If you hate email and want to spend less time dealing with it, then over the next few days I’m going to show you some Gmail hacks to make life easier on you and the people you communicate with, all without changing your daily email habits.
When Gmail launched in 2004 it had three big innovations: storage size, conversation view, and labels. For most people, those eight-year old features continue to be enough. Over the years Gmail’s storage capacity has grown from 1 GB to 10 GB, conversation view has become more conversational, and they’ve dragged us kicking and screaming into using labels.
Gmail's latest major innovation, Priority Inbox, is the 21st century cotton gin: a revolution in unitized automation saving countless hours of menial work separating the wheat from the chaff. If you don’t want to read the rest of this article, my suggestion for how to best improve your email life in one click is by enabling Priority Inbox. By doing so, you get a cleanly segmented inbox with a more relevant unread count that frees you from email ennui. The only thing that could be better and more simple than Priority Inbox would be a sentient inbox: email that reads and responds to itself.
That said, I don’t actually use Priority Inbox. I know, I know, I just talked about how great it is. And it is! If you’re looking for a turnkey solution to email desperation, that’s absolutely what you want. But for me, I want a less automated, more artisanal email experience where I handcraft my own inbox to suit my particular needs.
What if it cost you a penny every time you clicked on something in Gmail? It’d add up fast. But seriously, every pointless distraction or unnecessary action is a tax on your valuable time. So what’s the best way to manage unimportant emails? By not seeing them in the first place.
If you’re Tim Ferriss or one of his followers then that means sending obnoxious autoresponders letting people know what email rules you have set up for yourself and how they might want to change their email practices to accommodate you. But if you’re part of the 99 percent of people who aren’t narcissistic assholes looking to alienate everyone they know, then the onus is on you to come up with a system to deal with whatever comes at you.
Your best friend for dealing with unimportant emails is Gmail’s filters. If you’re new to filters here are the basics: you set up rules in Gmail so that if certain conditions are met, then different things happen to your email. In the recent redesign, Gmail has made it harder for people unfamiliar with filters to create them: either click on the little down arrow next to the blue search button or, when selecting an email, pick “Filter messages like these” from the “More” dropdown.
What’s the simplest Gmail filter that everyone should have but no one does? Having anything you email yourself automatically marked as read.
We all do it. Maybe even every day. You have something you want to check out later so you email yourself a link and just after you hit send you hear the ping of a new email. What could it be? Oh, yeah, it’s the email you literally just sent yourself. It’s a tiny, microscopic irritant but all those unnecessary clicks and notifications add up. Smart filters like this are key to reducing email fatigue.
When starting to look at sorting your email it can be tempting to say that 99 percent of the email you get from such-and-such place is junk so everything from there should just skip the inbox or be auto-deleted. Rookie mistake. Setting up a filter for something is probably the first & last time you’re going to really think about your email, so you owe it to yourself to try to figure out what the circumstances are when you would actually care about it. If a place sends you 99 percent junk that means they send you 1 percent important emails. Make sure you set up your filter so you can capture that. Asking yourself ‘what is the exception?’ is the ninja aspect to filtering.
Since I don’t know all the specific emails you get, here are a few filtering rules of thumb:
Any emails you send yourself?
Automatically marked as read unless it has “to do” in the subject line.
Mailing lists for a group you’re no longer an active member of?
Skip the inbox unless they mention your name.
Newsletters about products you own?
Skip the inbox unless they mention the specific model you have.
Lots of travel deal-a-day emails?
Skip the inbox unless they mention your dream vacation spot.
Twitter notifications? Well… those deserve their own post.
How about automated notifications from big companies?
Netflix shipping notifications come from firstname.lastname@example.org and I have those set up to get automatically trashed. Why trashed? If I want to know what DVDs I’m going to get this weekend, it’s quicker for me to check my trash folder than it is to open the Netflix website. But since it’s not something I’ll care about a month or a year from now I don’t bother archiving them. However all of Netflix’s important messages come through email@example.com which I don’t filter so they still hit my inbox.
Amazon notifications of items shipped come from firstname.lastname@example.org so I have all of those automatically marked as read. However if there’s a delay, Amazon emails you from email@example.com & to make sure I’m alerted of those I don’t filter them. I also receive Amazon emails from a generic firstname.lastname@example.org address all of which (so far) are about Kickstarter letting me know I authorized a payment or they processed a payment successfully. If that address ever emails me about anything else it’ll hit my inbox, but otherwise all those emails will skip the inbox.
The important things to remember when filtering:
1) Don’t filter without exceptions. If a filter doesn’t have an exception, you should probably unsubscribe from whatever you’re filtering.
2) Look left of the @ sign. Big businesses like Amazon and Netflix do half the work for you by using different email addresses for the different kinds of notifications they send.
3) Figure out which way you want to filter: bury the junk or surface the good stuff.
If you’re trying to weed out unnecessary status update emails, put the phrases that always appear into the “has the words” box along with the newsletter address in the from box. That tells Gmail: “anything from this Amazon address about Kickstarter skips the inbox.” That way unusual, potentially important emails you didn’t anticipate would bypass the filter and end up in your inbox where they belong.
If you’re trying to make sure you see emails that mention your name, town, etc, put that phrase in the “doesn’t have” box along with the newsletter address in the from box. That tells Gmail: “anything from my college fraternity group that doesn’t mention me skips the inbox.” That way anything that does mention you will end up shiny and new in your inbox, relevant and ready to be read.
4) Filtering is easier than unsubscribing. If you think there’s any value you can get out of that newsletter or mailinglist it’s best to to filter. Take it from someone who went on a personal challenge to unsubscribe to everything I didn’t get value from: it’s a pain in the ass and not worth it considering half the companies never even unsubscribed me at all even after I jumped through all their hoops.
Most filters are great at sorting run-of-the-mill email. But what about people who deal with a higher volume of email? Tim Ferriss had the right idea — the big problem with email is people. But the problem with autoresponders is that you’re telling people they’re doing it wrong after they’ve already done it. If you want someone to email you in a certain way you have to be proactive about it.
If you’ve ever run a contest or solicited submissions then you’ve probably gotten more emails than you know what to do with. Traditionally there are two ways of handing this: create a whole separate throwaway email account like TechBroDudesiPad3Giveaway@gmail.com or tell people “Put GIVEAWAY in the subject line when you email” and trust that they’ll actually do that. But there’s a great Gmail-only trick that kills these two birds with one stone: plus-addressing. This works with custom domain Google Apps For Business addressees as well.
For delivery purposes, Gmail treats special characters in different ways. For periods, it ignores them entirely. email@example.com is the same as firstname.lastname@example.org as far as Google is concerned. But with the plus sign, Gmail ignores everything after it for delivery purposes. So if someone emails email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org then Steve will get them both. This not only gives you an infinite number of throwaway addresses but also is a foolproof way for people to contact you in the manner you want.
Making people aware of the plus-address you want them to contact you with is only half the battle. You’ll also want to be able to sort it the emails that are sent to it. This is where filters come in. In this case, you’ll want to filter any emails deliveredto:email@example.com to either skip the inbox, get auto-labeled, or even auto-responded to.
And that's about it for making your inbound email less of a suck on your soul. Tomorrow: Sending messages.
Sarah Pavis is an engineer, writer and avid overthinker.