Using GTD and Outlook to Organize Projects & Tasks for a Small Business

“Getting Things Done,” By David AllenAs the project manager for a small company, one of my biggest responsibilities is to make sure projects are on track and that clients are satisfied with our work. I wrote a three-part blog post on using a Web-based project-management tool to organize tasks and projects. Project Insight has helped us see how much time we are spending on each project and what outstanding tasks remain.

One thing it has not done for me personally is to help me organize my daily tasks. I am a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. (Here’s a link to one of my favorite overviews of GTD). Since we use Outlook as an organization, I have been looking for the best way to integrate Outlook with GTD.

GTD Workflow Chart

Basically, GTD is a way of prioritizing your tasks–and your life– to free yourself up to actually do things, rather than worrying about all of the stuff you have to do. David Allen has a workflow chart that I–and many other GTDers– use to decide how to prioritize what he calls, “next actions”.

GTD fans will reflexively reply that there is a David Allen-approved GTD plug-in for Outlook. Yeah, I know. I’ve used the demo version, and haven’t been impressed enough to spend my own money to buy it, or to grovel to my boss and ask him to buy it for me (but if he’s reading this, hint hint…j/k).

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for a free alternative to the GTD plug-in.

Here are my requirements:

  • Projects: I want to be able to create projects. I want to be able to take tasks that I’ve downloaded from our Project Insight system into Outlook and add them to projects. As an example, one of the projects I have for myself is to “Integrate [client’s] site with Google Website Optimizer so that we can create landing pages for specific PPC campaigns and for B2B SEO.Here are the tasks I have for this project, along with their contexts (sorry, non GTDers, this is pretty specific lingo that will have a different meaning for you once you’ve read the book… assuming you’ve made it this far in my blog post).GTDers will note that my contexts are outside the norm; because I spend my day in front of a computer @computer means little to me, so I have contexts such as @email, @ProjectInsight, @searchWeb, etc. 43folders also has a nice post on contexts.
  • Create Requirements Document for Developer: @Email
  • Developer adds code to page: @Waiting On
  • I create special landing page: @Dreamweaver
  • I test page: @Web
  • I push page live: @Web
  • I test analytics integration: @Web
  • Customers line up to give our client their money: @Dream

Yeah, okay, that last task is a joke. I’m a funny guy. Really.

  • Next Actions by Project: I want to be able to identify my next actions by project so that I can scan my list of projects and see what the very next thing to do is.
  • Next Actions by Context: So, I’ve decided to spend an hour doing@Web tasks. I need to know my next actions that need to be done on the Web.
  • Waiting On: Who owes me what? A lot of what I do is ask people to do things for me… clients need to implement our recommendations… coworkers need to run reports… tech support reps need to tell me why the thing I need to do can’t be done, etc.

So, over the past six months or so I’ve been trying various methods.

  • First, I tried the trial version of the GTD Outlook plug-in. It’s okay, but I don’t think it’s worth $69.95. Plus, who know when they’ll make a new version and force me (or my boss) to pay another $70.
  • Then I tried a freeware program called Jello. This is a truly nice product. It turns the Outlook home page into something (horrors!) useful. But, it has a ways to go. I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s free and the developer has clearly put a lot of time into the tool. I’ve posted comments and suggestions and he’s taken the time to reply to me. I would love to be able to use this all the time. But at the moment, I find it a bit cumbersome.Update: I sent the Jello creator a draft of this post to get his feedback and he was nice enough to send me the version 4 alpha of Jello, which I have been using for a day now. It’s great! I have some more questions, but at this point, I am ready to say this is the system for me.
  • I stumbled upon this great blog post by a Microsoft employee, David Ornstein. He seems like a really nice guy and his ideas show a lot of imagination. It took a long time (several hours I’d say) for me to fully implement his system.I had to copy and paste VB script and make custom rules and on and on. It felt like I was performing surgery on Outlook and I wasn’t quite sure the patient was going to survive the operation.But in the end, his system has been great for me.I use Outlook 2007’s categories as contexts, so that I can label an incoming message as a “Next: Computer Work” task, etc. This works for things I am waiting on from others as well.The major drawback to this is that I have not found a way to create projects such that I can drag and drop tasks into the project and see which task go with which project. The result is that I have a long list of next actions divided by context, but not by project.
  • Simon Guest GTD methodologyThere is a similar methodology by Simon Guest, a Director in the Architecture Strategy Team at Microsoft. I like his process, but I do not find it convenient because he denotes both contexts and projects by using the Outlook categories feature.This means that each action is a member of two categories, one for its context and another for its project. I personally find that confusing.
  • In another Google search, I came across a page titled, “Managing GTD Projects In Outlook”. Sounds perfect, huh?! I hungrily read the entire page and got to work implementing the suggestions. Basically, the idea is to create a template based on the Contacts template and use it for projects. The author even has a template you can download. After you follow the (not so) easy seven-step process for adding new templates, voila!

Unfortunately, I am using Outlook 2007, and this is written for Outlook 2003 (the page says, “This page last updated 29-Sep-03” by way of apology or disclaimer, I guess.) In infinite Microsoft wisdom, templates created for Outlook 2003, don’t work for 2007. What a difference four years makes!

Since then, I’ve been searching for a version of this template that DOES work with the new version of Outlook… but so far, no luck. So what am I doing to organize my tasks? I have been using a hybrid system that incorporates David Ornstein’s suggestions along with Jello.

Now that I have the latest alpha version of Jello, I am going to try to migrate everything to that. I truly this could be the best system for me.

I would love to know how other GTDers have solved this problem. I’ve done a lot of Web searches, but haven’t found something that everyone can agree is a good idea.

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