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How to Handle Email with Omnifocus

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Omnifocus and Email

People often ask me “how do you integrate email with Omnifocus?” so I decided to share how I do this. There are a lot of email clients out there today, but no matter which one you use, the principles are the same. Here’s an example of a workflow that you can use right away.

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Email Management 101

Before we get started, I first want to make sure that you have read our article on email management where we explained a simple system you can use for managing your email. This workflow is the same to what you are about to read, but I will zoom in on dealing with Omnifocus in the workflow.

So assuming that you have read it, here is the workflow in a flowchart.

Our email management workflow copied from our other article.

Here are two things to keep in mind:

  • Any email that can be dealt with is less than 2 minutes, you deal with it right away.
  • Any email that requires a response that takes more than 2 minutes turns into a task in Omnifocus.

Anytime you read an email and it takes longer than two minutes to reply, you create an action item in your Omnifocus inbox to process. (Or you directly delegate the email action into the right project, whichever your preference is.) You can see email as another source of information that you can gather for your Omnifocus inbox. Once it is in your inbox, you treat it the same way you would do any task in your Omnifocus inbox.

The challenge is how to effectively manage tasks that come from emails and dealing with the sender. Adding tasks from email into Omnifocus is not a problem, but properly prioritizing among other tasks, managing them and getting back to the sender can be challenging.

Omnifocus Setup

We have covered many ways of setting up and using Omnifocus which briefly included managing emails. I highly recommend you create a context called Email which you will use for action items that involve replying to emails. You will only use this context for emails that require lengthy responses and nothing else. This is a really important part of the workflow. If someone sends you an email asking for reviewing an attached contract, you wouldn’t assign the Email context in this case. Rather, something else that is more appropriate (see our Omnifocus setup). Near the bottom of this article you will see how that works.

Then the next step is setting up a perspective for the Email context so you can easily access tasks just revolved around emails. This becomes really useful whenever you have some spare time for replying to emails. All you have to do is fire up your Email perspective and you will have a list of emails you can work with.

With so many different email clients out there today, I will show you how to use Omnifocus with Mailplane. The principles in this workflow are the same no matter which email client you use, but I will show you specifically how to use Mailplane with Omnifocus.

For all Mailplane users, you need to install this clipper plugin. This allows you to clip emails with links back to the original email. This is VERY USEFUL. I really can’t live without this plugin and this is what makes the workflow work. Other email clients will have this feature by default, but for Mailplane you need to install this plugin. I simply use Mailplane because I love the Gmail interface.

Examples of Email Management with Omnifocus

To give you an idea how this workflow works, I’m going to show you three different examples of emails and ways of handling them.

Email One – The Quickie

Hey Thanh,

Quick question: Who is more efficient: you or me?

-Aaron

Since this email requires a response from me but takes less than two minutes to act on, I’m going to respond right away. With any email that you read, estimate how much you time think you need to respond. If it is longer than two minutes, turn it into a task (see below). Otherwise, respond right away and move on. In this case, I just replied with “my mom.”

Email Two – The Thoughtful One

Sometimes you will get emails that require a little longer than two minutes to respond to, but don’t require a lot of effort. In that case, you still want to put it into Omnifocus as a task with the context set to “Email”. An example of this is:

Hi Thanh,

I love the Asian Efficiency blog. Do you have any more articles on the site that I should read for someone who is brand new to time management?

Thanks in advance,
Michelle

Technically, I could respond in less than two minutes. But anyone who loves this blog and emails me, always gets an in depth response that often takes more than ten minutes. So I select the body of the email, right click and select Services > Omnifocus: Send to Inbox.

Send to Omnifocus Inbox

Select your relevant part of the email and send that to your Omnifocus inbox. The selected text will be included in your task’s notes.

As you can see in the inbox and quick entry box, when you check the note of the task, there is a link back to the original email. When you click on the link, Mailplane gets opened and opens the email. I can’t say how awesome this is. Other email clients that work with Omnifocus offer the same functionality.

Email in Omnifocus quick entry box

Notice how the link in the notes is the subject line of the email. Once you click on it, you get redirected back to the original email.

Now that it is in my inbox, I would label it with the Email context. This is because the email takes longer than two minutes to deal with and requires a thoughtful response. There are emails which require you to do other things besides responding. For example, someone is asking you to generate a report and send it back to the sender. How you process tasks of that nature is shown in the example below.

Email Three – The Biggie

Hey buddy,

I need some analytical data from Google Analytics. Can you send me a report with some statistics on brand engagement, most popular posts and traffic sources? Anytime this weekend should be fine.

-Aaron

Such an email obviously requires a lot of work, besides the lengthy reply. You can have it as one task, or even as a project. In that case, what I do is:

  • I respond with something like “Okay I will get this for you” so the sender knows I read the email.
  • Create a task from this email in Omnifocus, but NOT with the Email context.
  • See where this tasks fall into my daily priorities and then act accordingly.

It’s important to understand why I am not labeling it with the Email context. That context is only reserved for emails that simply require long responses. Nothing more, nothing less. Any email that makes you act on something else, gets another context.

Whenever you are then working on the task derived from an email and finish the work, this is what you usually do:

  • Click on the subject line link that brings you back to the original email.
  • Reply and attach your work.
  • Tick off the task in Omnifocus.

That’s really it. It is that easy.

NOTE: Just because you received an email on a specific day, does not mean that the work needs to be done in the same day. You have to be able to prioritize. Unless it is specifically stated that something needs to be done the same day the email was sent, you can safely assume you can do it another day if that fits with your priorities.

Email and iOS Omnifocus

Nowadays I’m sure you also process emails from your iPhone and/or iPad. As of now, you can’t directly use Omnifocus from the Mail app on iOS. To workaround that, if you use the Mail app on OS X, you can send yourself specially crafted emails that will land in your Omnifocus inbox.

Since I don’t use the Mail app, I usually keep the email unread in my inbox and the next time I’m inbox zero’ing on my Mac I will deal with it. It’s not really efficient because you touch it more than once but it does work. If you have a better solution, I would love to hear it in the comments!

Next Action

  • For any email that takes longer than 2 minutes to respond to, create a task in Omnifocus. Otherwise, respond right away.

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More Email Tips

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18 Comments

Posted by Aalok Yashwant Shukla  | December 30, 2011 at 6:28PM | Reply

Hey guys, just finished reading your omnifocus series, really monumental outstanding work.Really. What do you use to create the flow diagrams& system diagrams with? 

Posted by Thanh Pham  | January 1, 2012 at 2:33PM

Hey Aalok, thanks for the kind words! We hope you enjoy our content as you explore more of it.

The software we use is Omnigraffle. It’s very easy to use and I can highly recommend it.

Posted by Suzanne  | May 28, 2012 at 9:51AM | Reply

Hi Thanh, still loving every bit of your site. I am having trouble installing the plugin for mailplane. I can’t find the proper “libraries” folder that the mailplain site insists I look for. I found no subfolders relating to omnifocus at all. I tried creating a plugins folder in the same folder omnifocus was in but it’s not working at all. Is this still a current workflow for you? I would love to link directly to mailplane messages from omnifocus.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | May 28, 2012 at 1:14PM

Hi Suzanne yes it’s a tricky situation. There is a Library folder but it is hidden. By default, Finder hides all hidden files and folders. Here’s how you enter it.

1. Make sure you are in your home directory (click on your name in Finder).
2. In Finder, go to the top menu, Go > Go To Folder.
3. Type in: Library

That should get you in the folder and then you can proceed as normal.

Posted by Suzanne  | May 29, 2012 at 8:35PM | Reply

thanks Thanh, it looks like it worked. So I have a ton of folders in gmail, but after re-reading your email management posts I created a “1 Reply” so that the 1 makes it show up at the very top in all my platforms, including iphone. (I have a terrible habit of checking email constantly on the phone). The fact that I don’t have to scroll to throw something in that folder is huge.

The other thing that really stood out was the comment that the more time you spend on each email when first processing, the less likely you are to discover which ones have the highest priority. If you spend time processing them sequentially…you just don’t know if email 9 is more important than email 2! I don’t know how I never ealized this before. I get between 20 & 80 emails a day with my coaching business…most are simple workout reports for athletes and not all require a response.

But that “blocking” that occurs by leaving emails in my inbox that need a response really inhibits efficient processing of the rest of my email.

It’s a different way of thinking and this is one small change that has arleady made a positive impact. Tonight I took about 40 minutes to sit down and work thorugh my “reply” folder, knowing that I hadn’t lost someone in a sea of less important emails.

Now with the omnifocus plugin working, I think this will be a breeze. (Just gotta find time to DO stuff…not just process & organize it).

THnaks, sorry this comment is so long.

Posted by Chris Murphy  | July 28, 2012 at 2:32PM | Reply

I found a great video on YouTube that allows users that use Mail the same functionality that Mailplane provides when processing email with Omnifocus. This might be especially helpful right now since Mailplane is jacked up after the recent Mountain Lion OS X release.

Processing Email With Omnifocus
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6lqlKzlRPw

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 30, 2012 at 2:46AM

Hi Chris yeah the 2.x version of Mailplane doesn’t currently work on Mountain Lion, but if you update to the 3.x beta it does work. I actually like the new version a lot more too.

Thanks for sharing the video, I’m sure lots of readers would benefit from this too.

Posted by Steve Koterski  | November 16, 2012 at 3:52PM | Reply

This is a good article, as are all of the articles in your series of articles on OmniFocus.

There is just one thing I would add: What to do when the email is not on the same computer as the Mac with OmniFocus? For instance, of necessity my work machine is Windows (due to Windows-only tools like Flare and RoboHelp).

OmniFocus provides a very easy solution. It’s described in detail in their user guide. Here’s a nutshell. The OmniFocus preferences creates a rule for Mail. This rule calls an AppleScript that creates an action in OmniFocus based on the subject line of the incoming email. Any email with a subject line prefixed with a user-specified marker (I use “++”) is snatched up to become a task. Then codes allow you to specify a context (“@”), a project (“>”), a due date (“#”), etc. This all works very well.

Posted by Steve H  | August 2, 2013 at 12:43AM

A slightly easier solution is to use OmniFocus Mail Drop. Just forward the message to your Mail Drop address and Omni takes care of the rest. I just shows up in your OmniFocus Inbox no matter if you are on a Mac, iPad, or iPhone. No need to rely on Mail.app to process it. One caveat: you need to be using OmniSync Server to sync your devices. More info at http://www.omnigroup.com/support/omnifocus-mail-drop.

Posted by Joe Cotellese  | March 24, 2014 at 12:43PM

I agree with you Steve, mail drop is the easiest way to do this. Plus it makes it easy to process emails while on your mobile device.

Bonus in that it’s platform agnostic so it works with Android as well

Posted by Russell James  | December 17, 2012 at 2:04PM | Reply

Hi Thanh,

Fantastic, as usual.

I didn’t know I could highlight the email and send it straight to OF. The problem I’m having is that I do’t get the link within OF to click to take me back to the email.

I’m using Mailplane.

Posted by Renaud Adorno  | April 23, 2013 at 10:00AM | Reply

Mailplane is the best solution I’ve found so far. But can you imagine that I could avoid the need of using a Mac if only I could have such links for it on the iPad?

Is there any software for iOS that could do such thing as create direct email links? I so miss this feature. It would allow me to work the same way I do on the Mac while I’m on the road.

How do you guys do it so that you can resume your work while on the go? If no technical solution available yet for this. What’s the best “workaround” workflow you guys would recommend?

Thanks! This is crucial to my work!

Posted by Rafa Gutierrez  | September 26, 2013 at 11:15AM | Reply

Great article as always!

I used to have A LOT of labels in Gmail (family, friends, clients, potential clients… ) and well, it worked for a while and everything was in its place. After realized that sometimes I still used the search to find some emails, I decided to change my mind and let everything of the past go to the archive… I have implemented your email management system for a few days and it works, no doubt about that. I am also still fighting with OmniFocus contexts and then I realized:

Since “OmniFocus: Send to Inbox” create a new task and keeps a link to the current email for future reference, then I just use this for:

1. Emails that I have to reply and takes > 2min (Context Email : Reply>2min)
2. Emails that needs an action (Context Email : Convert to tasks)
3. Emails I have sent and waiting or a reply (Context Email : Waiting)

The last kind of email I am not sure yet to assign the waiting context for that person or just a waiting email context. I guess it depends if u work a lot with that person or you just ask for a quotation.

My question is, after use the Service “Omnifocus: Send to Inbox” then I still can access to that email from Omnifocus, no matter which of the 3 kinds of Context I use… so then why use a Folder for reply and a folder for waiting in the Mail?

I just create the task for later reply and archive the mail… I have everything in OF to get back to that mail and reply when time has come.

So I just have inbox and sent has shortcuts. Inbox to check everything… then I create the task, assign the context and archive the mail. If I send an email and I will be waiting for the reply, then after send the email I go to the sent folder and create an OF task with waiting context.

What do you think? In any case, thank you very much for sharing your methods : )

Posted by daniel  | October 17, 2013 at 2:47PM | Reply

thanks for the useful tips. Can you also tell us how you made the nice flow diagram?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | October 17, 2013 at 4:44PM

Omnigraffle :)

Posted by Joe Cotellese  | March 24, 2014 at 12:45PM

I felt after there was bit of a learning curve after using Visio for years. After a few weeks it became really intuitive. It also has great trackpad gesture support.

Posted by Mike Schmitz  | March 30, 2014 at 11:53PM | Reply

Regarding iOS email and Omnifocus integration, have you checked out Dispatch? It allows you to create Omnifocus tasks from within the email app – pretty powerful stuff.

Posted by Henrik  | May 2, 2014 at 9:11AM

I like Dispatch! I still need to use the IOS Mail and Gmail app but for quickly going through my new emails, sorting, DELETING, 2min answering and sending over to Omnifocus it’s good. It has also made me realize what kind of functionality I would really like. I would love if there was a way to flick an email with a finger (like you do to archive something in Dispatch) that would make it appear in my Omnifocus Inbox (with a link back to the mail) and also archive it. That would be the ultimate email processing app for me.

I know there are smart guys out there, and that you Aaron and Thanh are slick, maybe you know of a way?

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