Email inboxes and the GTD 2-minute rule

By , March 20, 2014 12:46 am

Today’s dose of structured procrastination resulted in something I’ve been meaning to build for quite a while: a timer to help apply the two minute rule from David Allen’s famous GTD (Getting Things Done) system to the processing of a maildir-format email inbox.

Briefly, the idea is that when processing your inbox, for each email you have a maximum of two minutes to either:

  • perform any actions required by that email, or
  • add any such actions to your TODO list, and move the email out of the inbox. (IMHO, best practice is to move it to an archive folder and have a system for rapid retrieval of the email via the TODO list item, e.g. via a hyperlink which will retrieve the email based on its Message-Id: header, using an indexing mail search engine.)

However, I find that I frequently exhibit the bad habit of fidgeting with my inbox – in other words, checking it frequently to satisfy my curiosity about what new mail is there, without actually taking any useful action according to the processing (a.k.a. clarification) step. This isn’t just a waste of time; it also increases my stress levels by making me aware of things I need to do whilst miserably failing to help get them done.

Another bad habit I have is mixing up the processing/clarification phase with the organizing and doing phases – in other words, I look at an email in my inbox, realise that it requires me to perform some actions, and then I immediately launch right into the actions without any thought as to how urgent they are or how long they will take. This is another great way of increasing stress levels when they are not urgent and could take a long time, because at least subconsciously I’m usually aware that this is just another form of procrastination.

So today I wrote this simple Ruby timer program which constantly monitors the number of emails in the given maildir-formatted folder, and shows you how much of the two minutes you have left to process the item you are currently looking at. Here’s a snippet of the output:

1:23    24 mails
1:22    24 mails
1:21    24 mails
1:20    24 mails
Processed 1 mail in 41s!
Average velocity now 57s per mail
At this rate you will hit your target of 0 mails in 21m 55s, at 2014-03-19 23:18:59 +0000
2:00    23 mails
1:59    23 mails
1:58    23 mails
1:57    23 mails

You can see that each time you process mail and remove it from the email folder, it resets the counter back to two minutes. If you exceed the two minute budget, it will start beeping annoyingly, to prod you back into adherence to the rule.

So for example if you have 30 mails in your inbox, using this timer it should take you an absolute maximum of one hour to process them all (“process” in the sense defined within David Allen’s GTD system, not to complete all associated tasks).

Since gamification seems to be the new hip buzzword on the block, I should mention I’m already enjoying the fact that this turns the mundane chore of churning through an inbox into something of a fun game – seeing how quickly I can get through everything. And I already have an item on the TODO list for collecting statistics about each “run”, so that I can see stuff like:

  • on avarege how many emails I process daily
  • how often I process email
  • on average how many emails I process during each “sitting”
  • how much time I spend processing email
  • whether I’m getting faster over time

I also really like being able to see an estimate of the remaining time – I expect this will really help me decide whether I should be processing or doing. E.g. if I have deadlines looming and I know it’s going to take two hours to process my inbox, I’m more likely to consciously decide to ignore it until the work for my deadline is complete.

Other TODO items include improving the interface to give a nice big timer and/or progress bar, and the option of a GTK interface or similar. Pull requests are of course very welcome 😉

For mutt users, this approach can work nicely in conjunction with a trick which helps focus on a single mail thread at a time.

Hope that was useful or at least interesting. If you end up using this hack, I’d love to hear about it!

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