- You receive tasks by email
- You send tasks to others by email
- You use email to remind yourself of a task
- You want to track the status of a task contained in an email
- You want to find out if a task you sent to someone is completed
- You use email to track things you want to remember
- You like to have an overview of the projects you are working on, be able to see which project needs attention
- You want to select tasks to work on today
If most of these items describe you or your working style, then the email task manager we are working on is for you. It aims to solve the following problems:
- Provide a task based workflow for handling emails, that is instead of the traditional flags like important, replied, read/unread, new, old flags are new, in progress, waiting for response, follow up, completed, ignored (for emails i know that i don't want to read). Reading an email doesn't change the new flag, instead a flag should be chosen according to the next action. If no action is needed it can be marked as completed
- Share the task status with the sender and all recipients of the email. If the status of an email changes, an automated message is sent with the new status. If the recipient of the message is also using the email task manager then the status on the original message is simply updated, so that no new email needs to be processed by the reader.
- Provide an overview of projects by showing the most recent not completed tasks/emails for multiple projects at the same time. No need to open each project to see the tasks and messages inside. A quick glance across the projects is enough
- Manage a shortlist of active tasks that you want to work on next (eg today). This list can serve as a reminder of what to do next, especially for those otherwise easily distracted. It also visualizes the progress of your work. (for some seeing that progress, and seeing the todo list for today shrink, is a good motivator
How did we get here?
For a long time i had trouble managing my work and my email. I tried writing todo lists, but these got lost somewhere in the computer. I can still find some of them, but if i don't see them then they are easily forgotten, or they are pushed aside by more urgent current events. I tried todolist applications on my mobile phone. But tasks are cumbersome to enter and update, and no task manager that i used offered to select tasks to work on next.
It wasn't until i started using large whiteboards to track tasks, that things improved. The whiteboard provides an overview of all projects and major tasks. It is easy to update. I can mark tasks to work on next. In fact i can add any kind of custom marks and details.
One of the projects i am working on is the redesign of sTeam. For this redesign we are developing a number of targeted applications like a blog, a file sync tool, and recently a tasktracker. Not the email task manager, but a regular task/issue tracker.
The task tracker was almost complete when i came across an article by paul graham about ambitious projects. In it he proposes to replace email with a new task based protocol. It immediately made sense. I am using email to track many tasks, and i'd like to have some of these features too.
Now, i am not going as far as coming up with a completely new protocol. I think that SMTP is still good enough for this purpose for now. Instead, the task status messages can be added at a higher level, as headers in the MIME message itself. Sticking with SMTP also has the added bonus of allowing backwards compatibility with traditional email clients. They too can receive status updates, they just need to process them manually, instead of having the client detect status changes automatically. We will eventually need to come up with a better solution to push updates, but this is a problem that needs to be solved for email regardless of addressing the task nature. Various attempts to solve this problem are already being worked on. So for now we'll focus on the task aspect.
For the overview i am drawing on my experience using whiteboards, attempting to recreate the whiteboard experience on a computer screen. The vision here is to have a huge computer screen on a wall somewhere, where an overview of projects can be seen from a distance, and manipulated through a touchscreen interface.
But also on the small screen, such an overview will be helpful. I used to have 4 email clients open at once so that i could watch 4 folders at the same time. (i had to reduce it to two because the machine could not handle the load), and in fact, looking at my mobile phone, there i have arranged my tasks in several small boxes allowing me to track different projects or contexts at once. So an overview seems to be a recurring theme in my work management habits.
Validating an idea
The currently ongoing work is to build a prototype to validate the ideas and premises. Hopefully i can find other users who have similar problems and find my approach helpful too. Our initial prototype is a webinterface because here we can build upon existing tools to handle email and user management allowing us to concentrate on the userinterface functionality and design. Besides, a webinterface is an easier entrypoint for new users to try a new application. Here is the first rough cut: you can see the inbox to the left, and projects in the center. The 'current' box on the right shows tasks that are selected to be worked on today. Clicking on a task/email will reveal the first part of the content for help with categorization. Double-click will open the whole message. Tasks can be moved around from box to box to be categorized. Dropping a task outside of the boxes will create a new project.
The project boxes in the center can be moved around to allow arrangement of projects for convenience. Double click on a project will open it to zoom in onto that project and instead show the projects inbox on the right as well as subprojects in the center. Clicking on From will show the list of participants of that task, those that will receive an update when the status of the task changes. Entries in that list can be added or removed. The '[+]' button allows adding of a new task, status (like new and done) can be updated, as well as hours can be tracked. (for those that don't care about tracking time, this can be hidden or replaced with something else)
More work is still to be done, but you can see it taking shape.
Building an ecosystem
The webinterface is just the beginning though. We also want to reach users who prefer to handle their email locally and offline. And of course those using mobile clients, like smart phones and tablets. So in the long run we aim to build a webinterface, a desktop client, a mobile phone app and a tablet app. Each of thses should have the interface optimized to the respective screen size.
Lastly, it doesn't end with email. Tasks could come from other sources too. Instant messaging, rss feeds, bookmarks, etc. If you follow a blog for your research, you'll likely hit on entries that lead to followup tasks. Some bookmarks are on pages that you want to remember to do something with later. That means they are tasks. All open tabs in my browser are tasks of some form. The only reason to keep them open is to do something with them later. How this can be integrated in a meaningful way remains to be seen.