Gmail as a To-Do System

We all have to-do lists. And we have our emails. Unfortunately, keeping two separate lists is a simple way to make your to-do lists almost immediately out of date. And swapping information from one to the other also adds an element of friction to your workflow.

Surely this is not an ideal situation. Google tasks is a clumsy attempt to bridge this problem. Our prediction is that one day there will be slick, third party apps that combine our emails and to-do lists in a fun, efficient way.

Until then, we have to cobble something together. Here is our best method:

This system uses

  • A Gmail account
  • Some technical know-how


Setting Up Gmail ‘Superstars’

The core of using Gmail as a to-do list is to make use of the star (or ‘superstar’) system already within Gmail. You likely already do this for important things (even simply marking an email as ‘read’ or ‘unread’ is a way to signify actionable emails).

Sacha Greif has a great introduction which explains how to set up superstars, and use them as a simple to-do list here.

Add four or five colored stars to the mix, and you can have different priority levels, context markers (for a GTD type system), or even per-project system. Other power users have used the notation systems to indicate emails that need to be acted upon, et cetera.

Set up multiple in-boxes (above or to the side of the normal in boxes).

This lets your most important tasks appear before your ‘loudest’ (most recent) ones. If you need a tutorial, here’s a quick one.

Set Up ‘Quick Links’, so you have a rapid way to travel to your different categories

Lifehacker has a great (technical!) way to set up neat, sidebar links to go to your different star categories.

I tried to use emojis and unicode characters to give my stars a visual representation. Unfortunately, these characters seem to drop out of the sidebar after a few weeks of use.

Adding to Your List Quickly From a Smartphone

What good is a to-do list if there isn’t an easy way to add to it when you’re on the run? Exactly. Fortunately, there is an easy way to do it.

1. Create an email address specifically to send email from your smartphone, using your favorite mail app.

2. Set up a filter within Gmail, to ‘star’ all incoming emails from that address.

You can now add a to-do to your system by simply sending an email. Apps like Captio make this really quick (add their email address as another filter), or any other app that sends quick emails – via voice, text, or other method.

Adding to Your List Quickly From a Browser

Most of the time we will be on our computer when we want to add a task. You can always still use your smartphone at your desk, of course – but there are a simple way to send an email to yourself from a browser.

- GmailThis! Is a simple bookmarklet that you drag from their webpage to your bookmarks. Here’s a quick tutorial.

- You can also create your own bookmarklet from within Gmail – this post goes through the steps.

- You can also add a new Gmail to-do simply by typing a short code into your browser address bar! Lifehacker shows you how.

There are other third party apps and methods to quickly send yourself emails from a browser, menu bar, or dock. Let us know if you find any cool ones.


  • Many added above.


  • This method does take a long time to set up, and is not the easiest thing in the world to tweak and modify.
  • Many of us would like to have complete customization abilities for our to-do lists – with Google you are necessarily working within their preset limitations.


  • Try the third party app called Taskforce, if you would like software that does something similar (requires giving Taskforce access to your emails).

Our Rating

This is a great system, only limited by Google’s annoying limitations on customizing their page.

Your Thoughts

Have you tried this system? What are your experiences working with it? Any pros, cons, variations, or tips?

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