E-mail programs should be time-management programs

For many of us, E-mail has become our most fundamental tool. It is not just the way we communicate with friends and colleagues, it is the way that a large chunk of the tasks on our “to do” lists and calendars arrive. Of course, many E-mail programs like Outlook come integrated with a calendar program and a to-do list, but the integration is marginal at best. (Integration with the contact manager/address book is usually the top priority.)

If you’re like me you have a nasty habit. You leave messages in your inbox that you need to deal with if you can’t resolve them with a quick reply when you read them. And then those messages often drift down in the box, off the first screen. As a result, they are dealt with much later or not at all. With luck the person mails you again to remind you of the pending task.

There are many time management systems and philosophies out there, of course. A common theme is to manage your to-do list and calendar well, and to understand what you will do and not do, and when you will do it if not right away. I think it’s time to integrate our time management concepts with our E-mail. To realize that a large number of emails or threads are also a task, and should be bound together with the time manager’s concept of a task.

For example, one way to “file” an E-mail would be to the calendar or a day oriented to-do list. You might take an E-mail and say, “I need 20 minutes to do this by Friday” or “I’ll do this after my meeting with the boss tomorrow.” The task would be tied to the E-mail. Most often, the tasks would not be tied to a specific time the way calendar entries are, but would just be given a rough block of time within a rough window of hours or days.

It would be useful to add these “when to do it” attributes to E-mails, because now delegating a task to somebody else can be as simple as forwarding the E-mail-message-as-task to them.

In fact, because, as I have noted, I like calendars with free-form input (ie. saying “Lunch with Peter 1pm tomorrow” and having the calender understand exactly what to do with it) it makes sense to consider the E-mail window as a primary means of input to the calendar. For example, one might add calendar entries by emailing them to a special address that is processed by the calendar. (That’s a useful idea for any calendar, even one not tied at all to the E-mail program.)

One should also be able to assign tasks to places (a concept from the “Getting Things Done” book I have had recommended to me.) In this case, items that will be done when one is shopping, or going out to a specific meeting, could be synced or sent appropriately to one’s mobile device, but all with the E-mail metaphor.

Because there are different philosophies of time management, all with their fans, one monolithic e-mail/time/calendar/todo program may not be the perfect answer. A plug-in architecture that lets time managers integrate nicely with E-mail could be a better way to do it.

Some of these concepts apply to the shared calendar concepts I wrote about last month.

Things need to be sorted correctly

> You leave messages in your inbox that you need to deal with if you can’t resolve
> them with a quick reply when you read them. And then those messages often drift
> down in the box, off the first screen.

I use VMS MAIL for all of my email stuff, and have for 15 years or so. It lists
messages in the order received. I've always wondered why other programs list
newest messages first (even if this can be set by the user, newest first is usually
the default). Thus, quite the opposite from drifting down the screen and out of
sight, the older the message, the more often one is reminded of it. If enough
are in one folder that they don't all fit on the screen, there's a note at the
bottom of the screen saying that there are more, so new messages can't be easily
missed unintentionally either.

Sort order

Almost all the mail systems can sort in either direction (first received or last) and indeed by other criteria. However many people seem to get caught in the trap of a big mailbox, and want the new messages at the top, because if you respond to new messages first, you seem very responsive to them, and if you delay 10 day old messages another day, it's no big increase.

This is a bad habit of course, but many people have it, and so that's why we want our software to help with it.

Sort it in time!

This reminds me of the guy at his desk who, in the process
of taking care of his paperwork, moved stuff from one drawer
to another. They were labelled "urgen", "really urgent" and
"no longer urgent".

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