Cult of Mac reader James Broccoli asks:
@mistercharlie Can you write something about how you use IFTTT, gmail and Mailbox as a todo manager, as mentioned in that Nitro article?
— James Broccoli (@broccoliboy21) August 28, 2013
My answer was “Sure!”
. And if you don’t like this post, make sure to address all your complaints to Mr. Broccoli.
First, a short bit of history, or why the hell am I futzing with this stuff when I could just use something like OmniFocus for my to-do list? The thing is, I was using OmniFocus, but I found it to be very slow when syncing, and it never seemed to make the the links I’d added to the notes field clickable; a major pain for someone whose work consists mainly of links.
I looked around for a task manager app that would work anywhere (iPhone, iPad, Mac) and that would let me mail in items so they could be added from anywhere.
I also wanted near-instant syncing, and to be able to defer events to future dates (great for embargoed press releases for instance).
Then it hit me: I was already using IFTTT to connect OmniFocus and the iOS app Mailbox, using it to automatically send certain tasks to OmniFocus via e-mail. What if I just cut out the middle man?
My setup is actually dead simple, and once running is both flexible and friction free. It’s also very robust, as it relies almost exclusively on e-mail. One note, for ease of reading: My to-do/task inbox is called OmniFocus, because it used to sync with that app. You’ll see it marked thusly in the screenshots, but in the text I’ll call it Omni, to save confusion with the app.
Here are the apps I use:
Mailbox is a Gmail-only app for iOS which turns your e-mail into a to-do list. With nothing but fast swipes and taps, you can file your messages, mark them for follow-up in the future (whereupon they disappear until the time/date you picked), mark then as “done” (message is archived) or “deleted” (message is deleted).
Mailbox uses its own special mailbox hierarchy to make this work, but these mailboxes exist in Gmail, too. This means that you can target them with the internet automator service IFTTT (which I have done in the past but don’t do now), and you can also view them in Gmail.
When I check my mail in the morning, I can flip through, discarding anything I don’t like and filing the rest where it needs to be. If it’s a mail worth writing a post about on CoM, I just swipe it into the Omni label, and I’m done. If it needs dealing with in the future, I can pick the date and move on, safe in the knowledge that it’ll pop up again when I need it.
I have a custom inbox set up in Gmail which shows me all my Omni tasks on the front page. I also have my Mac’s Mail app set with a shortcut to this inbox up in the toolbar (just drag a mailbox up to the bar to keep it there).
I also have a filter set up in Gmail to direct all mail sent to a certain sub-address into the Omni inbox. I’ve blanked out my address so y’all don’t fill it with junk, but you can see the rules I have set. The important part here is the “Apply label” bit. Mailbox keeps its own folders as subfolders under the “Mailbox” folder. To target this, you use this pattern:
Where “LabelName” is the name of your target Mailbox folder. I also have one for ToDo, used as a general to-do list.
You can trigger this filter by using a keyword in the e-mail subject line. I choose to use “plus” addressing, a mail feature that lets you add keywords in the actual e-mail address. Thus, if your e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org, then you could send mail to email@example.com and it would arrive in your regular e-mail inbox, ready to be targeted by filters. Note: not all e-mail providers support plus addressing.
One shortcoming I quickly discovered with this setup was that there was no way to just add a note to my Omni inbox. Almost as quickly I realized that I already had the perfect tool. Cc is the app which I use to jot down text. It’s in the dock of all my iDevices, and if I need to write something down I don’t even think before I launch Drafts. One of Drafts’ export options is e-mail, so I quickly configured an E-mail Action to send my drafts to my Omni inbox:
Seeing as I used to use Drafts as a fast way to add items to my OmnniFocus inbox, this method is ideal.
After checking my mail, I make a second cup of coffee, go back to bed and fire up Mr. Reader, my RSS app of choice (syncing via Feedly, if you want to know).
I have a custom sharing “service” set up to – you guessed it – send articles to my inbox. I just tap the sharing arrow, choose this action, and then – when the message has been composed, I hit “send.” Yes, I’d like to avoid that last button-press and have it send automatically, but it’s really no big deal.
It looks like this:
And here’s the code that goes into the body.
<a href "[URL]">[SOURCE]</a>
In this action the title of the mail is set to the title of the post, and the body gets a proper clickable link at the top to the source of the post. Then comes the full text of the post, and the URL again in case the top one isn’t clickable (some e-mail clients don’t like it).
The mail is sent as HTML, which means I get to see all the pictures and formatting from the original post, only without clogging up my Gmail account with countless images. In this sense it beats OmniFocus into the ground.
And that’s it. Using this setup I can add items to my to-do list from anywhere, as long as they can be e-mailed. I can make quick notes in Drafts, send in items from Safari, and even configure any number of automatic recipes using the magnificent IFTTT.
And no matter how these tasks are added, I can see them all in both my regular Gmail inbox, and in the Mailbox app on my iPhone and iPad. This last is my preferred way to organize as it not only lets me quickly process my other e-mail, it also lets me delete or archive the tasks I’ve completed, with one single swipe per task – not even a tap.
There are still a few gaps. I’d love a version of Mailbox for the desktop, for instance, so I could bump things to later dates and more easily mark tasks as done, but the keyboard shortcuts in both OS X Mail app and Gmail make this easy enough.
And there is some beauty in this setup, too. For instance, I can search on any and all of my to dos using Gmail’s search. Syncing is as close to instant as I’ll ever need, and — give the number of tools that work with Gmail it should be possible to extend this setup in almost any direction.
Finally, a note on using your e-mail as your task manager. The common advice is that you shouldn’t mix the two, but for me this setup is great precisely because it mixes the two. The important part is that the tasks are easily separated from the rest of my mail so they don;’t get lost. The other important part is that I reach “inbox zero” pretty much every time I check my mail, mostly thanks to everything having a clearly-defined place to live.
Try it, and let me know if you have any neat tricks to add. I’m not done tweaking yet…