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.

  • Awesome tips Brent! I’ve also found that utilizing Google’s intelligent organization methods like the Priority Inbox and the new tabs system can be helpful in wading through the morass of systems updates, newsletters and marketing emails. Its also useful to check in the labs section every once in a while for new tools to help improve your Inbox workflow – Super Stars for instance is a great way to flag emails to deal with later, ones you’re actively waiting for a response on or emails that contain useful information such as authentication credentials. Couple all these with Gmail’s excellent filtering system for label, star and archive automation and keeping Inbox Zero is a breeze.

    • I’m becoming a big fan of the new “Primary”, “Social” and “Promotions” tabs Gmail is offering.

    • Dave,

      I just turned on the Superstars lab. Seems cool. I already use stars as a way of flagging items for follow-up. Usually that’s thing that require more in-depth thought, or a lot of attachments/links for references.

      Thanks for sharing your tips!

      Superstars Info –

  • Wow! Thank you for these great tips! As a Gmail user for years, I have no idea about the shortcuts! Just enabled it 🙂

    Here are some labs I’m using:
    Rightside chat: if you have lots of friends who use Gmail, their names may appear in the chat list. The scroll is pretty messy in Gmail as the list grows, so I use this lab to make it stay clean.

    Undo Send: just in case I wrote something stupid in my messages — after hitting the Send button, Gmail would wait for a few second before the email is sent out.

    • Thanks yingying! Undo Send is golden. I’ve used it on many occasions, lol.

    • Undo send is awesome! Saved my butt a few times 🙂

      Another tip – if you’re running Chrome as your primary browser, you can further customize your Gmail experience with the Minimalist for Everything extension. Clean up and hide portions of the interface that get in the way or annoy for distraction free Inbox clearing.

    • I’ll echo the praise for Undo Send! Also really enjoy the new feature Google introduced that detects “attached” in text and reminds me to actually attach something 😉

  • Rick

    You missed one. If you add a plus you can use it to sort your emails. For example if you use [email protected] you can create a folder and automatically send anything sent to the email address to its own folder. Also works really well for creating multiple twitter accounts with the same email address.

    • Interesting notion, Rick. I keep distinct accounts because it lets me focus on one aspect of my life or another [Professional, Personal, Philanthropy]. But I can certainly see the value of consolidating things.

  • Great post! Definitely some nuggets I’ve never seen! I love auto filtering, I assign a filter to a clients name and every time I receive an email from them it is clearly labeled as that client. Also yes.. undo send has saved my ass many times 🙂

    • Glad to hear that we found some new tips for you. Which one do you think you’ll use the most?

  • Morgan Brown

    Shortcuts save me every day. My favorites are:

    S = star
    M = mute
    E = archive
    L = label
    and # = delete

    I find that Star is a great way to label things that need attention, but will take longer than 30 second to address.

    I also create filters to automatically route stuff like receipts, notifications, etc. to their proper folders to keep them out of my inbox.

    Combining some of this stuff with sound time management (like put down the freaking email and work) makes for a way more productive day.

    • It sounds like your process and mine are very similar.

      What other time management practices do you think are most valuable? I’m always looking for new ideas to employ, or write about 🙂

  • Robert Diaz

    I love these tips! I haven’t used the tabs yet, but they sound like a great way to logically segment my inbox.

    I like to use the Rapportive extension for Chrome/Firefox. It pulls in the latest posts/tweets/social profile info from the person in your e-mail message. Not a keyboard shortcut, but it can be helpful in quickly recalling a past conversation, or where you met that person. If you don’t know the person, this can be a good way craft a personalized intro message.

    • Whoa, Rapportive is awesome. Having all of that context in my inbox is going to help me write much better communications. And also prompt me to get connected much more quickly.

  • David N

    My go to shortcuts are from the “in message” view…

    “{” and the “}” are great ways to move through your messages without having to jump back into the inbox view. These shortcuts archive the message and move to the next message in the list (older or newer respectively).

    My Flow:
    Open a message > decide what to do with this message, star it if it needs following up with > then click { or }…

    • Thanks for sharing your flow. Like I said in the article… I think everyone has their own technique. You’ll know “it’s working” when your inbox is small and email doesn’t seem like such a chore.

  • Julia Larson

    These are fantastic pointers. My gmail inbox needs some zen, and now I know the first steps I can take 🙂 Many, many thanks!

    • Good luck on your quest for Inbox Zero. Let us know how your inbox looks next week!

      P.S. Getting started can be tough. If you’ve got thousands of messages piled up, you might need to take some pretty drastic steps (like archiving ALL of them). If you take that approach, make sure you handle the critical items first. Anything else of important will eventually bubble it’s way back up.

  • Excellent tips! I love gmail, and these just added extra umph to it! Thank you.

    • You’re welcome, Sasha-Shae! We’re all about making an impact.