If you’re like most Gmail users, Gmail isn’t much more than a straightforward way to send and receive messages. But the reality is, using Gmail only to send and receive messages is almost like using a smartphone only to make and receive calls; you can do it, but you’ll be missing out on a host of other features, apps, and Gmail plugins that could make your experience better and more efficient.
Gmail has hundreds of settings that allow you to customize your experience, including creating Labels, organizing your emails into categories, and setting up special filters so all your similar emails end up going to the same place. But there’s one section of Settings that even experienced Gmail users pass over, and it has some of the most interesting features in the platform: The “Advanced” tab, which was formerly known as Google Labs.
What Is Gmail Labs?
Google loves to innovate, and has been known to give their employees ample freedom to experiment with their new ideas. Accordingly, Google employees occasionally come up with new ideas for Gmail—but Google, not wanting to break or compromise the user experience of one of their most valuable products, wants to introduce these features gradually. Think of it as a kind of quarantine or decompression chamber for the latest experimental features in Gmail.
The advantage of this status is you’ll get access to some of the wildest new features before they get rolled out to the mainstream. The disadvantage is, of course, that these features aren’t always as stable as their mainstream counterparts. In my personal experience, I haven’t encountered much in the way of product instability, but your mileage may vary.
To get to Gmail Labs, head to the Settings menu in the upper-right corner of your Gmail desktop app, and click the “Advanced” tab.
The Current Lineup
Google is constantly changing the lineup of Labs features; when a feature proves itself valuable, it’s promoted to one of the main tabs within Settings. If it’s found to be less valuable, it may end up getting the ax. And of course, Google adds new features to Labs on a regular basis as well.
But for now, these are the spectacular Labs features you’ll have access to, and I encourage you to take advantage of them while you can:
Auto-advance is designed for email users who like to progress through their new messages one at a time until they’ve all been handled. Once enabled, it allows you to automatically move to the next conversation in your Inbox whenever you delete, archive, or mute a conversation. When you turn this feature on, you’ll get a new setting in the General tab that allows you to determine how auto-advance works: you can progress to newer messages, to older messages, or back to the main thread list.
2. Canned responses.
Canned responses are usually reserved for customer service software, but with this handy Labs feature, you can whip some up for your own account. Once you’ve enabled it, you can click on the arrow in the lower-right corner of any email draft and select the “Canned responses” menu to gain access to the feature. If you don’t have any saved responses yet, you can create one from scratch; all you have to do is enter the name of the canned response, type it out, and hit Save. Once you’ve done that, you can call it up at any time to save yourself a few minutes of writing. Be sure to check out our full guide on setting up Gmail templates.
3. Custom keyboard shortcuts.
First, if you don’t already know about Google’s keyboard shortcuts, now’s the time to become acquainted with them. These are short, handy keystrokes that enable you to access specific Gmail features without the need to rely on traditional mouse work; for example, you can use “m” to mute a conversation or “Shift + f” to forward a message in a new window. Google has a full list of commands here. But for some Gmail users, this paltry list isn’t flexible or comprehensive enough. That’s where Custom keyboard shortcuts come into play; once enabled, you’ll get a brand-new tab in the Settings menu where you can access dozens of potential shortcut functions, and apply your own keyboard mappings as you see fit (for any or all of them).
4. Google Calendar integration.
This one’s simple, and is only important if you’re using Google Calendar on a regular basis. Once enabled, you can click on the ellipses in the lower-left corner of your desktop app and bring up an integrated Google Calendar widget, which will then display all your upcoming events (including dates, times, locations, and other details) in a convenient left-hand window.
5. The “mark as read” button.
Marking an email as “read” isn’t as conveniently available as some of Gmail’s other impressive features, and if you’re marking emails as “read” frequently, this design choice can even interfere with your productivity. This Labs feature gives you an immediately available “Mark as read” button, which appears whenever you select an email, so you don’t have to hunt it down in the “More” menu.
6. Multiple Inboxes.
Before you get intimidated, you should know that this feature isn’t going to give you literal multiple Inboxes to deal with; on the contrary, I can almost guarantee it will make your life easier—especially if you find yourself constantly busy with email management. Once enabled, you’ll get an extra tab in the Settings menu, where you can find a list of additional “Inboxes” you can create for yourself. Each of these Inboxes is essentially a list of parameters for which emails to display, so you can access certain groups of emails much more quickly. For example, you might create an Inbox for Starred emails, or one that includes marked emails from a specific sender. You can name these Inboxes whatever you’d like, and once created, they’ll appear in the left-hand column for easy access.
7. The preview pane.
If you’re used to using Outlook, this setting should be particularly helpful to you. By default, Gmail offers you a list of emails, which you can then click to view your messages individually, and full-screen. The preview pane allows you to view the full content of your emails side-by-side with your Inbox’s list of messages, very similar to Outlook’s display. You can choose to have no split (the conventional layout), a vertical split, or a horizontal split.
8. Right-side chat.
The right-side chat won’t help you maximize your email productivity, but it might be more aesthetically pleasing to you. This simple feature allows you to move the chat section of Gmail, which typically on the left side, to the right side of the screen.
9. The unread message icon.
If you use the desktop app for Gmail, and often have multiple tabs open, this Labs feature is for you. It adds a small number under the Gmail favicon that indicates the number of unread messages in your Inbox, which is ideal if you want to know, at a glance, how many new messages are waiting for you. Now if only they could also tell you how important those messages were.
Note that to take advantage of any of these features, you’ll need to click “Enable,” then hit “Save Changes” for your chosen Labs features to apply to your account. If you ever encounter a problem with a Labs feature, you can load your Inbox without Labs features using this link.
Keep a Lookout
These features aren’t the be-all end-all of Gmail Labs. Occasionally check the Labs tab, and watch out for new features as they become available. In the meantime, if you’re looking to get more out of your Gmail experience, the best way to do it is through third-party apps, extensions, and plugins.
Take EmailAnalytics for example—it integrates with your Gmail account to show you exactly how you’re using Gmail, including how many emails you send, how long it takes you to write and read them, and what’s taking up the majority of your time. Sign up for a free trial today, and you’ll take the first step toward mastering your email productivity.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.