Promises, promises… (Or: The best time management trick I ever learnt)

Today a colleague and I were lamenting the fact that neither of us had actually ‘finished’ anything in weeks. Or was it months? I am one of those people who is prone to distraction, whereas Madelaine has a more legitimate excuse – her job requires her to respond immediately whenever something comes up (which is more or less every five minutes). We both need a mechanism to keep track of where we were before we were so rudely (or politely, as happens on occasion) interrupted. In Madelaine’s case, I think her brain does it for her, but I need a little help…

If the distraction occurs when I happen to be trying to prune the thicket of e-mails that seems to grow like topsy in my inbox without the slightest provocation or encouragement, I can relax. I know my ‘system’ will help  me to keep track of the important things in that endless information flow. The system is based on a little trick that I learnt from productivity guru David Allen (whose book, Getting Things Done, I mentioned in an earlier posting).

It involved creating two folders in my inbox: one called ‘-Action’ and one called ‘-Waiting for’. (The dash at the beginning is to make sure they stay at the top of your list of folders. It works in Outlook. In other systems you might need to use the @ symbol instead.)

Then, every time I send an e-mail to someone that I need a response from, I simultaneously save it to my ‘-Waiting for’ folder. (You can do this in Outlook by clicking on ‘Options’, ‘Save sent item’ before hitting ‘Send’.)

And if I write an e-mail promising to do something, I immediately save that to my ‘-Actions’ folder. This also works for e-mails I receive that I can’t act on immediately but I know I need to ‘do’ something with.

Using this system, ideally your inbox is always empty – except when new items come in that you haven’t yet looked at. As soon as you’ve looked at an item and either replied or decided not to reply yet, the e-mail gets moved into the relevant folder.

This can be very cathartic, especially in those rare moments when you look at your inbox and it is… actually… empty! A bit like looking at your desk after you’re cleared everything off the surface and hidden it away in the drawers…

And therein, of course, lies the rub. The system only works if you check your ‘-Waiting for’ and ‘-Action’ folders regularly. But if you do somehow manage to find the time to do that, you will find yourself ruthlessly following up on all the promises that other people have made – and wishing you hadn’t made so many yourself.

Gabi Witthaus

Leave a comment


  1. David

     /  May 26, 2009

    Sounds like a wonderful system if you can be ruthless enough, Gabi. I shall look for catharsis. Maybe you would show me how to set it up in Outlook, please.


  2. rambuna

     /  August 31, 2010

    time management – helps the sender as well as receiver – well thought before replying is helpful and more accurate


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