5 tips to take your Gmail use to the next level


Google’s mail product may be the single most powerful tool in the world for productivity … if you know the power tips. Here are ways to enhance your Gmail usage.

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Built by programmers for technical people, Gmail has an entire suite of tools similar to a full-blown development environment, but you have to know how to use them. Today I’ll teach you how to combine all your email accounts into a Gmail interface, then to make the most of that, including undoing sent messages, the hidden Tasks list in Gmail, keyboard shortcuts, and more.

SEE: Google Sheets: Tips and tricks (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Combine these tips with the workflow techniques for Gmail to get yourself out of blah and get back to work, while having fun.

If you can’t have fun, I promise I’ll at least get you done with work sooner. 

Add non-Gmail accounts

Back in a different century, we had an email application on our desktops, and would get the mail from a mail server. The technology that drove that still exists, which means you can connect Gmail and have it read and write for your Yahoo, Zoho, Mail.com, and Internet Service Provider accounts for free.

Click on the gear icon at the top right for settings, click on Account, then Add a Mail Account. Go to your old internet app to get the POP3 (receive), IMAP (sync mail), and STMP (send email) settings you’ll need to connect. Click on the icon in the top-right to switch between accounts. If you’re daring enough, you can use the Gmail application on your phone or tablet and see all emails at the same time. Gmail is smart enough to keep these threaded. If you’ve never emailed the boss from your personal account, then their email will not populate as you type a name, giving you a hint you are composing from the wrong account.

If you’re like me, you get emails from lists. Lots of emails from lists. Most of these emails mean nothing, but some have powerful, actionable information. The temptation to check email at every break (where every break is two or three minutes) can be huge. You can get these out of your inbox with filters, and then only check a specific label every morning.

Filter before they arrive

When you are reading any email (or have anything checked), you can click the hamburger (three dots) icon and filter messages as in Figure A below.

Figure A

Figure A: Filter Messages like these

The filter menu allows you to skip the inbox, mark messages as read, and assign them a label, or category. Inbox zero, as a strategy, is less about getting all the messages responded to, as much as push out work that can be done or responded to later.

Another powerful option in settings is Read/ Unread First. If you have the nasty habit of keeping important messages unread (more on that later), Settings at least provide you the baby step of forcing unread first. If you want to delve into marking emails as priority, or trust Gmail’s artificial intelligence (AI) to select the ones that are important to you, those options are also available for you, as Figure B shows.

Figure B

Figure B - Inbox settings

Undo sent messages

You’ve probably had that “whoops” feeling from forgetting an attachment. Worse, you might click send on something emotional and regret it. Gmail does have Delay and Undo options, but the default delay is only five seconds. Once the message is actually sent, there is no recalling it. What you can do is increase the delay. Use the gear icon in the upper right. Under general settings, set the cancellation period to 30 seconds. However, if you click anywhere else, the Undo message will disappear.

You can still recall that message if you move fast.

Go to Sent Items, click the checkbox and click Move to Inbox. Then go to the Inbox, click to select the message, and move to Trash. The message will never be sent.

A 30-second undo delay might just give you a chance to fix those typos, add the attachment or emoticon to make the point clear, or just to click delete.

To-do list inside Gmail

Working with Gmail typically means bouncing between three systems. There’s the email (which answers the question “who will I be today?”), the to-do list (some attempt to organize it), and whatever we use for actual work, which could be a word processor, spreadsheet, video editor, CAD software, and so on. Modern development environments provide the tools to do everything in one window, including debugging and unit testing.

As it turns out, Google Mail includes the tools to create your own to-do list from your email. 

As you are reading any email, or have any emails checked in the inbox, you’ll see the Add Task button (Figure C) at the top. The icon looks like a circle with a check mark, and a small plus in the bottom-right. Personally, I can use these for invoices, payments, and projects, instead of managing them by keeping them unread. (Managing by unread is a terrible practice. Don’t do that.)

Getting Tasks inside of Gmail rid me of an entire browser tab; before this, I had it in a Google document.

Figure C

Figure C: Add Task Button

Keyboard shortcuts

I was blown away 23 years ago watching Jeff Klein edit files in vi—his hands never left the keyboard, and the text flew by. If Gmail is a development environment, it would not be complete without keyboard shortcuts. 

Gmail is a complete development environment. With command-i for italics, control-b for bold, and control-enter for send, you can whip through your email to-do list, get out of the business of communication, and get into the business of getting work done.

If Gmail is part of your work, you can get it done a whole lot faster. If you implement the Gmail management techniques as a way of working, it might even save you enough time to consider software lessons from Silicon Valley, or leadership lessons from Picard.

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