The problem with Gmail is it’s default settings, or the way that people use email regularly. It’s clunky, disorganized, and some people spend more time managing their email, rather than using their email.
I frequently get asked how I stay on top of things as a serial Entrepreneur / CEO / Keynote Speaker / Dad. Although there are a bunch of life-hacks that I use to get by, one thing that keeps it all together is Gmail. I live and die by Gmail (and my calendar of course), and can’t see how people can survive their daily tasks without using this beautiful tool. It’s not just email, it’s Gmail.
But if you want to Gmail like a ninja, you’ll need to follow these exact instructions or you won’t be able to follow the 9 Golden Rules that I outline in the second half of this article.
First, you’ll need to take 5 minutes to change a bunch of default settings…
- Go to the first tab under your settings page: ‘General‘.
- Conversation View = On
- Preview Pane = Immediately
- Keyboard Shortcuts = ON
- Personal Indicators = OFF
- Labels: Create labels of the various types of email that you want to store for your records, even if you don’t necessarily read it when it comes in. For example, I have one label entitled ‘PRINT’ which all of my receipts go into automatically for record-keeping later on. Create these labels now, but don’t worry about how to filter messages automatically (more below. DO NOT CREATE LABELS FOR PROJECTS, PEOPLE, OR TOPICS THAT YOU WANT TO CATEGORIZE. This is a waste of time because your Gmail can search for anything, and most people spend HOURS categorizing their mail each week for no reason.
- Inbox: This is crucial!!
- Inbox Type = Priority Inbox
- Inbox Sections
- 3=Everything Else
- 4= Empty
- Inbox Markers = No markers
- Auto-Advance = Enable
- Google Calendar = Enable
- Preview Pane = Enable
- Unread Message Icon = Enable
- Offline: Install Gmail offline. This will allow you to use Gmail when you’re outside of a WIFI zone in Chrome. Make plane rides efficient with this simple option!
Once you have done all of these steps, make sure to save the changes on each page and go back to your main Inbox.
Now complete the following steps:
- Change the preview pane to ‘Horizontal’ using the button that you can now see next to the ‘Settings’ icon in the top right corner of your screen.
- Print out this PDF and put it next to you on your desk. This will be your shortcut key bible that you’ll need for only one day.
- In the inbox, click on ‘Mail’, ‘Tasks.’ This will pop up a little task box in the lower right-hand corner of your screen.
Welcome to your new inbox. As you can now see, you have three buckets when you log in to Gmail: Unread / Starred & Everything else. Most of your day you will spend between your Unread emails (to see what’s new) and Starred (things that you need to follow up on. If you’ve read an email, and you haven’t starred it, it will automatically go into the ‘Everything Else’ bucket so that you can find it later (if needed), but don’t spend any time managing emails that don’t matter. There’s enough storage in your Gmail to handle tens of thousands of emails and never delete a thing.
Finally, Here Are My 9 Golden Rules:
- Deal with your unread emails – Want to stay on top of things? Answer people right away. Don’t let it sit for too long and lose momentum with your work. Chances are if you answer someone right away, they will get back to you ASAP. If you take a day to read emails, people are going to start calling you and phone calls take a lot longer than emails (most of the time). Check your Unread mail regularly, and keep them at 0. Some people ‘mark as unread’ to their emails so that they can remember to follow up. This is stupid. Just check your mail and answer people ASAP if you have the time.
- Star anything that you need to deal with – This will allow you to gather emails on your inbox screen that need your attention, but that you can’t answer right away. Examples would include, following up with a customer or proofing a document that someone sent to you. Don’t spend time categorizing all of your work into folders, because then you need to check every folder for your tasks. You are one person, so have one bucket.
- If something is going to take you a few days to do, create a task. The bottom right-hand corner has a very simple task list. Add things to this list, and check them off when done. It’s a rudimentary tool, but it works because it’s easy. You can jot something down in a jiffy without needing to go into another program / website or tool, and you’ll always have it with you.
- Use shortcut keys – For the first day that you are managing your new email box, try to use shortcut keys to navigate / archive / star and reply to emails. As mentioned above, having a quick cheat sheet print-out next to your computer will help you quickly reference these shortcuts as you work. It’s faster than using a mouse and you’ll be flying around your emails like a ninja after you use them for one day. This may seem like a pointless habit to learn, but once you learn them, you won’t be able to live without them. My most used shortcut keys include; C = Compose new message, Up / Down arrow = move through unread / starred messages, R = Reply, A = Reply all, F = Forward, (Shift +!) = Mark as spam, Y=Archive.
- Create Filters – Let Gmail do your monkey work by creating filters for repetitive emails. For example, if you want to save regular receipts for use later (printing / reporting), create a filter each time you receive one from that sender. Select the message and click ‘Create Filter.’ I’d recommend having Gmail ‘mark it as read’ and ‘label’ it into a folder. This way, it doesn’t show up as an unread email that you need to check, and goes directly into a folder.
- Report Spam – Any unsolicited email that you regularly ignore, mark as spam (Shift+!) right away. Gmail will take note of the sender and send all future emails into Spam for you. If you ignore your spam, it will creep up on you over time and your inbox will be full of crap. Be ruthless.
- Deal with your Stars – My personal goal is to have less than 5 stars by the end of the day. If it takes me more than a week to answer a star, I’ll move it to my task list, or think about why I’m procrastinating on answering. Don’t keep clutter around or you won’t be able to focus.
- Search, don’t sort – One of the biggest habits that email junkies need to kick is sorting. I’ve watched people spend hours sorting messages into folders / labels for their individual clients, which is just useless. Their justification is that they need to be able to find that message later. That’s what Gmail’s search filter is for. Need to find emails from a certain person? Just type their email address in the search bar and bingo, you’ve got your list of emails. Need to find something that you sent to someone? Search To:(email) and you have your list in less than a second. Stop sorting, it’s pointless.
- Don’t delete emails – This is another terrible habit. People delete their emails because 10+ years ago there wasn’t enough room on the server for their emails. Gmail solves this with their 30GB of storage (and growing), which can store over 100,000 emails. Don’t waste your time clicking through and deleting everything because that takes time. If you’ve read it, and you haven’t starred it, it will just fall into the ‘Everything else’ box which will gather all of your precious emails in case you need to find something later. If you want to quickly get rid of an email that you are looking at, and for some reason can’t wait for it to fall into the ‘Everything’ box, click Y to archive it. I haven’t deleted a single email for 13 years, and my inbox looks clean.
Welcome to your new, clean, efficient inbox! Have more recommendations? Would love to hear them in the comments below.