The average employee gets something around 121 emails a day. Yet most of us don’t put much time or forethought into what we actually do with those emails. We stay tuned to our inbox, taking action on messages as they come in, then abandoning them to the purgatory of our inbox once we’ve moved on to the next one.
The problem is, this reactive, disorganized approach is terrible for your productivity. Email takes up such a large percentage of our time, any inefficiency here is quickly scaled and can easily waste hours of your professional time.
Having no clear system for response or prioritization will leave you with untouched action items and needless distractions, and with no system of categorical organization, it’s almost impossible to find the emails you need when you need them.
Thankfully, Gmail was designed with a ton of flexible, intuitive, and easy-to-access features for improving your email organization—and thus, your email productivity.
Priorities for Gmail Productivity
Before I delve into specific tips, I want to outline the three main goals you should have throughout this process. Each of the 17 tips I’m about to detail will attempt to achieve one or more of these general priorities:
- Prioritization. Prioritization is about learning to tell how important your emails are at a glance, from the time they first come in to the time you act on them. Mastering this will help you avoid being distracted by low-priority messages, while ensuring your high-priority messages are addressed immediately. You’ll also be able to tell, quickly, which of your inbox messages need to be acted upon first.
- Categorization. Categorization can aid in prioritization, but it also helps you keep emails from cluttering your main inbox, and allows you to find your messages easier. With a good categorization practice in place, you should never struggle to find an email, so long as you know its general purpose or function.
- Usability. Finally, you need a system that maximizes usability. If your rules are complicated or confusing to follow, it will be nearly impossible to stay consistent with them. If you can’t remember which categories you’ve created, they’re practically useless. It also helps to devise strategies that can be employed quickly and efficiently, to minimize the time they take to execute.
General Principles for Gmail Productivity
If you want to be successful in mastering your Gmail organization and productivity, you’ll need these general principles to guide you. There’s no switch you can flip to suddenly be more organized; instead, you need to execute new tactics and habits with these directives:
- Clear rules. First, you need to have a clear, specific system in place for how to handle, categorize, and treat emails. There’s no one “correct” system; in fact, you and your coworkers might have radically different visions for the best way to organize an inbox. What matters is that your rules are formalized and unchanging, so they can be followed consistently.
- Cleanup. Chances are, you’ve been using this account for years now. And while you could simply vow to employ better organizational habits in the future, that doesn’t do much good for the thousands of emails currently unsorted in your inbox. At some point, you’ll have to clean that inbox up, according to your new rules.
- Immediate action. It’s not effective to procrastinate organizing your inbox, then try to resort it all at once. Don’t think of inbox organization as periodic spring cleaning; you need to apply your rules immediately, to every new email that comes in. A few seconds here and there will keep you far more organized (and less stressed) than hours of work every few months.
- Ongoing consistency. Remember those rules you formalized? You’ll need to keep them consistent, indefinitely, if you want them to work out. Any deviation from your stated goals and directives will cause chaos in your new system of organization.
- Minimal effort. Finally, you’ll want to devise strategies and directives that require as little time and effort as possible. Even if your system is effective in theory, if it takes too long to manage it on an ongoing basis, it could end up hurting your productivity instead of improving it.
Tips to Improve Gmail Productivity Through Organization
Now it’s time to get into the meat of this article. What follows are 17 practical tips you can use in different combinations to improve your organizational efficiency, and capitalize on the goals and principles listed above:
1. Switch to new Gmail (if you haven’t already).
Earlier this year (2018), Google offered the opportunity to switch to the “new” version of Gmail. If you haven’t done this already, I highly encourage you to. The design and user interfaces are much sleeker and easier to navigate, which will make your Gmail experience smoother—but more importantly, there are a ton of new features you can use to optimize your Gmail organization. Switching over is simple: just click the gear icon in the upper-right corner of the desktop app, and select “Try the new Gmail.” If you see the option “Go back to classic Gmail,” then congratulations, you’ve already made the switch.
Many of the tips in this article will reference features exclusive to the new Gmail, or locations of features that only apply to the new Gmail layout. Keep that in mind before continuing.
2. Use the default display density.
In the new Gmail, you’ll have a handful of “display density” options, which change how your emails are laid out in the app. You can access them by clicking the Gear Icon.
Some users will naturally prefer the “comfortable” or “compact” views, but for organizational purposes, I highly recommend the default. The main advantage of an alternate view is fitting more emails onto a single page or single view, but you won’t miss out on that many by keeping it at the default. The main perk of the default view is that it allows you to conveniently preview the attachments associated with each email. Not only will you get to see a color-coded indication of what types of files are attached to a conversation, you’ll also get the first several characters of the file title. It’s indispensable when trying to quickly find a specific attachment, like a purchase order or general ledger.
3. Create new labels.
Here, we start getting into tips about how to organize your emails, specifically. If you’re used to using Outlook, or any Microsoft product, you’re probably used to a system of folders and sub-folders. But in Gmail, things work a little differently.
Gmail relies on a system called “labels,” which allow you to associate emails with different subjects, categories, clients, or projects. The sky’s the limit here, so start creating new labels you can apply to your emails. In the Settings menu, head to the Labels tab and scroll to the bottom. There, you can create a New Label. Title it whatever you want, but try to keep it concise and informative, so you can know at a glance what it’s meant to be used for.
Once you’ve created it, you can view it on the left-hand sidebar. When you click on a label, your inbox will automatically display any emails that are tagged with that label. In the left-hand menu, you can even click the vertical ellipses next to it to assign a custom color to that label. You can also add new labels at the bottom of this left-hand menu.
Then, when you get a new email, you can click the marker icon at the top of the screen to open the Labels submenu, and assign as many labels as you’d like to the email.
There are many valid ways to use labels. Personally, I use mine to differentiate between different types of projects, such as development, content management, and marketing. But I’ve also seen people use them for different clients, different types of information (such as emails with important attachments), or different levels of priority/urgency. I recommend using a different method for priority/urgency (which I’ll cover in subsequent tips), but it’s available as an option.
4. Divide labels into sub-labels.
You may have noticed that the label creation box allows you to “nest” new labels under old labels. This is analogous to the subfolders you might find in a Microsoft product. I encourage you to use this as a way to keep all your labels organized, especially if you wear many hats in your organization.
For example, you might have a label for “Client Communications,” with separate labels for each client, like “Client A,” “Client B,” and so on. You wouldn’t necessarily need to label an email as both “Client Communications” and “Client A,” but you could if you wanted to.
5. Use multiple labels per email (if necessary).
As you likely know from experience, a single email can have a ton of information in it, sometimes bleeding over into multiple different categories. Accordingly, it doesn’t make sense to maintain a strict one-to-one relationship between your emails and your labels. Instead, make sure you label all your emails with as many labels as are appropriate.
For example, let’s say Client A sends you an email referring to a website you’re building for them. They mention that your account manager is doing excellent work. They also pass along login instructions for a new project management platform they’d like you to join. You might need to reference this email for a variety of purposes, so label it as “Client A,” “HR information,” “Web project management” (and potentially a specific project within that broad label), and “Login instructions.”
6. Add more tabs (Categories) and organize them.
You may have noticed that, by default, Gmail offers three tabs at the top of your inbox: Primary, Social, and Promotions. Gmail’s algorithms are fairly complex; they can easily recognize which emails belong in each of these categories, and sort them appropriately. This keeps your Primary inbox free of clutter, like notifications from Facebook and Twitter, or marketing newsletters from your favorite brands.
What you may not realize is that you have some measure of control over these tabs—including access to tabs you didn’t know existed. There are a few ways to access this setting, but the easiest is to click the Gear icon and click “Configure inbox.”
From there, you’ll have a choice of several tabs to include in this header bar, including Primary (the default for most emails), Social (for notifications from social media platforms), Promotions (for newsletters and deals), Updates (for notifications from project management and related platforms), and Forums (for notifications from forums). You can rearrange these however you’d like, but I recommend you include all them—or at least as many as are relevant to you. This will help you keep your Primary inbox clear of clutter, as much as possible, and do the majority of your sorting work for you.
You’ll also have the option to include any starred messages in your Primary inbox, which I also encourage you to do.
7. Utilize markers.
Gmail offers its users “markers,” sometimes referred to as importance markers, to denote the importance of a given email. This exists as a chevron to the left of your email in the default desktop view. The star is another type of marker, but we’ll get into stars in a moment.
You can click the chevron to toggle the importance marker on or off (indicated by a yellow-gold color). This is a useful binary function you can use to indicate the importance of an email. That “importance” is up to you. Because you can already toggle emails as “read” or “unread,” indicating whether or not you’ve seen/read the email, my recommended use is to designate emails you haven’t taken action on yet with a marker.
That way, when your browsing through your emails, you can quickly determine which emails are there purely for informational purposes, and which ones still require an action from you (such as a reply, or the completion of a task. The only potential hiccup here is when you unmark an email thread, then receive a new email in that thread that gives you a new action item. The marker will be off by default, so you’ll have to re-mark it if you want it to be sorted accurately.
This is also advantageous because on the left-hand bar, you can click on the “Important” category, and automatically filter your inbox to only show you marked messages.
8. Enable automatic marking.
You know how Gmail can automatically detect whether a new email automatically belongs in those categories in the header bar of the inbox? Well, the app can also learn how to sort emails based on your own habits—and it’s a setting you’ll want to take advantage of.
Under the Inbox tab of the Settings menu, you’ll have the option to have Gmail “Use my past actions to predict which messages are important to me.” Select it and save changes; when you do, Gmail will gradually learn which types of emails need to be marked as important (by your standards) and start marking them as appropriate, as they come in. It may use criteria like the sender, the keywords involved, or the subject line to make determinations.
9. Take advantage of read, unread, and snoozed messages.
I decided to include read, unread, and snoozed messages in one line item because they’re all fairly straightforward. We’ll start with read and unread messages, another binary indicator you can use to get information about an email at a glance. As you likely already know, all new emails will be “unread” by default, indicated by a bold font. You can mark an email unread either by opening it, or by selecting “Mark as read” with the ellipses at the top of the desktop app.
Once read, you can mark a message as unread if you want to save it for later. I recommend using this feature to organize emails you’ve read and internalized, and differentiate them from ones you’ve yet to read. For example, if you open an email and see it has several paragraphs of text you don’t have time for, you might want to close it out and mark it as unread so you can read it later.
Alternatively, if you want to delay reading or taking action on an email until later, you can take advantage of the Snooze function (a feature in the new Gmail). There are several ways to do this, but the easiest is to click the clock-shaped icon at the top of any email when you have it open.
Then, you can choose to remove the email from your inbox temporarily, and resend it to yourself at a specified time and date. This is useful if an email has no immediate relevance to you, but will be relevant in a few days; that way, you can treat it like a new email whenever it becomes appropriate.
If you find you need the information in the meantime, you can click the Snoozed category in the left-hand menu and pull up a list of any and all emails you’ve snoozed and are currently awaiting for new receipt.
Mastering read, unread, and snoozed email designations will give you total control over how you see emails in your inbox at a glance.
10. Add more stars.
While we’re on the subject of using visuals to quickly organize and assess the nature of your emails, let’s talk about stars. As I referenced earlier, stars are another kind of marker, next to the chevron-shaped “importance markers” Google uses to indicate importance levels by default.
Before I dig into the details of how to use the star system, I encourage you to enable more types of stars. By default, you can only use this as a binary system; like importance chevrons, they can only be toggled on and off. But if you head to the Settings menu, under the General tab, you can turn on multiple stars of different colors (and other symbols, used the same way your stars are).
If you’re new to the system, you might go with Gmail’s recommended 4-star system, but if you’re feeling adventurous, you can turn them all on at once.
11. Come up with a star system.
Now that you have up to 12 stars to work with, you’ll need some kind of star system. If you’ve been following my advice, you have a tab system to filter out various categories of emails immediately, a read/unread/snooze system to indicate whether you’ve seen the content of an email, a label system to keep your emails organized by subject matter, and a marker system to indicate whether you still need to take action on an email.
So what’s left? What could you use these stars for? That’s entirely up to you, and if you’re a minimalist or someone who doesn’t get many emails, you might not need stars. But I personally like to use stars as an indication of urgency or importance. For example, you could use a green star for a lunch invitation from an old colleague—it’s not the end of the world if you miss it—but a yellow star for an important client question, an orange star for an employee waiting on information to get moving, and a red star for a true emergency.
You could also use these symbols as a way to indicate what type of action is warranted; if you have an inbox full of chevron-marked emails, these can help you act in batches. For example, you could use a blue “i” symbol to indicate an email thread that’s waiting for more information, or a purple “?” to indicate a question that needs to be answered by you. You could also use the yellow “!” to indicate a quick task that can be accomplished, or the red “!” to indicate a long task to be accomplished.
What’s important isn’t the exact system you use, but the fact that it’s designed for your needs, and used consistently for all your emails.
12. Toggle conversation view.
This tip refers to a feature with two main options, and no clean answer on which answer is “right.” In Outlook, new email messages come in as independent line items, one at a time, even if they’re a part of a conversational thread; in other words, as you exchange new messages in an email conversation, they’ll come in separately.
By contrast, Google’s default view is to display an entire email conversation as a line item. When you open an item, you’ll see all the emails within that conversation, which you can choose to expand or collapse as you see fit. There are advantages to either view, but most people have one strong preference over the other.
To the average emailer, this layout change can make a significant difference in how you perceive your messages at a glance. And fortunately, Gmail makes it possible for you to toggle between them. In the General tab of the Settings menu, you can switch “Conversation view” on or off, according to your preferences.
13. Enable hover actions.
Organizing your emails is much easier when you can click a single button, rather than navigating to a submenu and selecting the sorting option you want from there. That’s why stars and marks are so easily accessible. But you may not realize that you can enable “hover actions,” which make features like archiving, deleting, marking as read/unread, and snoozing available with a single click, too.
You can enable this feature by heading to the General tab in Settings, then clicking “Enable hover actions.” Once turned on, you can hover over any email in you inbox, and click the icon corresponding with the action you wish to take.
14. Turn on the Preview Pane.
Here’s one more semi-hidden feature you can enable to make organizing your Gmail inbox easier: turn on the preview pane. This one is an “advanced” Gmail setting that used to be referred to as a Gmail Labs feature. Head to the Advanced tab of the Settings menu, and you can enable the ability to view a preview of your messages next to the message list.
In practice, this looks similar to the layout for Outlook. On the left, you’ll have a condensed list of emails, with subject lines and a brief snippet of the message, and on the right you’ll have the full message to peruse. You can also set up a preview pane for the conventional Gmail layout, or opt for a vertical split. None of these features will help you organize your emails directly, but will give you more transparency into the content of each email at a glance. Experiment with each option to see which fits you best.
15. Establish automatic filters.
I’m a huge fan of automation. Why should you bother manually taking action on all your emails when you can set up rules to have those emails automatically filtered and organized on your behalf? Because this can save you so much time, I consider it one of the most important tips on this list.
Under Settings, head to the Filters and Blocked Addresses tab. From there, select Create a new filter. Once you start the process, you’ll need to complete it in two steps. The first is to establish the criteria for your filter, using qualities available in Gmail’s search. For example, you can filter all emails that come from a certain email address, or those that feature certain words or phrases, or those that have an attachment of a certain size. Keep in mind that you can create as many filters as you like, so it’s a good idea to be as specific as possible.
Once you’ve identified a type of email that you want to have automatically filtered in the future, you’ll need to decide what you want to have done with them. You have several options here, including automatically starring it, deleting it, marking it as important, or assigning it to a specific category.
Two things to keep in mind here. First, be careful how you set up these filters; there’s a chance you’ll face unintended consequences, such as deleting an important email by mistake based on the rules you created. After creating a new filter, check various folders for rogue or mistakenly categorized emails to ensure it’s working as intended, with no spillover.
Second, if you want to incorporate even more automation into your email organization, you can turn to third-party apps, extensions, and plugins.
16. Consider implementing Multiple Inboxes.
Multiple Inboxes are another Advanced Setting, but the title is a bit misleading. You won’t be making things more complex; instead, you’ll be making them simpler and faster.
Gmail has a robust search feature that can help you create a view of only the emails you want to see; for example, you can view only starred emails with a certain phrase in the subject line, or only marked emails from a specific sender. But if you find yourself running these search queries often enough, it can get annoying—and time-consuming.
Multiple Inboxes allow you to commit these search criteria to permanent inbox-style slots in your left-hand navigation bar. You can custom-title them however you want, and access them at any time, like you would your default Inbox, Sent emails, or Spam folder.
17. Work toward Inbox Zero 5 emails at a time.
One of the general principles I’ve listed early on has gone unaddressed by the majority of these tips: the cleanup process. All these tips will help you establish and execute rules for inbox organization in the future, but they won’t help you organize what you already have in place.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a trick that can help you easily apply rules to all the emails in your inbox currently (which is surprising, considering how many Gmail tricks and hacks there are). Instead, I can only offer two possibilities. One, treat any emails in your inbox before your commitment to organization as a different era; leave them be, and hope you can find them in a specific search if you need them in the future.
Second, work toward Inbox Zero (here, referring to an inbox full of emails that are appropriately marked and/or categorized, according to your system) just five emails at a time. Marking five emails doesn’t take much time, so you can easily do it in the space you have between tasks, and several times throughout the day. It also won’t be nearly as overwhelming as trying to get your entire inbox in order over the course of a day.
With these tips, you should be able to master the art of email organization. You may not reach Inbox Zero overnight, but as long as you’re consistent, any effort you make to become more organized will be worth it.
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