(This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure.)
Thanks to Sendtask for sponsoring this article!
Are you guilty of using your email inbox as a To Do list? You get sent a message that needs actioning, but right now you’ve got to dash to a meeting or deal with a query. And the email sits there until you decide to have an inbox clear out and realise you should have done something with it.
So how do you manage all the tasks? I asked some colleagues this, and they said: “Put them in Microsoft Project.”
The thing is, I don’t want to use a fully featured project management tool for all the small things. It’s too much overhead to create a task on my Gantt chart that says ‘Proofread document from Legal team’. Some of the tasks I want to keep track of might not be directly related to my project.
Plus, for what you are tracking, a full on project management solution might be an expensive option.
Here are 5 free options for staying on top of your email management and keeping tasks out of your inbox.
1. Use Sendtask for Email Management
Sendtask is an app I have discovered recently. It’s still in beta (as of December 2017 when I am writing this), and that means it is FREE to use!
What I like about Sendtask is that your colleagues don’t have to register for an account. It makes it really easy to use with suppliers or other third parties – the easier we can make it for other people, the more likely they are to get onboard with it. This is especially useful for short-term projects when you only need to involve someone for little while. Who wants to have to create a user account for one or two tasks?
As the tool is still in beta testing, it doesn’t have huge amounts of features, but frankly, you don’t need them. You can add comments and attachments to a task, follow tasks you are interested in, set reminders and tag tasks to stay organised. That’s about all I’d want to do anyway.
2. Use a Spreadsheet
Set up a spreadsheet with columns for the task number, date, description, owner, updates and a status (open, closed, on hold, cancelled etc). Streamline your inbox emails by copying tasks out of emails and paste them into the spreadsheet. Then delete the email from your inbox. You can also do this with meeting minutes and other notes so that everything is in the same place.
This gives you a simple spreadsheet To Do list that you can filter by person responsible, date, status or whatever you set up.
While I love my spreadsheet (and you can get a free copy of it here), I’m the first to say it’s limited. Apps like Sendtask provide a greater degree of structure and organisation. You are never going to get Excel to send you a reminder when a task is due or integrate with Slack.
I don’t let anyone else in my team update my spreadsheet. Occasionally, I will send out the file and ask people to email it back with their changes highlighted, but I will manually make those updates in the master file.
This is a major duplication of work and it would be far better if I could get other people to update their own task progress directly somehow, without disturbing the integrity or history of the spreadsheet. I think apps do this more effectively than task tracking in a spreadsheet, and yet I still rely on my trusty Excel files for some straightforward projects!
3. Use Chrome/Gmail Extensions for Email Organisation
There are (free) plugins and extensions for Chrome and Gmail that upgrade your webmail to email management software. These can create lists for you from tasks, convert an email into a To Do item in a Google doc and things like that.
However, this only works if you use Gmail as the backend email system for your company, which many people do not. I use Microsoft Outlook, and before that, Lotus Notes. Both of which I personally prefer to Gmail.
If you do use Gmail, take a look at the kind of browser extensions you can get. There are a lot. I am not a Gmail user so I’m not in a position to recommend any of them, but as they are free you can pick one to try, see how you get on with it and then switch to something else if it doesn’t work for you.
4. Use a Notebook
Let’s go old school! (And this is another To Do list management tool I use.)
I record the simple tasks in my notebook. It keeps the tasks in front of me all day, as I have the notebook open. Copy what you need to do from your email, then move the email out of your inbox.
Pro tip for notebook users: Write your To Do list in the back of your book. Use the last page. Add new things to the bottom, and when it gets too messy, tear out the page and use the next last page for a clean list.
I find that if I write my To Do list inside the book, and then take minutes, draw diagrams, scribble things to remember and whatever, within a day or so my To Do list is lost. I’m constantly turning pages back and forth to see what’s on it. When it’s at the back of my book, I can flick to it easily and quickly see how much more there is to do.
I like to get my notebooks from Paperchase. There is a branch at Victoria Station and I think it’s good to go into meetings with a smart notebook, but any notebook provided by your company’s stationery office will do.
5. Use Email…Smartly
OK, if you have to use email to manage tasks, here are some email management tips and tricks.
- Set up email folders so that you have somewhere to move your emails to once they are actioned.
- Book time in your diary each week for email management. Use the time to clear out and file emails that don’t need to be in your inbox.
- If you prefer, have a folder called ‘For Action’ or ‘Tasks’ and move emails that require action into there. I don’t do this because I know I would never look in the folder!
- Try to only touch an email once: either file it, delete it or take action right now on it.
- Don’t be afraid to delete! Often you only need to keep the most recent email in a chain, as the whole conversation is copied at the bottom. Unless your thread splits off and two (or more) separate conversations ensue, delete all the others. Just watch for messages with attachments and make sure these are saved before you delete them.
I have around 100 emails in my inbox at any one time, and I frequently try to get this number down with concentrated periods of email clear up. I don’t like using my inbox as a To Do list, but it has become a de facto one over time, especially with items where I am copied in and someone in my team is tasked with doing something. I want to check that it has been done, so I leave it in my inbox until I can follow up.
This works for me because my inbox only scrolls to about two screens. If I end up with more messages than my email management “system” can cope with.
Much that’s written about task management assumes you can easily migrate away from your inbox email and get everyone on the same tool. In my experience, that is extremely difficult to do, especially in teams where there is no project management culture, or where you are working cross-departments with colleagues who don’t have access to the same tools as you.
Whether you a managing projects or just trying to get your day job done, it’s important to have a system for dealing with tasks on email that works for you. Hopefully these suggestions will get you started on an email management approach that fits seamlessly into your working day.
This article was sponsored by Sendtask, but all opinions are my own.