Application of the Week – Active Inbox (@activeinbox )

My apologies for the lateness of today’s post, I have been moving offices.  Granted, I’ve been moving one door down the corridor, but it’s still a move and it’s still very distracting.  And then two men turned up to install Microsoft Configuration Manager, tying up my computer for the bulk of the day!

A couple of Wednesdays back I talked about Getting Things Done (the capitals are important).  I’ll abbreviate it to GTD from hereon in if I need to use it again.  Today’s application of the week is one of those occasions where three different things combine to form the most useful way of managing emails I’ve found yet.

To get this all working, you need:

  1. Google’s Chrome web browser or Mozilla Firefox
  2. A Gmail account managing one or more of your email accounts
  3. The Application of the Week, ActiveInbox.

If you use Internet Explorer, you’re missing out on the world of plugins available.  Instantly go and change your browser!  If you’re in a corporate environment where the build is fixed, badger your IT department until they make a change or go to PortableApps.com and run Chrome from your home directory.  But I digress.

So, open Chrome, go to www.activeinboxhq.org and install the Active Inbox plugin.  Then load Gmail.  You’ll be asked a few simple questions to set up Active Inbox for the first time, then this will appear in your Gmail sidebar:

Active Inbox Sidebar

You’ll also get this (screenshot) across the top of every email where you get to assign projects and those all-important GTD labels – Next, Action, Waiting On, Finished and Inbox.  Note the new option that’s appeared as well – Compose Self.  This is for sending yourself an email about a task or project.  Damn handy.

Notes on Email

The next thing I did was set up a filter to add the label S/Inbox to all emails when they arrive. (S for Status, one of the default labels ActiveInbox creates during setup).  Then I’ve just got to schedule time during to day to go through anything that ActiveInbox has in the Inbox and assign it to a project and give it a status.  Piece of cake.

Here is where Gmail has another trick up its sleeve.  It’s all very well having the ActiveInbox block in the sidebar telling you you’ve got 9 emails marked with “Next Action” but what are they?  Buried in the Gmail Labs features is one called “multiple inboxes”.  Switch this on and use the following filters to show your assorted Active Inbox labelled emails down the right-hand side of your mailbox –  (screenshot to follow).

Emails can be assigned only one status (if you’re using ActiveInbox to manage them, you can over-ride this by manually assigning labels, but why would you want to?) but can be given multiple project labels.

Once you’re into the swing of things, you can use Gmail’s filters to give you some useful information – this one, for instance, will show you everything that’s been labelled as Finished in the last week:

label:s-finished after:2011/04/04

You can do similar things with date ranges (what did I finish for *this* project last month?).

The only problem with Active Inbox is that it’s not actually a Google product.  If it were, it would be included as a Labs feature that you could switch on.  Then when Google change something there wouldn’t have to be another release of Active Inbox to fix what has just broken.  And it would be enabled on your account, not just on your account with the browser you happen to have installed the extension on to.  Firefox and Chrome will both synchronise extensions, so that removes that problem but doesn’t help when you’re on someone else’s computer.

There are occasions when it just won’t load.  This can be annoying – it happened when I was writing this post, for example.  When this happens, it’s usually Google changing things in the background.  A new build of Active Inbox won’t be far away and you’ll be back up and running.  And if you switch from Firefox to Chrome or vice-versa, it’s often working in one when it’s dead in the other.

Now, my question to you good people.  How do you manage your emails?  What useful plugins are there for Thunderbird that add this kind of task and project-based management?  Is there a better way?  Enquiring minds need to know!

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