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.
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.
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.
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.