Hand writing a to-do list in a notebook.
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If you’re using OHIO (Only Handle It Once) to triage your email, you probably want to turn some of your emails into tasks. Here’s how to do that quickly and efficiently so you can get on with handling your other emails.

Make It Quick and Easy

Your inbox is not a to-do list; it’s an inbox. It’s tempting to leave emails in your inbox because it’s easier, but then tasks you need to accomplish are buried in the incoming deluge of email.

Here’s why people run into trouble. The manual process for turning an email into a task often goes something like this:

  1. Open your preferred to-do list manager.
  2. Create a new task.
  3. Copy and paste the relevant parts of the email into the new task.
  4. Set the details, such as priority, due date, color code, and anything else you use.
  5. Save the new task.
  6. Archive or delete the email.

That’s six steps, just to add something to a to-do list. No wonder you end up with emails cluttering your inbox. What if you could cut those six steps down to four? Or three?

Well, you can! And we’re going to show you how.

RELATED: Forget Inbox Zero: Use OHIO to Triage Your Emails Instead

Some Email Clients Are Better for Task Creation Than Others

There are many clients available for managing your email and, as you might expect, some are better than others for creating tasks.

For web clients, Gmail does the job very well. The Tasks application is built-in, and it’s easy to turn a mail into a task. There’s even a keyboard shortcut to create a task straight from a mail—no mousing required. If you don’t want a desktop client, Gmail’s probably your best bet.

For Windows desktop clients, Outlook wins hands down. Thunderbird does have some built-in task management features, and they’re not bad, but Outlook is much slicker and allows you to connect to myriad third-party apps. If you can’t use Outlook for some reason, Thunderbird is a good alternative. If you already use a third-party to-do list manager, though, Thunderbird won’t cut the mustard.

On a Mac, the picture is a bit less positive. Apple Mail does task management poorly compared to Gmail and Outlook. If you want to manage tasks on a desktop client, your best option is probably Thunderbird for Mac. Or you can send email to your third-party to-do list manager and manage them there.

When it comes to mobile apps, both Gmail and Outlook work pretty much the same. Neither has the task creation tools of the web or client versions, but they both automatically carry over the add-ins to third-party apps. So, if you manage your tasks in Trello and install the add-in to the Gmail or Outlook client, it’s automatically available when you open the corresponding mobile app, as well. In addition, when you install an add-in to Outlook, it automatically installs on the desktop client, and the mobile and web apps.

The same as on a Mac, people who have an iPhone and want to use Apple Mail are not going to get much from the mobile app. You can use Gmail or Outlook clients, but they’re not much use if you want to synchronize your tasks from your phone to your Mac.

Because Gmail and Outlook are the cream of this particular crop, we’ll focus on those. If you’ve got a favorite client that handles task creation really well, let us know in the comments, and we’ll take a look.

Creating Tasks From Gmail

Google provides an application called Tasks, which is built-in to Gmail. It’s a simple to-do list manager with pretty minimal options, although there’s a mobile app which gives you a few more customization options. If you need something simple that works tightly with your Gmail inbox, Tasks is a solid choice. Converting an email into a task is super-simple: With the email open, click the “More” button in the taskbar and select “Add to Tasks.”

If you’re a shortcut person, Shift+T does the same thing. The Tasks app opens in the sidebar showing your new task.

The Gmail Tasks app.

If you need to edit the task to add a due date, additional details, or subtasks, click the Edit icon.

There’s no need to save the changes, as it’s done automatically. When you’re finished, click the Archive button in your Inbox (or use the keyboard shortcut “e”) to move the email to your Archive.

That’s three simple steps:

  1. Click the “Add to Tasks” option (or use the Shift+T shortcut).
  2. Set the due date, additional details, or subtasks.
  3. Archive (or delete) the email.

As a bonus, you can set Chrome to show your Tasks when you open a new tab. There’s an iOS and Android app for Tasks. It’s just as easy to create a task in the mobile app as it is in the web app. Click the three dots at the top of the mail and select “Add to Tasks.”

Tap "Add to Tasks."

This immediately creates a new task.

If Google Tasks doesn’t have everything you need, or if you’re already comfortable with another to-do manager, there’s probably a Gmail add-in for it. Currently, there are add-ins for popular to-do apps, like Any.do, Asana, Jira, Evernote, Todoist, and Trello, and others (although, not Microsoft To-Do or Apple Reminders).

We’ve previously covered installing Gmail add-ins generally, and the Trello add-in specifically. Different add-ins give you different options, but all to-do list add-ins generally allow you to add a task directly from a selected email. To-do list add-ins are also available as web and mobile apps which automatically sync with each other. And just like Tasks, you can access your add-ins when you’re in the Gmail mobile app.

The Gmail mobile app showing an email with the Trello add-in highlighted.

Creating Tasks From Outlook

Outlook has a built-in app called Tasks, which is also available as a web app in Office 365. Things get a bit more complicated here because back in 2015 Microsoft bought Wunderlist, the popular to-do manager. It’s spent the last four years turning it into a new Office 365 web-only app called (perhaps a little unimaginatively) Microsoft To-Do. It’s eventually going to replace the built-in Tasks functionality in Outlook.

RELATED: Which Apps Come With Office 365?

However, right now, Tasks is still the Outlook to-do manager, and there isn’t a defined date or Outlook version when this will change. We’re only mentioning this because if you use O365, you’ll find that any tasks you add to Outlook Tasks also appear in Microsoft To-Do. To-Do doesn’t yet display all the data you can add to a Task but, at some point, it will.

For now, Microsoft Tasks is the built-in Outlook task manager, so we’ll focus on that.

Using the Outlook Desktop Client

This is where Microsoft traditionally excels, and they don’t let you down here, either. There are multiple methods for creating a task from an email to cater to all tastes. You can:

  1. Drag and drop an email into the To-Do pane.
  2. Move or copy the email into the Tasks folder from the right-click context menu.
  3. Use a Quick Step to create a task.

We’re going to focus on using a Quick Step because this offers the most bang for our buck, and you can assign a keyboard shortcut to a Quick Step for good measure.

If you’ve never used Outlook Tasks before, check out our guide to the To-Do pane so you can see your tasks next to your mail.

Once you’ve opened the To-Do pane, we’re going to create a Quick Step that marks the email as read, creates a task, and moves the email to your archive. We’re also going to add a keyboard shortcut, so you never have to use your mouse to create a task from an email.

Quick Steps allow you to define multiple actions for a single button click (or keyboard shortcut). They’re simple to create and even simpler to use, but if you’ve not checked them out before, we’ve got a definitive guide on them. Once you’ve read that guide, create a new Quick Step, and then add the following actions:

  1. Create a task with the text of the message.
  2. Mark as read.
  3. Move to folder (and select your Archive folder as the folder to move to).

The Outlook "Edit Quick Step" panel.

Choose a keyboard shortcut for it and give it a name (like, “Create task and Archive”), and then click “Save.” It’s now visible in the Home > Quick Steps section.

The "Create Task & Archive" quick step highlighted.

Now, whenever you want to turn an email into a task, just click the Quick Step (or use the keyboard shortcut), and it creates a new task. It takes the title from the subject line of the email, and the body of the email becomes the content.

Edit any details you want (there are a lot more customization options in Outlook Tasks than there are in Gmail Tasks) and click “Save & Close.”

Unlike Gmail, you do need to save the new task but, also unlike Gmail, the Quick Step archives the email for you.

So that’s three simple steps for Outlook as well:

  1. Click the Quick Step (or use the shortcut you assigned).
  2. Set any options or details as you see fit.
  3. Click “Save & Close.”

Using the Outlook Web App

At this point, you might be expecting us to show you how to create a task using the Outlook web app (Outlook.com). We’re not going to because there’s no native way to turn an email into a task in the Outlook web app. You can flag a mail, which means it will show up in the Tasks list, but that’s it.

This is a surprising oversight from Microsoft. We can’t help but feel that, at some point, there will be a switchover to Microsoft To-Do which will include a tight Outlook > To-Do integration.

Things are a bit better when it comes to third-party app integration, though. Currently, there are add-ins for popular to-do apps, like Asana, Jira, Evernote, and Trello, as well as others (although not Gmail Tasks or Apple Reminders). Different add-ins give you different options, but, as with Gmail, all to-do list add-ins generally allow you to add a task directly from a selected email, and have both the web and mobile apps automatically sync.

Using the Outlook Mobile App

Just like the Outlook web app, there’s no native way of converting a mail into a task from the Outlook mobile app, although there is a Microsoft To-Do app available for both iOS and Android. It tracks emails you’ve flagged in any of the Outlook apps, but that’s not really the same as task integration. If you want to convert Outlook emails into Outlook Tasks, you really need to use the Outlook client.

If you’re using a third-party to-do list manager, you can access your add-ins when you’re in the Outlook mobile app.

The Outlook mobile app, with the Trello add-in highlighted.

Creating Tasks from Apple Mail

If you’re using Apple Mail, your only real options are to forward your mail to a third-party app (such as Any.do or Todoist) and manage your tasks there, or drag and drop emails into Reminders. So, for Apple, the manual process is:

  1. Open your preferred to-do list manager.
  2. Forward the email to a third-party app or drop it into Reminders.
  3. Set the details, such as priority, due date, color code, and anything else you use.
  4. Save the new task.
  5. Archive or delete the email.

There’s not much you can do to improve that process because Apple hasn’t coupled Mail and Reminders very tightly. The company also doesn’t allow much integration with third-party apps. Until this changes (and we’re doubtful that will happen any time soon), your best option is to forward your mail to a third-party to-do list manager.

If you prefer to handle your emails only once, task creation should be as quick and easy as possible. Otherwise, your inbox will continue to be a to-do list.

With their to-do list managers and third-party add-ins, Gmail and Outlook give you the tools you need to create tasks from emails quickly, easily, and efficiently.

Profile Photo for Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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