A few months ago, I did an overhaul of my digital life. Those posts were all about switching smartphone platforms from Apple iOS to Android. What was most revealing to me was not the hardware and software differences, but just how I get things done now.
In the end, I’m not unhappy with my switch. I tend to get things done better on Android. That’s not a light admission, as I’m a longtime Apple product user. So to begin the switch away from the Apple ecosystem is somewhat shocking to me.
The next target in my lifehacking experiment? Email. It’s a corner of my digital life that is kind of scary. There’s old chests full of dusty “hello”s and “newsletters” and “for sale”s that I haven’t been able to get rid of. I have email from my college days (when I first started emailing… when everyone first starting emailing).
And for just about as many moons, I’ve had this here domain name, ElectroLund.com. Along with it, I’ve been using self-hosted domain email (firstname.lastname@example.org). But the price of vanity email is quite high in this modern age of ubiquitous cloud communication. In other words, a self-hosted address isn’t exactly portable.
Not exactly. There is IMAP, which sort of worked for me for a time. But there are costly storage constraints when considering 10 years of email to keep on a server. And I’ve switched hosts many, many times. Relocation is exhausting, and simply takes away from what I really should be doing here: writing, soldering, and writing about soldering.
Yeah, so back to the whole thinking smarter and not harder… I’ve never been known for early adoption of technology, though I follow it obsessively. Case in point is this whole cloud revolution. So the next 600-700 words will sound positively adorable to all of you who are on the bleeding edge.
I just discovered gmail.
Not really, but kind of definitely. I mean, I’ve had a gmail account attached to my google login for, like, ever. But I hadn’t been utilizing its full potential at all. So as I further pondered how I get stuff done with my digital life (with regard to my phone, my music, my photo library), it made sense to reexamine how my email could benefit as well.
Enter gmail. It immediately made better sense to me to use one more product of Google’s. After some research, I discovered that they support downloading of external email accounts — like my electrolund.com account! This was a revelation. Because I could do 100% of my email management from one tool, rather than two.
But it doesn’t just stop there. It’s not that I simply needed a better email client. What I could benefit from even further was the extended power of Google’s ecosystem. Let’s dive in.
Google might very well be the most stable network of servers on the planet. They have server farm after farm, acres of redundant machines all keeping my content up at 99.999999999% of the time. That’s a metric that I’ll never be able to touch with my self-hosted email. So migrating my email through their servers just makes good sense. And that I did. All ~5,000 of them transferred up onto the cloud pretty painlessly.
Google is search. So it would make sense that searching your email inside Gmail is pretty fantastic. And fast! I’ve been amazed at the speed of the results. Also, there are a wealth of complex search tokens you can use, like AND and OR and others. I get consistently faster, better results from searching gmail that I have in any local email client on a computer.
For my self-hosted email, I was relying on a third-party filter product called MXGuarddog. It’s pretty awesome and they give you free filtering with an ad placed on your website. I was very happy with it.
But let’s face it, why not just let Google do it. They’re really good at the algorithm business. And besides, all that is integrated in the same tool (gmail), along with my gmail mail account. One stop shopping.
I’m restating the obvious here. “Clouds” are so ubiquitous now that we take them for granted. But not until I began to use Google’s cloud for actually getting stuff done in my life that I saw how truly awesome it was. To have access to all of my email, dating back to ~1999, is pretty amazing. I’m no longer hamstrung by size limitations. Only the limitation of my free Google account, which currently weighs in at 17GB. Gigabytes! That’s incredible.
Connected cloud applications
Here’s where you begin to see some GTD power coming through.
- Google Photos
- Google Drive
Being able to compose a new email, or reply to a received email, and attach any photo I’ve ever taken on my phone, by simply clicking the Photos attachment is mind boggling to me. Gmail is inherently connected to the Photos product, which lately has been making waves for its intelligence. That’s power. Keep in mind that I’m at no time ever connecting a cable to my phone to get these photos up into the cloud. They just magically appear there within seconds, at the ready for later use in other products like gmail.
Now onto Google Drive. Here’s a little gem of a connected feature. When you receive email with attachments, let’s say a bill or invoice PDF, you have some interesting options. In my case, I have various family records in my Google Drive.
Now in the old days of my antiquated email workflow, I would need to be at my desktop computer, download the attachment, and then place the attachment in some local hard drive (from which I did all manual periodic backups).
But now… Drive. In gmail, there is an option to save any attachment to your Drive. Did you get that? Here’s what’s happening behind the digital scenes: an email attachment’s link in Gmail can be relocated to a new reference in the Drive product. In so doing, Google’s bread and butter (extremely intelligent indexing) gets you free storage, in that you don’t have this file in two locations. You now only have it in one: where you want it, filed away in your Drive. Back in Gmail, in the original email message, is only a reference to the Drive location. Genius.
So far, I haven’t quite completed the transition for my GTD uses.
For instance, I’ve been a longtime paid user of the wonderful products Mail Act On and MailTags by Indev Software, both tools that plug into Mac OS X’s mail client. They extend the functionality of Mail by allowing you to tag your mail, and to sort the mail with shortcut keys.
Now in switching my mail to Gmail, the above tools don’t get obsoleted. They simply change a little. I use them differently. Obviously, they can only be used from Mac computers. So when I’m on my work Windows machine or my Android phone, I don’t have access to them.
There are other oddities between platforms that are annoying, but not deal breakers. In Gmail, the concept of “stars” and “importance” isn’t compatible with OS X’s Mail client. That’s been frustrating, as I relied on both for my GTD workflow when I was working exclusively on my Mac.
So some of those details aren’t quite ironed out yet. But I think I’m nearly in the 21st century now… along with nearly the rest of the civilized world.