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Helpful Tools: High volume email with Gmail

I'll admit it, I was a longtime holdout against the Gmail interface but I eventually took the plunge and after learning a few tricks found it to be faster and more efficient for my daily use. In this post I'll describe my current workflow for Gmail as well as how to set it up for yourself. I'm assuming that you've used Gmail before and I won't be covering basics like Conversations, logging in, etc.


Go into your Gmail Settings and click on Labs tab and enable:

  • Background Send - Who wants to wait around waiting for an email to send? This allows your emails to send in the background while you work on other emails.
  • Quote Selected Text - Do you ever just want to quote part of a message that was sent to you? This lab allows you to highlight some of the text and when you hit Reply it will be automatically quoted.
  • Undo Send - How many times have you accidentally sent an email and then realized that you've left out something important? This Lab delays sending for 10-30 seconds so you can hit that "undo" button fix it and then send it. This works much better than Outlooks method of asking people to delete the email.
  • Unread Message Icon - Allows me to keep my tabs pinned in Chrome and see what my inbox count is at without me having to actually switch over to that tab.

 In your Gmail Settings click on the General tab and enable:

  • Always use https - Not a productivity setting but you should always have this enabled. Your email communications will be encrypted between you and Google's servers.
  • Reply All - This changes the default button from "Reply" to "Reply All". I tend to use this since I reply to groups far more often than I reply to one person in a group.
  • Show "Send & Archive" button in reply - Archiving is an important step in Gmail. Yes, you can leave it all in your inbox but if you are following Inbox Zero you'll want to archive as much as possible. This allows you to reply to the email and then archive it in one fell swoop. 
  • Enable Undo Send - This is the other half to the lab you enabled. You can choose how long to delay sending. I tend to keep it around 10 seconds. Remember, the higher the delay, the longer it will take the email to get to your recipients.
  • Keyboard shortcuts on - This is a must. Using a mouse is slow and error prone. With a little bit of practice you'll be flying around Gmail like a keyboard wizard.

I'm going to make references to Inbox Zero please take the time to watch this video if you are unfamiliar with the Inbox Zero concept. When Merlin Mann says "delete" think "archive".

Now that we have the pre-course work out of the way lets cover some of the basics.

Keyboard Shortcuts

The main shortcuts that I use are /, j, k, o, e, r, and l.

"/" If you are a Vim user, this is very familiar. The slash brings you to the search box. This will be important in our Mastering Search section.

"j" & "k" allow you to move up and down (or newer older) both when reading messages or in the list view.

"o" will open the email that is selected in the list view. {image} Use o along with "j" & "k" to quickly move and open messages.

"e" allows you to archive your messages. Archiving is important to keeping your inbox clutter free.

"r" replies to the message you are view or have selected. (Use "a" to reply to all)

"l" will label your current message(s). Labeling every message is super important for searching through thousands of emails efficiently.

There are plenty of other keyboard shortcuts but these tend to be what I used most of the time. Here's the full list so you can try some others

Label everything

Gmail has Labeling which is very different than Folders in most standard mail applications. In folder based systems, you can put your email in one folder and one folder only. Gmail's labels allow you attach as many labels as you want to a single email.

For example, you have an email that should be labeled with "Marketing" since it's in regards to a new white paper you'll be publishing but it's also about ACME Co.

In Gmail hit "l" to label the email, start typing in marketing (select it or type in the whole thing) hit enter, hit "l" again to follow the same flow for ACME Co.

Your message is now tagged with both labels!

Note: It is possible and easy to have a tree structure in labels. I tend to just have a few top level labels and then have many children under those. All the examples in this post will work with nested labels. I also create a label for every client I have, even if I only have one or two emails for them.

Archive Archive Archive

I try to follow Inbox Zero so I try to archive an email once I've acted on it - even if I'm waiting for a client reply (if your client isn't great at responding, set a reminder, don't leave it in your inbox). I also archive everything that isn't spam instead of deleting it. Gmail allows me to keep every email with its generous quota so I might as well keep it (labeling + searching makes finding it easy).

Following our example from above, if I don't need to act on the email I simply hit "e" to archive my message. It's now out of my inbox and out of my way.

If I needed to reply to the message I would hit the "a" key to reply to all (you can use "r" if you just want to reply to one person), type into the body and then hit the Send and Archive button. It's now out of my inbox and out of my way.

Mastering Search

The search in Gmail is both a boon and a bane. The bane tends to be you are searching through millions of emails that you've received over the past 10 years. This can return a lot of emails and a lot of noise. The boon of Gmail is you can use advance search operators to narrow down that noise. Yep that's right, you can add in special tags like from: and/or label: to further filter the general text search.

Lets pretend its now a year down the road and you've now published three white papers for ACME Co. but you need to go back and find the one that was about the Drupal 7 migration. You could search by the ACME Co label, or by the keywords "Drupal 7" but why not search for all of them.

If you search for:

"Drupal 7" label:ACME-co label:marketing

You'll bring up only emails that are tagged with both labels and have the phrase Drupal 7.

You can also use the hyphen to exclude any of the operators. So if you know that Adam didn't send the email that you are looking for you could add

The common operators that I tend to use are from, label and newer. There are quite a few more search operators than I tend to use so Google has a helpful list of all of them.

Overall Flow

I'll let you in on a secret; I check my email three times a day (start of day, lunch time, end of day - 1 hour). I try not to check it more since it can be a huge time sink. When I do go through my email to process the emails I use my hotkeys to select the email and open it. I then immediately label the email if the conversation isn't already labeled. At this point I either respond and archive or just archive the email. Once that's done, I just move on to the next email (note: there is a lab/option that will auto advance you to the next email, I just don't use it out of personal preference.)

Overall, using Gmail, hotkeys, labeling and Inbox Zero I can process about 20 emails in just a few minutes. Using a standard labeling approach I can find most emails in under a few seconds. Your mileage may very using some of the tricks I listed above and everybody's flow is bound to be a little different.

Don't let this blog post be the end of your email evolution, try out some of the tips I listed and comment on how they worked. If you have some tips that I didn't cover please put them in the comments below so everybody can benefit.

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