Productivity Series – Part #1 – Using GMail as Universal Inbox

I have been using GMail since its very first version, back in 2004. For several years, it was my email system of choice, until Google Inbox came along. That was like GMail 2.0 for me. But unfortunately, Google discontinued it some time ago, and so I moved on – to Office 365 (now Microsoft 365). Outlook is a good email solution – but it fails in various areas in which GMail worked for me, and so, GMail became something different for me: My Universal Inbox.

The concept of Universal Inboxes is quite well known from GTD, one of my life saver books. Although I reworked my productivity setup about 300 times over the last 15 years or so, many principles defined by David Allen still hold true. I am still maintaining what David calls a “Project” system (I call it “Topics & Workstreams” in my methodology), and the general concepts of “Inbox Zero”, “Next Action”, “Weekly Reviews” and many others are still at the core of my way of working.

So, how does GMail work as Universal Inbox? It’s as simple as it sounds – whatever happens, whatever I need to note down quickly, I just “post it” to my GMail Inbox. As I am (nearly) the only person still sending emails to that address, it’s not cluttering at all.

Once or twice per day, I run through my Universal Inbox, and with each item, I do one of the following things:

  • If it’s a task that I need to complete soon, I mark it with a star. That triggers my Zapier automation in the background, and creates a new todo item in Todoist. I keep the mail item in the inbox for review (weekly clean-up).
  • If it is something I needed to keep for reference, I forward or copy/paste the information to Evernote (using my personalized mail address for Evernote). I then archive the mail item, removing it from the GMail inbox.
  • If it is something I need to review at some point in the future, I typically make some comment regarding the when & why, by forwarding/replying that information to myself – this basically creates a new item in the email thread, and I technically created a personal note on the original email item. I then use the Snooze function go Mail, which postpones the whole thread to some point in the future, at which it appears again, including the information I attached to it.
  • I use the technique of forwarding/replying to myself (often called FRETMY by the pro’s, or “note to self” by noob’s) for many things – it’s a good (and in 99% the only) way to attach personal comments/notes to emails. I use FRETMY to remind me to work on documents (links to Dropbox, OneNote or GMail), or I use it for extending on a though that I had earlier. Funny enough, it is also covering 50% of all use cases for which I used “Note Taking” apps – because more often than not, notes are not being changed, they are just being amended (for “real” quick notes, I mostly use Apple Notes and/or Evernote). The only notes not remaining in GMail are notes that belong to a larger topics or work stream (called “Project” in GTD) – for that, I use another tool which I will share here in the future.

That’s my quick summary of how I use GMail as Universal Inbox (or “Unibox” as the pro’s like to say). In general, I found it to be a very good practice to separate my Unibox from my real email inbox (for which I am using Outlook with a different methodology) – it allows me to selectively use it, and not make every email important by default.

I hope my post was helpful for you – and maybe, you put it in your Unibox, with some FRETMY notes attached to it.

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