I love Gmail. As an early adopter (I started using it in 2006), optimising my inbox has been an ongoing process. Today, I can proudly say that I have a highly efficient inbox.
In fact, even during my time at Google I trained other Googlers on how to optimise their inbox. At Taledo, every new employee is taught my method.
As I have received very positive feedback, I want to share my email management method. Eric Schmidt actually wrote his own article on email best practices. Here I plan to get right down to the nuts and bolts of using your inbox in a way that will complement his advice.
To give you an idea of how it looks, here is my inbox – clean and efficient.
So, let’s get down to how you can do this with your own inbox.
Filtering and Labels for a clean inbox
Having a lot of unread emails is very stressful. It tells your subconscious that you have unfinished work. Also, it is easy for important emails to slip through. I had many occasions where emails I sent were missed due to bad email management by the recipient.
As a result, I implemented the “Zero Inbox Policy”, meaning that I always try to have an empty inbox – even during times when I receive hundreds of emails in a single day (during our launch on ProductHunt for instance).
The main way to achieve this is through proper filtering. To do this, you will have to create labels for different types of emails. In the picture below, you can see my Gmail labels. Create labels for every relevant topic. You can also arrange the labels with numbers or letters (it will be ordered alphabetically or numerically) and allocate colours to each label. I tend to allocate more noticeable colours to important labels so that those emails will be emphasised in the inbox.
Next, create filters to automatically apply certain labels and in some cases skip the main inbox. I applied the inbox skipping mainly to transactional emails (invoices from marketing channels, LinkedIn updates etc.) as well as marketing emails (newsletters etc.). So, every time I receive an email to my main inbox, I can be sure that it was addressed to me directly.
You can set up filters under “Settings”. For the newsletters, for instance, you first have to choose which emails to filter out. You can use the operator OR in order to include several email addresses in the filter (see below).
Then, you can choose to skip the inbox, you should select the label and don’t forget to tick the box “Also apply filter to matching conversations.” at the bottom.
Multiple Inboxes and stars for efficient email tracking
As you can see in the first image, my inbox actually has 5 inboxes instead of just one. With this approach, I can track important emails as well as follow-ups. Google tried to introduce a similar inbox with the importance tracking. However, I do not like it and prefer to use multiple inboxes.
Before setting up multiple inboxes, you should choose the stars for your inboxes. You can do this under the settings menu. As you can see below, I have chosen the yellow star, the orange guillemet, the blue info and the green check.
Afterwards, you can activate multiple inboxes under “Settings > Labs”. Scroll down to “Multiple inboxes”, select enable and then save the changes. Once this is done, you will see a “Multiple inboxes” tab under “Settings”. The settings I use are shown in the picture below and I would recommend that you use something similar. You can limit the conversations per inbox to a lower number if you have a smaller screen. 15 per inbox seems to be perfect for a 27” screen.
I use these inboxes in order to manage my inbox in the following way:
- Every email I open, I decide quickly whether or not I should work on this topic today. If so, I mark them with the yellow star which moves the email into my “OPEN” inbox on the top right inbox. This is basically my To-Do list for the day. The reason I use the yellow star for this inbox is that it’s the only one you can apply on mobile. Usually, I skim through my emails during my commute and apply yellow stars so that I arrive to an empty inbox and a set list of To-Dos.
- One of the most crucial email management practices is to track sent emails. Few people do this but it is so important. What I usually do is apply the orange guillemet to emails I should definitely follow up to if I don’t receive a reply. These could be pitch emails for instance. Sales deals are usually closed in the 4th or 5th followup.
- I move informative emails that should be read at a later date to the CACHE inbox, using the blue info symbol. These emails have no urgency, so I check this inbox once per month.
- Emails that contain important information that I have to access regularly are moved to the TOP inbox, using the green check. This is quite handy as it saves me from using the search function too often.
Of course, you can set up your own system. For example, using two or three inboxes instead of four. However, I would highly encourage you to track follow-ups and use the yellow star for the To-Do list, in order to have it available on mobile as well.
Additional settings to get the maximum out of Gmail
In order to have a good overview of your inbox, I would suggest setting the inbox to compact (under settings). You can also change the background colour of the whole inbox if you like.
I also suggest you remove the “important” sign next to each email. You can do this under “Settings > Inbox”. This will further clean out the display.
Besides multiple inboxes, there are many more Google Labs that can facilitate your daily work. Just have a look.
You probably also have noticed that I added an additional label that I named “________”. This is quite helpful to differentiate your labels from the other folders. Furthermore, I moved all the irrelevant inboxes (circles, important, chats etc.) to “More” so it is not visible. This helps make the inbox look cleaner.
BONUS: Some cool settings in Google calendar
In addition to Gmail, you can also pimp your Gmail calendar. For instance, you can activate “Gentler Notifications” in Google Labs (“Settings > Labs”), so that your current task is not cancelled at every new meeting. You can also hide the early and late hours, giving you a better overview of your calendar.
But the most useful tool, which many users surprisingly don’t know about, is the Google Tasks integration. You can manage your daily tasks directly in the calendar. You simply activate the Tasks calendar on the left side (under “My calendars”), which enables you to add tasks at the top of each day. Additionally, you can download a tasks app such as Gtasks that synchronizes with your phone’s calendar.
If you have many other calendars, such as the ones from your coworkers in your overview, I would recommend you to change the colour of your calendar to black with a white font. You will never miss an important meeting again.
With these simple tricks for Gmail and Gcalendar, you will be able to increase your email efficiency and effectiveness massively. I have often had the experience that business leaders and influential people – even those with thousands of employees – have an incredibly high responsiveness on email, whereas low-level staff often take weeks to respond to an email – if they reply at all. This was one of my major “aha!” moments when I started working with business leaders and I believe it’s an excellent indicator to separate the wheat from the chaff. Be the wheat!
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