Gmail workflow

I met up with my incredibly talented friend Nada for lunch at Google Zürich today. You can read about how lovely the Google offices are elsewhere on the internet. Nada works on the Gmail team, and she’s the second hacker at Google working on Gmail to deem me a “power Gmail user.” Never fear, it’s actually not that hard to qualify for this distinction in the event you don’t already. Fewer than 2% of Gmail users use stars, and an even smaller minority use labels, filters, and multiple inboxes.

I’m not big user of stars, but labels and filters are key to my email workflow. I’ll outline my workflow in what follows, but I’ll give the keystones first.

  1. Any email I plan to respond to is immediately labeled “To Respond” the moment I realize this.
  2. Any email which reaches my primary inbox is intended to be priority mail, if it’s not it spawns a new filter to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

OK enough with the trite lists, here’s the protein of the post broken down by power feature and power use. This is only the tip of the iceberg (I use several other lab features) but these are the most important features for my personal workflow.


As I mentioned, I’m not a big user as I consider the starring feature a lite version of labels, but I am a user in the end. When I star an email, it means I will need to refer to it often as reference. It might be flight information, account information, or conference details. When the information becomes obsolete, I unstar.

Multiple Inboxes

This is a feature from Google Labs. From the Labs description:

Add extra lists of emails in your inbox to see even more important email at once. The new lists of threads can be labels, your starred messages, drafts or any search you want, configurable under Settings.

I have two additional email boxes in addition to my primary inbox, displayed to the right. My primary inbox is for high priority mail, my secondary inbox displays all new mail (so once I finish with high priority mail, if I have the time and inclination I move to this), and my tertiary box displays all messages tagged “To respond”.


Labels are integrated into mainstream Gmail. I have 39 labels, and most emails are automatically labeled via filters requiring no input on my part. Example labels include those differentiating which email account the email was originally sent to (I have all accounts forwarded to Gmail), those for list subscriptions,  those for family and friends, and those for particular subsets of my professional and financial lives.


I have a full 114 handcrafted filters. It got to this number as whenever I receive an email in my priority inbox which is not priority, I make the effort to create a filter. Gmail makes this easy by offering a Filter messages like these button under the More Actions menu which makes a best guess about the distinguishing feature of the email, which can then be tweaked if necessary in a matter of seconds. I use filters primarily to assign a message to an inbox (primary or secondary) based on the sender, message content, and designated recipient and optionally associate a label with the message. The labels I use mainly to help me in exploring messages landing in my secondary inbox in a structured manner.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts can be enabled in Labs. These let me easily navigate between different labels. For example typing gl then the name of the label (there’s autocomplete so this doesn’t take many keystrokes) brings up all messages with that label. gl Inbox brings me back to my inbox, and j and k allow me to navigate between different messages without leaving my keyboard.

0 thoughts on “Gmail workflow”

  1. awesome this is almost my workflow, so I guess that makes me a power user!! primary inbox/all unread inbox, lots of filters, lots of labels

    I think I need to adopt yr to-respond label, would probably cut my inbox in half (currently up to 35)

    Mostly my inbox is to-responds, to-checkouts, and temporary info I want handy (e.g. UPS tracking numbers). I keep the total inbox count low so it’s easy to filter these mentally, but maybe there’s a better way to classify these out

    I also pretty much just use stars to refer to reference-type info (addresses, account numbers or whatever I want to find quickly)

    1. If I had to keep one and only one power user tactic, it would be the to-respond label. It’s a really good feeling to know you will never forget to respond to an email, and when you are in the mood to respond to emails to quickly cycle through them.

    1. Hi Star, thanks for dropping by! I have a few posts in the tubes coming up: giving a talk in science, and why I feel keeping a blog *increases* productivity. Stay tuned…

  2. Very good tips. I deal with a large volume of email, but they are fairly easy to categorize. Keyboard shortcuts vastly accelerate my mail-reading, though. One keyboard shortcut you don’t appear to know is “gi”, which takes you to the inbox with fewer keystrokes than “gl Inbox”. I probably don’t make as good use of labels as I should; I apply labels, but never retrieve them. It’s probably a sign that my in-Gmail categorization scheme doesn’t match my actual mental model of my mail. Inbox tends to represent my “requires action” pile and everything else I just search for. I’ll ponder this more.

    1. Thanks for your comment and the hint with “gi”. Sometimes I don’t bother learning all keyboard shortcuts for an application, but “gi” maps to an action I perform so often that it’ll save me a goodly chunk keystrokes.

      One of the most useful things about automatically generating labels is that I can visually pick out the important emails-out of say 10 that make it to my inbox-right away. So if I only have one minute to check my email, which believe it or not happens, I know which to read.

  3. I use stars as your “to respond”. It has the advantage that you can assign a keyboard shortcut (in my case, apostrophe) directly to it.

    One problem I haven’t solved is this:
    1) Work-related incoming messages are labelled, and skip the inbox
    2) I never want to actually “delete” any message.
    3) So how do I hide a work-related message? It’s already “archived”?

    The best I can come up with is to make my primary view of work-related email this: “label:work is:(starred or unread)”. Then, if I read a message but don’t star it, it’s effectively hidden.

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for your note. Good to know re:stars, my keyboard shortcut for the “to respond” label is a bit longer glt-return, but since I use labels for many different things already, I’m used to it.

      If you check the box “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)” when you create a filter, it will be archived.

  4. I have the following questions:
    1. What changes have you made with the introduction of priority mail in Gmail?
    2. How do you get the primary inbox to be important email? I don’t see any options to change the default inbox.
    3. Do you follow an inbox zero policy or let things remain in the inbox?

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by.
      1. I was a beta tester of priority inbox and I found my filter system to be more exact and the priority inbox to be useless. Were I to start over, it may be that priority inbox would get me to my desired email configuration more easily.
      2. My filters make sure that anything that isn’t important doesn’t reach the primary inbox (I “skip the inbox” in the filter option)
      3. I let things remain in the inbox unless they ended up there by what I viewed a mistake. In that case I would “Archive it” or “Mark as spam” if it’s a one off, and if it’s something I see happening again I would create a new filter.

      1. Ahh ok.. thanks for the quick reply. I’ve been starting to get inundated by emails lately and I’m a system similar to yours. Only important things get to the inbox and most things gets sorted and labeled automatically. I do have a few small changes though — I use stars for the “Two Respond” category. They’re a bit easier to see. I do use the priority inbox, but as a subset of the multiple inboxes. I’m also trying to check my email at less regular intervals and not keep it up all the time. I plan it writing it all up on my blog at some point.

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