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How To Crank Through Your Gmail

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If you get a lot of email — and let’s face it, web workers live in their email — it’s likely that you already use Gmail to handle your communication needs. But are you doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you can get back to your real work (read: Twitter)?

Master the tools of your trade and you will soon be churning through your email like it’s butter. Crank quickly, and get out.

I get well over 100 emails a day, and I suspect I’m not alone in this department. But I respond quickly to each one (if necessary), and empty out my inbox each time. And with the help of some of the rules and tricks I share below, it doesn’t take me long.

Let’s get into it:

  • Empty your inbox. Keeping your email overflowing, and you’re soon lost in a sea of undone tasks and urgent requests and unhappy people. It’s a chaotic jumble of confusion, and enough to overwhelm the best of us. Instead, empty out your inbox and keep it that way. When you process your inbox, go through it quickly, dispose of everything, and be done with it. Read on to find out more.
  • Temporary zone. If you’ve got hundreds of emails in your inbox, the prospect of clearing that out is daunting. Rather than let this overwhelming task stop you, tag everything in the inbox “to clear” and archive it all (except perhaps the last few urgent emails if you’re ready to deal with those now). Then, from here on out, clear out all new, incoming emails. And schedule 30-60 minutes each day to clear out your “to clear” tag, disposing of each email in that tag as described below. Over the course of a few days (or a week), you should be able to get caught up.
  • Dispose of each email. OK, you’re ready to process your inbox (or your “to clear” tag). Open each email, one at a time, and make a decision on what to do with it. Here are your choices:
  1. respond immediately
  2. tag it “@reply” if you can’t respond now (and archive it)
  3. delete it
  4. delegate it (forward and delete or archive)
  5. put it on your to-do list (and then archive), if it has an action in it that needs to be done later
  6. archive it if you need to refer to it later.

Those are your choices. Do one of those, quickly, with each email, and move on to the next. When you’re done, you’ll have an empty inbox!

  • 2-minute rule. If it takes 2 minutes or less to respond to an email, do it right away, as quickly as possible. Most emails, I’ve found, only require a couple of sentences to reply. Do those now. If it’ll take some thought or more time to write a response, tag it “@reply”, to be replied to later today if possible, and archive it.
  • Tag and archive. One of the beauties of Gmail is that there’s no need to file things in a complicated folder and subfolder hierarchy. The time spent filing is minimum. Tag an email (if necessary) and archive it. You can always use Gmail’s very fast search to find it later. Most of the time, I don’t even tag — just archive and search later.
  • No reply needed. Not every email requires a reply. Learn to spot those instantly. It might just be an FYI email, which you can note and then archive. Or it might be something forwarded to you — delete or archive those immediately. Try to avoid responding to emails in which you’re just in the “cc” field, not in the “to” field. Replying to fewer emails means less time spent cranking through your inbox.
  • Reduce your inflow. Do you get a lot of emails from mailing lists, or newsletters, or advertising, or regular things like that? Unsubscribe to as many as possible. You can drastically reduce the number of emails you receive, and thus reduce the amount of time needed to process your inbox, by stopping many of these automated emails. Also, if someone you know is sending you regular emails you don’t really need, politely ask them to stop.
  • AHK. OK, so how do you crank faster? AutoHotKey’s text replacement feature is a great tool for doing that — from automated replies to multiple signatures, you can save yourself tons of valuable time by setting up a few regular keyboard shortcuts for text replacement. I use a number of different signatures, depending on who I’m writing to, and after setting up AHK’s text replacement for each signature, I can just type a few keystrokes and the appropriate signature is generated. For example, I have “wsig” and “wsig2” for my two different jobs, and “psig” and “psig2” for different personal correspondence, and “bsig” for my blog signature. Another great way to use AHK is to generate a few common replies that you email just about every day. I haven’t actually begun using this yet, but I’m beginning to consider it with a lot more companies emailing me personally asking me to try out their products.
  • Keyboard shortcuts. Another invaluable tool for cranking. Using the mouse takes way too much motion (and thus time). Stay in the keyboard as much as possible, and your cranking skills increase dramatically. Gmail is great for this — it just takes a few minutes and a little practice to learn the shortcuts. There are a lot of great shortcuts (Go here for the complete list). Just a few I use a lot: “c” for compose, “r” for reply, “y+o” to archive and move to the next message, “tab+Enter” to send a message after composing it, “/” to search, “j” and “k” to move up and down the list of emails, “#+o” to delete and then open the next message.
  • Filters. I have a couple dozen filters set up — this is possibly Gmail’s killer feature. For example, all comments and pingbacks in my blog go to my “@reply” folder, so they don’t fill up my inbox. Same with Google Calendar notifications. I also have a Monthly Challenge mailing list that I do every day, and those get shunted into their own tag and archived. Others get forwarded to the appropriate address, or deleted immediately.
  • Killfile. I get a lot of email forwarded to me from people. I hate chain mails and joke emails. After getting a bunch of these from one person, I’ll killfile them. Just set up a filter with their address or name in the “from” field, and make “delete” the action.
  • @reply: Set up a time each day to go through your “@reply” folder (or tag). If you can’t get to it when you process your inbox, and you tag it “@reply”, you should try to get to it sometime that day, so your @reply folder doesn’t get to overflowing, and you don’t become one of those people to whom I send an email and it gets lost in a bottomless void. Respond within a day, and people will appreciate it. Of course, if you don’t want to respond, just delete.
  • Batch processing. It’s most efficient to do all your emails in groups, rather than processing them as they come in. For this reason, turn off your email notification. Set times during the day (2-3 times a day is sufficient for most) and give yourself 10-15 minutes to process your inbox. Do it quickly, all at one time, and get out. Of course, if one of those times is when you process your @reply folder, you might want to give yourself another 10-15 minutes on top of that.
  • Email diet. The above tip may be difficult if you’re addicted to email. Go on a diet, if that’s the case. Go one whole day without even checking your email. If you do this, you’ll realize that the world doesn’t collapse if you don’t check your email. From then on, only process email during those 2-3 set times, for 10-15 minutes each time.

Share your own tips for cranking through Gmail in the comments.

33 Responses to “How To Crank Through Your Gmail”

  1. I have not through complete article, but I read first point “Emty Your Inbox” and best part is I did with help of clear label. It is really amazing and have already downloaded AHK tool. Going to install it. Very Good Article.

  2. Nice article lots of good tips. I don’t think you necessarily need to setup an “@reply” label though, isn’t that sort of what the star function is for? At least that’s what I use it for anyway.

    Gmail is the best thing that’s happened to online email productivity ever.

  3. I use the rule of thumb of whether the email is “info” as in stuff to read for your own edification or if the email requires action on my part.
    If it requires action, I click to the gmail calendar tab and put my appointment there right away and just leave the email there for reference, not archive it till the event is over.

  4. Sunshine Kid

    Most interesting article.
    Many of the tricks to copy/paste shortcuts are also handy to know, and I am impressed with his layout of how to do it all. Nice job!
    One trick everyone should learn is to turn off Windows on your PC: (Windows key, then U and U). Three keypresses, and Windows shuts down, even the current running applications and all background applications.
    Much faster than the mouse to the Start button, up to the Shut down link and finally to the selecting of the Turn off function.

  5. These tips are something that a lot of us have heard before and promised we would do but then never did…at least not for long. I think it’s great that you’ve reminded us how we can take back our inboxes.

  6. nice one. another nice feature of gmail is that indicator fro “sent to you -only”. so you see rightawaywhat mail needs to beseen straight away since you are the only one who received it.

    take care.

  7. I think I’m still getting used to going through my mail now that I work from home. The new siterequires me to read a lot of e-mail all day long. I’m getting faster as I’ve tagged e-mails so that as they come in I know whether or not I have to look at it now or if it can wait. We’ll see how it holds up over the long haul.

  8. Good tips, one strategy to keep email under control is to make sure you can see all the email in your inbox without scrolling. Once something disappears off the bottom of the screen, it’s usually lost. If you can’t clear the inbox by the end of every day, then by the end of the week.

  9. Your suggestion of using a to clear tag and an @reply tag are great ideas. I’m off to employ them right away! (I already use filters, but its hard sometimes to keep up.)

  10. A-a-ARCHIVE??? Gmail has an ARCHIVE option? Wow, I didn’t notice that! I like the fact that Gmail doesn’t attach those nasty advertisement footers (unlike Yahoo’s “Do You Yahoo?…”), but until I read this post, I resented that Gmail didn’t allow me to file “To Reply Later” mails in folders so they’re not clogging my Inbox view. Thanks for all these useful tips!

  11. Here’s another vote for using some sort of text replacement tool (that works for all applications, not just within one). I did this after reading about “bit levers” in Mark Hurst’s book, Bit Literacy – and I wish I’d done it earlier.

    I’ve set up a number of standard e-mail replies, which I can then customize – but having the basic reply available with a few keystrokes is a big timesaver.

    I’m on a Mac, and I use Typinator, one of the two tools Mark recommended – well worth the small price.

  12. Although I do not get nearly as much e-mail as everyone else, I do make it a point of duty to process my mail daily. It does not always work out that way, but I try.

    Regardless, I could not afford to fall behind since I still forward important mail from accounts going back to the pre-GMail days into a GMail archive. But in replying to my mail, I use my original usernames from those old accounts in the From field. That is one useful GMail feature I like.

    I use some of the techniques above except that I tend to process the mail in the Inbox where I read, reply to, tag and delete. I have not developed the habit of Archiving. I prefer the idea though of keeping the Inbox empty and will get to it right away.