Gmail Techniques to change your (work) life


Imagine what you could do if you spent half as much time in email. Learn how, using Google Mail as the example.

Image: iStockPhoto

Joel Spolsky wrote in 2004: “Sometimes I just can’t get anything done. Sure, I come into the office, putter around, check my email every ten seconds, read the web, even do a few brainless tasks like paying the American Express bill. But getting back into the flow of writing code just doesn’t happen.” 

Now, 16 years after Spolsky wrote Fire and Motion, too many of us are still goofing around in our email all day. And we’ve added Skype, Slack, Teams, and a bunch of other things that can pop up and interrupt us. 

SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)

Of all of them, in my experience, email is the worst. It grows insidiously as you sign up for an 8% discount on coffee or to get a white paper. Suddenly, you are spending 10 minutes a day just deleting email that you for some reason actually asked to get. Ten minutes a day, by the way, is about 4.5 business days a year. 

Today I’m going to talk about taking a whack out of email—a serious wack. It’s easy, and it works. As an example, I will use Google Mail, the world’s most popular free email system. Our goal here is to get out of email. This should be as easy as checking email three times a day—in the morning, at lunch, and an hour before leaving the office. Sadly, the human brain is too easily tricked by the new and different, leading us to what I call “work avoidance,” which looks a lot like what Joel Spolsky described. So, we’ll layer on a few mind hacks to get you working and avoid interruptions.

Not only does Google filter out your spam, it can even use artificial intelligence (AI) to split the inbox into promotions, updates, social, and, well, email you should actually care about. If you aren’t doing this, stop and do it now. Go into Settings, Inbox, and check the categories (Figure A).

Figure A

Minimize your distractions

In addition to keeping Gmail closed, keep Slack closed as well (if your company allows it). The only instant-response tool I use is texting, to coordinate when timing is tight. Some companies make a conscious tradeoff to lose productivity for responsiveness and want you to have notifications turned on for some collaboration tool all the time. That’s fine. Still, make a tally of all the different things you have that can create notifications to distract you from the work itself and get rid of them. Reduce the allowable notifications to one or perhaps two. Personally, I allow personal pings on Slack (but discourage it) and tell people that if it matters, text me, but it had better matter.

Socialize a reasonable response

A few years ago it was all the rage to set an auto-responder to say you checked email three times a day. My inbox filled up with auto-responders. Don’t do that.

Instead, remind people that email is for non-urgent communication. If they need an answer, they can text or use an invasive app in which you allow notifications. Perhaps you allow people to hail you on Slack: They need to realize this will take you out of a flow state and should do it rarely.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Think about the expectation that emails are responded to immediately. How could a creative person ever get anything done? The sad answer is that many of them don’t; they have days very much like Joel Spolsky.

Optimize your email. Set expectations. Focus on the work. You might find yourself the most productive person on your team.

Lots and lots of unsubscribing

Block out a half-hour of your day to just unsubscribe from things from your inbox. The goal here is that when an email appears in your inbox, it actually means something. This should be rare enough that you don’t get a thrill from checking email, and can get back to work.

The discipline is to not use email as a distraction from the real work. There are a hundred ways to do this, from Pomodoro timing creative work, blocking calendar time for creative work, or having an app like block websites and apps during certain times of the day. With a little bit of discipline, you can, of course, ignore all those things. They can be a little bit like dieting by only having carrots and celery in the house, creating that little bit of extra work to cheat. 

Keeping the interesting things out of your inbox can help you get back to work. Check the categories like Forums and Social media with a quick glance, and you’ll soon realize none of them need an active response. They are essentially clutter. Eventually you’ll just check them for the occasional AI mistake.

A word on management

Back in 1987, in the book PeopleWare, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister pointed out that to be effective, knowledge workers need large uninterrupted blocks of time. Yet, they said, the most effective managers were interrupted on average every three minutes. For you, your Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is email, plus perhaps Slack and meetings. If you need to respond quickly, the techniques above can help you eliminate things not worth responding to at all, to focus on the things that do need attention.

Know what you need to be effective, then bend email and the calendar to your will. These things are supposed to be tools for our benefit. When we become slaves to them, it might be time to change our approach.

If you want more, check out even more specific Gmail productivity hacks.

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5 tips to take your Gmail use to the next level


Google’s mail product may be the single most powerful tool in the world for productivity … if you know the power tips. Here are some ways to enhance your Gmail usage.

Image: iStockPhoto

Built by programmers for technical people, Gmail has an entire suite of tools similar to a full-blown development environment, but you have to know how to use them. Today I’ll teach you how to combine all your email accounts into a Gmail interface, then to make the most of that, including undoing sent messages, the hidden Tasks list in Gmail, keyboard shortcuts, and more.

SEE: Google Sheets: Tips and tricks (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Combine these tips with the workflow techniques for Gmail to get yourself out of blah and get back to work, while having fun.

If you can’t have fun, I promise I’ll at least get you done with work sooner. 

Add non-Gmail accounts

Back in a different century, we had an email application on our desktops, and would get the mail from a mail server. The technology that drove that still exists, which means you can connect Gmail and have it read and write for your Yahoo, Zoho,, and Internet Service Provider accounts for free.

Click on the gear icon at the top right for settings, click on Account, then Add a Mail Account. Go to your old internet app to get the POP3 (receive), IMAP (sync mail), and STMP (send email) settings you’ll need to connect. Click on the icon in the top-right to switch between accounts. If you’re daring enough, you can use the Gmail application on your phone or tablet and see all emails at the same time. Gmail is smart enough to keep these threaded. If you’ve never emailed the boss from your personal account, then their email will not populate as you type a name, giving you a hint you are composing from the wrong account.

If you’re like me, you get emails from lists. Lots of emails from lists. Most of these emails mean nothing, but some have powerful, actionable information. The temptation to check email at every break (where every break is two or three minutes) can be huge. You can get these out of your inbox with filters, and then only check a specific label every morning.

Filter before they arrive

When you are reading any email (or have anything checked), you can click the hamburger (three dots) icon and filter messages as in Figure A below.

Figure A

Matthew Heusser – Gmail Interface

The filter menu allows you to skip the inbox, mark messages as read, and assign them a label, or category. Inbox zero, as a strategy, is less about getting all the messages responded to, as much as push out work that can be done or responded to later.

Another powerful option in settings is Read/ Unread First. If you have the nasty habit of keeping important messages unread (more on that later), Settings at least provide you the baby step of forcing unread first. If you want to delve into marking emails as priority, or trust Gmail’s artificial intelligence (AI) to select the ones that are important to you, those options are also available for you, as Figure B shows.

Figure B

Matthew Heusser’s gmail settings

Undo sent messages

You’ve probably had that “whoops” feeling from forgetting an attachment. Worse, you might click send on something emotional and regret it. Gmail does have Delay and Undo options, but the default delay is only five seconds. Once the message is actually sent, there is no recalling it. What you can do is increase the delay. Use the gear icon in the upper right. Under general settings, set the cancellation period to 30 seconds. However, if you click anywhere else, the Undo message will disappear.

You can still recall that message if you move fast.

Go to Sent Items, click the checkbox and click Move to Inbox. Then go to the Inbox, click to select the message, and move to Trash. The message will never be sent.

A 30-second undo delay might just give you a chance to fix those typos, add the attachment or emoticon to make the point clear, or just to click delete.

To-do list inside Gmail

Working with Gmail typically means bouncing between three systems. There’s the email (which answers the question “who will I be today?”), the to-do list (some attempt to organize it), and whatever we use for actual work, which could be a word processor, spreadsheet, video editor, CAD software, and so on. Modern development environments provide the tools to do everything in one window, including debugging and unit testing.

As it turns out, Google Mail includes the tools to create your own to-do list from your email. 

As you are reading any email, or have any emails checked in the inbox, you’ll see the Add Task button (Figure C) at the top. The icon looks like a circle with a check mark, and a small plus in the bottom-right. Personally, I can use these for invoices, payments, and projects, instead of managing them by keeping them unread. (Managing by unread is a terrible practice. Don’t do that.)

Getting Tasks inside of Gmail rid me of an entire browser tab; before this, I had it in a Google document.

Figure C

Matthew Heusser’s Gmail

Keyboard shortcuts

I was blown away 23 years ago watching Jeff Klein edit files in vi—his hands never left the keyboard, and the text flew by. If Gmail is a development environment, it would not be complete without keyboard shortcuts. 

Gmail is a complete development environment. With command-i for italics, control-b for bold, and control-enter for send, you can whip through your email to-do list, get out of the business of communication, and get into the business of getting work done.

If Gmail is part of your work, you can get it done a whole lot faster. If you implement the Gmail management techniques as a way of working, it might even save you enough time to consider Software lessons from Silicon Valley, or Leadership lessons from Picard.

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