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Now I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen the light of day and realized that you can use any email app as a to do list – far from it. There are plenty of reasons why you wouldn’t want to use any old email app in that way.
Instead, I’d say that there’s an app out there I’ve been using that removes the friction between an email app and a to do list app (especially when working with a team).
That app – the one that convinced me that an email app can function as a fantastic bridge between your communications and your tasks – is called Front.
I rarely write about apps on the blog but when the Front team approached me and showcased their product, I was overjoyed. The features that Front offers lets me keep in touch with my communication portals and my tasks in a way that nothing else I’ve seen or tried before.
Getting Started with Front
Front has some excellent tutorials to get you going with the app but if you’re used to using other email apps then you may find the move intimidating. That’s not because Front is overly complex – far from it. It’s that when you are switching from something so entrained and familiar to something new and not-so-familiar that it can hinder your progress. It can even keep you from taking any sort of action.
So for the first few days, I simply used Front on my devices – desktop and mobile – with my own email addresses. I have three that I check personally (one for work related to this website and company, one for personal use, and one for other professional work). I did this so I could get used to the basic interface of Front, discovering any sort of differences between it and my old app.
Front has all of the features you’d expect in a modern email app. Things like snoozing emails and scheduling emails to be sent later are also options you can use right within the composition interface. That said, there are a few features hidden under the hood that are destined to keep you as productive as possible:
Canned Responses: Even though I use TextExpander for this kind of thing, having canned responses can be helpful once you start to have a hard time remembering shortcuts for all of your email snippets.
Do Not Disturb: You can set this up manually or have its scheduled, which I’ve done to give me a longer break from email than my Do Not Disturb settings are set up for my iOS devices. (There’s also an “Out of Office” feature that turns off all your notifications and makes sure any new messages you get aren’t assigned to you by default and are left unassigned.)
My Rules: If you’ve set up rules in another email app, you can make them happen in this area of Front. You can get pretty granular with these so Front has put together a section that will help you understand how they work in the app. (Unless you’re already familiar with email rules, I’d hold off working with these until you’re more comfortable in the app.)
Customizable Preferences: If you want to personalize your Front experience, this is where you can do it. From timing your snoozes and scheduled “send later” times to assigning your top canned responses to mirroring the keyboard shortcuts available in Gmail, Front allows you to design the app to suit your communication needs on multiple levels.
Multiple Signatures: Since I had initially placed three email addresses in Front I wanted to make sure I had signatures for each. This is a pretty common feature in email apps and I’m glad it wasn’t overlooked by the Front development team.
I played with Front as my primary email app without doing more than what I mentioned above when I first started. But I knew that Front was really going to shine once I started bringing the emails of my team members into the mix. So after 3-4 days of testing Front on my own, I decided it was time to see how that was going to work.
I didn’t want to go overboard with this at first, mainly because I was going to have to ask my team members to shift the email app they were using and their mindset about how we were going to use our task management tools in tandem with Front. I decided to do the following to get collaboration and communication started so my team could experience email evolved:
1. I added just one team member to Front first
Deciding who that was going to be was a cinch. Without hesitation, I brought my assistant into Front and immediately began to assign emails that had been sent to me to her. These emails were for things like possible podcast guests, requests to share items of interest on social media, and so on. Instead of having to forward these emails to her and losing track of those things within email, I was able to assign them to her and give her further direction in the conversation area of the message. This was saving several steps of forwarding the email to her or to our task app and then having to copy the recipient’s email address back into email to deal with it. All I did was assign the email to her like I’ve done similarly in our task app, give her some directions in the conversation area, and she was ready to go.
2. I integrated Asana with Front
I used the built-in integration tools that Front has to connect our task app, Asana, to our new communication hub. That doesn’t mean I’m going to keep up the practice of forwarding emails to the task app. After all, one of the reasons I was excited about Front was that I’d be able to lighten the load of emails being sent to Asana. So we came up with a couple of ways to limit the emails coming into Asana while leveraging the assignment and conversation functionality in Front.
Rather than move every single email that had a task of some sort within it into Asana, we would assign that email to the person in Front first. Then inside the conversation portion of Front it could be determined by both the assignee and the person it was assigned to if the email needed to be put into Asana for a deeper form of task management. If not, then it could stay in Front.
As a safeguard – especially during the onboarding of Front to the team members – we created a task in Asana called “Check emails assigned in Front” to those team members using Front. This effectively allowed my assistant to either check Asana first and then deal with Front later or start in Front and then move to our task app. Assuming the rules were followed, nothing would fall through the cracks.You may want to try something similar to help with the learning curve of using a new tool, but you don’t need to go to those lengths. But I recommend you bring in one person to Front and get them well-versed in how you’re using it so that you have an ally (and training partner) once you start bringing in other team members.
I’ve created a video that illustrates how we’re using Front, specifically how we use it in conjunction with Asana. You can check out the video below.
This is Why I Was Wrong About Using Email to Manage Tasks - YouTube
Even if you’re not using Asana, you could integrate other popular task and project management tools directly (Trello, for example) or indirectly through using Zapier using Front’s integration settings. In addition, you can connect plenty of other apps to Front and even leverage Front’s API to connect more apps that work for you and your team.
3. I added more team email accounts to Front
Once we had a good flow going between us – both in Front and in our task management app – I added all of the remaining email addresses for the company. I’d say that happened after about a week of just having my assistant, myself, and our task app in Front. Adding the rest of our company email addresses that didn’t belong to a particular person (hello@, sales@, podcast@, etc.) allowed me to remove any forwards I had set up beforehand. Now either me or my assistant could review these email accounts and deal with them accordingly.
As of this writing I’m still waiting to add another team member to Front but because a couple of the email accounts that were forwarded to her are now in Front we’re able to let her slowly make her way into the mix. So even though she’s not using Front (yet) we’ve been able to remove some of the friction that was in place because her email inbox isn’t teeming with as much activity. That’s right – Front has indirectly helped me help her out with email overwhelm.
Taking Communication Management to the Next Level
By the way, Front isn’t just for email. You can add other communication portals to the app as well. You can add team inboxes or individual inboxes as your see fit.
I’ve added our Facebook page to Front for one specific reason: I don’t want to have anyone on my team spending too much time wading through Facebook looking to help those trying to connect with us via direct message. Whenever someone sends us a message, it shows up in Front. From there it can be assigned to the right person to respond and our response rating doesn’t take a hit because the message sat in our page inbox too long for Facebook’s liking.
There are other portals you can add to Front as well. They include Twitter (both feed and direct messages), SMS (using Twilio), Intercom, several chat options (including FrontChat by Front), and a custom channel you can control using Front’s API. You can add these portals for your own use – meaning only you have access to them unless you assign them to someone – or for the team to use together.
Front has really upped our communication management game. It’s saving us time, energy, and allowing us to pay more attention to the work that we need and want to be doing. I’ve still only scratched the surface of what Front can do for me and my team (I haven’t spent much time in the analytics component of Front yet) but I know that it has transformed the way we work and our overall team productivity.
I never thought an app where I find my email would do that. Let alone on so many fronts.
In the interest of transparency, Front is a paid sponsor of this post. That said, longtime followers of my work now that I don’t write these kind of pieces unless I strongly believe that the product I’m endorsing will help you – and that I use it myself. So if you want to give Front a try – and I believe you should – click here to make that happen.
The title may seem daunting, but the idea behind it is simple: You must set yourself up in advance so that you can keep yourself from simply going through the motions every day — which is really what you’re doing if you’re using a simple to-do list. I call this building An Achievement Structure. In order to really achieve, you need to spend some time working on your approach and structure well before you get down to the day-to-day tasks and projects you need to take action on.
So…what’s the first component in getting your front-end work done? First, you need to pick your tools and — more importantly — get to know them. Having a tool you don’t really know how to use all that well will result in substandard work. Think about it. Using a hammer to bash screws into wood will have less than ideal results. But if you use a hammer to tap in the screw and then grab the right tool to get it into the wood (a screwdriver), then you’re building things better. Further to that, you need to make sure that you pick a tool that can support other tools when required.
The first tool you pick should be a larger tool — one that can scale with you as your work, life, and ambitions around those two elements grow and evolve. Now when I say larger tool, I’m generally talking about a task management solution of some sort. (And I’m not talking about an email application when I say this, either. That’s another post for another time.)
Whether you choose a paper-based tool or an electronic tool, you need to get acquainted with whatever you’ve chosen before you can really get the most out of it. That means less productivity for a few days while you begin to adopt the tool, but you’ll get that time back in spades the more you use the tool. (Above all else, resist the temptation to go back to simply using to-do lists once you realize how seemingly daunting the idea of taking on a task management solution is. The front end work is never easy, but it is rewarding.)
One way to think about it is in the real-world sense of going camping. When you first arrive at your empty campsite, the first thing you’re going to do is set up your tent. That way you can enjoy your camping experience knowing that you’ve got a place to sleep at the end of the night — or a place to go if it starts to rain. Setting up the tent frees you up to do the things you really want to do on the camping trip; waiting to set it up keeps your mind just a little bit captive until you do.
Another way to think about it is that when you begin with an app that allows for you to create your own structure within it (i.e., use a system that makes you comfortable — either because it is familiar, effective, or both) it is incredibly tempting to start to fill with stuff right away without thinking of where it should go within the app. Apps like Flow, Asana, and Trello allows you to certainly throw things into it right away, but it further allows you to create places (workspaces, projects, boards, etc.) so that you can be more specific with where your stuff goes. You can get even more specific by putting those lists into folders so that you can place lists in areas that are interrelated (Home, Office, Website, etc.). Folders can act as overarching projects, locations, or roles you have undertaken — the choice is yours.
You can’t underestimate internal features like modes (also known as tags in some apps — like Evernote and Asana, for example) when it comes to adding to your system through front end work. modes can be used to signify location, energy levels or even things that are emotion-based or quality-based. For example, keeping a journal would be a task that could use the mode of “Writing” or you could go one step further and use a mode like “Gratitude” instead. You simply need to use modes or tags that resonate with you the most. These can also change over time, so don’t go overboard with them at first. Instead, be thoughtful (aka mindful) about your modes so that you can be more thoughtful — or mindful — about the tasks associated with them.
Ultimately, it’s those internal tools that makes app like these so powerful…they are flexible and versatile. That is exactly what you want in your larger tool — scalability and power.
Let’s get back to talking about some of those other tools I mentioned earlier. These tools can exist within the larger tool or can be external ones used to augment or enhance the larger tool. There are plenty of tools out there that can add things like fostering habits (and tracking them) as well apps you can use to house reference material. These tools can be used in conjunction with a digital solution or an analog one. I know a lot of people who’ll use a lot of apps for things like keeping tabs on the hours they spend on writing but still use their trusty paper planners to map out their days. I also know people who will capture like crazy on paper all day and then move it into their digital apps so they can be dealt with in that medium.
Again, the choice is yours. It doesn’t matter what sort of structure you set up, as long as you set up something that supports you and you can support.
Once you’ve created a workflow built upon the structure of the larger tool you’ve chosen as well as any internal and external tools you have decided to use to augment, then you’ve done the bulk of the front end work and you’ve created that much sought-after Achievement Structure. It’s that work — and that structure — that really allows you to get the things that you need (and want) to do done efficiently and effectively, which means it’s that work that will enable you to really achieve.
“Slow and steady wins the race.” – The Tortoise and The Hare
In our quest to get things done, we can find ourselves moving too fast. When that happens we run the risk of missing key components of task completion, which can result in lower quality results. The need for speed is alluring because the rewards associated with speed are compelling: we get to finish something we started and that gives us a sense of achievement and accomplishment.
But that feeling is not only false…it’s fleeting.
The feeling is false in that while the job might be done, you’re cheating yourself how well it could have been done if you’d applied more critical thought and attention to the job instead of blazing rough it as quickly as possible. The feeling is fleeting because it disappears just as quickly as it arrived on the scene, and leaves a bad taste in its wake. To be clear, not every task needs to be done slowly. But it needs to be done at the right speed, and if you’re always moving at the speed of light then you’ll never be able to gauge what the speed of right is for any of the tasks you need (and want) to complete.
Back in 2011 I gave my first TEDx talk, and it focussed on how we need to work on speeding the right things up so that we can slow the right things down. Three years later, despite the age of the talk and how I’ve improved at speaking since, the talk is more relevant than ever. Instead of looking at how we can get more things done — which involves speed — we need to look at how we can accomplish more of the right things. And the only way we can do that is to take time to make the time to figure that out. Awareness doesn’t come with an increased pace, it comes with increased clarity. If you’ve ever sat on a river bank, you know that you can see a lot further and a lot deeper when the river is still than when the rapids are flowing fiercely.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Yet so many of us treat it that way by focusing on getting things done with speed in mind rather than effectiveness in mind. It’s time to stop this pattern by simply slowing down and figuring out what the right speed we need to apply to our work. That way we can treat our work right…and our work can treat us right in return.
I’ve been studying personal productivity and time management for years now and there’s one question that comes up often.
“What’s one piece of productivity and time management advice that you would give to everyone?”
I love to talk about this kind of stuff but after being asked this plenty of times I decided it’d be best to come up with something that was simple to share and do. In the end, I came up with this:
“Write everything down. No matter how inane or mundane it may sound in your head as you think of it, write it down.”
You can always edit, audit, and curate whatever you’ve written down later. But you can’t do that in the moment. So no matter what thought comes to mind – if there is even an inkling that you might want to have a record of it for later – write it down.
Hearing this phrase does the exact opposite of its intent. It creates worry for me. I find that worry is a waste of time. I’m with Travis Bradberry on this. He said the following about worry:
“‘What if?’ statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control.”
– Travis Bradberry
I avoid using “What if?” statements as much as possible because they bring on worry. I do what I can to create instances where there’s no need to ask that question because I’ve already put a process in place that negates it.
“What if I can’t get that blog post done today?” leads to the answer “You will because you’ve set aside 11pm to 1:30am to work on maiming stuff. You’ll just make it then if all else fails.”
“What if I don’t know what to do on Friday?” leads to the answer “You’ve already defined Friday as the day you give your focus to planning tasks, so just look at the tasks you’ve tagged as such and you’ll know what to do.”
“What if I get sick? My family has it and I’m afraid I’m going to get it too.” leads to the answer “If that happens then you’ll just look at tasks you’ve tagged as low energy tasks and work on those while you focus on getting better.”
Instead of worrying about “What if?” scenarios as they come up, focus on creating clear answers in advance when you can that remove the worry as much as possible. Every time something like this comes up, create that clarity so you have a solution when it comes up again – which will inevitably happen in some way, shape, or form.
Make that happen and then when someone says “Don’t worry about it” in the future, you’ll be able to do just that.
During the workshops and talks I deliver I’ll often ask the attendees (or audience) to do absolutely nothing for an entire minute.
I time that minute and to this day I still get fidgety at around the forty second mark.
Sixty seconds is both a short and long time. Many moments can happen during that minute. One way to identify them is to take note of every sound you hear over the sixty seconds.
I’ll demonstrate here by sharing what I hear in that time period in bullet points below:
Running water in the bathroom
Voices coming from the tv on the living room
The barely audible tapping of my thumbs on my iPhone keyboard
The tiny crackling sounds of bones on my neck
Music from the television
That’s quite a bit of noise in sixty seconds. (And I didn’t even count the sound of the thoughts rolling around in my head.)
My challenge for you to take a minute today and just listen to the sound of sixty seconds. Take note of everything that you hear, no matter how insignificant it may seem. There is power in that timespan. In fact, what you hear might just change the way you approach the rest of your day…and beyond.
I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Highway to Heaven for the past couple of months. I’m not a particularly religious person but the show offers some strong messages that I think are valuable and we need to hear.
There was an episode featuring Leslie Nielsen, best known for his work in The Naked Gun film series, who played a really awful rich gentleman. The episode seemed to be inspired by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Early in the episode, Michael Landon’s character reveals himself to Leslie Nielsen’s character as an angel, having tried other ways to get him to see that how he was living his life was not good at all. Upon revealing himself, this is what the angel said:
“We all have to choose what kind of life we lead and ultimately we’re responsible for the choices we make. You’ve made some very bad choices in your life. But there’s still time. It’s up to you the way you use it… your responsibility.” — Jonathan Smith, Highway to Heaven, The Gift of Life
Of course, Leslie Nielsen’s character winds up changing and does get his happily ever after. A lot of minor characters and even off-screen characters also appear to get a happily ever after due to the changes he makes.
All of this got me thinking: even if we haven’t made bad choices in our lives, we all have to choose what kind of life we lead and are ultimately responsible for the choices we make. But there is still time to make better choices. There is still time to live better.
And what’s more, if we choose to do that then the impact it has may be wider than we think, and could reach people that we never imagined.
I'm a big fan of Henry David Thoreau's insights and writing. There's not much that he says that I don't agree with. But there is one quotation that is attributed to him that I do take a bit of an issue with:
"Never look back unless you are planning to go that way."
I think that advice flies in the face of ensuring that you avoid making the same mistakes in the past going forward. I also think that proper planning involves reflection and review. There are some things that you've left in the past that you never intended to leave there and if you don't look back to collect them, then you can't connect with them again and move them forward.
I think a more appropriate piece of advice is not to spend too much time looking back. I think when you do that then elements like doubt, regret, and shame can start to rear their ugly heads. It's best to look back so you can learn so that you can forge ahead with clarity and focus.
I made some other changes to things I was doing in order to get more deep work done. In fact, I went so far as to theme one of my days as “Deep Work Day.” Every Friday is defined as such. I’ve blocked off my schedule so that no one can schedule meetings with me. I’ve categorized tasks as ones that should be done when I’m in deep work mode, so they often get tackled on Fridays.
But something occurred to me about deep work and the way I approached it.
How I Was Wrong About Deep Work
I had this notion that deep work was work that was to be done alone. I was to sequester myself in my office for hours on end and dive into my writing and any other deep tasks over the course of the day. What I found was that I wasn’t able to do as much as I’d hoped on Fridays. Not nearly as much as I’d hoped.
I decided that deep work in solitude isn’t something that I can sustain for an entire day but I can alter my thinking around deep work so that Fridays still carry that definition. I concluded that I could have social time with those that I could have deep conversations with, essentially deepening my relationship with them. By aligning those kind of gatherings with my Deep Work Day they would stand out from al of my other “meetings” during the week. They would resonate deeper. Some of them may even matter more.
I had it in my head that being around others on the day I was diving into deep work would be contradictory. But after reading about how Carlos Beltran, a member of the Houston Astros during their 2017 World Series champinionship run, connected with this teammates, I realized I was wrong.
During his first days with the Astros, he approached each one of his new teammates—everyone, pitchers included.
“My friend, I am here to help you,” he said. “Even if it looks like I’m busy, you won’t bother me. If you sit down next to me and ask me a question, I would be more than happy to give you the time that you need.” – Astroball by Ben Reiter, on Carlos Beltran
How I’ve Redefined My Deep Work
Spending time with people I wanted to spend time with and carry on deep conversations with on Fridays wasn’t contradictory at all. It was complementary. As long as I was clear on the criteria of those gatherings, I was upholding the definition of my Deep Work Day.
Once I shifted my mindset about deep work, my Fridays got better. Making that change also made for a better week. Over the long term, my hope is this change will ultimately lead to a richer — and better — life.
I had eye surgery only days before writing this piece.
It wasn’t a laser surgery designed to improve my eyesight, like so many of these surgeries are. Instead it was a surgery designed to prevent me from making my eyesight worse. (If you want to know more about the type of laser surgery I had then just search the term “laser iridotomy” and you’ll be on your way.)
Lasers are precise in nature and when the surgeon was spending the minute or so on my eyes I thought about how if he was off his mark but one degree then there was a chance that the surgery would do more harm than good. Just one degree.
I think the choices you make throughout the day can follow the same pattern. One degree in one direction or another can send you where you want to go or divert you down a path that you’ll have to work your way back from to get forward momentum again. If you put parameters in place to help make those choices simpler, then the chances of the one degree going against you is lower. If you don’t, then the chances go the other way.
My friend Marli Williams spoke of this at an event I spoke at and used a sailing metaphor to drive that point home. Whether you look at it through the lens of a laser beam or the bow of a boat, the story is still the same. One degree can make a difference.
And like both you do have more control over what that difference can be…good or bad.