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Gmail and GTD: Google Tasks or Gmail Labels?

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  • Gmail and GTD: Google Tasks or Gmail Labels?

    I know at the end of the day the answer to my question is completely up to one's preferences, but I thought I will consult fellow more exprerienced GTDers before I take dive.

    I GTD using Gmail and GCal. Im having a hard time deciding whether to use Gmail labels as context and project lists (as described in Kelly's whitepaper) or to use Google Tasks.

    I'm concerned with time and focus loss when switching back & forth between tasks and Gmail. It really does distract me. On the other hand, when using gmail labels I have my master inbox & context lists at one place, quickly at hand, with useful features like drag & drop and labels custom colors (I'm a visual type of guy).

    But: Tasks seem more natural way to go, as they allow you to attach an email message to a task, set up due dates, etc. Downside to them is there is no uncomplete task count next to list, so I have to manually review them as frequent as possible. No such problem when using gmail labels and appropriate filters.

    Right now Im using an uneffective blend of above two approaches, and it really bothers me. Also, I try make my Google based system as simple as possible, make it get out of the way and let me get my things done

    Could and experienced Google suite users share their opinions on this? Which one you think is the way to go?
    Last edited by thomas b; 02-26-2010, 05:44 AM. Reason: typos

  • #2
    Labels vs. Waiting For

    Hi Thomas,

    You can do it either way. Wayne and I wrote a detailed article on using Gmail Labels to manage Tasks: (it's a few years old now, and Gmail has changed a bit, but the general concept still applies.)

    Since we wrote that, Gmail came out with Tasks. Nice thing about it is that you can link emails to Tasks. Downside, from my experimentation with it, is that their Tasks app isn't robust as it could be yet. For example, visually, I don't think I personally could manage my Tasks in the small window they provide. I also think due dates, capturing related notes and assigning contexts could be slicker. But it's decent and will serve the function too.

    The Labels approach takes some sophistication and has it's downsides too. For example, simply assigning a Label doesn't tell you what your next action is. And Gmail doesn't allow you to edit a subject line like many other email programs do. So we suggest forwarding it to yourself with the next action in the subject line. But then, you're losing the Conversation thread feature, which is so powerful in Gmail.

    I would say straddling both is tricky and will fall apart on you. It's actually more work. But I think you see that by what you wrote.

    Hope this helps.


    • #3
      Thanks, Kelly.

      My conclusions are similar to yours. Come to think of it, with all due respect to Gmail superpowers, it has some limitations, such as project management. Guess it was built just to be a powerful inbox, not the answer to all the questions on email productivity

      Let me quickly wrap up my latest experiments with Google Mail, maybe someone finds it useful.

      I set up Gmail labels the GTD way - one context per label. Decided to handle projects same way, creating new label for each new project, using "P" prefix in label name.

      Within two days I got buried in labels. The number of projects (both work and presonal) quickly was over 30. That made Gmail's interface way too complicated. There was around 8-10 context labels and 20+ project labels visible and growing. Of course Gmail allows you to hide them. I decided to limit the number of visible projects to 5. But I realized that but by doing that I made a distinction between visible and hidden projects using a criteria. I forgot those criteria within couple of hours and found myself wondering "why did I hide this project?" Not effective, too complicated.

      Right now I'm using a simple Google spreadsheet to track both my projects and next actions (more details on the spreadsheet here ). It works flawlessly.

      In Gmail, I got rid of next actions and projects labels. Only couple of labels are left, including "Work", "Personal", "Reference", "Someday/Maybe" and "Waiting For" lists.

      I decided to keep the "Someday" and "Waiting For" items in email inbox, assuming that they graduate to next action or project lists only when a specific action happens. As for "waiting fors" that is something that makes that item no longer a "waiting for", but a next action.
      As for "Someday/Maybe" that is my decision what to do with that item, made during the weekly review.

      That way my spreadsheet with next actions and project lists contains only actionable items.

      This system works like charm for me. It is possible that my search for ultimate-make-it-efficient-and-pleasure-to-use-system is over
      Last edited by thomas b; 03-03-2010, 08:24 AM. Reason: typos and clarity


      • #4
        Making GTD labeling easier in Gmail

        Hi guys,

        I truly hope this is not in violation of house rules, but it's very relevant to the thread's original question.

        I'd like to recommend a software tool I've been curating for several years, called ActiveInbox ( which was formerly known as GTDGmail. It adds lots of features to Gmail to make implementing a GTD workflow very easy - including overcoming Thomas' problem of too many project labels (it allows nesting, and has unique features for reviews). It's free for most users (it was originally donationware).

        If I can help please do say hello at

        Last edited by andymitchell; 06-09-2010, 05:45 AM.


        • #5
          Thanks for being conscientious of this Andy. It's fine, as it relates to the original thread.



          • #6
            Hi all,

            I recently wrote a guide for applying GTD in Gmail (sorry, portuguese language only) - which is kind of an updated version of Kelly's.

            Google Tasks is really limited and won't get you very far. Labels on the other hand are very powerful, you can use them to have contexts, the gtd lists (next actions, pendings, etc), projects, etc etc
            If you feel you have too many labels and the interface is getting on your way, visit the GMail labs and turn on the Nested Labels feature.
            You can have something like

            * GTD
            -- NExt Actions
            -- Pendings
            -- Contexts
            -- -- @Home
            -- -- @Work
            -- Projects
            -- -- Project 1
            -- -- Project 2
            -- SomeDay
            * rest of gmail labels...

            And you can collapse and expand each label, so that the interface is nice and clean
            As you can assign multiple labels to emails, is really easy to make a list item (email) with "@Home" "Next Action" "Project 2" for example.

            Check it out, and make sure you read Kelly's guide. Using filters is very important.



            • #7
              hi Nunodonato,
              thanks for the feedback.

              Indeed, gmail tasks even if seem useful and all that, will not get you far. I have just ended my around 3 month experiment with gmail tasks, and felt resistance to use them efectively.

              I dont know if its just me of different user experience across multiple Google web apps seems to be distracting. Different graphic interfaces, focus loss when switching between, say, Gmail and Tasks or Calendar.

              Anyway, Gmail's nested folders feature is definitely worth a try (need to activate the feature in labs). Anybody that likes to structure inbox into folders, like in desktop email client such as Outlook or Thnderbird, should give it a go.


              • #8
                more questions about Google Tasks

                Hi everyone,

                I just started setting up GTD using Google Tasks. I'm keeping individual lists for:
                • Inbox
                • Purpose
                • Vision
                • Areas of Focus
                • Goals
                • Projects
                • Someday/Maybe
                • Waiting
                • Each of my contexts (@Errands, @Home, etc.)

                This seems to be working really well so far, but I haven't pushed the system very hard yet. Two observations, though:
                1. I don't seem to be using the Inbox list very much. I did at first, but since processing it to zero the first time I've been just sending things directly to their relevant list. I'm not sure this is a problem, but it suggests to me that I might not need this particular inbox in my overall system. Things seem to come in through my physical or Gmail inboxes.
                2. There doesn't seem to be a way to connect next actions to particular projects. Google Tasks doesn't seem to offer any tagging or other feature to achieve this sort of linkage. But again, I'm not sure this will be a problem. I recently listened to a podcast in which David seemed to suggest that explicit linkage is not necessary and indeed might even be an unnecessary complication. Not having this hasn't bothered me at all yet, but I wonder if it will start to cause problems as I get more stuff in the system.

                Can anyone shed light on either of these points? I would also be interested in hearing any other specifics about how Google Tasks isn't up to snuff for GTD.

                Thanks in advance!