Show and Tell: My super-productive Gmail inbox

Your email client should support good habits, especially since email itself can lead to so many bad ones.

Over the past few months, I’ve been tweaking my Gmail inbox trying to find a configuration that makes it easy to stay focused and productive while I’m using it. Here’s what I’ve come up with. The best part is, it ended up being really easy to set up.

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

Here’s how I did it

Set up Gmail’s priority inboxes: I followed the instructions described in this comment (the instructions are in the comment, not the actual article itself.) If that’s not clear, here’s a screenshot of what my Gmail inbox settings look like. Basically just divide your inbox into three sections; one for unread email, one for starred email, and one for “Everything else” that will stay collapsed by default.

Use a Google Apps Script to deal with Starred email bloat: I fell into a bad habit of letting starred emails linger in an expanding “I’ll deal with it later” pile. I ended up fixing this by writing a Google Apps Script to automatically label any starred email in my inbox older than two weeks with a big red “DEAL WITH ME” label. It gives me an extra push to not let things pile up for too long. When I’ve unstarred or archived an email, the label gets automatically removed by the script.

The Google Apps Script was pretty easy to write. If you want to, just copy and paste mine. I’ve posted detailed instructions here.

I think this setup is great because…

It reinforces good habits. It’s now more work for me to keep an email in my inbox than it is for it to disappear after reading it. That automatically keeps things tidy. No willpower required.

It doesn’t break other displays. I can have this display in my browser, but my phone still gets the “everything” view. That fits the way I use email on my phone a little bit better. There is nothing automatically removed from the inbox in a way that might make things difficult to locate on other devices.

It’s easy to set up (and easy to undo). Once I had everything like I wanted it on my work email, applying the same settings to my personal Gmail account took about 2 minutes. If I ever decide to switch to something else, or go back to the Gmail defaults, it’s really just a matter of hitting a “reset settings configuration” button to get things back to the default state. I don’t think I’m going to do that, but it’s good to know I can.

Do you have any good inbox hacks?

This setup is working really well for me. I’m really curious to hear what other people think of this approach. Also, if you’ve made any other productivity-boosting modifications to your inbox, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

6 Comments on “Show and Tell: My super-productive Gmail inbox”

  1. Alf says:

    Cool thanks for the tip. I think having the starred items in the front page is a good idea. Will try it out!

    I don’t use starring as something i need to deal with, I generally just use it for stuff i need very easy access to in the future. My needs here are decreasing though, since I tend to use other services, like tripit for organizing travels.

    However what I use, that I cannot live without, is Boomerang for Gmail. It is a commercial product, and their free offering is not nearly good enough for me (10 messages a moths). So just a warning, many that start using it, ends up paying for it. To me, at least, it is worth every penny.

    For those of you that don’t use Boomerang, it really helps with inbox zero. Especially stuff you need to deal with in the future. Just a short list of some of its feature
    * Schedule mail to return at a later point, that is, when you need to deal with it.
    * You can choose to not return mail, if someone replies to it (it turns up in your inbox anyways).
    * Add notes to mails to return, so you quickly know what to do.
    * Schedule to send mail later. You can process all your email in the evening, but not bother your co-workers at night.
    * You can choose not to send later if someone replies.
    * plus a lot more

    A part from that I use wunderlist as my todo app. They have a cool new feature, you can email, and they will create a todo of your email.


    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Wow, great tips! I think Boomerang is great. I don’t use it every day, but the occasions where I do use it, it’s amazing. Another great product by the same company is It does exactly what the name implies, lets you pause incoming email for a specified time. Great for when you need to reduce distractions.

  2. Carl Harris says:

    I like using Gmail for my ‘main email’ because I like being connected with Google’s services but I find the inability to sort alphabetically really annoying because I file my emails alphabetically and in Gmail it’s a slow process. I decided I would have two email accounts – one with Gmail for the stuff I really must see – such as financial/bill information – and the other for newsletters. I use for newsletters (I sign up to a lot of newsletters) and because that email account sorts alphabetically they’re a lot easier to manage. I read pretty much everything that comes into my Gmail account now. I’m a follower of GTD and use the ActiveInbox plugin with my Gmail account.

  3. evictorov says:

    @Robby, thanks for the article – it’s good enough for starting up.

    Talking of tools, I personally like Any.Do – they have a nice Chrome extension which adds a button near email actions (I’m talking about web UI) and can remind you via mobile client or the sam extension. Plus they have a nice ‘plan your day’ feature, which I like a lot.
    As a person who likes to play try some different tools for each task (for GTD those were RTM, Producteev, Astrid, etc.), I’ve ended up with this one.

    Talking of separating mail flows I’ve ended up with the following:
    * .me mailbox for personal mail;
    * .pro mailbox for professional.
    I have those domains anyway, so why not use them for separating the flow as well?

  4. I can’t live without these:

    1. Gmail’s Smart Labels. You turn these on in Gmail’s settings/Labs. This new filtering algorithm cleans out your inbox of social and promotional items.

    2. Sanebox. This is similar to Smart Kabels but does even more.

    3. OtherInBox. Does even more.

    4. Unsubscribes from newsletters and such.

    These four alone keep hundreds of emails out of my inbox every day.

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Thanks for the tips, Robert! Personally, my email volume isn’t quite at the scale where I’d get the most use out of auto-filtering. Having a system I can quickly rifle through and process is less effort (and less anxiety) than making sure a robot is trained to do it for me. That said, I’m generally at around the 100-to-150 emails a day mark. I have the impression that you’re on a different order of magnitude. 🙂 If I doubled or tripled the amount of incoming emails I have, some sort of preprocessing would be an absolute necessity!