I think with something like Gmail, everyone finds their own way of working. Here’s mine in case it helps anyone.
There are three maxims with Gmail that can dramatically change your way of working if you’re not familiar already
- Archive, not delete
- labels, not folders
- Search, not categorise
Never Delete Email?
Well clearly no-one can dictate that you mustn’t delete any emails ever. The point is that Gmail’s gargantuan storage space means you don’t need to delete email for space considerations. Now if you’re like me, I’d deliberate more over whether I needed to keep and file an email than almost anything else.
Enter Gmail’s Archive button.
Your default view when you log into Gmail is of course your inbox. Although the inbox has special status, it’s also very much like any other
folder oops, label. In many respects you can think of everything you see in your inbox as having the label ‘inbox‘ applied already. But this won’t be fully clear until I talk about labels later.
If you have an email that you so much as hesitate over whether you should keep and file it or just delete it, just archive it instead. It goes out of your inbox, never to be seen again unless you search for it or explicitly go to the All Mail view.
So one improvement for me is that I can simply scan a page of emails, decide there’s nothing important I even need to open, much less worry about whether I should keep it or not, select them all and then click Archive. Bam – out of the inbox but still in All Mail should I realise I did need one of them.
(Selecting emails is easy – you can click on the check box for individual mails, you can select all with the checkbox just above the main emails table or a really useful trick is you can tick one email, hold shift while you click on another and all the emails from the first to the last get ticked. I sometimes do that to select 10-20 at a time and then uncheck any that warrant further investigation)
Once you get used to not deleting, you won’t even spend any energy on dealing with spam, you’ll just archive it (if the purist in you permits)
Labels not folders
I don’t know how many other email clients, desktop or otherwise, use labels (or tags) rather than folders for organising emails but I can tell you labels beat folders hands down.
Google don’t use the term tags but the use of labels will be immediately clear if you consider them just like tags. You can apply as many labels as you want to any given email or group of emails and there are several ways to actually apply the labels.
Folders often lead to frustration because often it isn’t clear which of several contenders is the best one to file an email. For example, if you get an email from Aunt Sally but it’s some info she spotted and copied for you for your new project, do you file it in the personal foler or in the project folder? Trivial example but you see my point.
With labels you just label the email personal and project X – then if you search under either of those labels, you’ll find it – unlike with folders where it can only be in one place.
Once emails are labelled, your labels behave just like folders in the sense they appear in a hierarchy (you’ll need to enable this – see Labs later) and clicking on one shows you all the emails with that label (as if you were opening a folder). But as mentioned, emails can appear in more than one place.
Labels are completely arbitrary, you can create as many as make sense for you. I’d advise against going mad with too many or you may find it counter productive – the next topic will help explain why you don’t need to.
Search, not categorise
Because the search function is so quick and powerful, many people could probably work without labels at all – simply archive all email once you’ve scanned it and rely on being able to search for it when you need to.
I’m not going to describe all the search functionality here but you can search for a word in a subject line or the body of the email by entering the word in the search box. Click on advanced search and you can refine your search criteria. One I commonly use is:
That will find all the emails of the form firstname.lastname@example.org so I don’t have to remember the exact email address (it could potentially find unwanted email – in which case you might need from:viralmailprofits.com or to refine the search in other ways). If I want to find only new referral emails I can use:
Because ViralMailProfits use the word maxed in the subject line, this easily finds all the new referral emails
For that reason, I no longer have ‘folders’ (labels) for individual programs I belong to. I just have a label called ‘accounts’ and every email from anything I’m a member of gets filed there. As time goes on, I sometimes wonder why I even bother to have that label (some of my others are newsletters, social plus a few special ones like referrals and commissions.
One dilemma with Outlook was that I would have folders for individual programs and for individual newsletters (amongst many others). And I’d have rules set up so a lot of my mail was automatically filed straight into the appropriate folder. Problem is I would have to scan multiple folders to check for new mail. The alternative of not having rules and manually filing emails each day was equally unpalatable.
This is a snippet of how my Gmail inbox looked today just before I created this article:
All these labels were applied automatically as the email came in by filters. When I first switched to using Gmail for my main email client, I didn’t have any filters so everything came into my inbox and was unlabelled. Over a period of time I created more and more filters to automate the way I wanted my emails handled. For example, if something is a newsletter from a fellow marketer, they get labelled [newsletters] as they come in.
If it’s from a program I’m a member of they get the label [accounts] (the square brackets make these labels appear at the top of my list because otherwise they’re sorted alphabetically). See how commissions emails have the label [accounts] and notifications/[commissions] . The / indicates nested labels which help you organise your labels if you have too many.
One of my filters for commissions emails (I know it’s egotistical but I like to have my commissions highlighted when I wake up ) looks like this:
Matches: subject:(“You have just earned a commission” OR “Troy, You Just Got AF Commissions” OR “Troy, You Just Got TECP Commissions” OR “Recurring Commission in your Matrix” OR “Troy, You Just Got TTP Commissions” OR “Troy, You Just Got VMP Commissions” OR “[VitalViralPro] – More Commissions!” OR “Add2it.com Marketing Pty Ltd sent you” OR “You got Traffic-Splash cash!” OR “ViralTrafficFrenzy.com Commissions” OR “Congratulations Troy, You Just made a sale” OR “Congratulation,You have completed the Bronze IG!”)
Do this: Apply label “Notifications/[commissions]”, Never send it to Spam, Exclude from SmartLabel categorisation
Don’t worry – creating a filter is easy and is done on this screen (the criteria) and the next (what do do with an email that meets the criteria:
So I just entered all my phrases as “phrase 1” OR “phrase 2” OR…
Note you must use capitals for OR and the phrases are not case sensitive.
I think there’s a limit to the length of the subject filter and I know it’s well over 1000 characters so I split my phrases over two or three filters.
Here’s where you tell Gmail what to do if an incoming mail meets those criteria:
The main things to note are that skip the inbox is NOT checked – I want to see these mails in my inbox and the label setting. If you’re just creating a new label and you want the label to apply to mails already received then tick the also apply filter to x messages below box (the rest of the screen shows the emails that meet the criteria).
So, some filters I have the skip the inbox checked and I apply labels – I never see those mails in my inbox, they are just labelled and out of sight immediately, searchable if I need them and under the given label.
My Gmail Eureka !!
Bringing all these parts together has transformed my email habits. I used to get truly stressed out by the volume of email I received and I could never keep my inbox clear. If I missed checking emails for a day, I could lose 20 minutes or so dealing with it next time I checked in. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a pleasure – that would be silly – but it only takes me a few minutes a day to clear my inbox knowing that I’ve seen anything that might need action or be important.
Because of my filters, 95+% of my emails either get ‘filed’ automatically (have a label applied and archived – remember the skip inbox setting) OR they come into my inbox already labelled.
All I have to do is scan them, tick any that need no action and hit archive – bam – they’ve gone straight to the relevant label.
It means I get all the advantages of folders but – and it’s an important but for me – they all come into my inbox so I can at least scan them before archiving – but then the filing away is a few mouse clicks, a few seconds work.
Now I can have my emails coming right into my inbox, I have Gmail open all the time and I’ll flick to it now and then through the day but I’ll typically clear my emails in 2 or 3 bursts a day. My inbox isn’t empty – I use it as an actions reminder. But I keep my inbox to one page max on an ongoing basis.
I didn’t feel too bad that I didn’t have all my filters set up day 1 though I did set up quite a few. But now if an email comes into my inbox unlabelled (this gets rarer as time goes on), I decide whether it’s worth setting up a filter to catch it in future. Sometimes if I’m otherwise busy I’ll just quickly use the ‘move to’ to put it in the right place and think I’ll deal with it next time it comes in.
Now for some things I do that may help some power users.
Creating filters for all the newsletters I’m subscribed to would be a nightmare. What I’ve done (where I can) is changed my newsletter subscriptions to one of two addresses. The first is email@example.com (good luck email harvesters)
For those of you that don’t know firstname.lastname@example.org is known as an alias – it goes to account accountname but the cool thing is you can filter specifically for that alias using to:email@example.com
That is killer!! It means I have one simple filter – or at least I should have!
But there’s always a downside. Many places where you can enter an email don’t handle an email address of this format. You may find out when you try to enter it. You may never find out. You might be consciously waiting for the confirmation email and it doesn’t come. It may tell you it was accepted and then not let you log in with it (I’ve seen all these happen).
So I have a backup plan. I also have a Gmail account otheraccountname.newsletters at gmail dot com. This format of address is usually accepted and works ok. I have that account forward everything to firstname.lastname@example.org (you’ll need to add a forwarding address, confirm it and set a catchall filter – I use doesn’t have the text xcfdrg or similar as a filter, the easiest way I found)
If you find a program that won’t accept email@example.com you can simply leave out the . so myaccountnametopic will work just as well (Gmail state that they remove the dots for the purpose of determining the actual email account) though I suspect you can filter on it so you might be able to use firstname.lastname@example.org as an alias for email@example.com (sorry John)
Labs – enabling other features
There’s a section under settings (top right) called Labs. These are supposedly beta or experimental features that haven’t yet made it into Gmail as standard but you can enable some or all of them and they then become part of your Gmail. Here are the ones I recommend you enable:
- Authentication icon – shows a key against geneuine paypal emails for example
- Auto-advance – a boon for anyone needing to read batches of emails
- Filter import/export – consider backing up your filters in case you break one or accidentally delete it
- Mark as read button – why this isn’t standard I don’t know
- Quick Links – very useful timesaver – add a quick link for filters
- Unread message icon – shows unread count in the tab of the browser
There’s one I can’t find for this post – nested labels; I suspect this may now be standard but as I had it already I can’t be sure.
I was a diehard Outlook user for a long time. Although I had a Gmail account, I didn’t like using it because I found it slow compared to doing the same thing in Outlook. Now I work far more efficiently than I ever did with Outlook and it’s almost all due to labels.
Invest a bit of time in filters and labels and just use archive, don’t even stress about whether to delete or file something – if in doubt, archive it. If you remember enough about it to decide you need to find it, you’ll be able to find it