Getting things done with Google Tasks

Someone recently asked me how I manage my to-do list, so I thought I’d write up the software that I use. Fundamentally I use Google Tasks as the backend, but with extensions and apps that improve on the basic functionality in Google Tasks.

Chrome

I use a couple different extensions for Chrome:
- Better Google Tasks is a great Chrome extension. Just click a button in Chrome and you have instant access to all your todo items. I like the extension so much that I donated some money to the author, Chris Wiegman. You can get the Better Google Tasks extension from the Chrome Store.

- I also noticed that on the New Tab page of Chrome, seeing thumbnails of my most visited sites (Techmeme, Hacker News, Nuzzel, Google News, etc.) every time I opened a new tab inevitably led me to click over to those sites. The result? I was wasting more time surfing than I wanted. The solution is a great Chrome extension called New Tab to Tasks. It changes Chrome’s new tab page to be your todo list. That way, I get a nice little signal every time I open a tab: “Hey, remember that you’re supposed to be working on stuff, not goofing off.” Thanks to Scott Graham for writing this Chrome extension.

Oh, and one last Chrome recommendation: if you don’t want *any* distractions on Chrome’s new tab page, consider installing Empty New Tab Page, which makes the Chrome new tab page completely blank.

Android

For Android, I use an app called Tasks. It costs $0.99, but there’s also a free version that starts showing ads after 10 days. I like the Tasks app for Android because it syncs with Google Tasks, has nice widgets, you can easily move tasks up and down, and you can indent tasks underneath each other. I only keep a few todo lists (Home, Work, Grocery, etc.), and to switch between lists you just swipe left or right. Tasks works great for me, but if you have tons of different todo lists then swiping between those lists might get old.

I can already imagine someone asking “Okay, but what about Google Keep?” I’m not opposed to Google Keep, but at this point I’ve found various third-party solutions that interoperate with Google Tasks and work well for me on Chrome and Android. Plus I already have my data in Google Tasks, so for the time being I like these solutions for Google Tasks.

30 day challenge: better email handling

Some relatives were visiting this past week, so my inbox has a triple digit backlog. That’s after aggressive pruning of mailing lists and so on. Nearly all of those emails mention me in a “to:” or “cc:” line and request a response. Some observations:

- roughly 40% of those emails are from the outside world (that is, not from colleagues at Google).
- only 5% of my emails are from people who are actually on my team.
- 3% of my current emails are about internal legal matters.
- 1% are from public relations folks.
- about 10-12% of those emails are about a couple recent internal projects that aren’t related to webspam but that I’m helping with.

My 30 day goal this month is to get to a better place with email. Heck, I might make “better email habits” an ongoing 30 day challenge until things are in a better place. Could I get to a healthier place in three months? Four months? I have no idea how long it will take, but email represents my largest source of work stress. When I’ve tracked my time in the past, it takes me about three hours a day to keep from falling behind on email. If my whole day is full of meetings, then I’m spending several hours at night to keep my head above water. Does anybody else tackle email on their vacation so it’s not as bad when they get back? Some of you do, right?

At 40% of my overall load, it’s clear to me that I have to do something different for emails from the outside world. For years I tried to answer everyone who emailed me. I’m going to have to go “lossy” and just let some of those emails drop.

I need to think about whether it makes sense to write a blog post like Chris Sacca did (which
Rick Klau recently surfaced) that tries to address the common things that people email about. Then again, Rand Fishkin did something like that at http://moz.com/rand/making-email-more-scalable/ and he reported that he ended up with “a bunch of very angry people” when he pointed them to a blog post.

So I’m not sure whether it’s better not to reply, or to write up a canned response or maybe a blog post or a flowchart that I can point people to. If you have tips that have worked for you to make email more manageable, let me know in the comments below.

Added, 9/25/2013: This has been a tough challenge. One tactic that has worked well for me is to put email away from Friday evening until Sunday evening. Then (since I’m a workaholic), I ask myself “If someone else were trying to relax this weekend, what would I recommend for them to do?” and I try to do that. As a result, I’ve read more books this month, which has been nice.

The other tactic is to allow myself to go lossy, which means not answering every email. A lot of emails require 5-15 minutes at a minimum to respond, so email becomes a todo list in which anyone can keep adding to the list. Treating any non-trivial email as if it’s a request for 10-15 minutes of my time has helped me figure out which emails I should respond to vs. not replying.

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