Like most people I use a variety of tools to manage the tasks between work and life. The issue is that these tools are fragmented and new responsibilities can come from a variety of sources such as email, Slack, or simple conversation.
Managing the inputs and how you view these tasks after they’ve been captured is the tiresome part of this equation. Switching between tools, monitoring services for new additions or updates, and manually entering this data across them takes up time that could be better spent clearing your list.
I sought something better. I recently heard about Airtable on Twitter and friends at work have talked about easy-to-use automation tooling with Zapier. Finding the two integrated easily together, I thought I’d give it a try.
What I built was a personal dashboard and assistant that easily saves hours of my week each week and I believe you can too.
In this article I’ll show you how to capture emails, parse them, and add them automatically to a personal dashboard we’ll create just for you. With this you should have the tools to connect all the services you use and create one view of all the responsibilities in your life. Better yet, more time and freedom to accomplish them.
Airtable at its core is a simple database that can display your information in the way that works for you. Some options include Grid, Kanban, and Calendar.
Zapier is a product that makes it easy to create connections between a variety of services and automate tasks between them. Want to create a post on Twitter when you post a selfie to Instagram? Services like Zapier and IFTTT help you fill in the gaps.
For this tutorial we will be using Zapier’s email service called Parser that allows you to turn any email into a trigger and template for a Zapier recipe.
I encourage you to look at both Airtable and Zapier, read the Getting Started of their documentation, and experiment with the templates they have available. Having some familiarity with how Airtable collects and presents data will help you customize your dashboard once your tasks are flowing in.
Almost every product has notifications that can be delivered by email and we can forward these emails to Zapier’s Parser to capture its output with the template we provide.
Head over to Parser and create a new email address. When you’re ready to move on Parser should be waiting for your first email and will look something like this:
Waiting for our email to arrive Zapier’s Parser service
For the sake of this demo I’ll use a recipe I created to help build my personal dashboard. In my case I wanted to automatically create an Airtable record whenever a new story had been assigned to me in Pivotal Tracker.
I triggered this notification and checked the Parser service:
The captured email in Zapier’s Parser service
Then to prepare the content for our Zapier recipe we highlight the items we care about and name them to create a template for emails of this type:
Highlighted items after they’ve been named
Once finished with adding names to the items in your email, Save Address and Template. If there are issues with the Parser output add an Extra Template to the email address to make it smarter.
With our template in place we can use the values in a Zapier recipe to automatically add rows to our table in our Airtable Base. We set up a table in our base that can accept the data we’ve picked from our email:
Our initial table with a single line text Name field and a URL field
After we’ll head over to Zapier, create a new Zap with Email Parser as the trigger on a New Email, and select the email address with the associated template:
Select Email Parser as the option and the select the associated email address
When finished run the test to have some test data to work with and move onto the next step, choosing Airtable with Create New Record as the selected option:
Add Airtable Create Record as your action step
Connect to your base and select the matching email data for the fields in your table:
Select the Parse Output for the matching fields in Airtable
Then run the test and check your table:
Data should be captured in your table!
I encourage you to look at IFTTT as well as you can get a lot out of it and it’s free. You should be able to use almost any existing service to add rows to your table automatically but if you get stuck feel free to ask for help in the comments.
For this demo I added a few more recipes to IFTTT and Zapier:
New personal items and pull requests added to the backlog.
Looking at our Airtable base we can see that it’s pretty plain. To supercharge our dashboard we need to add some fields that allow us to inspect our data in the view that works best for us.
In our case we wanted to be able to attach a deadline to tasks, while giving them a domain and status by which they could be defined. So we created a many-to-many table to define the zones, a deadline field for when they needed to be completed, and a single choice field for the status of the task. Additionally we linked the Zones table to the Todo List.
Note: We also updated the recipes to fill these fields accordingly.
The Zones table after being linked to records in the Todo List. Note: The Todo List linked column should be set to single selection only.
New Deadline calendar and Status single select fields created and assigned to existing stories in our Todo List.
With these fields in place the power of Airtable begins to shine. We can group these fields by Zone and Status:
Grid View grouped by Zone and Status
Create Kanban boards for all zones or filtered by specific zones to gives us a more defined outlook on what we’re currently working on.
Kanban View filtered by Work Zone
Or a Calendar view to check deadlines.
Calendar View on Deadline
What we’ve built is a personal app, assistant, and dashboard that allows us to automate all the inputs and manage them from one place. This has been life changing in my workflows and I know I’m only scratching at the surface. If you make something that has a profound impact on how you work I’d love to hear it!