambiguous, then my brain does not want to decide.

Restructure Email ‒ Less Is More

Getting Things Done recommends to set up inbox folders according to their function and keep the inbox empty. With this, for me only the following folders remain (the screen shots are in German language, in case you are wondering):

  • Reply: Mails that require my reaction via mail get here. Specifically such mails where I directly can start typing. If I have to do research or other actions they additionally become a task. For that I drag & drop them to the task folder.
  • Read offline: Mails that do not trigger an action, but which I want or have to read. As the name indicates: everything in this folder I can read offline, everything to read is in the mail or its attachments. This folder can be unattended for some days. If there are mails that have to be read with a due date, I add a reminder to them.
  • Read online: This folder has the same principle as Read offline, just that the mails here contain links to something to read. This differentiation is important because I often travel by train or plane, where I do not to bother with this folder at all. As a possibility, I download the linked document, attach them to the mail and move it to the other folder.
  • Reference: All emails that need no further action but that I want to keep get to the Reference folder. This is at most a fifth of all emails I receive during the day. Everything else goes to Trash.
  • Travel: This is my only special folder containing emails according to their contents rather than what I want to do with it. Everything that has to do with traveling and travel reimbursement gets here, like train tickets, hotel reservations, scanned receipts, airfare. By that, before getting on a trip I just have to look here, print the right stuff and go. In the same way for preparing travel reimbursements: everything is in one place. Important: as soon as the journey is over, I delete all its ticket mails. When the travel is reimbursed, I furthermore delete receipts which then reside in the travel expense system.

By that I do not need to thing long where to put an email. It depends on what I want to do with it ‒ like Getting Things Done recommends.

Finding Fast ‒ Search Folders and Search

How do I quickly find emails for a specific project, a particular group or a single person? The answer is search folders, which are virtual folders in Outlook 2010/2013 that seek the post box for mails and other elements with defined criteria and display at your fingertips.

So I created search folders for all relevant teams I interact, by selecting mails from or to persons as criteria. Additionally I have a search folder for each of my team members and several search folders that trigger to key words in the subject line or body. The three search folders I use most have a name starting with the @ symbol, which makes them appear at the top of the list. The search folders for my team members I name beginning with t/ (for team) so they stay next to each other in the list.

Be resourceful with search folders ‒ for me it is less than two dozen. With more search folders you will be busy again searching whether you have an according search folder. Then the regular Outlook quick search is faster ‒ mostly executed in the Reference folder. Get used to apply key words in the quick search:

  • to:name and from:name searches the name just in receiver respectively sender.
  • subject:topic searches just in the subject line.

Actions ‒ a Task List with Context

If you already have worked with tasks in Outlook, but never were satisfied with it, then first start grouping your tasks according to context. Depending on what you do or where you are, you just need to see a subset of all your actions. If you are at home, you cannot do tasks for that you need to go somewhere in your office. You will become significantly more efficient if you work on tasks in the same context ‒ so called batching. Several phone calls in a row. Several web researches in a row. With a conversation partner all topics that you want to touch. Secondly, give the task a description that actually matches the physical action that you want to do. So not “Team meeting” but ”Write down topics for team meeting”.

Context ‒ Always Matching Possibilities at Hands

In Getting Things Done, David Allen gives some ideas for contexts and highlights that everyone should define her own matching ones. For me, the following contexts evolved to be useful:

  • Agendas: Everything that I want to discuss with people that I meet. The description of the task always begins with the name of that person and exactly contains what I want from her.
  • Errands: Everything I can do while being outside, like things to buy, bring something to the postal box. I start with the place where I can do the errand, so for example “home depot” or ”post”.
  • Calls: All phone calls I want to make. All. Work and personal, because if you already are at the phone, then use the flow and phone call multiple of your tasks. Again I start with the name of the person, usually add the phone number and then describe exactly what I want from that person.
  • Computer Offline: All that I can do on my computer without internet connection. This differentiation is important to be able to work during travel with bad or no WiFi nor 3G.
  • Computer Online: All for what I need Internet. A thin Edge-cell-phone connection does not necessarily count as Internet. Research, Downloads. Travel Reimbursement. Database research. Downloading material for other actions that I can then do offline.
  • Home: Everything I have to do at home. Repairing and maintaining things, administration, hobby. This includes stuff that I need my desktop computer at home for.
  • Office: All that I can do in the office only. These are things for which I usually do not need my computer, but paper work or errands in other departments.
  • Waiting For: Important things that I delegated to others and now wait for results. Again, I start with the name of the person that has the action. Sometimes I use the delegation functionality in Outlook to send it to a colleague.
  • Projects: all projects that I currently work on. A project is every activity containing two or more actions, although I am not strict on that. A document, for example, is a project: define goals, collect facts, structure, write, get feedback, … . From the ideas in the body description of these projects I derive the according actions in their matching context.
  • Someday/Maybe: My attic for ideas and topics. Things that I do not want to appear on my current lists get here as well as ideas. This is the longest list of all, and I review, update and clean it up each week as part of my personal weekly review.

Actions can of course change their context. If I wanted to speak about something with someone and it was on the Agendas list but could not do so, I can move it to the Calls list.

By this I always have the possibilities at hand that I actually can work on.

Define Action View in Outlook

To see the list of actions by their context, I defined a new view in Outlook. For this, choose the view “active” and save it as new view ”GTD”.

Modify this newly created view “GTD” as follows:

  • Columns ‒ you need just there columns: Symbol, Done, Priority, Subject, Notes, Due. If you work with delegation, then add columns Requested by and Responsible.
  • Grouping according to categories (ascending).
  • Sort you do not need to.
  • Filter ‒ Go to the tab Extra and create a filter for the field done not equals yes.

Synchronize Actions between Outlook and iPhone

TaskTask Icon

My action list with context I need not just in Outlook but in the iPhone, too, as my action lists are the most important tool of Getting Things Done. After using a cloud based solution for a while I now found an app that directly synchronizes with the Exchange server.

TaskTask Define ViewMy choice is TaskTask (Outlook & Exchange Tasks) and  TaskTask HD for iPad. This App needs the data and credentials for the Exchange server, you already used to configure email. In the view settings of the app you define categories as the default view.

TaskTask’s user interface is not as nice and functional as the one from Toodledo, but that is outweighed by the much easier and reliable synchronization to Outlook & Exchange.


For the calendar there is not much to say, just that I use the same categories ‒ contexts ‒ as for the action lists. Doing this I instantly see whether my next appointment is at the phone, computer or with a colleague at her desk respectively in a meeting room.

Everything must get out of your head

I write down everything that I want, should and have to do. All ideas, even when I later trash them and decide on that while writing them down to not follow up. When I write down an action and consciously delete it, it’s gone from my brain and does no longer bother me.

The stuff must get out of the head, but be visible when applicable.

How do you handle all?

Title photo: veryuseful on Flickr, Licence CC-BY, modified and on Flickr, too.

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5 Gedanken zu „Getting Things Done with Outlook/Exchange and iPhone/iOS

  1. Mike D.

    on processing (hundreds of) emails after vacation …

    I consistently install an out-of-office agent before I go off where I tell everyone that I’m off, when I’ll be back, who is my backup and that I am not intending to process any mails received during my vacation (which goes totally against the sense of vacations). People outside my organisation get a somewhat less detailed OOO message, but on the same principle.

    I then consistently delete (means delete) all my Inbox for the time I left till the time I return. Over the years this has always worked well for me.

    1. Joachim Schlosser Artikelautor

      A great suggestion that may work for some. I’ve heard similar from other I was discussing that matter with. I wonder what exact wording you use to make it sound not offending?

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