Let’s start by thinking about the madness in your daily routine. I want you to think of one activity you do everyday that always manages to suck up way more time than you intend? Now I’m going to take a wild guess, and say you’re probably thinking of your email inbox. Nowadays email is pretty much a necessity, and it can prove extremely useful for efficient communication with others. But how often does it prove less efficient with your own time?
In my experience, both with myself and with clients, I’ve found email to be the single most sizable daily activity both in what it gives and what it takes. By no means am I suggesting you do away with the thing entirely, but I do believe everyone can benefit from reining it in a bit to maximize productivity without the time waste. I use my inbox as my to-d0 list, so it has to be extremely streamlined. I never have more than 50 emails in my inbox at a time, and never spend more than 30min any given day to maintain that system. But how do I do it?
It’s all thanks to these magic tools called Gmail Labs.
First, let’s start with “why Gmail”. I won’t spend too long on this, but here are a few key reasons:
- It’s the most user-friendly interface, that’s exceptionally customizable and easy to navigate
- It makes sharing incredibly easy, especially if you’re using other Google products as well
- You can access it from any computer, and it all stays stored in the cloud (no more email files taking up valuable hard drive space)
- You can still use it “offline” when not connected to the internet – even compose & queue up emails, and Gmail will automatically send them once you reconnect.
- You know that handy view of all your emails pertaining to the same subject in one nice connected thread, including the emails you’ve sent? Well only Gmail has that.
Now let’s talk Gmail labs & features. I have fallen in love with so many of them, but here are my top few favorites that can make your life a lot easier:
- Labels: Other email programs let you create folders outside your inbox that you can sort your emails into. Gmail also lets you create these folders, but then tags each email with that folder name and then let’s you choose whether you’d rather file that email away in the folder or keep it in front of you in your inbox – still labeled for easy reference. Your label folders will still be listed along the left-side navigation bar, so you can easily check into them, and even drag & drop emails into or out of them. TO APPLY: (a) select/open an email & use the “Labels” drop down menu to “Create new” label for that email OR (b) go into Mail Settings –> Labels & click the button to “Create new label” to add to your list.
- Filters: Armed with your convenient new Labels, you can specify when you’d like them automatically applied to incoming emails. And similarly, you can specify in this stage whether you’d like those emails to be automatically filed away (or ‘archived’) into the corresponding folder, or left in your inbox. Personally, I receive a lot of frequent emails that are low priority for reading (ex. online shopping deals, newsletters, etc) so now I have them all automatically ‘Skip the Inbox’ into their respective label folders. If it’s something I will want to eventually read, I just leave the ‘Mark as read’ box unchecked. I then have so few emails left over that still go directly into my inbox, that it becomes so much easier to manage. The only emails I allow to go straight to my inbox are those I know will require immediate action or response. TO APPLY: (a) go into Mail Settings –> Filters & click the “Create a new filter” link at the bottom, OR (b) click the handy dandy “Create a filter” link located at the top of your Gmail interface, next to the Search box.
Extra Tip: In your Mail Settings, under Labels, you can opt to have a label folder only ‘Show if unread’, which means it will only appear in your left-side nav if it has any unread emails in it. I find this extremely useful combined with my extensive filtering, for those non-urgent emails I automatically have filtered into folders but keep unread. With this setting, I can quickly see if I have any currently unread emails, and otherwise keep my navigation bar peacefully uncluttered.
- Superstars (now just called Stars): This used to be a Gmail Lab, but I guess they realized how indispensable it is, so it is now available in your General Mail Settings. You can choose any combination of 12 unique “stars”. Then you click on the star outline to the left of each email to apply any one of them for additional labeling. I use 6 stars to signify what action each email requires, which helps me visually organize the list of emails I do leave in my inbox. The means “this is important, but no action required”. The reminds me that I need to take action on it next. The lets me know that I’m waiting for a response from someone else. The indicates that there were actions taken, but all is now resolved. The says “hey, pay extra special attention to this one!” And finally, the is the way I mark information I’ll need to reference later, such as an email containing an important link or attachment. These 6 stars are exactly what I need, but I urge you to find the combination that works best for you. TO APPLY: go into Mail Settings –> General, under “Stars” and simply drag the ones you want to use into the row labeled “In use”, in any order you choose.
- Undo Send: This is possibly the greatest gift Gmail Labs has to offer. Have you ever sent an email, and then immediately after wished you hadn’t yet? Well this nifty Lab gives you a 5 sec window (or 10, 20 or 30 sec – you can pick!) after clicking “Send” to undo your mistake. It gives you an extra chance to make sure you remembered to include that link, or sent it to the right person, and avoid a great deal of embarrassment and aggravation. TO APPLY: go into Mail Settings –> Labs & click to “Enable” the “Undo Send” option.
- Canned Responses: Do you find yourself doing a lot of repetitive typing? You can create a template email response to auto-populate anytime you are in that situation, saving you the trouble of writing out the whole response afresh each time. You can even specify to automatically reply with one of your Canned Responses using your Filters. I find this tool extremely useful while on vacation or when I want to send a similar but personalized email to multiple email addresses individually. TO APPLY: go into Mail Settings –> Labs & click to “Enable” the “Canned Responses” option, then when composing an email, select to Save it from the “Canned responses” drop down menu below the Subject box.
- Multiple Inboxes: Ever since Gmail added this handy little Lab, your inbox has been turned into an even more customizable machine. Now you can add mini-inboxes right next to your main inbox, which let you quickly see a subset of your most important emails. Since I use the star to help indicate my To Do’s, I use my additional inbox to show every email that “has:orange-guillemet”, which helps me visually narrow down my larger inbox to only my core To Do List. TO APPLY: first go into Mail Settings –> Labs & click to “Enable” the “Multiple Inboxes” option, then go into Mail Settings –> Multiple inboxes, and set your parameters (as well as where in your main view you’d like your additional inboxes to appear).
These are only a few of the numerous Gmail Labs available now, which I have found most useful for my own workflow. I eagerly encourage you to go see what Gmail offers for yourself and decide what would work best for you. It will mean carving out some time for this, and some initial setup, but it will be worth it and can save you exponentially more time in the ongoing future.
This also only scratches the surface of what you can do with Gmail to manage your time and tasks. So I’ll likely be posting more on this subject soon, but for now, enjoy experimenting with Gmail Labs!
Questions? Comments? Absurd Ideas? Please feel free to comment on this post and share!