So Happy Together: Task Apps and Email

Email smartphone

Email can easily get out of control for school leaders and anyone else who has a lot to deal with. Among the challenges email presents:

  • Anyone can email you
  • It’s easy for other people to create work for you
  • A single email can have several tasks embedded in it
  • The work that needs to be done to handle an email often isn’t stated very clearly
  • Emails are hard to organize in a useful way, so if you have more than a handful, you have little choice but to handle them in the order they showed up

The solution? Use a task app alongside your email app.

Task apps like Remember the Milk, Nozbe, ToDoist (my current favorite), and the dozens of others on the market can make a huge difference.

Old School: Outlook

We’ve known for a long time that we need to handle emails with task management in mind, and for more than a decade, Microsoft Outlook has included a task feature.

Drag an email to the Tasks bar in Outlook, and you’ll create a new task with the email attached. It’s not a bad system.

Unfortunately, in our newly mobile world, that’s not very helpful. I read 90% of my email on my phone first, and only open it on my computer if I need to.

The more I can handle it once and be done with it, the better, and that means I need a solution that works from my iPhone and iPad.

A New Approach for A Mobile World

It’s great to have apps for all the devices we use today, but what if some of those devices don’t give us full control?

What if you use a school computer that you can’t install software on? What if you use an iPhone, and 3rd-party apps can’t integrate with the email client?

Here’s my favorite feature of modern task apps like ToDoist: Email input.

Get an email, decide that it needs to go on your to-do list, and simply forward it to a special address that the app gives you.

The app’s servers will receive the email and put it in your task inbox. (And yes, your to-do list needs an inbox too!)

Even better, you can create a project and get a project-specific email address, so tasks can be forwarded straight into that project.

Where We Live

When we’re working at our computers—which, as school leaders, should only be a small part of the actual school day—where do we “live”?

For too many of us, it’s in our email inbox. Email will consume all of our time if we let it.

If instead we use a smart app like ToDoist to manage our tasks, email becomes simply a communication tool, and we can do the work in a better-designed task management environment.

What’s your favorite task app? How do you use it?

ToDoist Tutorials Coming Soon

This week, I’m filming a detailed set of tutorial videos on ToDoist for my GoingDigital series for members of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. If you’re a member of the Network, expect to receive the first videos later this week.

Fresh Produce or WIGATI Wack?

In the “olden days” a to-do list was something you wrote in your planner on a daily page. When the day was over, your tasks had better be done, or else you’d be recopying them to the next day.

The FranklinCovey planner I used in high school had a slightly better setup: the to-do list sheets went inside a plastic bookmark sleeve so you could just move the whole list to another day.

Today, using electronic tools to manage our tasks gives us another option: We can have some tasks tied to specific due dates, and others that are due WIGATI.

Wapiti

WIGATI? Nope, it’s not a member of the deer family or part of a 1992 Kris Kross song.

It’s just a humble acronym: Whenever I Get Around To It.

It’s an empowering concept, because it helps us realize that when we think of something often has no bearing on when it needs to be done.

Some of my great ideas from January needed to be acted on immediately. If I didn’t act on them then, they’re irrelevant now. Fresh fruit needs to be eaten immediately, or it’ll spoil.

Other ideas are just as useful in July, when I might actually have time to spend on them. These “canned goods” can go on our WIGATI list.

The key? Know the difference. Keep track of real due dates, as well as self-imposed “fish or cut bait” due dates for opportunities that will pass if you fail to act on them.

For everything else? WIGATI is just fine.

Managing To-Do Lists

How do you keep track of your tasks? Do you have a to-do list, a random collection of sticky notes, a journal, or a more complex system?

If you keep a to-do list, a common problem is that the list gets too long, and it becomes harder to sort through it. When you reach this point, do you break it into multiple lists, and if so, on the basis of what criteria?

photo by Flickr user koalazymonkeyDavid Allen, in his bestselling book Getting Things Done, recommends collecting tasks on a “next actions” list, and only splitting it into separate project when you actually have multi-step projects.

I find it tempting to subdivide my lists by topic, even when a set of tasks isn’t actually a project – for example, when I have a number of tasks that are all about staff evaluations, but are in fact discrete tasks rather than a coordinated project in the sense that, say, planning a trip is a project. This isn’t a good idea.

The problem with creating too many lists is that they create too many places in which your tasks can hide.

How do you keep your tasks organized and visible, so you can keep track of them and make sure you complete them?

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