The Ultimate Guide To Gmail Productivity: 25 Must-Have Tips, Tricks, And Time Savers

Get started, get organized, get rid of jerks, and much, much more.

The Ultimate Guide To Gmail Productivity: 25 Must-Have Tips, Tricks, And Time Savers
[Source Photo: Flickr user Edward Musiak]

From its not so humble beginnings as a non-prank released on April Fool’s Day in 2004 to its billion-plus users today, Google’s illustrious email offering has proven indispensable for most of us.


And sure, you may use it all day, every day, but are you really getting the most out of it? Here are 25 tips, tricks, and time-savers for even the most seasoned of Gmail pros.

Let’s Light This Candle

Enhance Your View
Instead of staring at plain-vanilla Gmail, spice things up with a fun theme. Under the Gear menu in the upper-right corner, simply choose “Themes” to switch to one of several ready-made backdrops, or upload your own. Also under the Gear menu, play around with the Display Density settings. “Comfortable” gives you some nice white space, while “Compact” is good when you need to cram as much as possible onto your screen.

Bring Some Friends (And Mail) Along
If you’re just using Gmail for the first time or you’ve started up a second Gmail account and want to get your contacts and old mail into the system, head into the Settings > Accounts and Import section to choose the “Import mail and contacts” link. You’ll be able to import your stuff from popular providers–Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, and more–by following a few simple steps, though you’ll lose the chipper “You’ve got mail!” sound forever.


Make Gmail More Like Outlook
Under Settings > Labs, enable Preview Pane to have the option of viewing full messages to the right of (or underneath) your inbox, like Outlook. Old habits die hard, so if you’ve been dealing with corporate email your whole life and are just now trying to get the hang of Gmail, this Preview Pane goodie can help ease your transition. Once enabled, you can find its various options in a drop-down just to the left of the Gear icon on the main page.

Focus On What’s Important
Gmail can intelligently figure out which messages are more important to you than others. Neat trick, no? In the Settings > Inbox section, select the “Use my past actions . . . ” radio button to put Gmail to work parsing your top messages. You can then choose the “Show markers” button, the “Override filters” button (more on filters in a bit), and set the inbox type at the top of this section to show your important messages first. Then, in the Settings > General section, under “Desktop Notifications” (if you’re using Chrome, Firefox, or Safari), you can set pop-up notifications to only appear when you get important messages.

Escape Conversation View Hell
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like Conversation View and those who hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. If you find yourself in the latter camp, head into Settings > General and turn Conversation View off. The next time you open up the latest message in an email thread, you’ll see a nice familiar wall of indented text instead of several individual messages, while your inbox will contain individually clickable messages as well.


Keep It Clean

Archive Everything . . .
Gmail introduced the concept of archiving instead of deleting–the thought being that you’d have enough free storage space so that you wouldn’t have to worry about constantly purging big messages. This idea still holds true, and you still do get a fair amount of free space, so if you’re done with a message for good, click the second button from the left (the icon of the box with the down arrow) instead of the trash can. That way, if you find you actually need to access that message again in the future, it’ll be waiting for you under the “All Mail” link in the left sidebar.

. . . But Keep Your Archive In Check
Generous though Gmail’s free storage may be, it’s 2016, and people are sending bigger and bigger attachments every day. Once you bump up against your storage limit, it’s time to hunt down space-sucking messages. Click the little down arrow on the far right of the search box, then tick the “Has attachment” box, then enter 10 in the “Size” row and click the blue magnifying glass button. This will show you all your messages that contain attachments larger than 10 megabytes. Tick the checkboxes next to the messages you’re sure you don’t need, then click the garbage-can icon to clear them out for good.

Reply And Release
Once you’ve replied to a message, do you really need it sitting in your inbox? Use the “Send and Archive” feature to clear messages out while you wait for the other person to respond. It can be found under the Settings > General menu and merely provides an optional button while you’re crafting reply messages. You can still reply and let the messages stew in your inbox the old-fashioned way if you like, but I personally use the big blue Send and Archive button more than just about any other Gmail feature.


Get Organized With Labels And Filters
Each message can have a label applied to it, with newly created labels manifesting themselves as folder-like entities in the left sidebar. While reading a message, simply click the Label icon–second from the right–and create a new label or apply an existing one (you can drag labels from the left sidebar right onto a message to apply them as well). Click the More button (farthest right) and choose “Filter messages like these” then “Create filter with this search” to open up a world of automation options, such as applying all messages from Mom with a “Family” label. Gmail filters could command an entire, huge article unto themselves, so check out Gmail’s help section on the subject for a more thorough overview.

Give Up? Buy More Storage
If you’re sick of dealing with storage issues altogether, it’s OK to bite the bullet and shell out for more space. As you scroll to the bottom of your messages list, you’ll notice your usage stats in the lower-left corner along with a “Manage” link. Assuming you’re at or close to 100%, click that link and you’ll be taken to a page where you can pay for more storage. Plans start at a couple bucks a month, and storage space is applied not only to Gmail but to Google Drive and Google Photos as well if you use those services.

Roll Up Your Sleeves

Survey Your Mighty Message Kingdom
Cast your steely gaze across a vast horizon of electronic missives by changing the maximum page size to show up to 100 messages at once. It can be found in the Settings > General section: third option down. Keep things simple with 10 messages at a time or crank it up to 100, with several other options in between.


Color Coordinate
Starring a message is a quick way to mark it as important, but different messages can be important in different ways. To that end, in the Settings > General section, look for the Stars section and choose the “all stars” preset. Now the next time you star a message, click the star again and watch as it changes colors. Cycle through all the various options, including exclamation points, questions marks, and info icons to classify your important messages based on their content.

Turn Messages Into To-Dos
Chances are, you’re treating your inbox like a giant to-do list anyway. Might as well make it official by turning conversations into tasks you can check off. Click the More button from an active email thread and choose “Add to Tasks” to . . . well, you can probably guess what happens: The thread becomes a task in Google’s simple but handy Tasks offering, complete with a link back to the related email message.

Keep An Eye On Your Message Debt
Also in the Settings > Labs section, enable the “Unread message icon” option. Assuming you keep Gmail open in a tab all day like any normal person, you’ll be able to see how many unread messages you have–just in case you need another little something to unnecessarily stress you out a bit.


Go Off The Grid
If you use Google’s Chrome web browser, Gmail has a handy offline mode that’ll let you tame your inbox from just about anywhere. You won’t actually be able to send or receive email until you have a connection, mind you, but you can move messages around and craft your replies while you make your way back to civilization. Check the Settings > Offline section to get set up.

Outsource Your Email
If all else fails, unleash the hell that has become your inbox on your thoroughly underappreciated administrative assistant in the General > Accounts and Import section. Under the “Grant access to your account” setting, you can add another Google user to your account as an email delegate. Such persons won’t be able to change your settings or password, but they can read, archive, and reply to your messages. Replies will contain your name followed by your delegate’s name in parentheses to avoid confusion.

Deal With The Human Element

Block Bothersome Bullies
Some people can’t just take a hint. Thankfully, you can block any person–or any thing–from contacting you ever again with a couple quick clicks. When you get a message from someone you’d like to blacklist, click the down arrow in the upper-right corner of the message and select the “Block” option. Any messages sent from the offending address in the future will end up right in the spam folder.


Conjure Up Old Correspondence
Want to quickly find every message your friend has ever sent to you? Simply hover over a sender’s name, whether from your inbox or in a message, and you’ll see a Contact card pop up. Click the “Emails” link to view all the messages the two of you have bandied back and forth over the years.

Take It Back!
We’ve all felt the gut-punch of sending an email to SALES-ALL when you really meant to email Sally–only Sally!–to register your support for a coworker’s skinny jeans. Thankfully, Gmail lets you change your mind with its Undo Send feature. Head into Settings > General and make sure the Undo Send checkbox is ticked. You’re able to choose your cancellation period here as well–from five seconds to 30 seconds–and the next time you send a message, you’ll notice an “Undo” link above it.

Silently Opt Out Of Group Messages
Enough about The Bachelorette already, right? You can deftly remove yourself from the inanity of an off-the-rails group thread by clicking the More menu and choosing Mute. From then on, you’ll miss out on subsequent messages unless you’re the only recipient–perhaps on a side conversation complaining about the original, eh? If you find you want back in, search for “is:muted” in the search box to find muted conversations. Then choose “Unmute” from the More menu. You’re a glutton for punishment.


Work Smarter, Not Harder

Create A New Gmail Address On The Fly
Let’s say you want to get really granular with filters or you want to set up a second account for a service that’s already using your Gmail account. You can create a virtual Gmail address that’s tied to your primary address simply by adding +anything between the @ symbol and when you’re giving out your address. for auction bids. for online splurges. That kind of stuff. Anything sent to those addresses will wind up in your regular Gmail account.

Send Email While You Sleep
Make your coworkers and clients think you’re a manic-depressive lunatic workhorse by scheduling emails to send in the middle of the night with the Boomerang extension, which is available for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. The free version lets you schedule up to 10 messages each month. You can also use it to turn messages into reminders by hiding them from your inbox until you’ll be more prepared to deal with them–perfect for cheating your way to Inbox Zero at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday.

Robo-Respond To Repetitive Requests
Your needy clients at Gigantic Corporation, Inc. have left you no choice but to respond with “Well, a deep dive is definitely in the pipeline, but let me run it up the flagpole to check our bandwidth and loop back with you to see if we can move the needle on this a bit by picking off some low-hanging fruit!” to multiple messages each day. Instead of typing this a hundred times, just enable Canned Responses under the Settings > Labs menu. The next time you type out the message, you’ll be able to save it as a Canned Response to use over and over again without having to type it.


Don’t Be A Clickhead
Give your mouse a break: You can do just about anything in Gmail with your tried-and-true keyboard. Basic keyboard shortcuts are enabled by default, but head to Settings > General and choose the “Keyboard shortcuts on” radio button, save your settings, then hit your question-mark key to view a popup guide chock full of possible key combos.

Quit Checking Your Other Mail Accounts
Under the Settings > Accounts and Import section, click the “Add a POP3 mail account you own” link to configure Gmail to pull in new mail from your outside accounts. Then use the “Send mail as” feature in the same menu to set yourself up to reply to incoming messages–whether sent to your Gmail address or other accounts you’ve connected–from any of the email addresses you own.

Related Video: Are You An Effective Emailer? Start writing better emails that make people take notice.