A simple way to simplify email — From Stowe Boyd

I love reading different methods for organizing email. Last month’s post from Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani started this discussion, and we’ve asked online social tools guru Stowe Boyd to keep the information flowing. Thank you, Stowe, for sharing your insights with us!

Like many other web professionals, I have migrated from desktop email to Gmail, the Google email service. Gmail has many great qualities, like integrated instant messaging, large storage allotment, and integration with Google Calendar and Google Documents. But for reasons that are totally unclear to me, Google has chosen not to provide an integrated task list solution (or ‘to-do’ lists), either in Google Calendar or Gmail.

However, a small Australian start-up has come to our rescue with an intuitive task list application, called Remember The Milk. The application was originally devised as a standalone task list tool, with rich to-do list tools, including sharing tasks with others. But it is the integration with Gmail that I want to focus on today, since email overload is a growing problem for all of us. There is also an integration with Google Calendar that I will discuss in another post.

The Remember The Milk (RTM) integration with Gmail and Google Calendar require the use of the Firefox browser, which is free from Mozilla. For those of you that are not using Firefox yet, this may be the tipping point in that decision. Once you have installed Firefox, you will need to create a Gmail account, and a RTM account, and then install the Firefox plugin that implements the integration of the two accounts in the browser.

The now familiar Gmail interface is below, in this case, for a sample account I created for this article.

gmail, originally uploaded by Stowe Boyd.

Once the plugin is installed, and you have logged into RTM, you will see a new column to the right on your Gmail interface. This is where tasks are displayed.

RTM 3 col, originally uploaded by Stowe Boyd.

At the top right, RTM’s Tasks widget allows you to simply type in a task, like “Review Quarterly Results”. Immediately below that is a ‘task view’ controller, that allows you to see only a subset of tasks at a time, for example, all tasks tagged “hiring” or tasks filed under “Work”. Under the task view, you can see the task area, in this case ordered by due date.

At this point you might ask, “Why is it so helpful to have a task list in Gmail? Just because I have Gmail open on my desktop?” No. The real benefit is in responding to email immediately, and organizing your response to what is in the email.

We all would like to have an empty email inbox, but very commonly we keep email in the inbox because we need to do something — call someone, look something up, check schedules — before we can respond. With a torrent of email streaming by, we can quickly forget the context for an email — what is the action we are supposed to take, when do I need to respond by, what sort of activity is it — and so we find ourselves reading an email all over again, a few days later, and realizing that we missed a deadline or forgot to follow through.

With the RTM integration, I can simply use the Gmail Star feature for email, and automatically create a RTM task linked to the email. I can set a deadline for my response, for example ‘tomorrow’ or ‘9 May 2008’, and I can create a descriptive name for the action: ‘follow through with Jane Yoo on Jones proposal’. As shown in the screen below, there is an envelope icon in the task that links to the email, so when I get around to responding to a pending email task, I only have to click on the envelope and the email opens: no searching for the lost mail.

RTM tags, originally uploaded by Stowe Boyd.

Since adopting the RTM Gmail integration, I have found my approach to email has changed. I now proceed through email, responding to those that I can immediately, and deferring others by assigning an RTM task. I create a descriptive ‘next action to take’ as the task description, set a deadline for the action, and apply a few descriptive tags, like ‘travel’ or ‘billing’. After wading through new email, I then turn my attention to things that I have to accomplish today, which are (at least in part) listed in the RTM widget. I can pull up a bunch of tasks when it is time to handle them, like a group of planned meetings that need to be scheduled once dates for a trip are set. And as I complete the tasks, I can simply unstar them or click the ‘completed’ box in the task information: in either case, the task is marked done, and leaves the list of pending tasks.

Yes, it is true that I have other locations where I also manage tasks, such as various online collaboration solutions, but the management of the cycle of email communications is significant enough to justify a dedicated solution to handle it, and that is exactly what Remember The Milk provides me.

27 Comments for “A simple way to simplify email — From Stowe Boyd”

  1. posted by Alex Fayle on

    This is fantastic news. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been building my daily to do lists using OpenOffice because I stopped using Outlook a while back.


  2. posted by Katie on

    I’ve never been able to completely make the switch to Gmail… I’m one of those infuriating people with a half-dozen accounts, all for completely different purposes–purposes that are crystal clear to me and very confusing if you’re a friend or family member and want to email me.

    Doesn’t it destroy your productivity if, for some reason, your internet access is down? That’s what makes me the most nervous.

  3. posted by Dee on

    This is timely for me because I’ve been revamping my e-mail approach and just opened an Gmail account! Thanks for the heads up on task listing! My ony issue is at the office, I am stuck using the designated office program thats issued by headquarters. I’m going to use the Gmail account for telecommuting purposes when I can’t be logged into the VPN access porthole so this will def. be helpful to organize my tasks.

    As far as my work account is concerned – I just recently categorized all of my e-mails by task by creating sub-folders in a “current” folder. Within that folder I have folders labeled by project and I am loving the ability to quickly empty my in-box into each designated category. As a project is wrapped up, I archive that projects sub-folder and whala – more space.

  4. posted by Jen on

    I love this idea, however my employer will not let us install Firefox.

    Do you think going from using Gmail/RTM integrated at home to pulling up RTM and Gmail separately at work will just complicate this too much??

    I have not used RTM at all, but I love my Gmail account!

  5. posted by Kristin on

    This is great. Now I just have to install Firefox. This, and the Google Hacks book I just bought should make my life a breeze.

  6. posted by Kate on

    Thank you!!! This will declutter the random index cards I use to replace the awful Outlook Web Access calendar that work expects me to use (remote worker, they don’t provide VPN, and Thunderbird/Lightning is too buggy for me).

  7. posted by Karen on

    I tried this approach a few weeks back, integrating RTM with my Gmail, and I actually found the integration to be clunky. I didn’t like having to sign in to RTM seperately. I’d like it to be an integrated log-in. Am I missing something there?

    Ultimately, I ended up uninstalling it as I found it cumbersome. Maybe I should have given it more of a chance. Thank you for sharing!

  8. posted by Stowe Boyd on

    Katie – RTM uses Google Gears (if you have installed that) so that you can run it offline, and then sync. I seldom do that, since I have an EVDO card for my laptop so I am basically always on.

    Jen – No, I don’t. The RTM unintegrated solution is very well-done (although I have some design quibbles), and the model you suggest would probably feel intuitive.

  9. posted by jdp on

    OMGosh. Read it. Did it. I’m loving it!!!!

    So simple to get up and running. AAAAAAA. Like a kid with a new toy here (and I’m not usually like that).

    Thank you!

  10. posted by Dave on

    Portable Firefox can possibly be used in situations that an employer won’t allow you to install it. It runs off of a thumb drive. Once you start using Firefox you will wonder how you managed to get by without it! Make sure that you try out lots of extensions (or sometimes called add-ons). I also suggest you use the mouse gestures extension, one of the gmail checker extensions, forecastfox enhanced, GTDInbox, stylish, scrapbook, and any others that you might find useful. The link for portable firefox (plus many other highly useful portable programs that can be run from a thumb drive) is:



  11. posted by Lilia Efimova on

    I have Gmail RTM installed on one of my computers, but find extremely annoying that the tab is eating on column. I didn’t find a way to use using stars to turn emails into tasks without having that tab on.

    Btw, tasks could be emailed to RTM from any email account (I do that from Outlook at work), although it’s less easy.

    I use RTM iGoogle widget as a primary RTM interface – not only for upcoming tasks, but also for an overview of tasks per project (by using multiple copies of the widget with different settings).

  12. posted by Eileen on

    Help! The article says:
    “As shown in the screen below, there is an envelope icon in the task that links to the email, so when I get around to responding to a pending email task, I only have to click on the envelope and the email opens: no searching for the lost mail.”

    sounds great! – But how do you create the envelope icon link to the email? Also, what is the meaning/use of all the categories in the pop-out box when you mouse over the tasks?



  13. posted by aaron on

    @ Jen

    if you cant install firefox, you may consider installing the portable version of firefox on a usb drive. portableapps.com I use foxmarks to sync my bookmarks etc at work, and its great.

    Thanks for the RTM tip, ive been sending emails to myself when i want to remember things…is there a way to archive the RTM notes? Is RTM searchable..so i can say…yeah i did that one thing…3 months ago.

  14. posted by Eileen on

    I have found the answers to my questions. It is all explained in under ‘services’ then ‘gmail’ in the rtm help pages. http://www.rememberthemilk.com/services/gmail/

  15. posted by sylrayj on

    I have been using Google Sidebar. It is a side window, looking somewhat similar to the Remember the Milk task list, but it is there regardless of what program I have operating in the main window (unless it dominates the entire screen), and it doesn’t require being connected. Mine is set up with a to-do list at top, a picture viewer next, and finally, a notepad…

    When I check my online sales flyers, I write down what’s on sale in the notepad, then transfer it to my Palm pilot’s grocery list. I have my upcoming appointments listed in the sidebar, in case I didn’t have Google Calendar open already and need to book something in a hurry (or if my ISP is a bit fussy). I have a few important to-do’s listed.

    The only problem I know of with this method is it’s on just my computer, whereas the Remember the Milk sounds like it’d be on any computer from which you could read your Gmail. Since I only use one, instead of multiples, this works great for me, and I don’t need any sticky notes. 🙂

  16. posted by Jonas on

    I use Thunderbird+Lightning for email and calendar at work, but I don’t like Lightning’s task management, so I set up the RTM iGoogle gadget to open in Firefox’s sidebar. (I don’t like iGoogle either, but the sidebar functionality is awesome.)

    Since I have Firefox and Thunderbird both constantly open, it’s easy to switch back and forth, though it’s not as nicely integrated as your solution. But with my system, when I’m aimlessly web browsing (such as now) I always have my to-do list staring me in the face. 🙂

  17. posted by Glenn on

    I second the PortableApps suggestion; they’re all I use for Firefox, Thunderbird, and several other programs.

  18. posted by Jamie on

    One of the things I really love about Remember the Milk is that it works with Jott (http://jott.com) and has a nice mobile version I can access from my mobile phone. I like that I can submit new items via email, text message, or voice dictation. I also like that I can build custom filters and have RTM send me txt msgs when items are due.

    Combine Jott, RTM and Google Calendar and it’s like a virtual personal assistant!

  19. posted by Bob on

    I’ve been working with the same idea for the last couple of weeks and have have also added GTDInbox (adds some really neat features to Gmail in a GTD framework) and Better Gmail 2.

    That may be moving away from the original idea of “a simple way to simplify e-mail”, but all these add-ons seem to play nicely together and really improve the overall functionality of Gmail! And I like Jott too!

  20. posted by Andrew Twigg on

    I’ve started using a combination of my calendar and documents (spreadsheet) to manage my to-do tasks. Perhaps this is a bit much for some people, but with two businesses I find a standard to-do list inadequate.

    The upside of this is that I have Google Sync (and other google apps) installed on my BlackBerry. This allows me to sync the two; my BlackBerry calendar automatically syncs to Google Calendar every time I add, delete, or modify an item and vice versa. I can access my documents on my phone as well. I can also choose to share any or all of this info with others.

    I use the calendar like my “assistant” who makes sure certain things get done at certain times. That way I can set a reminder to write a check on Friday at 2 while I’ll also be taking care of another similar item in a similar place. And I can snooze or even reschedule the reminder when it appears on my BlackBerry if for some reason my schedule isn’t working out quite the way I hoped.

    I just started using Google calendar synced with my BlackBerry two weeks ago; it has been a retraining process learning to not put things into iCal but I’m much more organized and on top of things this way.

  21. posted by James Levy on

    The one crucial thing that’s missing is a Gmail API. I use a few different machines throughout the day, and the barrier is still too high if a browser extension is required.

    Perhaps RTM would be a great gobble for the Google Borg?

  22. posted by Beaver on

    What is the most efficient way to deal with a large number of old e-mails?

    For a lot of time, I dumped e-mails into backup archives without separating essentials from the rest. At this point, I got around 400000 e-mails starting with 1999, in the form of thirty backups in three different database formats. I do not want the archive to grow this much anymore, hence the need to declutter this area.

    So, here is what I have done so far. First, I used the original e-mail programs to export e-mails to a common format. As the second step, I loaded the exported mails into Thunderbird. Third, I used the Remove Duplicate Messages addon to remove all duplicates (this addon can remove duplicates even if they are in different folders!).

    Now I got around 40000 of them in 200 folders, and I want to choose the essential ones and throw the rest. At this point, I need to deal with them manually. Could the blog readers, who went through something similar, share their strategies on dealing with massive amounts of old e-mails?

  23. posted by Martin Wildam on

    I know why there is no task list in GMail: They have an outstanding calendar. Why then need a task list if you have a calendar?

    If there is a thing to do there are either two possibilities:

    1. Get it done sometimes: Schedule it on the calendar.

    2. Not so important to waste time: Archive it (and maybe tag it with “maybe later”.

    My experience: If you don’t schedule it, it will not get done. Getting things done means that you need to find a time WHEN to get these things done.

    I don’t use to-do-lists any more. Only thing I have is those two labels “Action” and “Waiting” (for somebody else to response or take action). The action label is for temporary use only as long as I have not decided about the optimum day/time when to schedule.

  24. posted by jay on

    “With the RTM integration, I can simply use the Gmail Star feature for email, and automatically create a RTM task linked to the email”

    HELP…. how does this work? i’ve been using the add-in for some time but have never heard of this. how do you make this automatic?


  25. posted by niilo alhovaara on

    I’ve been using RTM within the GoogleCalendar for a while and it works fine for me; however, the RTM-Gmail integration is definitely interesting. I use GTD Inbox with Gmail and I wonder if GTD and the RTM add-on play nicely together? I seem to get logged off from RTM every time I star a mail.. Something not quite right, I guess! Any comments appreciated.

  26. posted by Markus on

    what a great article. I have tried and found that RTM is a great way to keep my inbox at zero and organize my information. No more searching through archived emails. Very GTD!

  27. posted by George on

    Thanks for the great article. This is just what I was looking for … and it combines the 2 things I use the most for email and browsing : Firefox and Gmail.
    Firefox is the best.

    Thanks again !
    Stumbled it !

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