The inbox is a transient place; emails come and emails go, intermittently demanding all of your attention and interrupting your day.
As a project manager, my working life revolves around this ever-changing environment that consistently churns out pieces of sporadic data. I get an email, I read it, then I action it (most of the time… some of the time… I try?). Sometimes an email needs to be turned into a task in Asana or a ticket in Pivotal Tracker, maybe it requires an iCal reminder or maybe all I need to do is type a reply.
The inbox is hell
Like most project managers or people who deal with lots of emails, I had some pretty common problems:
- More often than not, I was losing track of email threads and getting pulled away from the computer to come back to the screen and forget all about replying to that email.
- Another headache came from the old chestnut of clients forgetting to ‘Reply All’ and getting conversations about various projects caught up in infinite threads going back to the dawn of time… Where is it? What was it about? Why is my brain spinning?
- Once I’d replied to an email, that email disappeared in to the ether and if the client didn’t get back to me, it was easy for that inquiry, task or action to just never, ever happen.
There have been many articles written on various ways to deal with email hell. Some people like to zero their inboxes at regular points. Some people prefer to engage as many third-party tools as possible to filter communications via non-email pathways.
Personally, ActiveInbox has been a lifesaver. If you work with Gmail in the browser, this Chrome extension is a keeper. This little project management secret I was shown when I first started working at Godel has genuinely changed my relationship with my inbox. I have less anxiety about the influx of emails strangling my conscience on a Monday morning, and I can monitor projects and timelines with ease knowing I’ll never miss an email beat.
Activate your Gmail inbox
How ActiveInbox works is that it essentially turns emails into tasks and presents the actionable items at the top of your inbox where they’re constantly visible. Your important tasks stay in your attention radar until you remove the !Action label and the email returns to the inconceivable pile, most likely never to be seen again.
It uses the GTD (Getting Things Done) time management method, which basically uses the idea that if you move tasks out of your mind and break them down in to actionable tasks, you spend less time trying to recall them and more time doing them.
The right side bar tells you the status of your emails, and allows you to sort or group emails
It’s good to not always feel like you’re in high demand, especially if it turns out that you’re the one waiting on a client or colleague to get back to you. Once you’ve sent an email you know is pending a response before any further action needs to take place, you can mark this for the waiting list and not worry about it for a few days. Instead of digging through your sent folder to find that email you sent that you forgot about, your waiting on emails are given their own section in your inbox so you can quickly audit your blocked tasks. The pressure is off you till you realise it’s time to chase that person up again!
The waiting on label essentially acts as a ‘blocked’ status while you wait and you don’t have to do anything until:
- A reply from this person appears in your inbox. You can do what needs to be done, and either update the status to be an Action for you to do, or finish it (by removing the status and a sigh of relief).
- Once a week (or as frequently as you like), when you go into your waiting on list and chase up anyone that hasn’t responded. You can also group things you’re waiting on by person or project by adding additional tags.
Two simple options to choose from – ‘Action’ and ‘Waiting on’ and the ability to add a ‘To Do’ list or note.
Another bonus of ActiveInbox is that if it’s time critical, you can set a due date for the thing you’re waiting on. This means on the day its due, it’ll appear on your today list and instantly become top of your inbox priorities – it’s like getting the email a second time. So when I tell a client I’ll check in with them next week about the progress on their designs, ActiveInbox actually has the decency to remind me on the day I promised, which saves me from having to make a calendar reminder (or failing to make a calendar reminder) to do it. You’ll always be one step ahead, with your tasks and priorities organised by a piece of software – rather than your (only human) memory.
Check the calendar for any emails that require action this week and review what outstanding tasks you have. You can also sync all your tasks to your real calendar to get an overview of your work, or export time specific tasks to a calendar event with one button.
To do lists
One of my favourite things to do is tick off my ‘To Do’ list. Because I am old school, and for other reasons unknown to me and my colleagues, I still keep a book of lined paper with me at all times, where I write down various notes from conversations and create my extreme low-tech to do list.
When I write down a task that I need to complete, I literally draw a small box next to the task and harbour some satisfaction from putting a big fat tick in that box. Writing down the task in the first place helps me remember it, but it also gives me some comfort to know that it is somewhere other than in my brain.
Most project management tools are some form of To do list, with various levels of bells and whistles attached. ActiveInbox lets you turn your emails in to a to do list – so when you come back to that email you can view what needs to happen next. Your email is quickly converted from a wall of text in to a set of actionable tasks – which I like to think works really well for a project manager.
Even though we have other systems that manage tasks, ActiveInbox works as a tool for project managers (or people with lots of emails) because the tasks on my list are largely to do with communication, assets, client relationships or other low-level tasks. Once something becomes a task for a developer, designer, or even for documentation, it’s moved out of my ActiveInbox and in to a shared task management tool.
Reminders & “better replies”
As you can see, ActiveInbox is like a loyal friend who makes sure you do things when you say you will and helps you respond to the emails by showing you other emails and tasks associated with the contact. This naturally improves communication with colleagues and clients because all the necessary information that ever was in email form is right at your fingertip, neatly summarised and automatically brought to your attention at exactly the right moment.
Inbox zero alternatives
For me personally, the emphasis isn’t so much on clearing out your inbox altogether. In traditional Inbox zero you would delete an email once it has been actioned. By using ActiveInbox I find it easier to read and action all my emails, rather than archive or delete them. Essentially once I’ve turned them in to a task or given them a date with ActiveInbox, I don’t consider them dead weight emails anymore – and they no longer play on my mind. Even if you don’t prefer to get to inbox zero, ActiveInbox can help you at least achieve inbox sanity. Maybe one day I’ll jump on inbox zero’s bandwagon – ActiveInbox certainly advocate it, and they’re pretty good at this stuff!
Have you installed it as a Chrome add-on yet? Because if you haven’t, you’re missing out on some serious organisational, stress free business.
In a nutshell, ActiveInbox gives you back control of your inbox. No more neglected or rogue emails getting lost in the ether or that nagging consciousness telling you there’s a deadline impending. I can now see my inbox as a bunch of goals rather than millions (well, maybe hundreds) of exasperating pieces of information. ActiveInbox turns integral discussions and plans in writing into organisable, actionable motion. You’ll always be one step ahead of the guy who doesn’t have ActiveInbox, that’s for sure.
BAM! And the inbox monster has gone!