How I tamed Gmail at work

A few weeks ago, I realized that I sucked at email. I was missing important emails or simply forgetting to reply because I got distracted. I was becoming unreliable to others, so I decided to dedicate some hours to fixing the problem. I started by exploring many variations of GTD (Getting Things Done) which taught me a lot, but many of the approaches felt over-engineered for my needs. I’m surrounded by many amazing coworkers that seem to have their email act together, so I started asking them to share their best practices with me. I then combined bits and pieces of what I learned into what is now working very well for me.

Below is a screenshot of my current work email (with text masking/modifications so I don’t get fired for sharing work information!). All of this was implemented with the out-of-the-box Gmail web client.

My email cockpit:

Multiple inboxes

  • The top inbox is “TODOs Urgent” — these are the email threads that require my close attention throughout the day.
  • The next inbox is “TODOs” — similar to the previous inbox, but not as urgent. It’s things that I need to pay attention to, but not something that is on fire.
  • The next inbox is “Interesting threads” — similar again, but not time-sensitive. It’s things I want to read later or research. This includes information on upcoming launches, articles that were shared by coworkers, information about an upcoming office event, and so on.
  • The next inbox is “Unread from the bosses” — This inbox will show any emails from my management chain that I haven’t yet read. This includes my boss, my boss’ boss, and many other VPs that I interact with.
  • The next inbox is “Waiting on a response” — This is where I track emails that need a response from someone else. For example, if I email a coworker about a project and I’m stuck until I get a response, I’ll put it in this inbox until I get a response back (details below). If it ages more than a day or two, I can re-ping the thread.
  • The last inbox is the actual inbox! My daily goal is to go home with it empty. Inbox zero.

Setting up multiple inboxes

The key to my set up is multiple inboxes. These are easy to set up and it’s non-destructive, so if you don’t like it, you can simply turn off the feature and everything will revert back to where you were.

To setup multiple inboxes, go to settings and click on the “labs” tab, then enable the Multiple Inboxes option.

This will create a new tab in settings called Multiple Inboxes. Here’s how mine is set up:

Using Stars

A big part of my organization is based on stars. I went to settings (general tab) and configured three stars:

I like stars because I can click the star next to any email in the inbox and it toggles from no-star to red to yellow to blue to none, so it’s super fast.

Note: I include yellow as one of the active star colors because the mobile Gmail app allows toggling the star on any email, but only to yellow. Below I explain how I use this.

Using Labels and Filters

The screenshot of my Gmail shows off multiple labels. Most of these labels are automatically applied using filters. For example, I have a filter that applies the label “Mgmt” to emails from my management that looks like this:

I have other filters and labels for group emails, approval notifications, etc.. I also created a label called “ME” that is auto-applied to all emails that have my address in the TO line of the email.

I have one special label called “@Waiting” that I add to emails that I send that require a response. I prefix the “@” symbol so that it sorts to the top of the list of labels. I can apply this label manually but I also have a rule configured to automatically apply this label if I bcc myaddr+w@foo.bar (adding “+w” to my own email address). Since Gmail ignores the “+” and anything after it, the email comes back to my inbox, hits the filter, the “@waiting” label is auto-applied, the email is archived, and it now shows up in my “Waiting on a response” inbox.

Label colors

I use colors for many labels to make them stand out. For example, when I hover the cursor over the Mgmt label, and click the small arrow, I get the following dialog:

I also set the option to “Show if unread” on most labels to declutter the label list on the main Gmail view.

Keeping low priority emails out of the Inbox

I’ve created multiple filters that handle calendar invite accept/declines, travel updates, non-work-related group notifications, etc., so that they don’t become noise in my inbox. I created rules to auto-archive these emails and apply a specific label so I can review them as needed. If you look on the left of my main Gmail screenshot, you’ll see labels for things like, “Google Flights”, “Google SF”, “Forsale”, etc.. I can click on these labels to review the emails. Ideally, every email that gets through my filters and reaches my inbox is pertinent and noise free.

Keyboard shortcuts

If you aren’t using keyboard shortcuts, you’re working way too hard. You can turn on keyboard shortcuts in settings (general tab). To see all of the shortcuts available, press “?”. Below is the complete list with a red dot beside the ones that I use frequently. My Gmail sessions are almost mouse/trackpad free.

A few notes on these:

  • e archives the current email or the list of emails that have a checkbox next to them. This is probably the most common shortcut I use as I read through a wave of emails.
  • m mutes the current thread. This is useful for email threads that keep going but have zero relevance to you. For example, if there is an email thread debating about which brand of ukulele to buy, and you have zero interest in ukuleles, then it’s a great thread to mute!
  • r/a/f quickly starts a reply, reply-all, or forward of the current email.
  • / starts a search
  • j and k go to the next older or newer email but leaves the emails in your inbox. You can read through a ton of emails quickly using these shortcuts. If you are a vi/vim user, this will feel familiar.
  • { and } are the same as j and k, but it archives the current email before going to the older/newer one.

Smoothly switching back and forth between desktop and mobile? (NEW as of March 4, 2017)

This is an area that has always been a struggle for me. When I’m on mobile, I’m typically on the move and use my device to quickly scroll through recent emails. I’ll typically archive emails requiring no action so that I don’t face it again when I go back to desktop. I will also sometimes reply to emails from my mobile device if a terse response is sufficient.

I use the mobile Gmail client for work email because it supports labels and has partial support for starring emails (yellow star only) — two feature that make my desktop set up work. When I see an email on my mobile device that is important, I’ll quickly tap the star next to the email. When I return to my desktop, this email is waiting on me in my TODOs Inbox! This tiny feature really smoothed out my desktop to mobile to desktop flow.

(in the original version of this blog post, I used red/blue/orange stars, but I recently learned that the mobile Gmail app sets the yellow star, so I swapped out orange for yellow).

Various cosmetic things that work for me

  • I set the display density to “compact” (you can change this by clicking the gear icon in Gmail).
  • I set the browser font size to 90% to give me even more density. I’ve put a red dot next to the keyboard shortcuts that change the font in the above graphic.
  • I personally like a dark theme, but that’s obviously a very personal choice. The theme I used in the screenshots is named “Terminal”.
  • I keep email in tab #1 and I pin the tab so that it stays in the #1 position and automatically loads when I launch my browser.

What about Google Inbox?

I like Google Inbox, but after trying various configurations and experiments, I’ve found that Gmail works better for the high volume of email I manage in my work environment.

Summary

Since moving to this new set up, my reliability with email has gone to 100% (as far as I know!). I now spend less time struggling to keep up with email and more time doing what I love doing (and what I’m paid to do)!

Also see the next post — “Using Gmail like vi — keep your hands on the keyboard