Maximising productivity in Gmail.
Managing a busy inbox can be time consuming, but the reality is that reading and dealing with messages promptly is a requirement for many jobs.
People accustomed to Outlook who move to Gmail are faced with a different visual layout, keyboard shortcuts that no longer work, and fundamentally a tool with a different approach to managing email. To make matters worse, using a third-party mail client with Gmail removes potentially helpful features, particularly if colleagues use other Google apps.
Changing tool for something as critical as email can be highly damaging to productivity. If your email productivity has dropped since moving from Outlook to Gmail, or you just want to be even more efficient, this guide is for you.
1. Folder structure
Treat your inbox as a dynamic to-do list. Your aim is to reduce the number of emails here to zero, and your inbox should only contain emails representing incomplete tasks, or those that are unread.
Tasks might be pieces of work you need to undertake, replies to send, things to chase, or emails / documents to read in detail. You should move emails out of the inbox once their associated task is complete, or once you have read the message and confirm there’s no action.
Other folders / labels
Gmail uses labels for organisation. Labels are similar to folders, except emails can have multiple labels and can sit in multiple places at the same time. Like folders, labels can nest within other labels, and incoming messages automatically have an ‘Inbox’ label.
You can remove emails from your inbox by Moving or Archiving them. Moving removes existing labels from an email and adds a new label depending on where you move it to. Archiving removes all labels.
Moving requires 3-4 additional keystrokes but allows you to browse emails by label. Archiving tends to makes more sense if you receive many emails (>200/day) as it’s faster. If you’re not sure whether to Move or Archive, start by moving, it’s easy to switch if the time commitment isn’t worth the value you get from browsing by label. You can also take a hybrid approach by moving some emails and archiving the rest.
The labels you use will depend on your role but examples include:
- Company announcements
- Travels (Gmail blocks ‘Travel’)
- [TEAM NAME]
- [PROJECT NAME]
Don’t use more than you can memorise, and avoid labels with many of the same starting letters, (e.g. ‘Project X’, ‘Project Y’). You’ll type the start of labels when moving messages and want to minimise keystrokes.
Whether you use labels or not, emails can always be found with Gmail’s search — see Section 4.
2. View and layout
Gmail’s default layout contains lots of wasted space that can slow you down. To improve this, open Quick Settings by clicking on the cog on the top-right of Gmail.
- Apps in Gmail: turn these off, unless you regularly use Chat & Meet
- Density: switch to Compact
- Reading pane: select Right of inbox, few emails need the full width
- Email threading: turn on Conversation view to group emails in the same thread
Click ‘See all settings’ and navigate to the General tab.
- Maximum page size: increase to 100
Save changes and return to your inbox.
Click the three horizontal lines at the top left to collapse the main menu on the left and click the arrow on the bottom right to hide the side panel. Your set-up should now look like this:
From wasted space to useful space
Gmail allows for different Inbox types, selectable in the Inbox tab of Gmail settings.
Choose Priority Inbox which is the most powerful option compatible with the reading pane. A Priority Inbox modifies the order emails are displayed, based on a predefined prioritisation.
Set Gmail to prioritise emails in your inbox as below. Have each section show up to 50 items and ‘hide when empty’.
- Important and unread
- Everything else
Section 1 is optional but Gmail generally identifies important emails correctly, allowing those to be read first. Remove the section if you don’t get along with Gmail’s algorithm.
On the same page, set Inbox unread count to Unread items in the inbox and save changes.
Gmail settings > Inbox
Your inbox is now split into sections reflecting what you need to do. Triage unread messages at the top by either removing those without an action, completing the action if it takes <2 mins (and removing from your inbox), or leaving it to complete the associated task later. ‘Star’ the most important tasks to keep them at the top of the task list.
Gmail automatically enables some features which can get in the way and reduce productivity. See what works for you but consider changing the following in the Settings General tab:
- Send and Archive: hide “Send and Archive” button
- Smart Compose: Writing suggestions off
- Nudges: turn off emails to reply to and turn on emails to follow up on
- Smart Reply: turn off
- Stars: 1 star
Further declutter by hiding unused labels and categories from view in the Labels tab of Gmail settings.
3. Keyboard shortcuts
Keyboard shortcuts are the quickest way to improve productivity. Enable them by selecting Keyboard shortcuts on in the Settings General tab. Save changes and view all keyboard shortcuts by pressing
Shift + ?. At the bottom of the pop-up, ensure the additional keyboard shortcuts are enabled.
View all Gmail shortcuts with
Shift + ?
Learn and use the keyboard shortcuts for your most common actions. At the minimum this should include:
- Reply all:
a(think reply All)
Cmd/Ctrl + Enter
Common text formatting shortcuts also work when writing an email (Bold
Cmd/Ctrl + b, Underline
Cmd/Ctrl + u, Italics
Cmd/Ctrl + i, Hyperlink
Cmd/Ctrl + k). Use them when required.
With the above shortcuts, navigate through the inbox with arrow keys and triage (move / archive / reply) as appropriate. After pressing
v to move an email, begin typing the label name until it’s selected and press enter. It takes under a second per email with practice.
Even with labels it is generally faster to find messages using Gmail’s search, accessible at the top of every page or by pressing
In addition to searching by keyword, use search operators to find emails more efficiently. Multiple operators can be chained together.
Use search operators to find emails faster
5. Filters and rules
Filters are Gmail’s equivalent to Outlook rules and automate email management. Use filters to automatically remove emails from your inbox that you don’t need to read but need a record of, or can’t unsubscribe from.
Navigate to the Filters and blocked addresses tab of Google Settings and click Create a new filter. Enter search criteria as required (this will usually involve entering the sender’s address) and click Create filter.
6. Other tips
Gmail’s Undo Send feature can prevent acciemails being sent accidentally too early. After clicking send (or
Cmd/Ctrl + Enter), an ‘Undo’ button is shown for a few seconds before the message is actually sent. Change the time delay in the General tab of Gmail settings - I use 10 seconds which gives enough time to double check most messages.
If you manage your inbox on the move without an internet connection then enable offline mail in the Offline tab of Gmail settings.
Save pre-written email responses for quick access when writing emails. Enable Templates in the Advanced tab of Gmail settings, and then create & use templates through the More Options menu when composing an email.
Use email templates to save time when writing emails
 For example: Calendar integration, reading out-of-office messages before sending an email, employee name searching & profile viewing, dynamic content email.
 If you prefer the most recent emails at the top of a thread rather than the bottom, install the ‘Gmail reverse conversation’ browser extension.