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Turning work emails into tasks

To turn an email into a task, just give your email a status (and/or a due date). There are two default statuses:

  • 'Action', which means "for me to do"
  • 'Waiting On' which means "I must wait on something else before I continue"

Note: ActiveInbox doesn't create separate tasks (which would duplicate the number of things you have to track). Instead, the email conversation becomes the task. Adding a status is effectively just adding intelligent post-it notes to your emails!

Some examples…

  • It's best to think of Statuses as post it notes on your desk. They are there to remind you about things which have to be followed up.
  • You might need to send a reply to someone, or add a quote, or answer a question in an email - you want to 'Action' it because it's urgent.
  • You might need more information before you can answer an email or you may need information from someone else (a price from a supplier or a timescale for a piece of equipment) before you can reply to an email so you mark it as 'Waiting On'.
  • You may have emails that come in that do need some reply but it's not urgent. You can mark those emails as 'Someday' if you add it as a status button (see above).

Adding to-do's and notes to an email

What you need to do with an email should be summarised in the To-do or Notes section.

Use To-Dos to instantly know what to do when you return to an email

This means that no matter how big the conversation gets, you don't need to scroll through it. Just look at the steps you have to take with one glance!

It also makes scanning emails in your ActiveInbox Task List easier (introduced below): rather than looking through out of date email subjects, ActiveInbox will show you the next To Do for each email.

Tip: You can re-order To-Do's by dragging them up and down.

Use Notes to have quick access to useful details

If the conversation has grown large, copy & pasted crucial nuggets of information into your notes for instant retrieval.

Or if you have related information in another system (e.g. you created an event in GCal based on this email), you can link to that information.

Tracking your tasks until they're done

To bring up the sidebar, click the cube in the bottom left.

  • The sidebar contains key views that you've pinned, and then links to more detailed sections (e.g. Tasks).
  • The 'Tasks' section of the sidebar contains all your emails with different due dates and statuses. If you click the arrow to the right of each item, you can pin it to the main sidebar view.
  • The 'Mail' section of the sidebar contains all your regular Gmail views (e.g. Inbox, Sent Items). Again, you can pin some of these to the main sidebar.

Tip: You can drag items in your main sidebar up and down to reorder them.

Knowing what to do next

ActiveInbox puts your next To Do below the email subject in your Task Lists and ActiveInbox folders. This makes it very easy to scan through actionable items, because you no longer need to try to decipher the out-of-date email subject!

You can also drag tasks up and down any lists to prioritise them, by putting the most important at the top. (You may need to set 'Sort By' to 'Rank' by clicking the menu in the top right).

Making sure people do what you've asked

When you mark an email with the Waiting On status, it's tracked in your Waiting On list.

This means that you can routinely go into your Waiting On list, and ping anyone who hasn't replied

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done, "You'll get a great feeling when you know that your Waiting On list is the complete inventory of everything you care about that other people are supposed to be doing".

How to mark things as Waiting On

  • The normal way is to click the status button in the email's task box, and select 'Waiting On'
  • You are reminded every time you send a reply to mark it as Waiting On
  • If someone at a meeting verbally promises to email or send you something, then click the 'Task' button in the top left, type in what you expect from them, CC them, and mark it with Waiting On and optionally, a Due Date.

Tips for setting Waiting On

  • You may also wish to add a To Do or a Note about what you're waiting on. This means next time you return to the email, you'll know exactly how to resume getting it done.
  • If you want to be reminded to chase them up in a few days, you can set a Due Date for the thing you're Waiting On. This means on the day it's due, it'll appear on your Today list (accessible from both the Review Bar at the top of Gmail, and directly above your Inbox items).

How to view things you're Waiting On

When a reply 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).

Once a week, or at the end of a day, select the Waiting On tab in your sidebar or top bar, and chase up anyone that hasn't responded.

Tips for viewing Waiting On:

  • In your Waiting On list, you can sort things you're Waiting On by person or project, just click 'Group By' from the menu in the top right.
  • You can prioritise things you're waiting on, by dragging them up or down the list.

Clear away tasks you've finished

Click the tick icon, and ActiveInbox will remove all statuses and due dates and archive it (a Gmail term to remove it from the inbox).

A task is never explicitly marked as 'done'. Instead, it either has a status/due-date (and is thus a task), or it doesn't (in which case ActiveInbox stops tracking it).

This is not only much more zen & elegant, it means that if someone else replies to an email you've decided is finished, and it ends up back in your inbox, it's not falsely labelled as 'Done'.

Tip: Urgent tasks appear above your inbox

To ensure you don't miss critical things (e.g. tasks due today), ActiveInbox shows them above the inbox.

We call this feature the Radar (it keeps urgent matters right under your nose!).

By default, ActiveInbox will show you all tasks due Today, or that are Overdue right above your Inbox so you don't forget them.

  • You can change what appears in the Radar by going into our Preferences and clicking 'Configure Radar'.
  • You can expand/collapse each Radar section using the arrow to the left of the title.

Tip: Only show critical items in your Radar, otherwise you risk becoming blind to it.

Note: Because ActiveInbox encourages Inbox Zero, it doesn't return emails due today to your inbox - having a dedicated Today list, that you can re-order to prioritise, is much more zen!

Tip: Adding tasks that did not start as an email

If any task comes through a channel other than an email, say at a meeting or on the phone, you can hook it into the ActiveInbox system and make sure you don't forget anything by sending yourself an email with the details you need.

ActiveInbox provides a shortcut for doing this: just click the 'Task' button next to the regular 'Compose' button.

Tip: It's useful to use action language for your subject if it's a task: e.g. "Finish report on product strategy".

Summary

You've learnt to turn emails into tasks, give the tasks a checklist of To Dos and a Note, and you've seen how to review your task lists within Gmail so that you can work effectively.

Next, learn how to use ActiveInbox to achieve Inbox Zero, so you can always feel confident that everything has been seen and is under control.