My Gmail power user workflow

My email has started to consume me. The amount I get has slowly risen over the last few years and a lot of what I get s not spam, but not important either. This means that I’ve been devoting increasing amounts of time to processing my email or letting things pile up and hence mixing the important and the unimportant It makes it harder to see at a glance and later find what the actually useful things. Psychologically I also worry about the number of unread emails in my inbox, even though most are relatively unimportant. I’ve also become rather attached to my email — leaving it open all the time and compulsively checking it whenever anything comes up.

A few days ago I decided that enough was enough and I was going to do something about the emotional and intellectual energy and time sink that my email was becoming. Looking around the internet I came across both Inbox Zero my Merlin Mann as well as an article by Christine Moran about her Gmail power user workflow. I’ve modeled my workflow on Christine’s with a few additions and tweaks.

The Concepts

I’ve come up with a few guiding concepts that help shape how my system is implemented and maintained.

  1. I want to focus on “important” email — things that I need to respond to or that contain vital information.
  2. Anything that is not “important” by the above definition must get filtered away and sorted automatically for possible future reference.
  3. At any moment I should be able to easily lookup email that I need to respond to without always performing searches.
  4. I should be able to check email only a few times a day, ideally once in the morning, afternoon, evening and night. An exception is made for my iPod which I can use to keep tabs on things that are really important but not for anything else.

The Workflow

Gmail is my mail client of choice, mainly because I change computers a lot and would like to get to my email from any machine connected to the Web. I make use of Gmail’s filters, labels and multiple inboxes to automatically sort email and present only the most important ones.

Filters and labels make up the “backend” of my system. Filters attach subject-specific labels to most of my incoming email. I can generally sort by sender, though sometimes I need to filter by content. I call these my importance filters. The labels are fairly fine-tuned and with one level of nesting (for now). As I get involved in more things I add more labels and the old ones get hidden and stay out of sight. I also use Gmail’s “Important” tag for the priority inbox, though not by itself.

The filters are designed to make sure that the only email that actually makes it to my inbox is stuff I need to read or respond to. Anything that gets past the filters but is not important enough generates a new one for that and similar cases. Everything else is labeled and sent to the Archive. Some of them I will just ignore completely (Netflix sent/received notifications) and some I go through on a weekly basis to see if there is anything interesting (ACM and IEEE newsletters).

While the labeling is mostly automatic, I use stars to manually mark emails that I need to respond to. This is done once I’ve actually read the email. I don’t have any plans for making this automatic anytime soon. This could be done with labels, but the stars are easier to see in the Gmail interface.

The frontend of the system makes use of Gmail’s multiple inboxes. Besides the default inbox I have two more. The first one shows me unread email that has successfully gotten through my importance filters. The second inbox is for starred mail that I need to respond to. The default inbox for now captures stuff that isn’t of high importance but isn’t getting filtered out automatically. As my filtering and labeling improves, it should become an “already read” section. This is different from Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero in that the inbox is a generic holding area for read items. The actual “inbox” for all intents and purposes is the filtered unread-important list.

Ending thoughts

I’ve only been using the system for a few days, but it’s already making a good dent in the number of things that pile up. The greatest success in removing the not-spam but not-important stuff that I get a lot of every day. The final piece of the puzzle is just checking less often and not leaving Gmail open all the time. That’s something I’ll be working over the next few weeks. That’s more habitual but the fact that I’m getting fewer pings for inessential incoming stuff should help.

Though I’ve used Gmail it should be possible to implement a similar system on any client that supports filtering, tagging and custom views. I’d love to hear what measures you take to manage your influx of mail.

2 thoughts on “My Gmail power user workflow

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