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Turn Gmail into a lean, mean productivity machine with these 15 tips, tricks and tools

A lot of small businesses use Gmail for their e-mail needs. That’s what I’ve done for the last two years or so. And of course, just about everybody has a personal Gmail account.

When I first started using Gmail, however, I was surprised at how challenging it could be. Email that I knew I had received just a day ago seemed to be hidden. And they way it strings related email together can be really confusing (at least to this old guy).

Fortunately, there are a ton of tips and tools to make your Gmail experience more productive. While this list focuses on the email needs of small businesses, everybody can benefit from these resources.

G-Mail Features You Should Use

1. Labels: Gmail’s labels system is its version of folders. But instead of having to drag e-mails to a certain folder, you can just “label” it. With this feature, you can assign one or more labels to an e-mail, so it offers you more flexibility in terms of sorting options. For example, if you have an e-mail from your boss that is related to a certain client, you can label it under both your boss and your client. If you need to see the e-mails from your boss, that particular e-mail will appear with all the rest from him or her. The same thing happens when you look up e-mails from the client. Labels can also be attached to e-mails you write in your Sent or Drafts folder.

2. Search operators: One of the things that can make your life easier when using Gmail is that you have a powerful search tool that you can use to find e-mails. Familiarize yourself with search operators such as from:, to:, subject:, Or, and has:attachment to easily find what you are looking for. For a complete list of these search operators go here.

3. Priority inbox: Priority inbox shows which e-mails are important to you. When it comes to this, Google actually does most of the work for you as it uses an algorithm that records the e-mails you commonly read and those that you have starred. I’ve found that it takes some time for Gmail to learn your preferences. But once it does, this feature is quite handy.

4. Filters: Always create filters to help you automate tasks. For example, you can instantly forward e-mails coming from a certain e-mail address to another e-mail box. Or you can have all the newsletters you subscribe to sent straight to the archives so that it does not clutter your inbox, allowing you to read it later. Or you can have e-mails from your boss instantly labeled and marked as important just by creating the appropriate filters.

5. Stars: The star next to a particular e-mail could be clicked to show that it is important.


And then there are the Labs. Google allows you to use experimental features and functionality that you could use with your Gmail.

You would need to enable Labs for these to work. To do this, click on the Gears icon you see on the top right side of your Gmail page and choose Settings. Look for the Labs tab.

Gmail Labs

To enable a particular Labs feature, just tick the radio button to Enable.

Mashable came up with a list of noteworthy Gmail Labs. The list includes:

Right Hand Chat: G-Talk chat is available in your Gmail window. By default, it is found on the left part of the screen. Right hand chat allows you to transfer the G-Talk chat window to the right side of the screen. You will find this useful if you want to see all your online contacts in one go.

Calendar Preview: If you use Google Calendar to manage your schedule and rely on it to keep your appointments, then this Labs is a great add-on to your e-mail. You do not have to grab your phone or open another window to see if you are available for that unexpected coffee invite your friend just dropped in the mail.

Doc Preview: Same thing if you use Google Docs. This preview shows you your most recently accessed documents, allowing you to click on one without leaving your e-mail.

Send and Archive: If you deal with a lot of e-mails, you may want to activate this feature. It allows you to automatically archive an e-mail message after you’ve replied to it.

Auto-Advance: This feature allows you to decide what G-Mail would do after you have replied or deleted an e-mail. Should it open the next message or go back to the inbox?

Canned Response: If you have a standard response for some e-mails such as a reply to a proposal request or to introduce your company, you can save these templates as a canned response. When you receive an e-mail, you can just click on the Canned Responses drop down menu and choose the appropriate response from the list. No more typing out lengthy repetitive e-mails.

To these, I would add:

Undo Send: If you realized in time that you have sent an e-mail to the wrong recipient or if you have forgotten something, you can still stop it from being sent. The only limitation is that you only have a few seconds after sending the e-mail to undo it.

Authentication Icon for Verified Senders: It only works for Paypal and eBay for now, but this Labs can help you sort out phishing scams by letting you know if an e-mail comes from authorized senders or not.

Still want some more add-ons to help you manage your Gmail? Then read on and try out these tools as recommended by Dani Fankhauser over at Mashable:

6. BananaTag. If you want to know whether your boss has opened the e-mail you sent requesting a meeting to discuss an increase in your salary, then you should use Bananatag. It is very similar to what e-mail marketers use to see who opens their e-mail and get metrics and data from their e-mail campaigns. Now you could use it with your Gmail account for free for up to five e-mails.

7. Send from Gmail. Isn’t it annoying how you see an e-mail address on a Web site and you click on it only to have Microsoft Outlook or other e-mail clients you don’t use pop up? With this Chrome extension, that click would lead you to a new tab that allows you to compose the e-mail using your Gmail account.

8. Rapportive. Ever wonder what that particular contact is saying on Twitter or Facebook? You can use this browser plugin to show you your contacts’ Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook links. It’s kinda spooky in a voyeuristic kind of way.

9. Snooze. For those with ADD like me (hey look, something shiny), this tool acts like a snooze button on a new task that’s caught your attention so you can come back to it later. You can set a specific hour or day. When the appointed time comes, you will get a notification that allows you to either open the e-mail or schedule it for another time.

10. Mail Timer for Gmail. Mail Timer for Gmail tells you to move on to the next e-mail if you spend 2 minutes on it. It also tells you when you have 30 seconds left. Great for disciplining yourself not to spend too much time on just one e-mail. Also great if you day isn’t stressful enough and you’re looking for a real challenge. Of course, you can always Snooze it if two minutes isn’t enough time!

11. Boomerang. This plugin allows you to schedule e-mails to be sent at a later time.

12. KeyRocket. If you want to get your head around the many shortcuts that Gmail has to help you conquer the e-mail deluge, then you simply must install KeyRocket to help you get to know the shortcuts for the things you do on Gmail. For example, if you have just tried to compose a new e-mail by clicking the compose button, it will pop up and tell you that you could just press C for that. Of course, you have to turn on shortcuts in the Settings Tab.

13. Attachments.me. This plug in allows you to simply insert a file that you store on Google Drive, Box, Dropbox or other storage services on the cloud into your e-mail instead of spending time uploading it.

14. Taskforce. If you want to treat e-mails as items on a to-do list, then Taskforce is for you. This plugin converts your e-mails into tasks, or just add it to an existing task.

15. Gmail Notifier. If you have been using desktop clients for your e-mails for a long time, you will appreciate the Gmail Notifier for letting you know when you have a new mail in your Gmail inbox.

Quite a lot, you think? All these plugins, when taken together, may be overwhelming, but they do make life with Gmail easy. Besides, you do not have to use them all. All you need to do is pick out the ones you really need and the ones that will greatly benefit you and your business.

Update: Ryan from Cash Money Life mentioned Sanebox in the comments below. Check out his Sanebox review for more details.

Article comments

Ryan says:

I’m a huge fan of labels and filters. My default response is to set up a filter if I get more than a handful of emails from the same persona/company. That way it is already labeled and I can respond using the send and archive feature from GMail Labs. Those save me a lot of time every day.

Canned responses are a HUGE time saver. I receive multiple emails that can use the same response. I estimate this saves me a couple hours a week. (tip: you can use canned responses for new emails as well as responses).

Priority Inbox, Stars, and Rapportive are other features I use everyday. Rapportive is great for seeing through PR pitches and other fun things.

One I didn’t see was SaneBox, which is a paid plugin, but it’s awesome. It’s like Priority Inbox, but it actually creates a new label and removes the less important emails from your inbox, then sends you a digest of the emails in the @SaneBox label so you can see what you missed. You can get the digest at whatever intervals you want (hourly, daily, etc.) or check the label whenever you like. This makes it much easier to batch process low-priority or low-value email. The best part is that it can be trained to recognize which emails are high priority and which aren’t. I estimate it saves me a couple hours a week.

I think I need to check out a couple others you mentioned, such as Boomerang (been meaning to try it), Snooze, and Mail Timer for GMail. Those all look like good time savers.

Rob Berger says:

Ryan, thanks for mentioning SaneBox. I’ve added a link to your review of SaneBox in the article above.

Money Beagle says:

Cool. I just added a couple of these.

I like Gmail and how it groups conversations, but when I have problems is when I get into a multi-user thread and there are a lot of responses coming through at once. It gets easy for me to miss some of the responses, since Gmail sort of groups them by time sent, and I end up missing some responses unless I go back and read the whole thread.

Awesome tips! I use a couple of these already but a few should be able to make me more efficient throughout the day. Thank you!

Isabella says:

Thanks for sharing! installed Send from Gmail, it’s really cool! Also have you heard of Deskun? That’s also a helpful Gmail extension, I use it to schedule and track email reading.