My New Productivity Email and Task Set-Up

I decided a couple of months back that I should take time to look into productivity for tasks and email management.  On account of I have much more free time now than I did when I was a student, I look into such matters at my whim.  Anything manageable would be better than my old system, which may have ruined a good bit of my GPA: keeping it all in my head and avoiding using any piece of paper whenever possible.  I probably went crazy from trying to shove tasks along with study into my head and not letting it out on paper or into my email.

This is not comprehensive but for my purposes it has already improved my productivity and my sanity ten-fold.  Many thanks to the amazing Web site Lifehacker, the task management tool Remember the Milk, and the die-hard fans of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” philosophy.  I have not read the book (and I am pretty sure I won’t jump on that bandwagon anytime soon), but the idea behind it is largely expressed through this setup.

What I do now with emails and tasks:

  • Organized Gmail with a series of tags called the “Trusted Trio,” key among which are “FOLLOWUP” and “HOLD”
  • Got a free account with Remember the Milk to handle task management from everything between simple to-do and project management at work
  1. Read email as it comes into my inbox.  If it takes less than two minutes to reply to or follow up on a task contained therein, I do that immediately then tag the email with whatever accessory tags I choose (AIESEC, BrainCanvas, Travel, etc.) and then click “Archive” to move it out of my inbox.
  2. If the email takes more than two minutes to follow-up with, I move it to the “FOLLOWUP” folder (along with tagging it with any other pertinent tags) and out of my inbox.  I keep it marked unread so I can see how many emails I need to follow-up on; I also add a RTM task to deal with it.
  3. If I expect a response to the email, or if it contains information that I will need to revisit soon like directions to a restaurant on Friday night or a plane ticket to Bangkok, I move it to the “HOLD” folder and out of my inbox.
  4. Regarding tasks, I have set up Remember the Milk according to this blog post.  This takes the most practice and patience to deal with, but it’s powerful and enables me to accomplish a lot more than I used to.  When I make a task (call my mother on her birthday this Tuesday), I type it out as specifically as possible and add as many pertinent tags and info as I can.  This way, all the thinking about the task has been put into the to-do immediately and all I have to do to complete the task when the time comes is just do it, since all the info is right there for me to follow.  It has also enabled me to do some great organization for multi-step work tasks.  I even use it for “someday” wish lists, like “wardrobe overhaul” with the help of the tailors of Beijing.
  5. The thing to tie it all together: do a weekly review in which I check up on all outstanding tasks and emails.  So far I’ve been bad at this, but it’s not a problem since I am not awash in tasks right now.

There was one much larger component of implementing this.  After doing the general setup, I realized that I had not used Gmail to its full extent because I had wholly ignored labels, I used my email as my default email inbox until I came to China, and I had neglected the “Archive” button.  My email was set up to copy all incoming email to my Gmail as well since January of 2008, but since I did not use Gmail as my mail client, every bit of email I’ve received since then, deleted or not in my inbox, was present in Gmail.  One of the key sanity-saving features of this email setup is in keeping your inbox empty, so I had a task ahead of me.  After deleting all of the auto-update emails from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn,  I had about 16,000 email threads stretching from December 2009 to January 2008.  I resolved to tackle one month at a time, starting at the present and moving backwards, labeling, archiving and deleting one month of email per day.  It was extremely interesting when I came to 2008: reading the history in emails of the July 4 letter’s origins and aftermath, and the democratic renewal of AIESEC US, in reverse.  I read each and every email related to the subject and was surprised to see some of the places where I made the right decision, the mistakes I made, and how I reacted to certain situations knowing what I know now.  A lot to be learned from that time, now well-organized for future review.  It was about two weeks ago that I finally reached the fabled “inbox zero.”  I keep it that way with rapid follow-ups and moving email to its right place – out of my inbox.

I have now joined the sycophantic ranks of bloggers about productivity, a set I generally distrust.  However, I liked this setup enough that I felt it worthy of publishing here.  If I had known about this when I started my LCP term, this setup would have become an integral part of task management for my EB team – and we’d have accomplished a lot more.