March 25 by Tom Lee
In theory, email should make our lives a whole lot easier, and in many ways it does. For example, if you wanted to get some stationery printed off back in the mid-90s, you had to save the designs to a Zip disk (remember them?), take it round to the print shop, and explain your printing instructions to the clerk, whereas nowadays you can just email the designs and instructions across in an instant. But for every hour that email saves you in this type of situation, you can comfortably expect to waste five sweating over the wording of important messages, sorting through spam, and generally drowning in a sea of unanswered emails.
The time-swallowing nature of emails hasn’t gone unnoticed by the productivity gurus of this world. Perhaps the most influential of these, certainly in terms of email management, is a chap called Merlin Mann, father of the ruthless Inbox Zero manifesto. Despite sounding like the most boring action film ever made, Inbox Zero is a pretty solid set of rules for reducing the amount of time and mind-space that emails take up. It covers everything from keeping your inbox under control with filters to writing shorter emails that are easier to deal with. While the idea of an hour-long anti-timewasting video may seem like an oxymoron, it really is packed with some great advice that will save you a lot more than an hour in the long run.
Alternatively, you could take a look at a few of the articles on his 43 Folders blog, which plough much the same furrow. Most of the ideas espoused by Mann can be applied to almost any email set-up, but some email services are better suited to this than others.
In particular, Google’s Gmail service gets a lot of love from the task-management mandarins of this world, and with good reason. For starters, the search function is easily the fastest and most comprehensive around – it is what Google are known for, after all. This severely reduces the need for organising all your messages into loads of different folders and labels that need to be individually checked, as you can always find the messages you are looking for in an instant.
Another major advantage of Gmail is that you can install add-ons to make your life easier. One of the most useful of these is a little tool called Boomerang, a free app for scheduling emails and setting reminders. With Boomerang, you can choose when you send emails, so if you want to reach somebody first thing in the morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to send an email over the next day – just write it the day before and schedule it to send at 9am the following day. You can also set it to remind you about the email if it doesn’t get a response within a certain amount of time. The beauty of this service is that it enables you to send emails and immediately forget about them, safe in the knowledge that Boomerang won’t.
Up until recently, support for Gmail on iPhones was fairly limited. Although you can get a Gmail app for the iPhone, it (of course) isn’t anywhere near as good as the one that Google made for their own Android OS. However, the Gmail/Android honeymoon officially ended with the release of Mailbox for iOS. Basically, if Inbox Zero was an app, it would be Mailbox. Using intuitive gesture controls, you can sort your messages into folders and add labels in an instant, making it easier than ever to keep your inbox for messages that require your immediate attention. You can also time the messages to re-appear in your inbox when you need to be reminded of them, which means you can put them out of your mind until then. Even the push email service, which alerts you when a message has arrived, is quicker than Apple’s own native service.
The catch? Well, it only works with Gmail, and there are no immediate plans to make it compatible with other email services. Also, despite the fact that it seems to have been made exclusively for Google’s email service, there is no sign of an Android version yet – the best that Google Play can offer at the time of writing is a sort of electronic petition to get Mailbox ported to the Android platform, which definitely falls into the chocolate teapot category of app usefulness. It’s surely only a matter of time before the Android version appears, but until then, iPhone users have yet another reason to feel a little bit smug.
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