Getting Things Done—Calendar & Email Integration

by Brandon on August 28, 2012

GTD Calendar Email Integration

In previous posts, I’ve explained how to implement a GTD system using Evernote. This implementation, however, is missing two key elements—your calendar and email.

Calendar

Your calendar is a very important part of the GTD workflow. Every action that has to happen at a specific time or on a specific day should go on your calendar (do not add these to your Next Actions lists in Evernote). I use Google Calendar to keep track of these reminders because it’s free, it’s easy to keep your data in sync across all your platforms and devices (I use Business Calendar on my Android phone), and as you’ll see below, it has many useful features.

Google Calendar allows you to create multiple calendars to help organize the different parts of your life. Each calendar can have a different colour and a different set of default reminders/notifications. You’ll need to set up two primary calendars:

  1. Appointments – actions that have to happen at a specific time or on a specific day (if you are a Google+ user, I recommend renaming your default calendar to Appointments because Google+ Events are automatically added to your default calendar).
  2. Deadlines – actions that have to be finished by a specific date, but can happen at any time/day up until that date.

You can create additional calendars if you desire. For instance, I have a School calendar to keep track of my class schedule. If you work irregular hours, you may want to have a Work calendar. If you need to share a calendar with someone else, Google Calendar has sharing features as well. These additional calendars will essentially be sub-calendars of the two primary calendars listed above, but by giving them a different colour and a different set of default reminders it may be easier for you to stay organized.

To create a new calendar, click the drop-down arrow next to “My calendars” and select “Create new calendar”.

You can change the colour of each calendar by clicking the drop-down arrow next to the calendar’s name.

You can access the calendar’s settings from this menu as well. The settings screen has a “Notifications” tab where you can set the default “Event reminders” for your calendar.

For both my Appointments and Deadline calendars, I have the default Event reminders set to “Email 1 day”. You’ll soon see that these email reminders will be used to create a Next Actions list inside of Gmail. For my School calendar, the reminder is set to “SMS 1 hour”. You can change the Event reminder for any individual event on any calendar when the event is first created or anytime thereafter (or add multiple reminders). This feature can serve as a “tickler” function. For example, if your taxes are due on April 30 (put this on your Deadline calendar), you may want to add an email reminder for 4 weeks in advance to jog your memory.

Now that your calendars are set up, let’s tackle email integration.

Email

Managing email is a challenging task and best practices are very dependent on an individual’s unique situation. That said, instead of providing a step-by-step guide on how to integrate your email into your GTD workflow, I am going to share with you some Gmail tips and tricks that I use to stay productive and organized.

Processing Email

First of all, if you haven’t already done so, create an @ACTION label, an @WAITING FOR label, and an @SUPPORT MATERIALS label as described in the GTD book. Give each of these labels a different colour. I treat my Gmail Inbox like any other GTD In-basket and process the emails accordingly.

If an email is actionable and will take less than 2 minutes to reply to, reply to it now. If it will take longer than 2 minutes, you can either:

  1. Delegate it – label the email @WAITING FOR, forward it to someone else, and archive it.
  2. Defer it to your Calendar – label the email @SUPPORT MATERIALS, archive it, and create the appropriate entry on your calendar (make a note in the event description to see @SUPPORT MATERIALS).
  3. Defer it to Next Actions – label the email @ACTION and archive it.

If the email is actionable and relates to a multi-step Project:

  1. Create a new Project in Evernote.
  2. Forward a copy of any email that supports your actions and thinking about your Project to Evernote using your incoming Evernote email address (I created a contact for Evernote to facilitate this process). Move the copy of the email from your Evernote Inbox to the appropriate Project notebook.
  3. Apply a label (optional) and archive it.

If the email is not actionable, apply a label (optional) and archive it for reference. Gmail provides so much free space (10 GB) that I rarely delete an email unless I am certain that it will never be useful.

The labels I use for Reference and Someday/Maybe emails mimic the tags I use in Evernote. Gmail’s search feature, however, is so good that labels for archived emails aren’t really necessary.

Multiple Inboxes

Although Multiple inboxes is still one of the Gmail Labs, I feel it is Gmail’s most useful feature. I don’t use the Priority Inbox or Importance Markers because I feel that the Multiple inboxes lab combined with the appropriate labels and filters is much more powerful. For more information on how to enable this feature, see this post.

Here is a picture of my settings:

This set-up creates two additional inboxes below your default Gmail Inbox that act as Next Actions and Waiting For lists.

Filters

Here is a description of two filters that I find particularly useful:

Calendar Notifications – Earlier, I described how to set up Event reminders for your Appointments and Deadlines calendars. The default that I chose was “Email 1 Day”. Instead of having these emails clutter my inbox, I created a filter so they skip the inbox and end up directly on my Next Actions list (your “ticklers” are added to this list as well).

@WAITING FOR – When you email someone to make a request or delegate an action, you’ll want to apply the @WAITING FOR label. I use a filter that automatically adds the @WAITING FOR label to any outgoing email that contains 3 consecutive underscores (feel free to change the trigger). Simply type 3 consecutive underscores at the bottom of any email message you send and it will automatically end up on your Waiting For list.

Gmail recently added a feature that allows you to label messages before you send them, so if you don’t want to use the 3 underscore method, you can apply the @WAITING FOR label directly to the message.

That concludes calendar and email integration. I want to emphasize that everyone’s situation is unique, so don’t feel like you have to follow the suggestions in this post to a T. The primary goal is to develop a GTD system that you can trust, and hopefully the information I presented here will help you reach that goal. If you use a different calendar and/or email client, hopefully you can adapt some of the tips/tricks to work for you. As always, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below or contact me via Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Eugene October 19, 2012 at 5:02 PM

Thank you a lot, for the post. Really helps.

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DR October 30, 2012 at 4:30 AM

Great tips. Thanks a lot for you lovely blog.

I have few questions on the notification emails from the deadlines calendar. Since the calendar event stores only the end date/time of the activity, I guess we can set the reminder time according to the time needed for the activity. So once we see the notification email, we can act on it. Is this correct?

Once you receive the notification email from the deadlines calendar, do you delete the event from the calendar? Do you add a next action item to Evernote or keep the notification email in the next action bucket in email? Which is the better practice for this?

Though not related to this post, would like to know what other tools you use for your GTD system. Is it only Evernote, Google Calendar and Gmail or anything else as well?

I would like to read about how you keep your focus on the tasks at hand. What I believe is, no matter how good your tools are and how good your GTD system is, if you are not focused and act on time, you can’t succeed. How do you achieve this?

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Brandon October 30, 2012 at 5:43 PM

The reminder email is just a tickler/safety net so you don’t forget to take action. As long as it’s a single next action or a next action for a project, you can act on it at any time. You don’t have to wait for the email. If you’ve reminded yourself of the next action far enough in advance, however, then the next action probably won’t have the highest priority among all the other next actions, so typically you wouldn’t do it until after you get the email.

I never delete any events from my calendar. I don’t delete the reminder email until the next action is complete. Typically, if the next action is related to a project, then I’ll keep both the email and have the next action listed in Evernote. If the email involves a single next action, then I don’t usually add it to Evernote. For example, when I get a blog comment, I get a notification email. If I don’t have time to act on it right away, I’ll label the email @ACTION and archive it so it’ll end up in my next actions inbox. I don’t add the next action to Evernote. Once I reply to the comment, I delete the notification email. There aren’t really any rules. Just play around with it and do what feels most comfortable.

Evernote, Google Calendar, and Gmail are basically all the tools I use. I try to use Evernote for as much as I can. I also have a physical inbox on my desk and a filing cabinet for reference materials, but I try to scan as much as possible into Evernote. I also treat the downloads folder on my computer like a GTD in-basket, and I process it accordingly. I use Google Reader to consume most of the content I want to read from around the web. I use Dropbox and Google Drive to backup my files and sync between different computers. I think that’s about it.

How do I stay focused? Staying focused is obviously the biggest challenge we face. Try to build a system that you can trust. Review your lists on a regular basis. Review your calendar at the start/end of the day. If you find that there is a project or next action that you just never seem to get around to, move it to your Someday/Maybe list. If you keep ignoring it, it’s obviously not that important. Only keep essential projects/actions on your lists. Lastly, spending too much time on trying to be productive is not productive. Once you’ve found a system you can trust, stop looking for the next big thing.

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DR October 31, 2012 at 3:13 AM

These are great tips. Thanks a lot.

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Neil November 11, 2012 at 11:18 AM

Hi Brandon,
I just came across your posts on GTD using EN, GMAIL and GCAL.
I have been trying to use EN and GCAL for GTD and have been using my system on and off. For some reason, I am unable to stick to my system so it seems I am doing something wrong.

Would you be able to share few usecase scenarios or something like your typical day using your GTD implementation system?

I really liked your setup so far and I am going to try some tips in my system. I hope I can stick to the system this time.

Thank you,
Neil

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Brandon November 11, 2012 at 9:58 PM

Hi Neil,

I have written a whole series of posts on how to implement a GTD system using Evernote. You can find all the posts here, and they contain several use cases. I don’t really have a typical day. In general, I follow the guidelines outlined in David Allen’s book. If you are having trouble sticking with your system, maybe read the book again. I find that I learn something new each time I re-read the book.

The best tip I can offer is to make sure your calendar is in order and check it often. If you don’t have any appointments or urgent deadlines, use saved searches to organize your next actions by context, then choose an appropriate next action to work on based on time and energy available.

Let me know if that helps.

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Neil November 12, 2012 at 1:05 PM

Thanks Brandon for your quick response and tips. Appreciate it.

Yes, I am going to try your suggestion of re-reading book again.

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Mariann Regan December 9, 2012 at 1:45 PM

This is a cornucopia of information! I’ll copy your URL and read it again. My hubs and I try to integrate our email and calendars on Outlook, so that we can see each other’s calendars. So far, that only works one way — we can’t get it to do reciprocal calendars.

Maybe the Google email and calendar options would be better than Outlook. We’ll try it! Thanks.

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Ron Hessing January 5, 2013 at 1:35 AM

Thanks for the article. Very nice. What I was missing is that you don’t mention the option to forward the email with the Evernote tag to the Evernote email address automatically so it will also appears over there.

I have tried to do it myself but Google tells me my Evernote email address does not exist. Any experience with this?

I found a link about this where you have to work with a script, but if Gmail would just accept my Evernote email this script would not be required: http://www.harryonline.net/evernote/send-google-mail-to-evernote/226

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Brandon January 5, 2013 at 4:35 PM

It’s not exactly clear what you’re trying to do. Instead of manually forwarding an email to your Evernote email address, you want to apply an Evernote label to the email and have it forward automatically. Is that correct?

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Seb January 7, 2013 at 10:57 AM

Great article! you can also use Any.do instead of Google Calendar to manage deadlines.

The Any.do Chrome extension add a reminder button below the conversation in Gmail. It turn easily an email into a task with dealine.

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Cat Shuler April 30, 2013 at 3:10 AM

You could also use IFTTT.com which stands for “If This Then Then That.” It’s a web service (free for now) that implements automatic web actions (server side script) between a variety of different apps. I use it to automatically/automagically back up my tweets & FB pictures, send Diigo & Delicious bookmarks to Pocket when I tag them with @toread, send drafts to Buffer, send bookmarks to bit.ly, etc. it’s both useful and pretty awesome. Right now it will only issue alerts for the calendar not dates, but you could try making a request. Either way, it’s great productivity.

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Brandon April 30, 2013 at 9:41 AM

Hi Cat,

IFTTT is great. I have 9 or 10 different recipes that I use to automate various tasks. I haven’t looked at the Google Calendar integration recently. Maybe I’ll give it another look.

Cheers

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Wes June 1, 2013 at 9:25 AM

Thanks for these tips! I’ve implemented a few, but one slight issue. I did the multiple inbox and when I have an email in my Next Actions and click Archive – it doesn’t archive it unless I remove the @action label. Not a huge deal, just slightly annoying. Any idea of a way around that?

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Brandon June 1, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Hi Wes,

The emails in the “Next Actions” inbox are technically already archived, so clicking Archive doesn’t really do anything. I normally just delete them when I’ve completed the task. Here are a few possible workarounds: (1) You can modify the Multiple Inbox search query to include “is:unread”. So, in total, it will appear as “is:@action is:unread”. The only drawback here is that once you’ve read an email in the list, it will disappear from the list. (2) You can update the criteria for showing up in the “Next Actions” inbox to include a “star” as well as the label “@ACTION”. To do so, you will need to update the calendar notifications filter to have it star incoming emails as well as apply the label “@ACTION”. You will also need to update the Multiple Inbox search query to include “is:starred”. In total, it will appear as “is:@action is:starred”. Now, when you want to “archive” an email in the list, just remove the star and it should disappear (you can use the keyboard shortcut ‘s’ to make it faster). The only drawback here is if you want to manually add an email to the “Next Actions” inbox, you’ll need to add both the @ACTION label and a star.

Let me know if that helps. Cheers.

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Laurie Z December 27, 2016 at 9:44 PM

Hi! I came across this and I really like the idea of the events and deadlines calendar. How do you manage deadlines for your subcalendars though? e.g. Due dates for class assignments (school calendar)?

Thanks!

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Brandon February 12, 2017 at 5:56 PM

Sorry for the late response…

All deadlines go on the Deadlines calendar. The sub-calendars are equivalent to the Appointments calendar (but making them into sub-calendars gives you the ability to assign them different colours and notifications).

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