Lifehacking 101: One to-do list to rule 'em all
I think I’ve found the light at the end of the tunnel. Until the next tunnel, obviously ;-)
In my last article on the topic of time management, “I’m lazy, I have a checklist for everything”, I provided an overview of how I keep track of all the things that I do.
One thing I’ve been doing for at least three years is that I turned my Gmail inbox into a to-do list, using an inbox-zero approach. When I need to do something, I send a Gmail message to myself, setting up a simple rule/filter in Gmail that labels self-sent messages as
To-Do and mark them as read automatically. When the to-do is completed, I archive the mail message. If I need to add something (e.g., more context) to the to-do, I reply to the mail message (that is, I reply to myself). Easy peasy.
I was terrible at to-do lists, and the situation improved quite a lot. It’s far from optimal, though.
In the presented process, Slack was my Achilles’ heel. Turning Slack messages I needed to follow up on into to-do list items was cumbersome:
- Copy the Slack message link.
- Create a new email.
- Paste the link.
- Go back to Slack and copy the message text.
- Paste it in the mail body.
- Send the message to me.
Too much friction in creating a to-do list item.
As a workaround, I used the Slack saved items feature to keep track of things: if I needed to follow up on something in Slack, I saved the Slack message, and the saved items were my things to do. That lacked an important thing. There is no way to add context to what was saved. Not only that, the only way to mark an item as done is to unsave it. As soon as you do that, there is no way to undo the action and no easy way to find the message again (undo is now supported). Over time, I lost many messages. I needed to find a better solution.
Last year I started using Zapier to automatically turn a saved Slack message into an email in my inbox. And that was quite an improvement. It works amazingly well, and it’s cheap. I can use the free tier with the number of messages I save monthly.
Using my email inbox as a to-do list is also handy on devices. I can tap share on a webpage on my phone, select Gmail, add some text, and click send. Boom, it’s on my to-do list.
One could argue why not use one of the many excellent to-do list applications. For example, Todoist does an excellent job, is flexible, and is highly customizable. My problem is that it would leave me with multiple to-do lists in different places. I already have in my inbox, for example, emails I receive from customers or support tickets or notifications from Dropbox Paper. I don’t want to have to look in other places.
There are two main reasons:
- I have everything in one place, my Gmail inbox
- I have everything in two places, my work Gmail inbox, my personal Gmail inbox
Contradicting reasons, they seem! Somewhat :-)
One of the disadvantages of the many to-do list Apps is that they don’t have good multi-account support. One that comes with a good multi-account is Google Tasks, which also integrates very nicely with Gmail. However, I can’t see any advantage over what I’m doing today. I tried Tasks twice and returned to my trusted email twice.
Gmail and many other email systems come with excellent support for multiple accounts. That allows me to have a clear separation between personal and work to-dos, which is also a nice-to-have if, like me, you don’t have any work-related accounts on the phone or the tabled.
Let me give you an example of a tool that doesn’t come with a good enough separation of work and personal stuff and ends up being a source of frustration for me: GitHub Notifications (or the GitHub app for mobile devices). GitHub combines all issues and pull requests in a single place and provides little to no support to separate work-related things from personal ones, e.g., open source work. If one dedicates some time to open source activities during the weekend, they are also distracted by work-related issues and pull requests. Sure, I could be using two separate accounts, instead of one. The downside is that switching accounts requires logging off and logging in with a different one. Thanks, no, thanks.
Having everything in a single place is only the beginning. Now I need to get better at getting those to-dos done. So far, I’ve identified three types of to-dos:
- 5 to 10-minute-long things
- Long and complex tasks
- Back and forth type of interactions
“5 to 10-minute-long things” are perfect for a getting things done approach. As previously explained, I schedule most of the things I do in my calendar. Every day, I have a 30-minute “Inbox & TODOs” slot dedicated to handling my to-do lists and getting things done.
“Long and complex tasks” get a dedicated slot, or more than one, in my schedule. That happens on Fridays. I scroll through my to-dos, identify the long tasks and schedule them.
The “back-and-forth type of interaction” is my new Achilles’ heel. An example of back-and-forth is when I receive an email with a question, for example, a support case from a customer. In many cases, it’s clear that a response will lead to new questions prolonging the interaction. It’s not bad per se. But it’s incredibly hard, if impossible, to plan. One issue is that I don’t want them to wait too much, but at the same time, I cannot let those interactions take over my schedule. At the end of the week, it’s trivially easy to look back and realize that those types of interactions have sucked up all your time. I’m currently bad at managing these, and if you wrote me, you probably realized it yourself. I’m sorry, I’m working on it.
Having multiple to-do lists scattered in various places and handled by different tools was detrimental to my ability to get things done. Which tool we use is not that important. I think it’s crucial that the tool is one and that it comes with a clear separation of work and personal stuff.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash