Google has a history of developing apps and services without a fleshed out end-goal. It’s why so many of their previous experiments have fizzled out – remember Google Reader, Google Wave, or iGoogle?
Nowadays, Google keeps making incremental updates to its app lineup, and in doing so stealthily building a life manager. Not a task manager or a to-do list, but an ecosystem to handle everything.
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The Holyish Trinity: Inbox, Keep, and Calendar
Over the years I’ve been searching for a task management app that would be just right. I keep finding flaws with everything I try, and no matter how hard I discipline myself into using something like Wunderlist or Todoist, the habit of using them only lasts a couple of weeks, at most. And every time I fall back on the “default” way of running things, with Google’s products.
And lately I’ve stopped looking for an alternative and embraced the holy-ish trinity of Inbox, Keep, and Calendar. Here’s how I use each:
At a glance, Inbox is just another email client. Coming from a heavily tweaked Gmail account, I didn’t like it at first – it has no labels, no signature, and a couple of other things I was used to. But I tried using Inbox like it’s meant to be used, and it quickly grew on me.
The Inbox Zero principle says that your inbox should always be empty. Much how Getting Things Done works, once you get an email you have to decide if it needs to be addressed now, later, delegated or deleted.
So that’s what I do: if I get an email that only needs reading I go over it and mark it as Done, sending it to the archive. Alternatively, I snooze the email until I can get it done – at that time (or place, snoozes can be location-specific as well) I address the email and move on.
As a result, my email’s inbox is almost always empty, and once I see the sun I know I can go about my day. I think of this service as my life’s newsfeed, and if it’s empty I’m free to focus on what needs my attention.
The new Chrome extension now has a quick shortcut for Chrome links, which you can save to Inbox – where they show up like any other email – or share them, which opens a new draft with the URL’s details already filled out. If you depend on Inbox more than any other service, this is a good way to bring everything together in one place.
Before using Keep, my life was a mess of text files. I literally had dozens of Notepad files with pieces of information scattered between them. If I was in a hurry, I’d quickly save the file as “asdasdsfasd.txt” – then spend way too much time actually finding what I wanted.
Google Keep takes all those snippets of information and tries to organize them. I treat it like Inbox, and only have the most relevant information “pinned” to the homescreen, while everything else is labeled and archived.
This is where I keep every piece of information I’d want to find someday, like lists of books and movies, short to-do lists, shopping lists, links I want to check out later, and random thoughts I want to come back to later.
And for the past couple of months I’ve been using Keep to draw on my phone. Every note now supports attachments – voice recordings, photos (that you can draw over), and sketches. You’re not going to make your new house’s floor plan on the thing, but if you’re putting together ideas and need a quick drawing, it’s more than enough.
Keep has recently been expanded with a Chrome extension as well, and it can be used to save links from the browser, and add a label to quickly organize the new note. I actually prefer saving links here – if Inbox is filled with stuff I need to do now, Keep can safely hold on to stuff I should take a look at sometime in the future.
The last piece of the puzzle, and by far the least used. I mainly use Calendar to plan meetings and other fixed events, and I haven’t gotten the hang of adding every single activity on my schedule. After all, do you really need to block your calendar when going out for the evening on the town?
But Calendar is still helpful due to its integration with the rest of the Google ecosystem. An added event will show up in Google Now on your phone and quietly remind you when to leave home to make it in time. If you’re planning a trip abroad (or even to another city) it’s even more helpful, as you get quick tips with tourist attractions, or weather reports for your destination.
The one thing that made me use Calendar more is the addition of goals. I started to use Goals by planning to practice German more, and Calendar set aside time for this every morning – so far, its tiny reminders have shamed me into practicing the new language for 15 minutes every day. So weit, so gut! In the future, I plan on adding more activities and hopefully fill out my schedule.
At the end of the day, though, Calendar is for me a tool that’s barely, although constantly, used. I’m sure I’m among the most casual users and you might find it infinitely more helpful.
You might’ve noticed how I left out Reminders when talking about the three big time management apps above. I did that because I feel reminders need a mention of their own, as they’re the most helpful feature Android (and Google in general) brought to the table in recent years.
Reminders can be set for a certain time or a location, and they’ll be synced across the entire ecosystem. You can now set, view and edit reminders from:
- Google (just type “Reminder” in the search bar)
- Google Now
- Android Wear watches
Snoozed emails can be added a reminder as a quick note to describe why you’re snoozing an email. Keep notes can also be added a reminder, and they’ll be seen across devices.
I rely on reminders a lot – generally, I think that if you have something to remember and don’t write it down right now it’s as good as forgotten. So I’ve got tons of them set
What doesn’t fit
As I said above, Google Now has its moments when it’s incredibly useful. But most of the time, it just falls short and becomes easy to ignore.
In a typical day, Google Now will show me where I parked, the weather outside, and about eight billion Stories to Read, including those from websites I’d blocked and on topics I’d blocked.
Now remains a great unfinished idea, even years after its launch. At least, this is how it is for us outside of the U.S., where we don’t get access to every feature from the G-man.
What’s still missing
I wish Reminders would steal some ideas from Google Tasks. They’re useful and all, but sometimes you don’t need a reminder for a specific date, you need an ongoing to-do list – and surprise, surprise, Tasks doesn’t sync across apps and devices.
If not that, then at least individual reminders for items in Keep checklists would make it a lot easier to get a grip on a task.
I think that Google is planning on upgrading all of these apps, but pays little attention to how they work together – and it’s a shame, because they’re close to being a near-perfect ecosystem with just a few tweaks here and there.
But Google seems to lack cohesion and a unified purpose for these apps. Last week they launched Save to Google, and this week they launched Save to Keep and Save to Inbox – all of them saving links in a different place.
My feeling is that Google is trying to appease everyone and give us a ton of options to use their ecosystem, tweaking it to our liking. But in doing that they lose focus on the big picture and Keep, Inbox, Google Now, Calendar, and so many other services don’t work together as one.
What sci-fi show shaped your vision of the future? For me it was Quantum Leap, where Ziggy would act as the perfect digital assistant. Any question you had, just ask Ziggy and get a response in a second. Our smartphones (and computers, by extension) lack that unity, but they’re slowly getting there, and Google’s productivity package is becoming more useful with time. I gave up on other task managers and to-do lists in favor of Google’s solutions and they’re proving to be awesome life manager tools.
It goes without saying that these aren’t the best services or that replacements are hard to find – you’ll always have Evernote, Wunderlist, Gmail, Outlook, and a plethora of alternatives, but in my book there’s no beating the combination of Inbox, Keep and Calendar.
If you saw that I missed something or have your own way of using these tools (or others) let me know in the comments below!
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