Back in 2004, Google created Gmail. Gmail’s unique value proposition was storage – lots of it. The mindblowing 1GB of of storage (compared to the 250MB offering from Yahoo and Hotmail) empowered users to store/archive every email they received. Add that massive benefit to Gmail’s other key innovations (conversation threading and an amazing search feature) and it’s easy to see why millions of users made the switch.

Seven successful years later, Google has increased each users’ storage limit tenfold, which has prompted many companies to abandon Microsoft Exchange and SharePoint for Google’s own suite of tools including Docs, Drive, and Sites; myself and digital-telepathy included.  As an account strategist here it is critical that I remain organized and results driven. My inbox is a testament to those values – it is absolutely pristine – and I strive to maintain Inbox Zero.  Which, by the way, you should definitely learn more about via my link as I don’t have time to explain it in this particular post.

In this post, I’ll be sharing five Gmail best practices I use everyday to streamline my email processing.  If you’re interested in experiencing the zen that accompanies a well managed inbox, having the luxury of escaping email for hours at a time each day (if not more) and accomplishing Inbox Zero yourself – then this post is for you.

1. Learn and employ keyboard shortcuts

Changing input types slows you down. Unlike mobile interfaces where the onus is on the webmaster to queue up the right input, this is your email. So, go to your Gmail Settings, and turn on keyboard shortcuts. The goal being: keep your hands on the keyboard. Process your email.


These commands get me through most of my email quickly:

R – reply
A – reply all
F – forward
E – archive conversation and move to the next
# – delete that sucker
Shift-U – mark a message as unread
Ctrl+enter or
Mac: command+enter – send a message

This saves me 5-10 minutes a day, but then again my process is already pretty optimized.  If you find yourself with a constantly full inbox that requires a lot of scrolling and hunting then this will really change your life for the better.

2. Utilize Preview Pane

If you’re an Outlook > Gmail convert then you probably miss being able to have your inbox and active message on the same screen. Preview Pane is your answer.


Preview Pane is a lab you can activate by navigating to Settings > Labs > Preview Pane.  Just select “enable” and save.  As a bonus keyboard shortcuts work from here too! Combining preview pane and keyboard shortcuts reduces wait time, allowing you to to take action on an email as soon as you begin reading and before it is even marked as read.

3. Hello, Reply All. Meet the Mute Button.

Don’t you hate those Reply All email threads?  Just hit the mute button (M). This will hide these messages from your view, allowing you to avoid the distracting (if occasionally fun or funny) email explosions we all dread but occasionally use.


If later that day you just can’t resist peaking at Hillary Clinton’s latest text as per your co-worker, use the advanced operator is:muted to view what you missed.

4. Labels: Like Folders but Better

One or many gmail labels can be applied to messages – giving your inbox a sprinkle of color.  Imagine: Client, Project, Month, Priority. Depending on your email needs any or all of these labels can be applied automagically using filters. OCD? No problem. Gmail has support for color coded and nested labels.


Messages with labels can be archived or remain in your inbox.  If you don’t want to setup filters, use this series of keystrokes to label items sans mouse:

L – open label menu
Type to search for desired label
Return – to apply

Once the label is applied. You can use the other keyboard shortcuts to apply the other actions I described in tip 1.

5. Auto-archive on Send

This wonderful little tool archives a conversation when you reply. Removing a whole step, hoorah! If you forgot to add a label, don’t worry about it… You can label it the next time the conversation comes back your way. All archived messages are accessible through search anyways so it should never be too hard to find even if it does go unlabeled for a time.


Final Thought

Email is sort of like packing groceries into canvas bags. Everyone has their own preferences for order and grouping. You get better with practice.  But if you’re not fast enough, they can pile up really quickly.  Regardless of your personal beliefs about email: it is a reality we all face.

Inbox Zero requires a bit of diligence but it’s a great way to improve your reliability and productivity. These tips can make light of the mountains of messages you probably face every day. Reducing gmail friction gives you more time to focus on the quality of your communications and the pressing work you no doubt have outside of the inbox.

I hope you found this post helpful.  I know that when I learned this stuff it made a huge impact and I’d love to hear how increased productivity has had a positive affect on your life too.  So please, let me know what you thought of the post in the comments below!  Feel free to include any tips or tricks you use as well.

Editor’s Note:  this is the first installment of what will now be a weekly column on Productivity by Brent Summers.  He’s an incredibly productive person himself and helps keep us productive as an office as well.  If you’re a freelancer or design agency project manager looking to improve your personal or team productivity then I highly recommend subscribing to our updates via the sign-up form in the footer below so you can catch all of Brent’s future posts.