I Tried 6 Gmail Productivity Tips to Make My Time Spent on Email More Efficient
These tricks help streamline your inbox and make dealing with a mountain of emails easier.
There are few sights more discouraging than returning from a long-awaited weeklong vacation to find your work email inbox has hundreds — or even thousands — of unopened emails. Regardless of whether you're the type who can't stand having one unopened email, or the type who can happily ignore 20,000 unread messages, chances are that email causes at least some stress in your life. An often-referenced 2012 McKinsey study found that workers spend around 28 percent of their working days on email, and articles about how to make your email habits more productive abound.
I'm someone who can't stand to have even one unopened email at the end of the day, so I was eager to find new ways to make my inbox work better. I decided to test out some of the more popular time-saving tips for Gmail to see if they worked. Here are six I recommend.
Segment your inbox
In my opinion, the easiest, fastest way to get your inbox under control is by utilizing Gmail's tab system. Instead of all your emails appearing in one central inbox, they're segmented into up to five different categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums. Once you pick which categories you want to use, Gmail will automatically filter your emails into the separate tabs. Primary will be for what Gmail deems your most important emails, Social will hold anything related to social media, Promotions holds most newsletters and shopping emails, Updates holds anything related to something you've already worked on (If you use Google Docs, for example, it will categorize all the comments, edits and suggestions from shared documents there) and forums hold conversations from mailing lists or online forums.
Related: Email Killing Your Productivity? Here Are 9 Ways to Fight Back.
The sorting system isn't perfect (and some people claim it actually slows them down), but this is the easiest way for me to remove the clutter from my main inbox. As someone who receives pitches and promotional emails often, this system helps me know when someone has sent me a mass email that's going to hundreds of people instead of a pitch or idea tailored to me. To implement this in your inbox, all you need to do is click on the "gear" icon in Gmail and select "Configure Inbox." That will give you the option to pick whichever categories you'd like to use — I just use the first four.
Utilize folders and labels
If your inbox is overflowing with notes you've been "meaning to get to," you probably need to set up a better organization system for your folders and labels. I have a strict rule that my primary Gmail inbox should have less than 50 emails in it at one time, so I categorize emails as soon as I get them. The easiest way to do this is to take stock of what your emails are most often about. I have separate folders for every writer or contributor I work with, one for emails related to any sort of upcoming meetings or events, one for stories I'm interested in working on and many others. I also have a folder marked "To Do," and I file anything that needs to eventually be dealt with there. It clears up my inbox, and I always know where to go if I need a task to work on.
If you receive emails from a shared address or a general email that's associated with your company (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, for example), you should know about using filters as a way to keep your inbox clear. Those email addresses often become the easiest way for potential vendors to reach you, and the amount of incoming inquiries you receive can get overwhelming. If that's the case, setting up a filter for that email address might be a good way for you to avoid seeing those inquiries in your inbox all day, every day.
Related: Email: 5 Ways to Stop Wasting Time and Start Increasing Productivity
For example, I receive the messages sent to a shared email address, but they were filling up my inbox. So I created a filter for anything sent to that email address, and now it skips my inbox and goes directly to a folder in my email that I look at every few days.
To do this, click the small triangle in the search bar in Gmail. Enter the information of the emails you want to skip your inbox, then click "create filter." That will give you options on where the emails should go and what should happen to them.
Turn on auto-advance
One feature that's always frustrated me about Gmail is that when you archive, file or delete a message, instead of taking you to the next email in your queue, it brings you back to your inbox. Some people might like seeing how many messages they have left to get to, but I personally prefer to just take care of emails one after another. Luckily, it's easy to change Gmail's default settings to "auto-advance" through your emails. Click the gear icon, navigate to Settings, then Advanced, then click to "enable" auto-advance.
Create template responses
Auto-advance is just one of many helpful tools you can find in the Advanced settings on Gmail. If you receive cold emails or pitches often, consider creating template responses. I found myself typing the same responses over and over, so I decided to see if there was a way to streamline that. It turns out, there is. In that same Advanced menu, click to "enable" templates. Then, the next time you find yourself typing the same response for the hundredth time, create a template for it.
Related: Slogging Through Email Is Probably Why You're Worried About Your Productivity
To do this, type your response. Then, click the three dots in the lower right corner that will appear after you've enabled templates. Hover over "Templates," then "Save draft as template" and "Save as new template." Then, pick a name for it. From then on it'll appear under "Overwrite Template." My standard email response is called Standard, and I use it whenever I need to send a quick response to someone.
Use the unread message icon
This really only applies to people who like to keep their unread message number as low as possible, but one trick I liked more than I thought I would is the unread message icon. It's another tool you can find in the Advanced menu. Click to "enable" it, and you'll be able to see how many unread messages are in your inbox with a quick look at the tab. If you regularly have thousands of unread messages in your inbox, this probably won't help you.
Email preferences are incredibly personal, but I found that looking into everything my Gmail inbox could do was a quick and relatively easy way to make me more productive on email. I highly recommend testing out some of the features and figuring out what's right for you.
Related: Email Needs Endless Management. Follow These 4 Simple Rules to Boost Your Productivity.