Managing Your Tasks in Gmail

By Deane Barker on December 3, 2012

So, I have one productivity hack I need to share (I’ve been inspired by Scott Hanselman’s awesome talk on ignoring stuff).

I’m not great at managing productivity, but there is one little thing I’ve done that’s really enabled me to get a handle on my email, and my workload in general.  I’ve been doing it faithfully for 18 months now, and it’s drastically cut the incidents of email falling through the cracks.

(Let me assure you – I still don’t get to everything.  But if I don’t follow-up on something, it’s rarely because I just forgot.  It’s because I don’t have an answer, I’m thinking about an answer, or maybe I just suck.  That still happens occasionally.)

Here’s my secret –

Use the stars in Gmail.  Really, just use the ability of your email client to flag email – in Gmail, this is a star.  In your email client, it might be something different.  But it probably exists – there’s someone way to “tag” an email with some binary (on/off) indicator of importance.  Use this feature.

Then, find some way to organize your inbox by starred (flagged) items first.  Better yet, have unread items on top, then starred items, then the rest.  Gmail can do this with Priority Inbox.  I don’t know how other email clients might do it.

I think we need to admit that Inbox Zero just isn’t realistic for a lot of us.  We’re just not going to manage it.  Oh sure, we’ll try, but most of us won’t succeed because email comes in faster than we’ll deal with it.

And wouldn’t it be great if we just did all the required actions when the email came in?  Wouldn’t that just be awesome?  Yeah, it would be.  But that’s not going to happen either because we’re human beings and we suck.

What bothered me about Inbox Zero was that it forced me to give attention to email that might not deserve the time.  The fact is, 90% of my email can just die a natural death, and if I spend any time on it, it’s already gotten more attention than it needs.

What I need to do instead is identify email that requires action.  Do I have to actually do anything based on this email?  Make no mistake: that’s the most important question.  If the answer is “yes, I have to do something,” then I need to find a way to record this fact.

“Starring” the email is my way of doing this.  A star by an email tells me, “Deane, you have to do something with this. Don’t forget it.”

I’ve gotten utterly habitual about it, almost neurotic.  If I read an email that requires me to do anything other than let the email drift off into the ether, I put a star on it.  This might be an email from a client with a question (that I can’t answer right then, for whatever reason), an email from Amazon with some new releases I want to review, or a longer email from anyone that I don’t have time to read right then.

I do this on my phone all the time.  The Gmail client for Android is obviously quite good, and I can star an email from about anywhere in the interface.  I do this, then manage the tasks when I get back to my office.

And you can star emails you sent, no just received. So if I send an email to someone, and want to make sure I get a response, I’ll put a star on it.  This will keep it in my attention span, not let me forget it, and can follow up if I don’t get something back.

I will star anything from a half-dozen to a couple dozen emails a day.  With any luck, I’ll “resolve” the same amount – do the action required (the reason I starred it) and remove the star.

(Sometimes, when I have 10 minutes before a meeting or something, I’ll tell myself: “I’m going to go resolve three emails.”  And I will – I’ll go to my inbox with the plan of finding three things I can do in 10 minutes that will get rid of three stars.  It’s enormously satisfying.)

If I don’t star the email, that’s my way of saying, “That email can just go away.”  It’s as good as deleting it without having to delete it.  This way, I don’t actually waste any time on emails that don’t matter.  All email is destined to die by default, I just save important ones by proactive intent.

What this means is that my starred emails are effectively my inbox.  My Inbox Zero is not having any stars in Gmail.  My inbox is still technically full (I think I have 20,000 emails in there right now), but none of it requires me to do anything, so it can be effectively ignored.

Additionally, my starred email in Gmail is my defacto “to do” list.  It is the stuff that is pressing on me at the moment.

What what about things that don’t come in through email?  How do you handle those?

Simple.  You turn them into an email.

I have a rule in Gmail that detects when an email comes in that was sent by me – so, when I send an email to myself.  It does two things:

  1. Marks the email as read
  2. Puts a star on it

(A star on all of these?  Of course.  Why else would you send an email to yourself if not to remember something?)

I get so much use out this.  Essentially, any email I send myself goes on my task list.  It is something that requires action, and it’s codified in an email.

With the advent of “sharing” services now, you can “share” anything to email.  Found an article you like?  Email it to yourself and it will go in your list.  Someone tweeted you something that requires action?  Email it to yourself.  Just thought of something you need to do while walking through the mail?  Quick, compose an email to yourself.

(I’ve even been known to take pictures of physical things and email them to myself as reminders.  My wife will leave a note for me to do something, and I’ll snap a picture of the note, email it, then throw the note away.)

Like I said, this has revolutionized how I handle my email and how I manage my daily tasks.  So much of my workload enters my life through email that it was just natural to find a way to effectively turn Gmail into a task management system. Stars and Priority Inbox have given me a way to do this.

(A key point: this works well for people who’s workload is essentially defined by email.  You may not be one of those people.  But I am.  I’m essentially an administrator.  This technique has the effect of sort of elevating your email to sainthood, which isn’t my intent.  Email is both good and bad, and if most of your job happens away from email, maybe this isn’t the right system for you.  But 80% of my workload comes into my life through email, so it’s just natural for me.)

And once I started doing it, I hacked the system to add items to the list by sending them to myself.  This is what broke it wide open and gave me a way to extend it beyond email and cover even random things that happen in the “real world.”

I forget very little now.  Like I said, I still don’t get to everything, but my ability to make sure I don’t let things just slide of my plate has really improved.

Try it.  Let me know how it works for you.

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