No matter how creative you are or how hard you work, there’s one nuisance that seems to dampen productivity for a lot of workers: email.
Without this marvel of not-so-modern technology, most of our jobs would hardly exist. Yet on most days, email feels like nothing more than a gigantic time suck and a neverending to-do list looming over our heads.
It never had to be this way!
I’m a huge geek for Google products, so I’m intimately familiar with the capabilities of Gmail. I’m always baffled when anyone complains about how much email they receive and how hard it is to manage.
It’s not that hard. You just have to use the tools at your disposal.
I’ve pulled together my favorite little-used tips, tricks and tools that make Gmail easier to manage, because that’s the app I use and it’s a common one for work and personal accounts.
If you use a different email app, some of these tips will translate, or you might find similar settings or tools. If not… switch to Gmail. Why aren’t you already using it? Get on board. I can’t personally evangelize the product enough.
Here are six ways to declutter your inbox, take back your time and increase your productivity in the workplace, as a freelancer or in your personal life:
1. Configure Your Inbox
This Gmail setting allows you to enable or disable tabs in your inbox: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates and Forums.
Gmail automatically categorizes your mail into these tabs, so you don’t have one overwhelming pile in your inbox each day.
For example, if you receive an email as part of a mailing list — a newsletter, for example — that will fall under the Promotions tab. Automated messages from apps you sign up for will fall under Updates.
In most cases, these aren’t urgent messages, so you’ll be able to focus on what lands in your Primary inbox and get to other tabs later.
2. Create Labels and Filters
If you want to sort your mail manually or with more detail than Gmail’s tabs allows, you can do it with Labels.
Under “Labels” in your Settings, you’ll see all of the default labels and any custom ones you’ve created.
Create labels to help you sort email and see those pertaining to a particular topic — for example, “Sales Pitches.”
Under “Filters and Blocked Addresses,” you can create filters to automatically apply labels to messages and take certain actions.
For example, I collaborate with my team through Google Docs, and it’s helpful for me to receive email notifications of edits or comments editors leave on my drafts. But they would clog my inbox all day if I didn’t wrangle them.
I created the label “Google Docs” and a filter to apply that label to all mail from docs.google.com — and Skip the Inbox.
So all of my Docs notifications are neatly sorted under that label — like a folder — and when it’s time to work on revisions, I can open that folder and use it as a to-do list.
3. Play with Gmail Labs
Gmail Labs are experimental features that go a long way in customizing your inbox. Find Labs under your Gmail settings.
Small touches, like the Mark as Read button, can make navigating a busy inbox much easier.
I use Canned Responses, which saves email templates for common messages — like an intro to a potential source — so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every message. You could create a Canned Response to reply quickly and consistently to common questions.
Multiple Inboxes allows you to see sorted email on your Gmail home screen, instead of hidden behind tabs or labels.
The Preview Pane can help you browse a lot of email quickly, opening an email alongside your inbox the way you might be used to in desktop email clients.
4. Use Third-Party Services to Make Your Life Easier
Outside of the app’s settings, you can improve your inbox experience by adding third-party apps, plugins or browser extensions.
Boomerang for Gmail
Boomerang is one of my favorite Gmail plugins for Firefox, Chrome or Safari, because it’s all about taking control of your time.
Got an email from a client on Monday that you need to address in a meeting on Thursday? Get it out of your cluttered inbox, and set Boomerang to return it Thursday morning.
You can also Boomerang your sent mail as a reminder to follow up if you don’t get a reply. It’s an easy way to stay on top of your contacts without keeping conversations in your inbox or trying to juggle information in your head.
One of Boomerang’s coolest features, though, is scheduling emails to send later.
I like to batch my emails at the end of the workday but don’t want to get hit with a bunch of end-of-day replies and tasks. Boomerang lets me draft emails on my own time and schedule them to hit my contacts’ inboxes at a later time, like the next morning.
Speaking of batching emails, do you ever settle in to tackle your correspondence, only to see the list grow every time you finish one email and return to the inbox?
Gmail add-on Inbox Pause stops that. Just hit the button to keep new emails from appearing in your inbox. Work through your unread list, and hit the button again to accept new emails (and those that arrived while you were paused).
Is your inbox overrun with email subscriptions? I find these to be the biggest culprits causing most people’s email madness.
Unroll.me cleans up your inbox by “rolling up” your email subscriptions in one place each day. You’ll receive a single daily email that includes all your subscriptions for easy browsing.
Insert Text, a Chrome extension, works similar to Canned Responses in that you can save templates for different kinds of messages. But it goes a step further.
While Canned Responses fills out the entire body of your email with a saved message, Insert Text allows you to simply insert a chunk of text anywhere within an email.
Use it to tailor your signature to the recipient, insert contact information you can never remember or include a standard blurb about your company without sending a form email.
5. Control Notifications on Your Smartphone
It’s a hackneyed observation that we’re all too attached to our smartphones these days — but it’s also true. Even as a millennial, I’m baffled by how busy some of my friends’ phones are, while my iPhone may as well play crickets when I check it.
I’m no social butterfly or in-demand leader, but I know they’re not all that important, either. They just haven’t updated their notification settings.
I recommend you take 10 minutes this week to adjust notifications in all your apps to quiet the noise — but I’ll keep this to Gmail smartphone app settings.
Manage Separate Accounts
First, the Gmail app allows you to connect several email accounts, and you can have different settings for each account.
That means, for example, you can turn off push notifications for work altogether and only get personal correspondence to your phone. Or you can turn off notifications for an email you use for, say, online shopping, but keep them for important work correspondence.
Limit Push Notifications
Within each account in your Gmail app, you can set notifications for “All New Mail,” “Primary Only” or “None.”
If you want to be available for important messages without getting overwhelmed by alerts, I recommend setting “Primary Only.”
This will alert you when an email lands in your Primary inbox, but skip notifications for those filtered to Promotions, Updates, Social or Forums.
Go even further, and try turning off all email notifications. Only give your time to email when you choose to look at it.
Or, if you’re really brave, remove work email from your smartphone altogether!
Don’t Let Notifications Control You
Don’t roll your eyes. You know this needs to be said. Smartphone notifications pull you away from whatever you’re doing, unexpectedly, at all hours of the day.
They pile up and make you feel busy and important and stressed, and they keep you awake at night and make you feel like you don’t have time to play with your kids or dogs or plants.
But they don’t have to.
Even if you’re completely vital to your company and need to be available at a moment’s notice (most of us do not), you can quiet down your day without missing anything by making some simple adjustments to your phone’s settings.
For example: Do you need the ringer on so everyone hears your alert, or would a vibration suffice?
Do you even need the vibration, or will a pop-up on your screen get the message across?
Do you actually need that pop-up, or can the notification just live in your Notification Center, which you check every three minutes anyway?
Do you see how quiet your life can get?
Turn off badges that scream about 1,246 unread emails. Choose less invasive notifications that go away instead of demanding alerts that require your attention, and take advantage of “Downtime” or “Do Not Disturb” settings.
None of this is complicated or time-consuming. Take a few minutes to get control of your phone, and you will live, breathe and rest easier going forward.
6. Get Out of Email!
Ultimately, the most important email-sanity tip I can offer is: Use it as little as possible.
While email was once the fastest way to communicate with co-workers, clients or customers, it’s now one of the least efficient.
Tons of apps now do the work that used to fall to email, and they do it much better!
For collaboration and feedback on team projects, use Google’s other apps:
Docs, Sheets and Slides let your team create content, work in the same files simultaneously and track changes and comments. Stop sending attachments via email.
Drive lets you upload, store, share and download files in almost any format, so you don’t have to send files via email.
Calendar helps you plan events and meetings by sharing schedules with others, so you can quickly see when everyone is busy or available — and stop emailing back and forth to plan meetings!
Forms helps you create surveys to gather anonymous feedback internally or externally, or collect information like employee sign-ups for events.
The simplest way to declutter your inbox is to avoid cluttering it in the first place!
Your Turn: What Gmail hacks do you use to be more productive at work?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).