Relative Sanity

a journal

Extracting actions to OmniFocus from Mail on iOS

One of the cornerstones of a sane action management system is a single, rock solid inbox where everything to be done eventually ends up for triage. If you don't have this, you won't trust your system to capture everything, and your mind is going to keep getting distracted by the worry that you'll forget something super important.

OmniFocus allows for a great inbox-oriented workflow, which I'll write up in more detail some day. What I want to talk about today is one of the ways actions can end up in that inbox.

The Cockroach of the Internet

Despite the number of new initiatives that aim to kill it each year, email is not going away any time soon. I'll often get emails from clients or colleagues asking for updates on projects, or requesting that I take on something new.

In fact, here's one now:

It's at this point I usually despair of Mail's woeful sharing capabilities. Sharing this email with OmniFocus feels like the right thing to do here, but Mail has no way to share messages with other apps as of iOS 9.

However, stop for a moment and actually read the message. There are multiple actions in this email: a request to pull together and send an update, and another one to draft up an article. If I could share this with OmniFocus as-is, I'd need to remember to split these things out when I triaged my inbox later.

I decide to copy and paste the first action to OmniFocus:

Wait a minute, does that say "Share…"? It sure does. What happens if I tap it?

Oh my. Does it work?

You're damn right it works.

But what about…?

So this is good, but it's really little more than a glorified copy and paste. The resultant action in OmniFocus has no link back to the mail message it's taken from (despite the fact that mail message URLs exist and are used in iOS), and any attachments in the email are stripped out (including inline images, HTML formatting and so on). This is not a replacement for first-class email sharing in iOS, but it's certainly simpler than the alternative. It also encourages me to extract actions from emails at the point of importing, providing a solution to the fundamental problem with using your email inbox as a todo list: emails are not tasks.

Here's hoping iOS 10 finally does something with email sharing, but until then this technique feels good enough to me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a report to write.

Update: With the introduction of drag and drop to the iPad, you can now drag email messages into OmniFocus and they will be created with a note containing a link back to the email message itself. Fantastic! Sadly, you're now back to "one email per task" by default, but there's nothing stopping you from dragging the same email twice and changing the task names to reflect the individual tasks.

Now all I have to complain about is that there's still no share sheet for email messages, despite them having well-defined (and cross-platform!) URLs. Some day, perhaps…