The Best To-do App is… Gmail?!

I’ve tried out tons of project management and to-do list apps over the years, and I could never stick to one of them for long. They all share the same problem: too much friction.

Here’s the typical workflow for any of these apps:

  1. Received a new email asking you to add a cover sheet to your TPS report
  2. Open the task management app or site
  3. Create a new task
  4. Type in or copy/paste the task

Even if your to-do app is already open, you’re still switching back and forth from email to app, loosing your focus each time. Basically, its a lot of extra hassle and wasted time for something that’s supposed to make you more productive.

New apps like Taskforce aim to solve the problem by integrating the to-do app directly in the Gmail window. But while that’s a great idea, my solution is even simpler: Gmail is the to-do app.

Let me show you how it all works.

1. Enable superstars

Superstars is a Gmail lab feature that enables extra indicators instead of just the standard yellow star.

You can find Gmail Labs by clicking on the Gmail settings icon

To enable Superstars, click the small settings icon in the upper right, choose “Labs”, and then search for “Superstars” and enable it.

2. Configure it

Pick two stars to use

Configuration is easy. With the plugin enabled, go to General > Settings, and scroll down to “Superstars”. Just pick two stars in the list, one to represent “reply” and one to represent “important”. Note: the “reply” star should probably be first.

3. Use it!

So what does that do? Well, nothing yet. But now you’re armed with all the tools you need to kick inbox butt, and solve your to-do problem at the same time.

Click the star!

A new email from your boss! And it’s super urgent! But don’t panic: just click the outlined star to set a star. Gmail will pick the first one of the series, and clicking again will cycle through all your stars.

The first star means “reply to this”. That’s all. Whenever any new email comes in, most of the time you’ll just set this star to remind you that it’s unreplied. Most people already do this by choosing to “keep unread” unreplied emails, but this technique is less than ideal, since there’s no way to distinguish between an email that has truly never been read and one that has been kept unread.

By using a star instead, you can also keep your inbox unread count to 0, which is less stressful. At the same time, Gmail still tells you how many starred (=actionable) emails you have (“1-X of X”, on the right side), it’s just not as visible so it’s less distracting.

4. The next level

So now you have a surefire way to know which emails need to be replied to. But that still doesn’t replace a to-do app, does it? Well, that’s where the second superstar comes in. Once you’ve replied to an email, if it still contains actionnable items just click the star again to set it to the exclamation point.

This means: "something needs to be done"

You now have two levels of “to-do-ness”. Things that need to be replied to, and things that need to be done. And you can see all your actionable items just by clicking “Starred” in Gmail’s left column.

Once a task is done, just click the exclamation point again to unset the star. That’s all there is to it.

5. Wrapping up

So here’s the new workflow in a nutshell:

  1. Received a new email asking you to add a cover sheet to your TPS report
  2. Set the “reply” (double arrow) star
  3. Reply
  4. Set the “to-do” (exclamation point) star

That’s it. No checkboxes, no priorities, no deadlines. Just two simple steps: reply to the email, and then do what it asked you to do.

 

About Me

I'm Sacha Greif, a web designer freelancing out of Paris, France. You can check out my portfolio, and of course you should follow me on Twitter.

18 Responses to “The Best To-do App is… Gmail?!”

  • Angie Bowen

    This is a very helpful and unique use of gmail and superstars. Using this method along with a useful tagging system seems like it would be a great productivity tool. I’m gong to have to give it a shot.

    2 Mar 4:17 am
    Reply
  • Dutch

    I read my e-mails in Mail app, so I don’t even visit gmail.com. Thus it’s useless for me and many others. I’ll stick with my iPhone app called ‘2Do’.

    2 Mar 8:14 am
    Reply
  • Steve

    I’m using Wunderlist.

    Great free iPad, iPhone, Mac to do app (cloud-sync)

    2 Mar 8:41 am
    Reply
  • javitxu

    I prefer this method:
    1.- Received a new email asking you to add a cover sheet to your TPS report
    2.-More actions>add to tasks.
    3- Use the arrows to sort the important emails in the conversation.
    4.- Use More actions>add to tasks to add further talks to a task. Move the new task under the parent task and press the Tab key.

    For me, the biggest problem of your system is that it does not allow you to group or order discussions. The Task is integrated with gmail and google calendar and you can use there are good apps for your smartphone.

    2 Mar 8:58 am
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Thanks for the tip, it’s true Gmail’s own task widget is a great solution too. But for simplicity and speed of use, my method can’t be beat!

      2 Mar 9:03 am
  • Stijn

    Great, didn’t know this one, I’ll give it a try.
    Any reason you’re not using Gmail Tasks ?

    2 Mar 9:04 am
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Well, since my inbox acts as a task manager, it motivates me to answer all emails and complete all tasks.

      If the tasks were in a separate list, they would be easier to ignore and might not get done as fast.

      Also, when doing a task I find that I often need to review the corresponding email anyway, so this saves a step.

      2 Mar 9:39 am
  • David

    Scheduling Apps Are The New To-Do Apps!

    2 Mar 1:49 pm
    Reply
  • Peder

    This method works if every task is based on an email. A lot of tasks – like “buy milk for office” – is not connected to your Gmail.

    2 Mar 3:05 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Yep, but I find work-related tasks are almost always email-based. And I’d rather not mix work and non-work tasks, so if I need to buy some milk I’ll use another tool (like Remember the Milk for example ;)

      3 Mar 12:31 am
  • Sarah

    Hi Sacha, thanks for the great article! I’m a fan of this method myself. Have you tried combining Superstars with any other labs? I like to also use Multiple Inboxes and Quick Links to quickly access some of my Superstars — for example, I use the query “has:red-bang” to find just those “things that need to be done” emails, and attach it either to a Quick Link or to a view in Multiple Inboxes.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    Sarah, The Gmail Team

    3 Mar 12:58 am
    Reply
  • Jose

    Hey Sacha, thanks for the tip. I started using this today and I already love this. It’s great when designers share tips for fellow designers :)

    4 May 9:06 am
    Reply
  • Reply
  • Chris

    Orchestra is a great app that let’s you forward your task required emails to it, and it automatically adds them to your to list and lets you collaborate with the sender if necessary.

    9 May 8:53 am
    Reply
  • Best To-Do List

    I’m with you and Sarah. Using Gmail as a to-do list makes all other To-Do’s redundant. Here’s some other tips to get more features:

    – Add four or five colored stars to the mix, and you can have priority levels, context markers (for a GTD type system), or even per-project system.

    – Use quick links to each star search, and you can see all your urgent, mid level, and sometimes/maybe items at a glance.

    – Set up multiple in-boxes (above the normal in boxes) so your most important tasks appear before your ‘loudest’ most recent.
    There are other tips, such as quick ways to add tasks via your browser or iPhone, that I’ve written in a tutorial for http://besttodolist.org

    Thanks for publicizing this very sane way of getting things done!

    10 Jun 1:45 pm
    Reply
  • Koleo

    :) Great remark!
    It was the same problem for me before. I just found Beesy. a perfect app to solve my probleme of organization. It generates a toDo list with the priority. It helps a lot during a meeting to take note and then to send minutes to all the people who attend. http://www.beesapps.com/beesy-ipad-to-do/

    12 Jun 3:33 pm
    Reply
  • Using Gmail as a To-Do System | Best To-Do List

    [...] Sacha Greif has a great introduction which explains how to set up superstars, and use them as a simple to-do list here. [...]

    22 Nov 4:11 am
    Reply
  • Paul

    What about on the iPad? Gmail’s app doesn’t support superstars.

    5 Dec 7:20 pm
    Reply

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