Effectively Managing GMail

Responding to important emails, grouping related messages, and minimizing number of unread emails in your inbox requires an organized, well executed strategy. Many GMail users are drowning in unread messages and are desperate for an app to help them with email organization. I’ve tried some different email apps, but none have worked – a well thought out, disciplined organization system is the only way I’ve been able to get control of my inbox.

A good email organization system upholds the following principles:
1. Unnecessary distractions should not enter your inbox in the first place (by unsubscribing or filtering)
2. Emails should only be read once
3. Unread emails should be processed and moved along whenever your inbox is opened

Here’s my inbox organization strategy:
1. List starred emails first, then ‘important and unread’, then ‘everything else’ in GMail settings
gmail-inbox-settings

2. Don’t open up email when you don’t have time to actually respond
It’s best to fully process all email whenever you open you inbox. Opening email on your phone is often futile because it’s annoying to do research, log on to other sites, and type responses with your thumbs. When I read email on my phone, I usually have to read it again when I get back to a computer and can actually respond. Simply reading email without responding or filing it properly is usually a waste of time.

3. Open every email in your inbox in chronological order and process them one by one
Don’t cherry pick emails in a random order – methodically work through them every time you open your inbox. Here are the acceptable actions to take after opening an email: do nothing, respond, unsubscribe, apply a filter, or star the email if you cannot read it for some reason. Fully process every email before moving on to another email.

4. Unsubscribe aggressively
You’re better off unsubscribing from emails sent by robots to a mass audience. Don’t let social networks tell you to log on for friend requests, professional networks send you emails by recruiters, or banks promote their cash back rewards. Your email should be used to connect with other humans, not by companies to advertise to you.

5. Filter aggressively
Email for mailing lists should automatically bypass your inbox and be routed to separate folders.

6. Label messages
Some messages require labels so they’re easier to find at a later date. Labels are especially important when different emails are connected, but don’t share common keywords (emails that already share common keywords can be grouped with regular keyword searches). Your future self will appreciate an inbox with messages that are well labeled.

7. Use shortcuts
GMail shortcuts can be used on a daily basis and save time in the long run, especially considering the minimal time investment required to learn the shortcuts.

8. Star messages that need to be readdressed at a later date, but only star when absolutely necessary
Email messages should almost always be immediately processed, so they don’t have to be readdressed. If the message needs to be dealt with later, star it (don’t mark it as unread), but make sure to deal with it as soon as possible and then unstar it. The point of this email system is to deal with all mail immediately, not star everything and create a different kind of mess.

9. Quickly make decisions about emails you will not respond to
Email conversations with friends don’t last forever – eventually someone stops responding and a new conversation is reestablished at a later date. Don’t sit on the fence about if you’re going to respond. It’s best to either respond immediately or not respond at all. If you don’t want to seem needy, star it and respond later, but remember starring too many messages is a slippery slope.

Email is important in a digital world and it’s worth devising a well organized system to limit needless mail, respond to important mail, and keep an empty inbox. Executing your system in a disciplined manner every time you open your inbox is the only way to cope with the barrage of messages. Apps and other tricks may help, but good email habits are the only way to truly gain control over your inbox.

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