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How I Bent Gmail’s Hard Look into a Soft Kanban Board [Perhaps, out of Jealously] 

 September 8, 2020

By  Mila Chervenkova

So it’s the 20th of February around 10 PM.

I just took my pre-bed dosages of magnesium, zinc, and GABA. As I have hard times shutting down my brain, I will put my stereo phones and play my favorite ASMR video while I’m brushing my teeth.

This is my every night ritual before going to bed. It tells my brain — slow the f*** down and get some sleep. But there is one last thing left to do. One final note to write down. This is the last idea for the day, born while brushing my teeth (there is something magical around bathrooms).

This will take only 30 seconds. I will have to sign-in into Flow-e and open my Gmail account. Click on the “+” button and create a new task card. Write down your thoughts. Click Save. This is my flow, and I’ve done it thousands of times in the last 30 months.

Apparently, not tonight.

It happened.

Sign in with google temporary disabled for this app

Google has finally revoked Flow-e’s access to its API. The reason is this. And I knew that this was inevitable, but I guess I never took the time to process it and let go of the emotional side — that soon, Flow-e for Gmail won’t work.

So it’s the 21st of February around 10 AM. I have just finished my morning routine — an hour of reading and another hour of bending some iron in my home gym. I’ve completed two of the three most important actions for me in a single day. I took my L-Tyrosine dosage, which will do magic for my dopamine levels.

Basically, I just told my brain — pumpkin, let’s move some cards from left to right — it’s the Kanban dance. But as you remember from the start, I had yet to find a way to substitute Flow-e for Gmail with “something-else for Gmail.”

And since I know each one of Flow-e’s competitors, I went through all of them that morning. None of them I chose. I discarded’em all.

Not particularly because they were terrible or lacked functionality, but because they were not the app, I was building with my team 8 months ago, for the last 30 months (or so).

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It’s not personal — I would tell my ego. It’s emotional — she would echo back. Perhaps, I was a little bit jealous, too. All these Kanban solutions for Gmail were there, and Flow-e for Gmail was gone.

At this point, I did the most rational thing I can think of — take the old bad Gmail interface and convert it into a Kanban board (or at least try to do so). I think I did pretty well. That well, so I can actually enjoy looking at my Gmail account for the first time in the last 30 months.

Let me walk you through the exact steps

But first, here is how my current “flow” is built-in Gmail to replicate a Kanban board.

Update Sep, 2020: I have used this system daily for the past 8 months, and it works like a charm. The only thing that I changed was removing the DONE inbox. Instead of having a DONE inbox, now I have a READING LIST inbox (Gmail has a limitation of 5 additional inboxes per account).


I follow some newsletters that I enjoy reading, but it gets too cluttered when I leave them in my TO-DO inbox. I usually read all of the articles from the newsletters on Saturday. This way, I am decluttering my TO-DO inbox, leaving only what's important today for me to get done. On Saturday, I will declutter my READING LIST inbox.

My current “flow” is built-in Gmail to replicate a Kanban board

As you can see from the screenshot above, my workflow is simple:

  • Gmail Inbox = input folder;
  • To-Do = emails with the highest priority for the day;
  • In Progress = emails, I already work on but are NOT completed;
  • Tracking External = emails, which need further clarification/information/work from third parties, before moving them to:

a) In progress— in case I need to do more work on the task, before marking it as Done;

b) Done — all clarified, the task is completed, I don’t have to do anything else on the task.

  • Done = I will keep all completed emails here, from Monday to Sunday for each week. On each Monday morning, I will archive these emails so I can start fresh. I want to have a Done category so I can quickly look for a task I’ve completed during a given week in case I need to review it further (mistakes happen from time to time).
  • Resource = these are essential emails, which I usually open daily. They consist of information that I need daily. Once a given resource is no longer required, it will be moved to Done and archived.

I will further elaborate on some important DO’s and DON’Ts I think are useful Kanban and email practices to follow in order to create an efficient Kanban workflow.

But let’s first show you how to set your Gmail interface to look more like a neat nest for (or wannabe) productivity freaks.

We will use only two of Gmail’s primary settings:

  • Labels — each label will relate to a given Inbox.
  • Multiple Inboxes — depending on the workflow we chose, we can set up to five Inboxes, which will represent a given label.

First, we need to create the labels we will use as input folders for the multiple inboxes:

  • Go to the Gear icon, click on Settings, choose Labels. Locate the “Labels” field and click on “Create a new label.” You will have to create 5 labels (if you follow my flow example) — To-do, In progress, Tracking external, Done*, and Resources.

*you will get a warning that Done is a system label and cannot be used. Just use Dones instead of Done.

First, we need to create the labels we will use as input folders for the multiple inboxes

Second, go to Multiple Inboxes. You have two fields to fill:

  • Search query — this is the name of the label, always put “is:label name” as you see it on the screenshot below.
  • Section name — how you want your inbox name to be displayed. It is usually the name of the label, representing your workflow.
Second, go to Multiple Inboxes. You have two fields to fill

There are two additional preferences you can set:

  • Maximum page size — how many emails do you want to be displayed for each inbox. I’ve set it to 5 emails. My advice is to keep your email lists (inboxes) short and clean.
  • Multiple inbox position — where do you want your multiple inboxes to be located. Play around and decide for yourself. I prefer my inbox to be on top so I can have a quicker view of the input inbox and what’s important (primary Gmail inbox).
There are two additional preferences you can set
And that’s it. You are all set. It won’t take you more than 3–5 minutes to create this system.

Here are some additional customizations you can do to make your system even more visual and digestible by your brain at a glance:

  • Use Gmail’s stars to indicate the type and importance of a given email, once moved to a specific inbox (this is important, don’t put stars within the inbox, but after you have seen the email and decided the priority on that email for the day). Click on the Gear icon, click on Settings, choose General. Scroll down until you locate the Stars field. Choose the stars, which will have a greater impact on your brain and their symbolic meaning. “In use” are the ones I have chosen. They contain a symbol which my mind can easily associate with the importance of the task.
some additional customizations you can do to make your system even more visual and digestible by your brain at a glance
  • Desktop notifications — I suggest you turn them off so they cannot interrupt your flow. But it’s up to you and your work style.
  • Conversation view — I prefer to keep it ON so that the whole conversation on a given topic stays within the thread. This saves me a ton of time when I have to find a particular email from the thread.
  • Configure inbox — turn off the Social, Forum, and Promotional tabs. They will be available anyway on the left sidebar. Don’t distract yourself with promotional stuff. You can check them later when the important tasks are completed.
Configure inbox
  • Labels — I have many labels, and I don’t want them displayed on the left sidebar. Any additional and unnecessary icon visually clutters my brain. Instead, from the Label settings, I have selected for a label to be visible only when a new message is unread and related to that label. Also, I strongly suggest you not to automatically label your emails, thus avoiding them going through your primary inbox (unless the emails are promos and non-actionable items — but ask yourself, why do you keep them anyway?)
Gmail Labels
  • Change your background — my brain needs the contrast between the back and the front of what is visualized. I prefer darker (but not “dark mode”) backgrounds so that I can easily focus and skim all tasks (emails) on the front. Click on the Gear icon and choose a background from the Themes drop-down menu.
Change your background

Thoughts on how I digest emails: DOs and DON’Ts

I have seen and participated in many unproductive conversations on Twitter, where people with blue badges will argue how Email cannot be used as a unified system for task management and how Inbox Zero is achievable only when you hit the “archive all emails” button.

Bullshit.

Then, how was I able to do so for the last 30 months (and counting) with multiple email accounts, having a day job for a startup, plus after-hours working on my personal projects? All this while maintaining neat and clean inboxes and using them as a unified place for emails, appointments, tasks, ideas, shopping lists, etc.

You don’t have to be a genius. You only have to stick to one habit. I want to stress out that the sole goal is not achieving Inbox Zero for the sake of having zero emails.

The sole goal for having a doable email system is at any given time (when working) to be the best version of myself when supporting my colleagues and businesses I work with, by providing them with the required information and response in an acceptable time frame.

And although flawed, systems are an excellent way to tame the chaos around the office. Plus once such a system is put to work, it needs very little human input [habit] to keep working.

Here are the Tips I stick to:

  • Cliche — but UNSUBSCRIBE from anything not profoundly related to your work or side projects. I would suggest you keep only five weekly newsletters, and no more than 1–2 daily newsletters active. Cancel the noise.
  • If you are just starting out with the “Kanban approach to Gmail,” don’t try to fit your old 1000 emails into this system — it will fail. If these are social updates, promotions, forum updates, notifications, newsletters — just delete them. You would never be able to read them all unless you take a month off just to do that (and it will be a complete waste of time, I guarantee you).
  • From the screenshots, you may have noticed that I treat blog articles I am subscribed to as To-Dos. I won’t prioritize reading them through the day, but rather when I am finished with the priorities for the day. I treat articles as to-dos because what I read is actionable — I will take notes and actually implement them in my daily life and work. I have chosen very carefully what to subscribe to and what to read.
  • I will open an email and skim it right away. If the email requires two-three minutes of my time and no follow-up actions, I will deal with it right away from the inbox.
  • Schedule only what you can handle for the day. Be realistic with your input and output ratio.
  • Don’t snooze emails, unless they are to be dealt with in at least a month (like regular medical checks). But if it works for you, then go ahead and snooze. I don’t snooze any emails — out of sight, out of mind.
  • Of course, work on a single task at any given moment. You cannot multitask. Period.
  • Visualization is the most powerful way for the brain to digest information, set the right priorities, and stick to a habit. So visualize. That’s why I am such a slut for all-things-being-Kanban. Visualization is one of the key components of the Kanban method.
  • Declutter and minimize the interface of your Gmail inbox by hiding unnecessary tabs, labels, folders, chats, contacts, notifications, etc.

Perhaps, there are a few more good email practices I am missing out, but these are definitely the most impactful.

Also, I want to clarify that I haven’t invented this approach to Gmail. It has always been there — mostly forgotten and unutilized.

And to conclude:

"I believe in the charisma of a strong character, and it needs a lot more than “I’ll get back to you whenever I can.” I don’t care about Inbox Zero. I care about not letting people down."

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If you want to know more about Kanban and what exactly Flow-e is, click here for Kanban and here for Flow-e (available for Outlook only).

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Mila Chervenkova


Marketing Diva, Extra-preneur

Own Your Future

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