Boost Your Productivity, Tame Your Gmail Inbox

My clients are mostly small business owners or entrepreneurs – and every one of them is busy. It doesn’t surprise me to see them juggling client projects, managing employees, maintaining bookkeeping and finding time for their families. What does surprise me is that they’re able to – just barely – stay on top of their lives despite overstuffed, unsorted email inboxes.

Email is perhaps the most valuable tool for productivity of the digital age, but it takes some planning and commitment to get the most out of it. I give these folks a few simple tips to help them stay focused an productive by staying on top of their email, specifically Gmail.

Gmail inbox prior to cleaning

If it’s been some time since you’ve had a clear inbox, you might not realize why it’s such a powerful tool. Your email can be a second brain – with all your important contacts, figures, addresses close at hand. Just like it’s hard to find an important paper on a cluttered desk, an overstuffed inbox makes it much harder to locate specific information. All of your incoming mail – from proposal requests to calendar invites have a place of their own.

Ultimately, an unmanageable inbox makes you look unprofessional – adding to the time it takes to locate information, respond to clients and vendors, and distracting from the work you really want to do. Fortunately, it’s possible to take back your inbox in a single, intervention-style session, and with a few simple guidelines, you can keep that inbox organized and effective.

Why am I covering Gmail in particular? It’s the email interface of choice for power users. Want keep an email address at your domain but use Gmail? Have a look at the excellent and free Google Apps – which includes Gmail and most other Google services (Reader, YouTube, etc) I’ll explain how to install this in a future post.

First order of business: mark all mail as read and eliminate the stress and distraction of those unopened messages. You don’t need to delete anything – Gmail offers tons of space. To mark all mail as read, simply create a filter under the “Settings” link you’ll find when clicking the gear in the upper right corner.

In the field “Has the words,” type “is:unread,” then click “Create filter with this search »”

On the next screen, check the box “Mark as Read.”

Gmail will ask if you want to apply the filter retroactively, and that’s all there is to it. Once your mail is read, you can delete the filter.

Creating a Gmail filter to check for unread messages

Creating a Gmail filter to check for unread messages

If you’re in really rough shape: consider declaring email bankruptcy. Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford professor and internet legal visionary, coined the term in 2004 when faced with an insurmountable backlog.  Lessig messages his email “creditors” and apologized, saying he would never have a chance to read and reply to their message. He asked them to contact him again in the future if the communication was still important. Odds are anyone who expects a response from you will try to reach out again anyway, but the concept of email bankruptcy still has an appealing element of closure to it.

Don’t waste time labeling your mail. For most people, labels are not a productive use of time. Sure, it might be handy to be able to click a label and see all messages marked “medical” – but odds are you’re only looking for one specific message at a time. When referring to past emails, it’s almost always faster to just search using terms specific to the message you’re after.

Going forward, remember a couple simple rules:

Use a disposable email address for marginally important communication. Create a dummy address, like or something similar to use when signing up for services like Hulu or Amazon. Don’t check this address more than once a day, and don’t forward it to your main address! Non-critical messages are referred to as “bacn” – only slightly more important than spam. It’s easy to get sucked into wasting a lot of time with bacn.

Break the habit of constantly checking your email. I check my email once an hour, and find that’s more than enough. Email was originally intended to replace mailed letters. It’s not intended to replace instantaneous communication, like a phone call. The more often you check your mail, the more likely you’ll be thrown off course from the work you’re trying to get done. When you constantly check your email, you’re placing your needs behind the needs of others.

Strive to clean out the email inbox completely every time you check your mail. You don’t have to respond to all your messages every time you check your mail – but you should sort and read it all. If you want to indicate a message is for followup later, you can mark it with a “star” – right next to the check box on each message line in your inbox. Then, when you have a chance to sit down and deal with more in-depth messages, you’ll know which ones need attention at a glance.

Gmail's starred items feature

You can also view only the starred items in your inbox with this link

Clean up your contacts list, too! Use the “Find and merge duplicates” feature to automatically clean up your Contacts — you’ll find this option in the “More” menu under your contacts view.

Gmail's find and merge duplicate contacts function

Here's where you can automatically clean up your contacts list


Some more advanced tips to stay productive:

Use Gmail canned replies to reduce typing redundant messages. Let’s say you’re an eBay seller who receives a lot of payment notifications. For every notification you get, you’d like to send a generic response like this:

Thanks for your prompt payment! I’ll pack your item securely, send it out by USPS Priority Mail, and update you with the tracking within two business days. Feel free to email with any questions!

That standard reply can be added into your canned responses and sent with the click of a mouse, from within Gmail. Just head over to Labs (under the settings link when you click on the gear) and enable “Canned Responses.” To save a new canned response, simply write an email draft and then click “save new” under canned responses drop-down. Use the same drop-down box to insert a previously canned response.

Creating a new canned response in Gmail

Creating a new canned response in Gmail


Turn off  the count labels / marks next your mailboxes. If you’re like me, you leave Gmail open in the background at all times. And if you’re like me, the siren call of seeing “Inbox (1)” can be a bit too tempting at times. Fortunately, there’s a labs fix for this, too. Under Labs (click the settings link under the gear first) search for a tool called “Hide Unread Counts,” and enable it. Voila! You will no longer be distracted by unread messages, spam, and incomplete drafts.

Unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t need immediately.  Odds are you receive dozens of email newsletters – most of which you do not need. So, whenever a new newsletter email comes in, unsubscribe (unless it’s from one of my clients!) and maybe filter / delete the old ones, too. You’ll be amazed how much you can cut down on junk mail this way.

Consider spending an hour each morning free email free hour each morning. Productivity expert Julie Morgenstern recommends tackling one important task each morning, and taking an hour without email to accomplish it. Odds are there are no critical messages that can’t wait an hour after you’ve come into the office, and once you begin checking your inbox it’s tough to tear yourself away. An early-morning period of calm can be the perfect time to knock out tasks you might not otherwise get to.

Just as a long to-do list is overwhelming and depressing, a cluttered inbox sets the wrong tone for getting things done. Once you’ve spent some time with a clear inbox, you’ll feel accomplished and productive. You’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. Have a tip of your own? Need clarification on one of my recommendations? Drop a note in the comments below.

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About jamesfacts

I’m a student at General Assembly entering the Web Dev Immersive program. My passion is exploring how the internet is working to reshape culture. Find me on Twitter or

24. April 2012 by jamesfacts
Categories: Tutorials, Web Applications | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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