How to reach inbox zero in 3 steps (two free, one paid)
When was the last time your inbox was completely empty? Photo: Erich Ferdinand, Flickr
Some of the most useful services that have been made possible through the Internet are completely free. Take email, for example. Gmail offers such a powerful, ubiquitous, safe and easy to use system – we recommend to churches that they set up their own organisation’s email account with Google.
That’s not to say that it can’t be made better. Google themselves are experimenting with all kinds of ways to improve their email service. I wrote about the ones I find most useful in 8 Google Labs tricks to make you more productive with Gmail.
And then there are the free, third party apps that do clever things like show you rich contact details, remove the annoying ads or give your greater control over the flow of emails in your inbox. For details, see 3 free apps to conquer your Gmail inbox.
The best part for budget-watching churches is that all of this does not cost a bean. But every now and then a commercial email app comes along that is so useful, the benefits easily outweigh the small cost.
SaneBox has a part to play in increasing productivity and getting to the holy grail of inbox zero. But before we get to the app, we need to take the email bull by the horns.
The problem with email, especially when you are in a role with responsibility in a church, is that there is too much of it. But not every email is urgent – and not every email is important.
I tackle the problem in three steps.
First: Check email at set times
I only check my email two or three time a day. It is very rare that anything comes up that really requires an immediate answer. To avoid any confusion, I let people know in my email footer that I read my emails at set times of the day.
Second: Triage your email
The next step is to do one of three things with every single email that you receive:
If you don’t need it, delete it
If it will take less than 2 minutes to do so, act on it immediately
If it will take longer than 2 minutes to act on it, schedule it for action later
Third: get SaneBox to do it
This is where SaneBox comes in. Instead of you having to go through every single email and decide whether to bin it, act on it or save it, SaneBox automatically sorts your email for you. It puts all unimportant mail into one place for you to review when you have the time.
SaneBox keeps your important emails in your inbox while sending unimportant ones to a folder called ‘SaneLater’. It is easy to use – and works with any email client or service.
You can tell SaneBox to always place emails from certain people in your inbox rather than in the dumping ground. It has advanced features too if you need them, but the main application is sorting out your email so that you don’t get distracted by the ones that are not important.
And that one little service has changed my email workflow and helped me get to inbox zero. Well worth the small monthly cost.
I hope these tips help you to get on top of your email too. I'd love to hear on Facebook or Twitter how you manage the daily deluge of mail.
Adam Johannes, 19/04/2012
3 free apps to conquer your Gmail inbox
In churches the amount of email flying around can be scary. Last week we checked out 8 Google Labs customisations that can make you more productive with Gmail.
It’s not just Google who want to make their mail program more efficient. There are many other apps that can help you to triumph over your Gmail inbox and get down into the valley where you are needed the most.
And the good news for your church budget is that the following trio of helpful apps are all completely free.
Churches are all about relationships. Rapportive is a clever widget that shows you information about your contacts. When you're reading mail, you can see what the senders look like, where they are, and what their interests are.
What’s clever is that it sits right in your inbox. I have it where the Google ads normally sit. Rapportive suggest that you can "establish rapport by mentioning shared interests" and increase your network by connecting on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. You can also leave notes about a person for future reference.
Once you have tried it, it seems a natural thing to do. Rapportive provides context for who I’m communicating with. And whether this is a good thing or not I’m not sure, but it means I will never miss a tweet from my pastor again…
Boomerang for Gmail is a neat little app that helps you to stay on top of your email and even to achieve inbox zero.
The main thing I use it for is to schedule emails to be sent later. It puts a ‘send later’ button next to the usual ‘send’ one. Simply click it when you’ve written your email to be shown options for timing. You can pick a date from the calendar or type in an instruction like “next Monday”.
This is handy for scheduling emails late at night to give the impression I work late! More seriously, I schedule emails before taking leave to make sure something gets done in the office while I’m away.
Another nifty feature of Boomerang is it removes messages from your inbox until you need them again. You can bounce emails back at a later time and date so you can forget about them and just act on them when they pop up again. The app archives the message until the time you chose. You can select if you want it to reappear marked unread, starred, or at the top of your email list.
Boomerang is also useful if you need to follow up an email that you have sent within a specific time frame. You can choose to only be reminded if nobody replies, or just be reminded anyway. It stops messages from slipping through the crack and prevents you from forgetting important issues if you have not had a reply.
Finally, you need an ad blocker to remove the annoying adverts on the right hand side of the screen. This makes more room for your messages, or for other useful apps like Rapport.
If you are using the Chrome browser, Webmail Ad Blocker will remove both the ads and the people info on the right.
If you are using Firefox, you can download Gmelius to get rid of all the ads in Gmail and improve the interface.
Gmail is a fantastic mail program for churches not least because it is free. Taking a bit of time to find and install apps that improve the interface and features is worth it because they can help you to make your workflow more efficient. They allow you to quickly conquer your email, freeing up more time for other important church activities. And as we've found out, they don’t have to cost a penny either.
What else do you use to stay on top of your email? Tell us about it on Facebook or Twitter.
Adam Johannes, 21/03/2012
8 Google Labs tricks to make you more productive with Gmail
Ah, productivity. How to do more, in less time. One area many of us could be more efficient in is email. We heartily recommend Google Apps for your church or ministry email system. It’s free, easy to set up, and generous in what it offers.
What you might not know is that Google offers helpful little add-ons to Gmail to make the service even better. They are found in Google ‘Labs’. And they are all free.
To turn these features on, log in to your Gmail account. Click on the settings cog, and then select 'Settings' from the list. Select the 'Labs' tab and you will see a list of lots of new widgets, buttons and features that you can enable one by one.
While they might not be for everyone, the following add-ons have made me far more efficient in my use of email. In fact, set up right, they stop me from sitting in front of my inbox all day, allowing me to spend time on other projects that make a real difference.
Here are the features from Google Labs that have increased my productivity:
Small delays can get very frustrating if you experience them many times a day. If you don’t want to wait while Gmail thinks about sending your mail, then Background Send makes your life easier. Gmail can send your mail while you move on to more important things. Simply click ‘send’ and move on to the next message or task.
Just make sure that you stay logged in to your Google account until all the mail has been sent.
This is email for the truly lazy – or for those who frequently send out the same sort of messages. If your job involves standard or similar responses, save and then send your commonly used messages using a button next to the compose form.
I set up templates with this feature to save the time and effort in writing the same thing over and over again. Canned responses also automatically send emails using filters.
Custom keyboard shortcuts
You can set up your own keyboard shortcuts to perform common actions in Gmail with just a few memorable keystrokes. This feature adds a new ‘Settings’ tab from which you can remap keys to various actions. I use this a lot – and cunningly, the shortcuts apply to the keyboard of any device that you use to access Gmail.
Google Calendar gadget
Another annoyance in Gmail is having to open a new page to check your Google Calendar quickly while you are using Gmail. The Calendar Gadget adds a box in the left column that shows your Calendar. You can see upcoming events, locations and details at a glance, without having to wait for a new page to load. You can pop it up with a click or leave it open the whole time.
Mark as Read Button
Sometimes we get messages that we want to mark as read without having to read them. It’s only a small thing, but one which takes valuable time: normally in Gmail you have to click on the More Actions menu every time you want to do this.
With a Mark as Read button you can do it in one click. You just need to enable the label.
Send & Archive
You will have picked up by now that I love anything that saves me time. Send & Archive puts a button on the compose form that lets you send a reply message and archive the email conversation in a single action.
Why click twice when you can click only once?
Signature convention varies and people have strong preferences about these things. I like every email that I send to have my contact information clearly visible. Signature tweaks places your signature before the quoted text in a reply, and removes the "--" line that appears before signatures
Oops, ever hit "Send" too soon? What price being able to stop messages from being sent a few seconds after hitting the send button?
With Google Labs the feature is free. So the next time you realise just after you sent an email that you’ve forgotten something or sent it to the wrong person – just click Undo Send and no one needs to know.
The add-ons in Google Labs are only small modifications to Gmail, but they take off some of the rough edges of the system, and make it that bit easier and quicker to use. Find the ones that suit your own workflow best, and you can make yourself that bit more productive.
Are these tips useful? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.
Adam Johannes, 15/03/2012
Church office in your pocket: Notes
Organise your head
If you're an inveterate note taker like me, pick up the excellent Notebooks for iPhone and iPad. It wins no prizes for an original name, but unlike the built-in Notes app this handles multiple Notebooks – ideal for getting all your stuff and thoughts organised.
Perhaps you’ve used the Hemingway-inspired Moleskine real-world notebooks? I’ve done so for years and jotted notes, ideas, plans, thoughts, lists of music, plays, films, writing projects and much more within their sleek, black covers. If so, you’ll feel right at home here. You can set the font to make it look like you've just jotted your notes by hand and can even have that neat squared or lined off-white Moleskine paper as a background image on which to write. Digital bliss.
I use Notebooks for everything from creative writing ideas to sermon brainstorming to checklists to thoughts for family presents to To Do tracking for different areas of life (such as church, work, home, hobbies). I have 11 different notebooks within the app for different areas of life and interest and simply start a new page or add to an existing one as required. Here are some items from the 'Church' Notebook:
Notebooks has been beefed up in a number of other areas recently and now has checklist and task functions that allow you to tick off those jobs that you’ve done. Its features are even beginning to chase some of the other To Do apps available. Just like the wonderful Pocket Informant diary app I wrote about recently, which also has To Do management built in. However, what Notebooks does best, and really simply, is let you write stuff down.
- People to keep in touch with
- Area congregation notes & thoughts
- Current small groups
- Notes for my next talk
- Church social media ideas
- Admin notes
One thing I always fretted about when using a physical notebook was losing it – all those genius ideas, gone! Well, peace is at hand. You can set up a sync (backup) using the free Dropbox service. Notebooks' data isn’t saved when you sync your iPhone with your desktop computer so this is worth doing.
While I miss the tactile pleasure of note taking, I’m reassured that all my scribblings are safe and sound, even if I lose my phone. The other big advantage of using Dropbox is if I want to use a note on my computer, it doesn't need transcribing: I can simply email the note to myself, or even pick any note up directly from Dropbox.
Notetaking on multiple platforms
I only update Notebooks on my iPhone – you can’t edit a note on your desktop computer and have that synchronised with the copy on your iPhone. That’s fine for the way I work at the moment, but you may want to be able to update notes you write wherever you are or on a wider range of platforms.
This is where the exceedingly clever Evernote comes in. You can install a copy of the app or software on all kinds of smart phone operating systems (for example iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, WebOS), desktop computers (running Mac OS or Windows) as well as using browser plug-ins to clip and save web content (such as Safari, Chrome and Firefox).
Write in the mobile version of Evernote and your note is saved online and visible in the desktop version and vice versa. I find creating new notes in Evernote on my iPhone a bit too fiddly when I'm in a hurry and just want to write, but there’s no denying the power of this feature. If being able to edit your notes in different places is important to you, that could be the deciding issue when it comes to choosing a digital notebook.
Got a great iPhone app that helps you do your stuff?
Share with others what's helped you – why not post on our Facebook page, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet to @churchinsight?
Moleskine notebooks image © Farbfoto - Fotolia.com
Alistair Birch, 22/02/2012
Church office in your pocket: the diary
Get your iPhone to help you do your stuff
Maybe you’re a church minister, someone who works in a church office or serves in an area of church life. Anything that makes it easier to handle these responsibilities is very welcome, and my iPhone has been a huge help in this, especially as I travel around.
With over 500,000 apps to choose from, it’s hard to separate the sheep from the goats, so here are some apps I’ve found useful. Many of them are available for other smartphones.
Probably the most important thing in church life is keeping track of what's on and when. The built-in Calendar app on my iPhone isn't bad, but for me the key feature is being able to easily see a month at a time. That way I can see how the month is panning out and where I can fit another date in. The Diary app shows a month view, but only indicates appointments via a simple dot – not enough information.
I've diligently tried with phones and Palms in the past, but nothing replaced the ease of use of a paper diary. However, the outstanding diary software, Pocket Informant (iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry), is the first setup good enough to move me off dead trees and give me something extra.
Pocket Informant shows specific events in the 'month' view including once of its best features – colour coding of events – great for quickly seeing if I've scheduled enough family time or may be too busy with church activities. It makes it really easy to plan ahead as I can really see the big picture. Multiple reminders for events can easily be set (e.g. one hour before + five minutes before).
You can also see events in 'list', 'day', 'week' or 'today' views – and these layouts are very configurable, giving obsessive tinkerers like myself plenty to play with. As well as multiple date views the app also handles notes, tasks and contacts (although I use different apps for these requirements, which I'll share about in due course).
One of Pocket Informant's killer features is some clever synchronisation with Google Calendar, Outlook and – coming in the future – your Mac software. Mac users needn't wait though. Mac or PC users can configure Pocket Informant to backup to or 'sync' with a Gmail Calendar, where your dates can be viewed online as well. Dates can be added in either location and appear in the other as syncing is both ways.
You can also do some further neat stuff with a little technical knowledge. Sync your ChurchInsight calendar to a Google calendar via iCal. Then sync that Google Calendar with Pocket Informant. I've done these two steps separately, not together, but this seems perfectly feasible. Any events you add in ChurchInsight will be updated into the Google Calendar and in turn, should be updated into Pocket Informant.
This will give you all of your church events, continually updated, alongside your personal events. Filters also allow you to change which sets of events you're viewing if you wish, in case things get crowded. It's worth a try. Note that events added in Pocket Informant or the Google Calendar will not appear back in your Church Insight Calendar as that syncing is one way.
At £8.99, Pocket Informant is the most expensive app I've bought, but I've never regretted it – and I've already saved buying at least three years worth of personal diaries, so I think I'm quids in.
Got a great phone app that helps you do your stuff?
Share with others what helps you – why not post on our Facebook page, email me at email@example.com, or tweet to @churchinsight?
Pocket image © vector_master - Fotolia.com
Alistair Birch, 01/02/2012