I finally figured out my plan for email, to-do’s, note-taking, and the cloud

by Jeff Hilimire on April 19, 2012

I don’t know about you, but I’m always trying to figure out the optimal way to use all the digital services/platforms available to me. And I’ve really struggled over time with how to use email effectively, how to keep track of my to-do list, where and how I should take and store notes, and how to effectively use the cloud in the middle of all of that.

But I finally cracked the code, with a lot of help from my bro-in-law.

Let’s start with email. I’m a big zero inbox guy (which basically means, try to get your inbox down to zero). I think we’ve forgotten that email isn’t meant to be a place to store information, nor is it meant (or built properly) to be an effective task management tool. Email is meant to be a way to communicate with people.  So that’s how I’m using email now.

For task management (to-do’s), I’m using Omnifocus. I have the desktop app, the iPad app and the iPhone app. They all sync up so I can make edits and check things off. As soon as something comes up that I need to do, I quickly add it to Omnifocus and slap a due date on it. It’s a phenomenal task management tool, albeit a little pricy.

For note-taking, no surprise that I use Evernote. I’ve written a lot about my love for Evernote on this blog, but I’m recommitting myself to it. I store EVERYTHING in Evernote now. I take a photo of my receipts with the Evernote iPhone app. Also I use the Premium version of Evernote ($5/month), which gives you a ton of benefits including offline notebooks, pdf searching and 1GB of uploads a month.

For cloud storage I decided to use Dropbox to its fullest – I signed up for the Pro 50 plan which is $9.99/month and gives you 50 gigs of space. Here’s my Dropbox affiliate link if you want to try it out. Dropbox syncs with my mac, my iPad and my iPhone. I’m putting all my documents and presentations there. iCloud is great for syncing things like contacts and photos, but its not really a good file storage service. Dropbox is by far the best.

The key is to effectivly route stuff from the inbox to the appropriate place. My goal each day is to get my email inbox just about empty. And I now check Omnifocus and Evernote just as much as I check email. THAT was a big change for me. We all check email like a million times a day, but now that I’ve moved to this process I check email less and the other services frequently.

Why not just use email for to-do’s and storing information? 

Email isn’t as effective a tool for task management as something like Omnifocus. I, like many of you, used email as my to-do list, but the problem comes when your inbox gets loaded up and suddenly you can quickly lose sight of the important action items you need to get done. Plus I haven’t found a great way to assign due dates for tasks within email. And many of us use multiple email clients, which would mean multiple to-do lists. Aggregating all of this into a professional task management tool has made me much more productive.

As for storing information in email, I much prefer a tool like Evernote. Over time, we all switch jobs and have to switch email accounts, so you run the risk of losing all of the important data stored in an email account either because you can’t port it to your new one, or not all of the information ports properly. Plus, by taking notes in Evernote (which you’d never do in email) and then also putting important information from email into Evernote, I now have one place where all my important content resides. I do still save information in folders in email, but anything important I throw into Evernote so its there, well, forever.

A few examples

– If I get an email with something that someone wants me to read, I put it into Omnifocus with a due date of when I should read it, and I attach either the link or the content to the task. If its something I just hope to read one day, I send it to Instapaper. More on how and why I use Instapaper.

– If I get an email that requires a response, like, “What do you think of this?”, I either reply to it immediately or I flag it in my inbox. The only things that “stay” in my inbox are things I need to reply to simply to give a response/decision/opinion. The longest something should ever stay in my inbox is a few days. If its a longer term response, like, “In May, I’d love to know how you felt this initiative worked”, I’ll put that into Omnifocus with a due date to email the person with my response.

– If I get details on a project or initiative that I just want to store, I throw it into Evernote in the appropriate notebook.

– If I get a Powerpoint that I need to edit, I save it in my Dropbox folder and make the edits, and send it off. This way it is available from any of my devices if I need to make further edits. Also, if there are large files I need to “send” to someone, I simply create a folder in Dropbox and share that folder with the person. This allows them to download it when they want and doesn’t clog up email with huge files.

You can probably substitute another task management tool with Omnifocus, and the same for Evernote and Dropbox, those just happen to be the ones I’ve landed on. And I’ve tried A LOT of other tools along the way.

  • http://twitter.com/greghorowitz Greg Horowitz

    Any suggestions for on Omnifocus alternative that’s a) a little bit cheaper, and b) works on Windows? I’m a lot less willing to shell out $79 if I can’t even use it on my work computer.

  • http://twitter.com/GumboShowJoe Joe Koufman
  • http://www.jeffhilimire.com Jeff Hilimire

    Ah, shame on me for not realizing that Omnifocus is mac-only. I agree, for the price its definitely not worth it if you can’t use it on your computer. 

    For something very clean and simple, I used to use http://teuxdeux.com/.  You should check that one out.

    RTM (http://www.rememberthemilk.com/) is also one a lot of people like and I used it before and thought it was pretty good.  

    Let me know if you land on something…

  • http://www.brainwads.net/drewhawkins Drew Hawkins

    I have actually taken a more analog approach to keeping track of things. I got an Action Notebook from Behance and just keep track of my tasks on the go handwriting. I think just for me, there’s something about muscle memory of having to physically write something down that helps. Although I really love Evernote and Dropbox. 

  • http://twitter.com/greghorowitz Greg Horowitz

    But Omnifocus is more than just a to-do list, right? (Hell, for $79, it better be!) For simple to-dos, I’ve found Wunderlist to be pretty good — completely free, clean interface, syncs across multiple platforms. 

    How are TeuxDeux and RTM with setting alarms for your to-dos? I’ve played around with them in the past and don’t think they had that feature, though they may have added it since. Wunderlist is OK on that front — you can add reminders on iOS, but not, oddly enough, on the Web/desktop interfaces.

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  • Preeti Juneja

    my friend, try TaskTrek (www.tasktrek.in). You will not need stand alone softwares and can possible do everything from a single window. write to me, incase you are interested to know more.

  • http://www.gabrielponzanelli.com/ Gabriel Ponzanelli

    I use OF and EN in a similar way to you. The one thing that I do is paste the link to the EN note to the OF task. That way, when I’m in OF going through my task list, the reference is a click away.

    I wrote about it here if anyone is interested.

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