Blog Post

My Custom Gmail Setup — Making the Most of the Screen

I love Gmail. There, I’ve said it in the open. Gmail is the one app I have open all day, every single day. It’s like a convenience store in the big city — it never closes. Google (s goog) keeps tweaking Gmail to make it better at the things it does, and the Gmail Labs is always a good place to look for better ways to do things in the program. I have tweaked my Gmail setup to make it work best for me. Here’s my current layout for Gmail:

JK Gmail setup

The first thing you notice is the theme. Since I spend so much time on this screen I use a theme that is laid back, yet attractive.

Let’s break down what I am using in this layout, starting with the left sidebar from top to bottom.

Folder List

Gmail now intelligently just lists the email folders I use the most. I can easily access other folders with the dropdown list (17 more). Our email uses IMAP so folders are an easy way to keep my mail organized on the fly. I absolutely hate leaving all my email in the Inbox, although I could do so. I make it a habit to archive my mail when I’ve processed it, to get it out of my way. The handy Gmail search and multiple inboxes let me keep important messages on the main screen. The folder list gives me access to Google Contacts and Tasks at the bottom. I use the Contacts but not the Tasks as you will see.

Google Talk (Chat)

The next box down is the chat window. We use Google Talk a lot at GigaOM and it’s a good way to see who’s online when I need to chat. I keep this box collapsed as in the image above so it only takes up valuable screen real estate when used.

Google Calendar

I use four different calendars and this box is a good way to see what is on the schedule.

Google Docs

I use Google Docs for a lot of different things. All I have to do is drop the box down and get instant access to commonly accessed documents.

Remember the Milk

This is my task manager of choice as it interfaces with Gmail, the iPhone and the Palm Pre. I work in this box all day, keeping an eye on what must get done today.

Main email window

The email window is the heart of Gmail, and I have done some tweaking to make it work just like I prefer. When mail comes in it appears in the left pane above and waits for me to do something with it. This pane has been tweaked to make the display more productive, and I will list the Gmail Labs tweaks I have enabled in a bit.

The right pane in the email window is where the magic happens. I use the Superstars tweak in Gmail to make the “starring” a lot more useful. Superstars lets you toggle among a group of “stars”, and in the display above you can see several stars in use. I am currently using yellow, blue and red stars, along with the “yellow bang” and green check mark. These tag mail in a way that makes it simple to use Gmail search to group email I want to display using the multiple inboxes in the right pane. Here’s how the multiple inboxes are configured currently (it’s a work in progress):

GMail multiple inboxes

This configuration with multiple inboxes and Superstars makes me much more productive using Gmail. I make extensive use of Gmail folders/ labels and I can archive an email when read yet tag it with this setup to keep it on the main screen when I need to remember to do something with it. It is effective, simple and productive.

The Tweaks

This overview of my Gmail setup is intended to demonstrate how I use Gmail. It is a work in progress, I am always tweaking it to make things work better. Google is always tweaking Gmail, too, and that helps me add functionality without adding complexity. Here’s a list of the current tweaks I have enabled in Gmail. They are enabled/disabled in Gmail Labs unless noted:

  • Superstars– the tagging system
  • Pictures in chat– displays user pic in Talk
  • Signature tweak– displays my email signature before any quoted text
  • Advanced IMAP controls– lets me select which IMAP folder show up in Gmail
  • Mark as Read button– this adds a button to do what the title says
  • Multiple inboxes
  • Text messaging in chat– allows sending/ receiving SMS messages in the Gmail Chat window
  • Title tweaks– can configure the Gmail window bar to show more meaningful information
  • Inserting images– can insert images directly into message bodies
  • Remove labels from subject– this is big for me. Gmail defaults to display labels in the subject of each email. This wastes a lot of space, something in short supply on netbooks. This removes them.
  • Google Calendar Gadget– this enables it in the left sidebar
  • Google Docs Gadget– ditto
  • Add any gadget by URL– this enables the ability to add Gmail gadgets by URL when needed. This is how the Remember The Milk gadget was added to the left sidebar.

I hope this look into my Gmail setup is useful to others. I am always looking for ways to optimize this so if you have your own special sauce for Gmail leave it in the comments. I am currently waffling on whether to have the multiple inboxes display to the right of the inbox as displayed above or below it:

JK GMail setup netbook

When I use a netbook with a narrow screen resolution I manually change the display of the multiple inboxes to appear below the inbox. The screen is just too narrow to be useful otherwise. I may end up just leaving it this way all the time, even on bigger screens.

18 Responses to “My Custom Gmail Setup — Making the Most of the Screen”

  1. I like to see the adverts on the right side of the screen….how do I change the screen and what is shown, on the email page????????????? Thing is that, others use the computer too…and I want it to stay the way I set it up….any chance of being able to get it the way I want it…and locking it unless I use some password???????

  2. Please ignore my previous remarks. If you toggle between the new and the old version, access to the missing tweaks appears.
    The start page is still an issue. I really do think Google took a step backwards when the removed this feature

  3. I really like what you have done with the tweaks but have run into some problems when trying to do the same thing in Google Apps mail.
    When you say the corporate version of Gmail, do you mean Premier Version or is that something different? I note the start page in the top right hand corner, which I think is not available to new users since 1 Dec 08. How did you make more than window for mail items and the open calendar in the side bar?. Whilst I can see superstars is available in the free version of gmail I cannot see it in the premier version.
    Sorry about the 20 questions and I realise this is not a free help service but what you have done is a great improvement over the vanilla gmail screen layout

  4. I notice that you have very little vertical space lost in your theme. With my netbook, I am keen to get rid of wasted space below and around the search box. Which theme are you using? Is it one you’ve defined in CSS?
    Good advice on this site, as always.

  5. James, I assume you manually assign the superstars to each message – I don’t see a way where you can use filters to assign a particular superstar to a message. Correct?

    Interesting article – gave me some good ideas.

  6. Ironically, while you say “it never closes”, downtime and lack of reliability were the reason we recently moved from Google Apps for Enterprise to Kerio Mail Server. For the number of users we had with Google, it actually worked out cheaper to take the one-time hit for Kerio’s software and host it ourselves. Plus we don’t have to worry about third-parties handing over private information.

    Saying that, I do miss the GMail UI, which I think is highly usable. Switching to a desktop client has seen a big difference in memory consumption, though, which I guess is an exchange I’m willing to make.

    My two cents :) Nice article James.