Shouldn’t Unanswered E-mail, To Dos, and Calendar Entries Be a Single ‘Application’?

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I gave up on Getting Things Done methodologies when I realized that, by saying no to urgent but ultimately unimportant tasks, I could keep all my “to dos” in my head.

Or so I thought. I’ve discovered that I have a lot more “to do” lists than I realized. Here are some of them:

  1. My work “to do” list, which I keep in a Lotus Notes task list because it replicates to my Blackberry (though it often seems to be out of sync). Each item in this list has a clipped-together set of papers supporting it, which I carry around in my computer back-pack.
  2. My personal “to do” list, which I keep in various formats, including scraps of paper and the new Google task list which integrates with GMail.
  3. My blog “to do” list, which I keep in a separate GMail e-mail folder, because most of these “to dos” originate from e-mails (e.g. updates to blogroll and e-mail address book).
  4. My GMail personal e-mail inbox, which consists of (a) e-mails to which I have yet to respond and (b) e-mails which are actually “to dos”, and which should probably be with list 3, except that they are more urgent so I want to keep them in front of me.
  5. My “books to buy” list (handwritten, for when I’m in the bookstore).
  6. My “music to buy or download” list (handwritten, for when I’m in a CD store).
  7. My work Lotus Notes e-mail inbox, which consists of (a) e-mails to which I have yet to respond and (b) e-mails which are actually “to dos”, and which should probably be with list 1, except that the e-mail provides a lot of detail on what needs to be done, so I can’t be bothered to transcribe it to a “to do” list).
  8. My work Lotus Notes Calendar, which consists of both (a) scheduled work and (b) personal appointments (I gave up keeping two separate calendars, even though people at work now know when I’m playing poker and where I go on vacation), and occasionally (c) times I’ve “blocked out” for certain urgent or time-consuming “to dos”.
  9. Gmark Google Bookmark “to dos”consisting of (a) links to include in my next Links of Week, (b) links to pages I intend to read “when I have time” (i.e. never get around to these), (c) links to pages to add to my blogroll (actually belongs in list 3), and (d-e) links to books to buy and music to download (actually belong to lists 5 & 6).
  10. My blog post ideas “to do” list, which I usually keep in (a) Nvu (html) files with notes for future articles, but which sometimes I also keep in (b) a GMail e-mail folder if there’s an essential link or notes from a reader that provoked the idea.
  11. My “to read” hard copy piles, which consist of (a) one pile of articles and magazines in my computer backback (which I take to work), and (b) one stack of books and personal papers by my bed.
  12. My voice mail “inboxes”, for my work and home numbers.

Because my Lotus Notes stuff is behind the corporate firewall (and because this stuff replicates to my Blackberry, which my employer pays for), I continue to use Lotus Notes applications stuff (lists 1, 7 and 8) separate from my Gmail applications stuff (lists 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10b). I could manually forward all my Lotus Notes e-mails to my Gmail account (my employer won’t allow this automatically, for security reasons), and copy everything in my Lotus Notes Calendar to a Google Calendar that everyone could see, but this would probably take more time than it would save.

Looking at these 12 “to do” lists, they fall into five main content categories: messages to process (list 3, 4ab, 7ab, 10b, 12), tasks (list 1, 2, 5, 6, 8c, 9cde), appointments (list 8ab), drafts to write (list 9a, 10a), and readings (list 9b, 11). Is there some way to combine these into a single list where everything is visible in one place at one glance? Is this more trouble than it’s worth? What is/are the best application(s) to use to achieve this?

I keep procrastinating on doing anything about this, because when I was sick and not working 2 1/2 years ago, the problem disappeared, so I figured that, when I retire (in the not too distant future) I won’t have to worry about it as much. But I’ve decided that a bit of time management now could save me some anxiety and time in the future, so here are my thoughts on this so far:

  • Google now allows you to recharacterize an e-mail (list 3, 4ab, 10b) as a task (i.e. move it into list 2, with a link retained to the archived e-mail that you can refer to as necessary). GMail now also allows you to work offline (i.e. it keeps a sync’d copy of your last three months’ messages, and your task list, on your ‘home’ computer), though this is still in beta. And I can, awkwardly, access my GTasks from my Blackberry. So theoretically I could close lists 1, 3, 4ab and 10b into list 2. But, alas, GTasks cannot be tagged like GMails — all tasks show up in one huge unsortable, unindexable list. This isn’t going to help. Yes, I know there are add-ons to Gmail and other Task apps (I’ve tried Remember the Milk) but they don’t allow you to recharacterize an e-mail as a task, don’t work offline and aren’t accessible from my Blackberry.
  • I’ve considered using my Calendar as my all-in-one “to do” list, by slotting all my tasks, messages to process, drafts to write, and readings into open time slots on the Calendar. This has the additional advantage of actually forcing me to prioritize and set deadlines for these things. Unfortunately, as we all know, other (usually urgent unimportant) things come along that get done instead, so I would be spending hours rescheduling a lot of these “to dos” again and again. This already happens with my list 1 items, which have a scheduling option that appears on my Calendar and my Blackberry.
  • What I do right now is print out lists 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8 and keep them in a stack on top of list 11a. Each morning I scan these lists and asterisk which ones I intend to do that day. List 4 is constantly front-and-centre when I’m online, day and night. Lists 3, 9bc, 10b, and 11b, to be honest, almost never get looked at. Lists 9a and 10a get attention in the evening when I work on my blog. List 12 generally gets merged into list 1 regularly.
  • So it seems to me that what I’m looking for is something that integrates task lists (lists 1, 2, 5, 6, 8c, 9cde) together into one robust list, enables (but doesn’t mandate) calendaring of tasks, and allows messages (lists 3, 4ab, 7ab, 10b) to be recharacterized as tasks in this integrated list, with a link back to the pertinent message, which can then be removed from the inbox and archived. Tasks that are calendared (list 8c) would be highlighted in the task list. Net result — an empty inbox at the end of each day, and one integrated task list that, alongside your calendar, shows everything you have to do.
  • Getting Things Done application developer Eric Mack has developed such a tool, called eproductivity, but only for the Lotus Notes environment. It’s illustrated at the top of this post. Each message in your inbox can be moved to an existing project or action folder (task list entry) by dragging it to that folder in the right sidebar, or used to create a new project or action (task list entry) by dragging it to the appropriate icon in the left sidebar. Actions (one-off, or part of projects) in the task list that are assigned to specific dates and times are displayed in the Lotus Notes Calendar. Some of the eproductivity functionality is accessible on my Blackberry, though it’s not clear which parts. I suppose I could redirect all my GMail to Lotus Notes Mail to use this, but it seems a rather convoluted solution. 

So that’s where I stand now. I’m going to try out eproductivity. And I’m going to keep looking for something equivalent that works in the GMail environment. I’m stuck with Lotus Notes at work and I like GMail (because I can access it from any computer, and because it works with GTalk IM and other applications that I find much more useful than e-mail), so I’m not inclined to look at any applications that don’t build on one or the other. But I’m open-minded about it.

What works for you? Shouldn’t unanswered e-mails, “to dos” and calendar entries all be handled the same way, with a single application? How do you ‘work around’ the fact that they aren’t?

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11 Responses to Shouldn’t Unanswered E-mail, To Dos, and Calendar Entries Be a Single ‘Application’?

  1. Robert Gable says:

    This year, I have been using Mark Forster’s AutoFocus System. It’s more of a methodology than a tool and tries to inject intuition into what are fundamentally task lists. your content categories, I would say I use AutoFocus to manage tasks and drafts to write. I’m also recently started using it to track off-line readingi.e. books, magazines, newspapers and clippings. I point to gmail from AutoFocus for messages to process. I keep my calendar independently in Microsoft Outlook.To implement, I have an Excel spreadsheet at work and one at home, although I augment his quite simple system with some additional fields in the worksheet. to show due dates and a “must do” indicator. At its best, AutoFocus makes me more aware of everything what I want to do. I also procrastinate less e.g. taxes popped up on my list today and I just did them in a couple of hours rather than the norm of waiting until right before the due date next month in the US. I do struggle to dismiss (eliminate) ideas from the list that I realistically can’t or won’t do, so my lists are too long.

  2. prad says:

    you can try any of these open source solutions which generally try to handle things in a uniform fashion: thunderbird with the lightning extension, kontact, evolution or you can contemplate your ‘saying no’ idea further and read this:

  3. EJ says: for downloading music with save for later list rather than list for hard copy cds.

  4. Lisa deGruyter says:

    I use Thunderbird and Lightning, the Mozilla calendar application that plugs into it. Events, tasks, email, RSS feeds all display neatly on one screen and I can drag things from one area to another. The current weather and the forecast are unobtrusively handy in the lower left corner. Everything I do is organized essentially in my email application. Events and tasks can have documents or urls attached, so all the info I need is right there or a click away.My email is in two different Gmail accounts (mine and a shared family one)and some ISP accounts, but Thunderbird will handle any pop or imap account. Calendars live on a free ics server. I have a family calendar, a personal calendar, and a calendar just for tasks. I leave the email on the Gmail server, so I can see it from anywhere. There is also a web interface to the calendar server.I can drag an email to the calendar or task area on my email desktop to automatically create a task or a calendar entry as appropriate. (This puts the entire text of the email in the entry.) Any calendar item, task, or email can be tagged with multiple, user-set tags, and emails can also be flagged. Upcoming events and the task list can be displayed in a right-hand sidebar.The calendars can be accessed by anyone with the password, so my husband, children, and I can all read and update the family calendar. I can choose to display all entries from all calendars on one screen, or shut them off selectively. Entries are color-coded by calendar.Tasks can have start dates (they turn green once the start date has passed), due dates (they turn red after the due date has passed), reminders, and can recur. You can drag an event to the task list or vice versa to convert back and forth. Everything can be synced so you can work off-line, but I rarely do.Thunderbird also acts as an RSS reader, with the feeds displayed as email folders (you can display the summary or the whole web page, for blogs and such).

  5. MiGrant says:

    What you’re describing sounds a lot like Chandler. I’d definitely recommend taking a look if integration of tasks into a single list is your priority.

  6. I’ve tried everything! Right now I’m coming up to the end of a trial with Things ( It seems to be Mac only. So far there are many things to like but as with all ‘to do’ lists it takes too long to enter data. I find gmail helps me a lot with managing my ‘to do’ lists. I’m trying to live by the INBOX 0 rule. I open a message and decide 1) needs a reply (hit reply then save as draft, or reply right away if I can then archive) 2) needs action but no reply (star and archive) 3) keep it but no action (archive) and 4) get rid of it (trash or spam). So much of my work correspondence is through email so this system works fairly well. My ‘to do’ list becomes by draft and starred views. Sometimes I even send notes by email to myself so they end up starred and archived. My email then becomes my ‘to do’ list. It lacks the alarms and other reminders but I found that didn’t help me much anyway. I also have gmail on my blackberry so this all travels with me. It’s not perfect. Often I end up with so many starred items that they go off my radar. Maybe that’s a good thing! I’ll keep checking back here for ultimate solution.

  7. Phil says:

    I second autofocus, and an online application to implement it,

  8. garyion says:

    I am currently using ToDo List – It free, powerful, portable (you can run it off a USB key)I did some research on the software before investing time in organizing with it – the reviews have been very positive and I find it a great tool. looks really basic but it really is a great tool

  9. lowne says:

    Remember The Milk has some fairly powerful list creation/tagging/searching/calendaring features, and can live right besides GMail and somewhat integrate with it – there’s a Firefox extension for that. And there’s a mobile version, naturally.Still it’s not perfect; I can’t exactly pinpoint why.

  10. Emre Ozbek says:

    I was going to name Chandler as well… Based on what I read about it, it has roots back to Lotus Agenda, a discontinued Lotus personal info management tool.This idea was also something I was thinking about, as I am also on a corporate LN environment with a Blackberry attached to it. And in personal life, I am also on Gmail.I had played around with some LN development back in the day… Nothing fancy but I believe I have enough understanding to say that what you are describing (email, todo, calendar, and simple reference notes, all being in a single app) is possible, and fairly easy in LN environment. That said, most of it is already present in the form of the LN mailbox, which holds email, calendar and todos. However, there are separate “forms” for each of these. And for reference notes, there is the Jounral, which has its own form, in a whole separate database.

  11. Tony Bridge says:

    I still use Outlook 2007, which is synced with my Blackberry, and therefore my laptop when I ma on the road. I use a Hotmail a/c with Outlook Connector to backup my email, and XOBNI as a free utility to catalogue my Inbox and also keep track of potential FaceBook contacts. Because I hate typing (I am really slow), I use Dragon Naturally Speaking to compose and reply to longer emails. Even with my Kiwi Accent, Itis very fast and efficient.

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