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Mike Elgan: How to build a time machine

Mike Elgan | Feb. 26, 2011
The real-time Internet is crowding out the future and the past. Here's what to do about it.

Here are my virtual time travel tools. Collectively, they're almost as good as an actual time machine. And they're all free.

Take action in the future

Google Alerts. For me, this is the single most valuable tool Google offers. It's Google's search engine. But instead of searching the Internet of the past, you search the Internet of the future. You type in your search, then forget about it. When content is posted online that matches your search, you get an e-mail with a link to that content.

It's priceless for ego searches (a.k.a. "reputation management"), but also helps you stay informed about new information in your industry or areas of interest. By constantly adding, deleting and tweaking Google Alerts, you end up being constantly informed of relevant new information as it happens.

Boomerang. Boomerang for Gmail and Boomerang for Outlook are plug-ins that enable you to send e-mail that will be delivered in the future. This is incredibly useful. Let's say you want to remind someone about something that needs to be done in three days but fear that if you send a reminder now, it will get buried in his in-box and he'll forget about it.

With Boomerang, you can type and send the message now, but it won't be delivered until the time and date you specify. Click a single button, and you can put e-mail on "hold" until some time in the future.

FollowUpThen. This service works with any e-mail client you happen to use. By simply addressing e-mail in the To:, cc: or Bcc: fields to an e-mail address, you can automatically generate a follow-up reminder.

The text in front of the @-symbol determines when in the future you see action. For example, by sending to or you get your result in two hours or six years, respectively. There is a wide range of possible scheduling formats you can use.

The design of the service is ingenious. If you place the address in the To: line, you get a reminder back to yourself. If you address the e-mail to another person, and add the address to the cc: line, then you both get the follow up. If you add it to the Bcc: line, then only you get the follow up, but on a message sent to another person (whoever is in the To: line).

The most effective is to put it in the cc: line; that way, not only do both parties get the follow-up, but both parties know that it will be followed-up on, and so the task requested is more likely to be accomplished.


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