Tag Archives: GTD

Google Keep: Note-taking from an Android’s perspective

Considering the sheer vastness of the Google Play marketplace, one can assume that there are countless apps that cover the realm of note-taking and to-do lists.  So it is not surprising that Google would try to architect a note/task app in their own fashion.  The result of this endeavor is Google Keep; an Android app that is a depository for ideas, notes, and to-do lists.

The app can be found (as expected) on the Google Play Store.  Here’s a breakdown of its inner-workings:

Google Keep

googlenote

The main application menu at first appears like the picture on the left: empty.  The simplest way to add a note in Google Keep is by using the “quick note” option at the top.  Once the note is created, it will appear on the main menu.

Left to right: To-Do List, Photo, and Voice Note
Left to right: To-Do List, Photo, and Voice Note

Underneath the quick note option are the buttons for the four main note types in Google Keep: a simple note, a to-do task list, a voice-to-text note, and a picture caption note.  Each of them are self-explanatory by namesake, so the minor details regarding their operation shall be skipped.

archived
Save those notes for later…
googlekeepdelete
…or not.

As notes get composed, they will fill up the main menu screen.  Existing notes can be modified by tapping once to open them or by holding to select (they turn blue).  Once one or more notes are selected, one can choose to delete them, share them, or archive them for future reference.  Notes that are in the archived folder can return to the main screen by holding and selecting it again and hitting the archive button again in the top right.

googlekeepcolors

If white seems a bit drab for a note color, do not fret; they can be colored to one’s liking.  Google Keep can also be placed as a widget on a home screen for quicker viewing and editing of notes.

The Google Drive Bit

googlekeepbrowser

Now colors are nice and all, but what else does Google Keep have to offer?  Well, very time a note is created, modified, or destroyed inside the Android app, it automatically syncs the changes with your Google account and placed them in Google Drive.  Because of this, notes can be accessed via a browser anytime from this web link here.  Likewise, if notes are modified while on the browser webpage, they are automatically updated when Google Keep is accessed again on Android.

Conclusion

Got a random thought or task that needs retention?  Let Google Keep help you with that.

Getting stuff done with Remember the Milk

I have many titles. Chiefly, I am the King of Procrastination. As I get older, I’m also becoming the Duke of “Sorry, I Forgot All About That”. It’s not necessarily because my memory is getting worse, although that’s likely. It seems more to do with just having a lot more to keep track of than when I was in college and thought I was busy.

To deal with both problems, I became Lord of Lists. Everything I need to do gets documented in some way. For a long time, these were mainly pen and paper lists. Some still are. There are times when pen and paper are just faster.

I went through a lot of to-do list apps trying to find one that I liked, and the truth is, I hated most of them. Many feel bloated and in some cases it took longer to enter a task than it did to actually complete a task (Omnifocus). Others were close to what I wanted but were just a feature or two off (Wunderlist).

Ultimately, I settled on Remember the Milk as the best compromise of features and low friction.

No Corinthian leather

Remember the Milk (RTM)’s appeal is largely in its simplicity. The interface is clean, if a bit dated at this point. According to RTM’s about page, the interface was inspired by early versions of GMail.

Remember the Milk
Some dummy tasks. Sometimes I do forget to eat though.

Inputing a task is very similar to what you would do if you were writing on paper. Instead of typing in a description and clicking a bunch of checkboxes or drop-downs to set details (Although you have the option to do this.), RTM supports natural language input. So, you can you in something like:

Take out trash every Monday @Home #chores

Taking that input, RTM creates a task called “Take out the trash” that recurs every Monday with your home as the location and “chores” as a tag. You can add as much or as little info to a task as you want. There are no required fields other than the description, which as basic as it sounds, is a big feature. Most task apps require input in several fields and that really slow things down when you’re trying to quickly jot something down.

Overall, that’s the theme of RTM – Lot’s of features and functionality like shared tasks, tagging, advanced filter searches, and prioritization, but they’re only there when you want them.

Any client you want, for a cost

I do most of my input using RTM’s web interface and mainly use the iPhone client for it’s geo-fencing feature (Which is very similar to iOS’s Reminders functionality.). If I’m near Walgreens and I have a task that’s tagged with Walgreens as a location, the mobile app pings me with a reminder. Other than that, I don’t really use the iPhone app and prefer either the web interface or the iPad app (which is basically the iPhone app, but less “squashed”).

If you think that you would be a heavy mobile user, you should probably spring for RTM’s $25-a-year Pro plan which allows you to sync your lists between devices and the web app. In addition to the official apps, having the Pro plan also opens up syncing to the dearth of third-party clients that have been written for RTM, including plugins for Outlook and GMail. There are even several CLI-based clients for people who might be looking for something similar to Gina Trapani’s Todo.txt app.

Astrid is a near perfect to-do list for both iOS and Android

Logo_Astrid-320Calendars for 2013 are still fresh off the printing presses, and even though we are only a few weeks into January, I suspect that most people’s New Year’s resolutions are being broken by the minute. I started with six, but unfortunately they are being picked off faster than zombies on the Walking Dead. So, in order to keep the three resolutions I have left, I needed to do something drastic.

Get. A. To. Do. List.

Yes, an actual to-do-list. I’ve avoided them for years – but in order to stay productive during the year it was my only option.

In my despair I download Astrid, a to-do-list app available for iPhone, iPad and Android. And to my surprise, the app was fantastic and the best thing to ever happen to my productivity.

Astrid has a smooth and efficient design, and is easy to use as well. The app is a free download, but also offers a premium service for $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year, which offers file storage, voice recording, and document backups.

But don’t worry; it’s not essential that you fork over your hard-earned cash for the premium service, because Astrid is still a fantastic app even if you only use the basics.

iPhone-personal-list

The app has a simple and sleek design that lets you compile a standard to-do-list with the traditional boxes to check mark a completed task. You can also input tasks with specific dates and times, in order to remind you what needs to be done. One great feature about the app is that Astrid will categorize your tasks into four separate lists: tasks that are late, due today, due this week, and tasks that have no due date. You can also categorize your tasks under home, personal, shopping and work, or even customize the categories to fit your needs.

iPhone-shared-list

Another fantastic feature offered by Astrid is the ability to connect with friends or family on Facebook and share or assign tasks via the app. My wife and I use a shared to-do list, which makes running our busy household so much easier, and, to be honest, fun. I went from despising to-do lists to actually enjoying using them, and now consider Astrid to be an indispensable app on my iOS devices.

One area where Astrid has come in handy is during my workouts (which, by the way, were one of my New Years resolutions). The app sends push notification reminders when it’s time for me to workout – but where it really comes in handy is by sitting in my ‘late’ box if I do not complete it on time. It irks me to no end to see a workout that I have skipped sitting in the ‘late’ box.

iPhone-speech-to-text

There are so many features on the app that I might have missed a few, so here’s a quick list of all the features that Astrid offers.

  • Cloud sync with push notifications
  • Voice recognition
  • Share tasks and list over e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter
  • See friends’ public tasks and give them encouragement
  • One-time or repeating reminders
  • Add notes and set priorities
  • Calendar integration
  • available for both iOS and Android devices

Overall I love Astrid, and have become completely addicted to using to-do lists. It may also be the best productivity app I have used in a while. If I had to rate the app I would give it a 10/10, and call it a must have for anyone looking to increase their productivity and get their lives more organized. It’s also a great way to keep your New Years resolutions on track. Astrid is a great app and I highly recommend it.

Manage your to-do list on Android, iOS, and Chrome with Any.DO

Any.DO started as an Android-only solution to the public’s to-do list blues, and it did a damn good job of cheering us up. As a result, Any.DO became a both popular and critically acclaimed app by tech blogs everywhere. Personally, I’ve been a regular user of Any.DO for the past six months or so and I appreciate its minimalistic approach to list-making.

The strength of Any.DO lies in its simplicity. Rather than overcomplicating a simple task manager with endless menus and options, the focus is placed on entering tasks under simple headings like Today, Tomorrow, This Week, or Later.  The app is definitely gorgeous with bold typography and basic colour schemes, and though the Android version is clean and free of cheesy effects, the iOS app is (nauseatingly) made to look like crumpled paper.

It appears that the designers took some inspiration from Windows Phone, but you won’t hear me complaining about borrowing a few aesthetics from the most beautiful software ever. The app displays black text on a white background by default, but a dark theme allows you to reverse the coloration. Above all, it’s clean.

And if you’re in the market for a new task manager there’s never been a better time to pick up this app, especially now that it syncs across all the major platforms (only Windows Phone 7 is missing). Syncing is automatic once you register with the service or choose to sign up via Facebook.

The iOS App

iOS Any.DO - Home in Landscape
Any.DO on iOS in Landscape

Additional gesture-based controls have been implemented in the iOS version: drag down from the top of the screen to enter a new task (hold down after dragging to enter an item with your voice) and swipe right to cross out a completed task. Additionally, when entering an item for your list the app attempts to predict what you’re trying to type. It’s moderately useful at times — finishing “Buy” with “milk and bread” saves a bit of time) — and when the app adds a handy phone button beside names that exist in your address book.

Tapping on a task brings up a menu that allows you to set it to a higher priority, move it to a specific folder, assign a due date or note, or share it with friends. You can also drag items around to reorder and prioritize certain tasks over others, much like in the Android app. The iOS version takes better advantage of screen real estate than its Android counterpart, however, displaying a calendar alongside your task list when the device is in landscape mode. But with luck, this feature will appear on Android soon.

The Chrome App

Any.DO Chrome - Web Browsing
Any.DO while browsing in Chrome.

Of course, given its home on conventional desktops and laptops, the Any.DO Chrome app lacks the gesture-based controls of its mobile brethren. But the aesthetic remains consistent, though you’re unable to change the color scheme from the default white. Check marks are used to indicate completed tasks instead of swiping, but can still be reorganized by clicking and dragging. The app opens from an icon to the right of the address bar and drops down over your current browsing session — no need to open a new tab or window. But the option to pop Any.DO out into its own window is there for those of you who’d prefer.

Conclusion

As a light user of task-based apps, Any.DO is the one and only solution to my needs. The new Chrome and iOS apps mean I can finally sync lists across my Nexus S, iPad, and MacBook Pro (running Mac OSX and Windows 8 Release Preview).

The fact remains, however, that if you’re a heavy user the lists can get a bit cumbersome. Most items end up lumped into the Today category if they don’t have a due date so lists can get out of hand if you don’t pay attention. I still think it’s worth a try for anyone in need of a new task manager since it’s free and using folders may lessen the organizational load. If you do try it out, let us know what you think.

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How to insert frequently written text on a Mac with TypeIt4Me

Like many people, I find myself having to type the same bits of text many times throughout my working week.

Various applications already have ways of reducing the labor involved in this. For example, email clients have auto-signatures and word processors have automatic text facilities.

The Mac OS X operating system itself is strong when it comes to automation. AppleScript and the sophisticated Automator utility help many power-users accomplish frequently repeated tasks more efficiently. However, none of the inbuilt features of OS X or my installed applications did exactly what I needed – so I went on the hunt for a suitable solution.

Enter TypeIt4Me, a simple utility from Ettore software. TypeIt4Me allows you to input all your frequently used phrases and chunks of text and assign a short text string to each of them. The program runs in the background and places a small icon in the OS X menu bar. All you have to do is type your chosen string in ANY application and your chunk of text appears, as it you have typed it yourself.

Having used the product for a few months, I have around 20 frequently used blocks of text configured. While this may not sound like a lot, each is something I need to type many times throughout a typical day. For example, a series of three character shortcuts instantly type the full URLs of each website I work on. Given that I probably comment on 20-odd forum threads each day and need to include a URL, that’s already plenty of typing saved.

TypeIt4Me has a Comprehensive Set of Options
TypeIt4Me has a Comprehensive Set of Options

As a freelancer, I often have to apply for jobs. When I sign off an email or online application, I now need only type “ihope” and the utility writes “I hope my application is of interest to you and look forward to hearing from you soon.” I certainly don’t miss typing that several times per week! I also have entries for various sign-offs such as “many thanks,” “best wishes, “ and “kind regards.”

TypeIt4Me includes comprehensive options to assign hotkeys, control exactly how text snippets are used and even to change the behavior of the text macros within different applications. So far, my chunks of text appear happily regardless of what application I am using, the only exception being when I am using my Windows virtual machine. While I would like them to work within that environment, I can imagine the technical challenge involved so don’t expect to see this feature any time soon.

As I said in my write-up of Evernote, I am a cynical techie who isn’t impressed with bells and whistles. I judge applications purely on whether they help me better achieve my day-to-day work. TypeIt4Me scores highly on this basis and I wouldn’t want to be without it. If you frequently need to type the same text across a range of programs, it’s an essential purchase.

How Evernote Changed My Life

Evernote has been around a while now, and is a seemingly permanent fixture on the ubiquitous “must have apps” lists that fill technical websites and computer magazines.

Evernote is, however, far from being something just for the nerds. Heavy exposure everywhere from Time magazine to the New York Times has led to it being one of the most consistently popular apps for iOS and Android. There’s therefore a chance you’re using it already. If not, I’m going to tell you why you should.

Despite the hype, I was uninspired by the idea of Evernote to start with. I’m a cynical kind of techie. I have to spend my life not only using tech, but also helping those less technical use it. My interest in anything new and / or popular is less about what it can DO, and more about whether my clients or I will actually consistently use it.

I thought about all the ways I already had to take notes – Mac Mail, Microsoft Outlook, my iPhone’s native notes app, Microsoft OneNote, Wunderlist, my expensive Moleskine notebook. All of these are things I have used at some point with good intentions. All of them also now linger somewhere in my life with a few long-forgotten lists or notes living within. When I want to write a shopping list, I pull a sheet of paper out of my printer. The prospects for my long-term use of Evernote were not great.

OneNote - Forgotten in My Life
OneNote - Forgotten in My Life

However, Evernote’s killer feature is its synchronization. Even the free version allows syncing of a generous quantity of notes, Internet page grabs and camera snapshots across ALL devices: PCs, Macs, iDevices and Androids.

My time with Evernote started much the same as my time with Microsoft’s OneNote. “Right,” I thought, “first off, I’ll start a section for all my blogs and projects, then one for shopping lists and recipes.” I filled a few things in, in my heart thinking that a week down the line I wouldn’t be using it.

Then, however, the next day, I was sitting at a café near my home, and a flood of blog ideas came to mind. Straight away, my iPhone was out of my pocket. I went directly to the relevant lists and added the ideas. I decided to commit to this for a few more days, and suddenly, I had a better list of topics than I had in ages – and it was a click or a tap away wherever I happened to be.

At this point I started to think that Evernote may actually be a keeper, and decided to play around a bit more.

A new takeaway restaurant opened in my town. Wanting to show my wife the menu and suggest we tried the establishment that evening, I walked up to it, clicked my iPhone’s camera and quickly uploaded it to Evernote. All my wife had to do was look on Evernote on my Mac at home, peruse the menu and let me know what she wanted.

Evernote Displaying a Takeaway Menu
Evernote Displaying a Takeaway Menu

This was the light bulb moment. “Hang on,” I thought, “how much easier will life be once I’ve taken a little picture of all the takeaway menus?” No longer will my wife have to call me from the doorstep of a Chinese takeaway read out the menu and see what I fancy. I’ll just have all of them in Evernote.

My Evernote is now filled, as it should be, with idea lists, brainstorms, shopping lists, recipes and, yes, a bunch of takeaway menus. As time goes on, I will be seeing how other Evernote features work their way into my life. Evernote has improved my life, even without text searching of photographed content and the ability to access notes via a browser (in the paid version).

As I said before, to me, software is not about what it can do, but whether I will consistently use it. Well, despite my initial reservations, I now use Evernote everyday – and that’s a win.

Simplify list making and note taking with WorkFlowy

WorkFlowy
I used WorkFlowy to outline this blog post

There’s another free productivity tool that harnesses the power of simplicity. WorkFlowy is probably the simplest, most powerful web app you will find. Basically it’s a list maker that can be used as a task organizer and project management tool.

To use it, just start typing. Automatically you’re creating a bullet point. Press “return” and you have a new bullet point under it. Press “tab” and that line becomes a bullet point and your original line becomes a heading. Keep pressing “return” to add more bullet points.

And that is the tutorial. Like I said. Simple. Of course there a few more features (not many) that make this incredibly useful for organizing thoughts, writing outlines and managing tasks. But there aren’t enough to complicate and ruin its elegance. Here’s what you can work with:

  • Notes: Add some subtext to each line
  • Expands/collapses easily: Each user only gets one page so the ability to collapse all the sublists and expand by clicking on a bullet makes the mass of text easier to read.
  • Complete: One click strikes through the line to indicate it’s completed. You also can choose to hide all the completed tasks.
  • Search: The search of your list(s) is incredibly fast. This is key to finding the notes you saved.
  • #hashtags: Using the # symbol turns the word into a linked tag that leads to a page with just the bullet points that have your #hashtag.
  • Daily email: You can get an email with all the changes you made the previous day. If you use it to plan your day, this becomes a nice reminder of what you need to do.
  • Export: This is a bit of a disappointment. It simply lets you copy the bullet points selected for export. Then paste the list into another document.
  • Share: You can share your lists with other WorkFlowy users if you’re looking for a simple project management tool
  • Mobile: This is just a page on your mobile browser. But the tool is so minimal it’s hard to imagine needing more on your phone.

Why I like using WorkFlowy

WorkFlowy is an incredibly easy tool that makes lists. As a writer, I use it  mainly to create outlines and organize notes. The collapsibility and search make it easy to navigate so I can find everything easily. It’s my first step whenever I brainstorm projects or writing assignments.

That said, there are a few things I would like to see added to its features. For example, I would love to add links and clip web pages from a bookmarklet. Think of it as a minimalist Evernote. I also would like to add bullet points or lists via email or text messaging. And not just text – photo and video clips would be handy.

Maybe those are features that will ruin the simplicity, which would be a shame. That simplicity is probably WorkFlowy’s best feature.

Use Bubbles and Your Android Phone to Create Memorable Phone Calls

In a world filled with short attention spans and thinning short-term memories, it can sometimes be difficult to remember to mentioning  important topics while making a phone call. Heck, give a person 30 minutes of phone conversation to wander, and their mind will stray further than the island of Lilliput (hint: it’s a fictitious location from a book).

Well I don’t know about you, but I’ve struggled enough with trying to remember what to say during my phone calls. To fix this, I’m switching to Bubbles.

Bubbles?

And what pray tell is Bubbles, you ask? Well, Bubbles (the full name for all you searchers out there is “Bubble – Pop Up Bubble Notes” in case one is lost in all the bubble popping games the market has to offer; otherwise use the official Android Market link is here) is an app that allows one to link important to-do’s and reminders (now in “bubble” form) to Google contacts so that phone calls can stay productive, memorable, and on-task. Here’s the lowdown.

From left to right: contacts, contacts with bubbles, and past contacts called

Once installed on your Android phone, Bubbles automatically grabs all your Google contacts and makes them available on the main screen. Once a few bubbles are created for contacts, they will show up here on the right side. If it makes more sense to filter one’s contacts by bubble reminders only, the second (and appropriately named) “bubblers” tab will do just that. And finally if one wants to see if they have been successfully following up on the bubble reminders, they can check their phone’s call log on the third tab.

Select a contact, create a bubble, and color it appropriately

To actually create a bubble, one must first select a contact and then hit the “add bubble” button in the bottom left. From here all it takes is a some text and a suitable bubble color, and the bubble reminder is created for the contact.

Now when one accesses the person’s contact card from the main menu, the bubble reminders will appear in order of creation date on their profile. But wait, there’s more:

I can't believe I forgot to forget his birthday...Good work, bubbles

This is where Bubbles takes personal reminders to the next level. Whenever one makes a phone call to a contact with an attached bubble reminder, the mentioned bubbles will appear on the phone call screen. That way before you start talking, you know exactly what you need to mention in the conversation. When, where, and how long the bubbles show up during phone calls can all be changed in the “Settings” menu.

Shouldn't I be popping the bubble instead of deleting it?

When done with a bubble reminder, deleting it is as easy as going into the contact’s profile again and hitting the “X” on the bubble in question.

Conclusion

Regardless if you always remember what to say or never get around to saying what you want to, Bubbles is a solid app that can help keep contacts in order and phone conversations on task. You’ll be so contact task-oriented, the only place you’ll use the word “wandering” is a Scrabble board.

How to maintain Inbox Zero and still read every email

Image credit Exper Giovanni Rubaltelli http://www.flickr.com/photos/exper/3116342820/My inbox is a sanctuary, a veritable digital zen garden. I have 0 unread messages, I’ve never declared email bankruptcy, and I do a fairly good job of replying to any email that needs my input. A series of small yellow stars decorate my inbox, denoting any messages that still require my action.

I’ve never really talked about my email practices with others before, so I was surprised when I found that others don’t always keep their inboxes as meticulously groomed as I do. Met with incredulity, I decided to take a look at the organizational mantras I had developed over many years of digital correspondence and see what methodologies allow me to maintain such an austere working environment.

I don’t receive a phenomenal amount of email – I’m sure that many of you deal with double or triple the messages I see – but between three email accounts (all managed through a single Gmail account, one of my favorite things about Google’s email service), I acquire anywhere between 30-100 legitimate, these-need-to-be-read messages per day. I greatly benefit from Gmail’s excellent spam detection, so nearly every message that reaches my inbox is something I was truly intended to receive.

The following guidelines have worked well for me, and have become increasingly important as my digital life continues to grow. A cluttered inbox is the sign of a cluttered mind, and I’m confident that by applying some basic organizational principles to your email can have a positive impact on your overall productivity.

Deal with important or unpleasant messages immediately

It has to start somewhere, It has to start sometime
What better place than here, what better time than now?

Rage Against the Machine, “Guerilla Radio”

Image credit Matthew C. Wright http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattwright/5814441346/My first recommendation is one of the basic foundations of dealing with any type of procrastination: take care of the nastiest jobs first, and get them done right away. Be a Now person. When you get an email that requires a response, even if it’s something you truly don’t want to deal with, attack it directly. You’ll have to do it eventually, and it will only get more unpleasant as it slowly descends through the abyss.

If you can’t deal with an important message right away, give it a star and come back to it as soon as you have some free time (more on this in Star emails, but make a clear distinction between “To Dos” and “Reference” emails below). If you ever find yourself descending into the “procrastination death spiral”, a term I lovingly coined for when you’ve put something off for so long you now feel too guilty to do it anymore, grit your teeth, apologize for the delay, and reply just as you would’ve in the first place.

This principle has an important caveat: you don’t want to be constantly dealing with emails all day and night. Real, genuine recreational time is incredibly important to your physical and mental well-being, so establish some ground rules for dealing with email. At work, maybe you can set aside 5 minutes out of every 30 where you focus exclusively on your inbox. At home, you could have two well-defined email sessions in an evening, and anything past 10pm can wait until morning.

Being a Now person will make you feel better, your “to do” list will shrink, and people will love that you’re the guy who responded to them promptly and will likely return the favor. Cue beams of golden sunlight, angels with heraldic trumpets, and rainbows shooting out of your well-maintained inbox.

Use Priority Inbox, but not because of the Priority feature

Action expresses priorities.

-Monahdas Gandhi

Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature is one of the single best tools in your organizational arsenal. This supercharged version of your standard inbox can automatically identify which emails require more attention than others, and through your careful instruction, it can learn to make better decisions over time. To enable Priority Inbox, go to your mail settings, click the Priority Inbox tab, then select Show Priority Inbox at the bottom.

While the automatic prioritization of emails might be useful for many of you, a secondary feature of Priority Inbox is what cements its usefulness for me: the ability to view starred messages in your main inbox, just below your priority messages. Starred messages are the focal points of my “getting things done” mentality, so looking at their yellow, five-pointed selves every time I open my inbox is the single best way to guarantee they’ll get dealt with.

Using Priority Inbox to view starred messages directly in your inbox.
Enable Priority Inbox? Check!

But, carelessly starring every email that requires your attention can also be a bad thing, so…

Star messages, but make a clear distinction between “To Dos” and “Reference” emails

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.

– Paul J. Meyer

Image credit Laura Fernanda Melo http://www.flickr.com/photos/44459555@N00/4144047837/Although I don’t recommend using your email inbox as your primary “to do” list (there are several other services that offer superior task management features and can integrate directly into your email), starring important messages is an excellent way to keep track of messages that require action on your part.

As mentioned in the Deal with important or unpleasant messages immediately principle, there will be times when you simply can’t reply to a message right away, or perhaps you need to take care of a few things before finishing the task. Messages like this should receive a star, and by using Priority Inbox you’ll see that message front-and-center each time you log into Gmail.

When using stars, it is very important to differentiate between “To Do” emails and “Reference” emails; failing to do so can cause you to be overwhelmed with starred messages that never seem to be resolved. Only star messages that have a clear task, objective, or require an action on your part. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if the task will be resolved by an action, it’s ok to star. If the task will be resolved on its own after a period of time, it should not be starred.

Rather than putting stars on reference emails, create a label in Gmail for them instead (these are essentially folders for those of you that are familiar with desktop email clients). Because Gmail now allows you to nest labels (create subfolders), you can easily divide up reference emails into multiple categories. I have three: Personal (schedules, important contact information, lists), Professional (work-related reference email), and Techerator (schedules, project plans, staffing information).

Nested Labels in Gmail for reference emails
Nested labels in Gmail for reference emails

If you’re really interested in taking your inbox organization to the next level, you can use Gmail’s superstars to visually distinguish between different types of important emails. This can help you prioritize tasks (for example: red stars for urgent priority, blue stars for low priority), but be careful not to go overboard with them. Adding a different star for every message could easy have an adverse affect on your organizational system, so use them with moderation.

Gmail superstars
Gmail superstars

Here’s a little practice for determining whether an email should be starred or labeled:

  • An RSVP for a friend’s upcoming wedding that you haven’t replied to – Star, it requires action
  • Directions for driving to the wedding – Label, this is reference material
  • A long but important email you didn’t have time to finish reading – Star, until you finish reading it
  • A long but important email that you’ve already read, but contains useful information – Label, you can come back to it later but there’s nothing to check off here
  • An invitation to a birthday party in three weeks – Calendar, this is neither reference nor something you can check off through immediate action
  • A list of presents you need to buy for the birthday party – Star, and maybe once finished you could add it to a reference label for future birthdays

Filter nothing, sort everything

For sure, the American people have access to more information now than any other people who have ever lived on earth. And I think we do a pretty good job of sorting out what’s important.

– Bob Schieffer

Melissa and Bryan Ripka http://www.flickr.com/photos/melissadion/3395829919/
I grew up admiring this type of organization used on the farm.

A lot of people maintain the illusion of a clean inbox by heavily filtering their messages. Filters allow you to pre-process messages before you even receive a new mail notification, but you should never create a filter that hides messages from your view.

For example, some people will create a “catch-all” rule that filters messages of a certain type and automatically marks them as read. This isn’t safe (and you’ll forget about it over time), which can easily result in a lot of legitimate messages going to the briny depths of your inbox without your knowledge.

Rather than hide messages, use Gmail’s great filtering system to automatically add labels to your email so you can quickly sort through them yourself. I’ve created sorting filters like “Social Networks” that automatically label messages from sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. While I still see these messages in my inbox, now that they’re labeled I can quickly mark them all as read after I’ve had a chance to confirm their importance (using Priority Inbox’s priority feature is especially useful in this scenario).

Conclusion

Staying on top of a busy inbox is not easy, especially since our inboxes now house personal correspondence, bills, social network notifications, information requests, To Dos – the list can go on for days.

If you’re currently overwhelmed by email and the elusive “inbox zero” seems to constantly evade your grasp, try following some of the principles I’ve presented in this article and see if it works for you. Be a Now person. And if you don’t receive a lot of email and therefore don’t have a messy inbox – start using these tips now! They’ll be invaluable as your email intake inevitably grows.

Image credit: Exper Giovanni Rubaltelli, Matthew C. Wright, Laura Fernanda Melo, Melissa and Bryan Ripka

Free Online Sites that Help You Get Organized

Since everything is online and available through our phones, USB flash drives and pens may as well be obsolete.  There are hundreds of online services nowadays available for free to help you productively organize, access, and share aspects your life.  Here are just a few that you may find useful:

Mint: Organize your finances

I’ve been using Mint for over two years now and they have by far surpassed any other personal finance software I’ve ever used.  Once you create an account, you can log in and enter the information for all of your accounts, including checking, savings, credit card, loan, and RSP accounts for almost any bank or financial institution.

Mint securely accesses and retrieves your balances and spending activity on all of your added accounts to help you review, analyze, and plan your spending. It will also notify you of when you are charged fees, and when you have payments due.

Box.net: Organize your documents

Box.net offers a service similar to Google Docs (and actually integrates with Google Apps as well) with some enhanced features such as mobile access, task management, data synchronization, and collaboration control.  While there are paid plans for businesses, it’s free for personal use.

Remember the Milk: Organize your to-do list

Forget something?  Try keeping your to-do list online with Remember the Milk, where you can create task lists and share them with others, sync them to your phone, or get IM or SMS reminders.

TripIt: Organize your travel plans

TripIt is known as an online virtual travel assistant.  When you book hotels, flights, or other travel accommodations online, simply forward your confirmation emails to TripIt and it will generate a master itinerary with everything you need for your trip. You can access the itinerary online or through your mobile device, and sent copies to others.

This mini-list is just the tip of the iceberg for the vast number of free services online that are available to help you organize your life.  Know of any more services you use in your day-to-day activities? Let us know in the comments section below (no rhyme intended)!