Do you leave emails in your inbox so that you remember to read or tackle them? If so, you’re using your email to manage your tasks—and those are actually two very different things. Using a separate task manager, one that ties in closely with your email, can help you spend less time sifting through your inbox, and more time getting your most important work done.
Why do you need to separate these activities out? If you’re conflating email and task management, then the job of simply communicating–reading and replying to your messages–gets bogged down by all the emails you leave sitting in your inbox simply so you won’t forget to address them. (And there are probably a few to-do reminders in there that you sent to yourself!) This approach also makes managing your to-do-list problematic: when you need to quickly identify the right task to take on next, nothing slows you down like diving into your inbox to scroll through old messages.
The reason so many of us fall into the trap of conflating email and task management is that email is inextricable from much of what we do in work and in life: many of our tasks arrive in the form of email messages, and many other tasks require reading or sending emails as part of getting that work done.
Luckily, there are many fantastic task managers that recognize the inextricability of email and task management without lumping the two in together. The best task managers not only provide you with a single place to capture the tasks you need to get done; they also make it easy for you to add tasks by email. But unlike email they can also track things like what is complete or incomplete, when each task needs to get done, what project a task is related to, or where you need to be in order to do it.
While there are those who solve this problem by simply tracking their to-dos using the task manager within Outlook (or another email platform), that approach comes at too steep a cost. Keeping your tasks in your email program means you can’t close that program (and its attendant distractions) when you want to plow through your task list. Having both activities as part of one application also means that you’ll still have to flip from one view to the other; even if you open a separate window for your task list, you risk losing sight of it in a sea of open emails. Most crucially, defaulting to the task manager that is built into your email client means you don’t get to choose the particular task manager that works best for your particular kind of work, or work style.
There are many task management systems available, each aimed at users with different needs and work styles. Here are some of the best candidates to consider as you search for the one that’s right for you – as well as advice on how to integrate each one with your email system:
Remember the Milk. For those who need a task manager that will work for both their personal to-do lists and team collaboration, RTM is a slick & snappy web-based task management tool with loads of great features that syncs across a large number of other devices, operating systems and web applications. Whether you depend on an iOS, Windows or Android phone; Google Calendar or Outlook; Evernote or Twitter: RTM has an app or extension for you.
And you can add tasks to Remember the Milk via email easily once you get the hang of formattingthe messages.
Things. Apple loyalists who place a premium on the aesthetics of their software will like this well-designed task manager, which keeps tasks neatly in sync across all Apple-made devices (though you have to buy separate versions for Mac, iPhone and iPad, which adds up). Options to view tasks by project, context or timeline make it very easy to see what you need to do at any given moment in your day.
Things also provides a handy feature that’s one step up from emailing yourself tasks: quick entry with autofill lets you highlight an email in your inbox and then use a single keystroke to create a new Things task that is pre-filled with the selected email text. There is also a very useful (if geeky)workaround that gives you even more control over creating tasks directly from Apple’s Mail.app.
OmniFocus. Mac users who use David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to productivity may take to OmniFocus, which bakes Allen’s methodology right into the software. It encourages you to attach contexts to each task (like noting whether this is a task to be done by phone or on the computer, during the workday or on your commute home) so that you take on the task that is most feasible whenever you turn to your list.
OmniFocus users can use a simple and elegant service called Mail Drop to email tasks directly to OF. There’s no special formatting to learn, and as an added bonus, it’s easy for OF users to take advantage of some really cool IFTTT recipes!
Toodledo. If you’re looking for something really powerful and flexible, Toodledo’s web-based task manager allows you to add tasks and sub-tasks to lists, which can be organized into folders, goals, contexts or outlines, each of which offers different ways to parse the tasks. There are collaborative features available to paid subscribers, and TD syncs to popular calendar applications. One of the neat things about Toodledo is that they partner with Carbonfund.org to offset the electricity used in their operations. As far as I know, they’re the only task manager that can claim to be running a carbon-neutral operation.
The trade-off for all that power and complexity is that adding tasks to TD via email can be somewhat onerous. Like the application itself, Toodledo’s email interface offers very powerful options, but it’s got a steep learning curve.
Basecamp. While I wouldn’t recommend Basecamp for someone those seeking to manage just their personal tasks, if you’re already working in an organization that uses Basecamp to manage collaboration it’s a good option. Then you can set up your personal task list as a project named something like “My Tasks” rather than using completely separate applications for your personal and team-based tasks. The many tools that sync with Basecamp give you easy access to your task list when you’re on your phone or offline.
Turning an email into a Basecamp task is just as easy: just follow their simple instructions to forward it to your account.
What I use now: Evernote + Reminders + Followup.cc. For those who tend to get lost in the sea of their own overgrown task lists, consider dividing that list up to make it easier to deal with. First make a weekly list that contains only your most crucial tasks or deliverables for the next five days. If you use a note-taking tool like Evernote, keep your task list a click away by placing all these tasks in a separate “Tasks” notebook or folder and creating a prominently-placed shortcut to it in your Evernote sidebar.
As with more traditional task management tools, you can forward your emails to Evernote; it then becomes a note and when you need to refer to it, you can do a quick Evernote search–or if you’ve filed it, click on the relevant notebook.
In addition to the big things that go on your weekly list, you probably have a lot of smaller tasks to keep track of: an email you need to remember to write or a card you need to send. Use simple timed reminder tools for these smaller items. You can use Evernote’s own reminders feature for that purpose, but it may be easier to use a separate reminders tool like the default Reminders app that syncs across all Apple products.
And if the thing you’re trying not to forget is an email – maybe one you need to reply to later, or one you’ll need to follow up on – you can get that email out of your inbox by forwarding the email to followup.cc. It will come back to you at the time you specify, when you are actually in a position to act on it.
This particular combination of Evernote, timed reminders and followup.cc is what I use now. Using reminders and followup.cc to not forget the little stuff has allowed me to keep a very minimal list of my major tasks; and because I’m not getting bogged down in an inbox that’s overflowing with a list of implicit, tiny to-dos, I have more time to get those major tasks accomplished.
But I won’t pretend that this system is going to be my Ultimate Task-Fighting Champion for the next decade: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying dozens of task and project management tools, it’s that the best choice of tools varies as much from year to year as it does from person to person. Experiment with a few different email-friendly task managers to find the one that’s right for you now, and recognize that your needs, preferences and toolkit will almost certainly change over time.
My new ebook from Harvard Business Review Press, Work Smarter, Rule Your Email, gives more advice on how to use email to support your work – instead of letting it crowd out the tasks and projects on your plate.
Alexandra Samuel is Vice-President of Social Media at Vision Critical, a market research technology provider. She is the author of Work Smarter, Rule Your Email (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2014). Follow her on Twitter at @awsamuel.
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