Update: 18 June 2010 – GTDinbox was recently renamed ActiveInbox for legal reasons. There have also been new features added. I’m not going to rewrite this review but check the GTDinbox/ActiveInbox home page for details.
For the past two months, I’ve been using a task management tool called GTDinbox. I installed GTDinbox based on the recommendation as a colleague. Overall, I’ve been pleased with GTDinbox and plan to continue using it but it’s not a perfect tool. I installed GTDinbox based on the recommendation as a colleague. Overall, I’ve been pleased GTDinbox and plan to continue using it but I would not say that it’s a perfect tool.
GTDinbox is implemented as a FireFox add-on. Its rather ambitious goal is to turn “Gmail into a unique task manager to effectively manage your inbox, reduce email overload and maintain inbox zero.” Unlike services such as RememberTheMilk which, has it’s own cloud backend, GTDinbox builds on top of Gmail. This is a somewhat unusual approach but Gmail has a number of features making it a good basis for a task manager. Gmail offers free network accessible secure cloud storage that can be accessed through any web browser or less eloquently through any IMAP client. Additionally, many tasks begin life as emails. Thus integration with Gmail means that these tasks don’t have to be reentered into a new system.
Once you download and install the GTDinbox FireFox add-on, GTDinbox modifies the Gmail UI. When you view an email, 4 buttons appear at the top of it allowing you assign the email a status by marking it is as either Action, Waiting On, Some Day, or Finished. You can also assign emails to a contexts — e.g. “home”, “work”, etc. –, projects, or references. GTDinbox adds a box to the side bar that allows you to view tasks by Project, Context, or Status. Once you have categorized the email, you can safety archive it to clear up your inbox and then use GTDinbox to track it.
Internally, GTDinbox works by assigning labels to emails. Context labels start with C/ e.g. C/Home or C/Work. Project labels start with P/. And status labels start with S/. While these labels have special meanings to GTDinbox they are also regular Gmail labels. When viewing a message, the GTDinbox label will show up just like other labels. This approach is simple yet it works surprisingly well. I also really like the transparency that comes from using Gmail labels as the basis of the system. When you view active tasks within a context or project, GTDinbox simply displays a Gmail search page using the labels as search criteria. For example, the following search string is used for the home context “label:c-home (label:s-action OR label:s-some-day OR label:s-waiting-on) -label:s-finished”. This means that you have less reason to worry about losing your task data. Even if GTDinbox stopped working, you could still access your tasks directly by viewing labels within Gmail. It also means that you can manipulate your tasks from any mail client. Obviously accessing and manipulating your tasks this way is a lot less fun but at least it’s possible. For example, I will often manually move order shipment emails to the S/Waiting-on label using my smart phone.
Want to enter a task that doesn’t come from an email? GTDinbox adds a “Compose Personal” link. This is like the standard “Compose Mail” except that it adds the email directly to your inbox. You can then label the email as a task just like an outside email. “Compose Personal” is also useful for sending notes to your smart phone. Now instead of writing down an address or room number, I’ll often just use “Compose Personal” so I can access it by viewing email on my smart phone.
GTDinbox requires that you use Gmail. Most people use Gmail as at least one of their personal email accounts so this is not a huge burden. However, when tasks originate as emails to other accounts such as a work email, some of the convenience of GTDinbox is lost. You must forward the email to Gmail or enter it manually using “Compose Personal” — much less eloquent approaches.
GTDinbox is a FireFox add-on so you must use FireFox to access Gmail in order to use it. This may not seem like a big deal — everyone uses Firefox — but it means that you can’t use tools such as PRISM with GTDinbox. I’ve found PRISM to be a more streamlined way to access Gmail than Firefox, however I stopped using it in order to use GTDinbox. Additionally, you must have permissions on the computer you’re using to install add-ons into Firefox. This may be a problem if you frequently access your email from public computers in places such as school computer labs or Internet cafes. There, it is likely that you will either be unable to install the GTDinbox add-on because Firefox is locked down or you will have to reinstall it every time you access Gmail. For security reasons, I no longer access Gmail from untrusted computers so this has not been an issue for me.
Often, the same task involves multiple emails. For example, a single online order may involve 3 or more emails: order confirmation, payment confirmation, and shipment confirmation. I usually mark all emails related to an order as Waiting-On until I receive the item. Unfortunately GTDinbox provides no way to combine multiple emails into a single meta-task. Thus these three emails will show up as three unrelated tasks. This limitation is compounded by the fact that you can’t manage tasks within the message list view. You must click through to the full message to mark a task as finished or assign it to a project or context.
Using a tickler file to defer tasks until a certain data and then process them in your inbox is one of the core pieces of GTD. My biggest complaint, about GTDinbox is that there is no way to tell it that you want to defer a task until a certain day and have it hide the task until that time. The closest thing that GTDinbox offers is marking a task as “Some Day” but “Some Day” tasks still show up in context and project views.
Emails Not Assigned a Status Are Untracked
This is one of the things that tripped me up when I first started using GTDinbox. GTDinbox will not track an email unless you must assign it a status — by marking it is as either Action, Waiting On, Some Day, or Finished. Assigning the email to a project or context is not sufficient. Once I became aware of this limitation, it wasn’t a big deal. Still it seems like something that could be fixed.
Can’t edit Email tasks.
GTDinbox is based on Gmail and thus inherits its limitations. Gmail does not let you edit emails and for normal email this makes sense. However, if you enter a task using compose personal and want to add a note or correct something there is no way to do this. The best you can do is to reply to the email or mark the email task as finished and then create a new task with the changes.
Not maintained or endorsed by Google.
GTDinbox relies on editing the html of Gmail to add it’s enhancements. Although, Google does not do anything to overtly block GTDinbox, it does occasionally change Gmail. Sometimes these changes are enough to break GTDinbox. When this happens, the creators of GTDinbox are usually quick to release a version that fixes things. I’ve only been without a working GTDinbox briefly. To minimize down time, install GTDinbox from the Firefox add-on page rather than the GTDinbox site so you get auto-updated.
I’ve tried various methods of task management and so far GTDinbox is the best I’ve found. But it is not a perfect tool. Piggy backing off of another service means that it’s less polished. I get the sense that GTDinbox could be truly amazing if it was acquired by Google and baked into the fabric of Gmail. Still there is much to be said for the simplicity and transparency of it’s design. It’s a great tool for taming your inbox and managing tasks. Some people swear by paper task lists or local text files. But if you’re looking for a cloud based task management system, GTDinbox is well worth trying.