High productivity is normally associated with organization. That is why most people would be very comfortable with Mike Munter’s suggestion that it is best to be organizing your Gmail Inbox for high productivity. You will find that same thinking in other posts by Lifehacker and Mediacurrent on how you can use Gmail most efficiently. In this post you will find advice which goes completely in the opposite direction. It will probably also go against your natural inclination when you try to be more efficient. However if you are willing to take the risk that your e-mail efficiency can be doubled, then you may be willing to try out an approach which at first sight seems completely illogical. What we are suggesting is to leave all those e-mail messages in a great messy pile, a veritable haystack, and rely on Google search when you are looking for a needle.
Before we get to this new approach, let us take a quick look at the history of Gmail and how it has evolved.
A Lookback At The Original Gmail
Google launched Gmail as a beta product on April 1, 2004. The site was invitation-only at first, and you had to apply for an invitation. As one of those Gmail beta testers, I received a message that began:
First off, welcome. And thanks for agreeing to help us test Gmail. By now you probably know the key ways in which Gmail differs from traditional webmail services. Searching instead of filing. A free gigabyte of storage. Messages displayed in context as conversations.
Gmail included an advanced search process.
Advanced search operators are query words or symbols that perform special actions in Gmail search. These operators allow you to find what you’re looking for quickly and accurately. They can also be used to set up filters so you can organize your inbox automatically.
That initial vision was exactly right. Unfortunately in listening to their customers, Google has allowed that vision to become fuzzy as we shall see.
Gmail Competes With Hotmail
The much more popular e-mail service had been Hotmail. On July 31, 2012, Computerworld suggested that the Hotmail Frog was about to become the Outlook.Com Prince. It was suggested that the updated email service could beef up Microsoft’s cloud-based enterprise effort and might be a one-two punch against Google’s Gmail. The street view was that in the competition between Outlook.com vs. Gmail, the new Outlook.com would come out the winner.
For most of Hotmail’s history, superior organizing tools are what it held highest over Gmail. For anyone thrown by Gmail’s use of “labels,” Hotmail’s more-familiar folders and its ability to rearrange your inbox (or any folder) by date, sender, subject or size with a single click were beacons of normality. That still holds true with Outlook. Folders remain the primary way to organize your email, and it also retains Categories, which automatically classify your incoming messages as “social updates” or “newsletters,” for example.
Nevertheless these features were insufficient to prevent Gmail overtaking Hotmail by October 2012.
Gmail edges Hotmail as world’s top e-mail service – No more disputes over which service is No. 1. ComScore says Google’s Gmail has taken the global lead over Microsoft’s Hotmail.
To counter the Hotmail advantage, Google suggested that folders had certain disadvantages.
Actually, Gmail doesn’t use folders. To help you organize your mail more effectively, Gmail uses labels instead and there are a number of reasons why labels are better than folders:
Gmail For Your Grandfather
In all of that interplay in 2012, Gmail was trying to convince the average e-mail user who is not very sophisticated. This has been their approach recently and the latest changes to the Inbox reflect this. Meg Herbert encourages everyone to take a look. In her opinion, the new Gmail inbox simplifies and customizes with new tabs.
Gmail is offering to help you deal with the clutter that email brings. The new design now features tabs that include primary, social, promotions and updates tabs to help you sort out what’s most important. Emails can easily be dragged from one tab to another leaving you in control of the emails you really need.
If you receive a few dozen e-mails each day, then you will probably find this new format is helpful. However the names of the tabs are fixed and may not be ideal for the various messages you receive. If you receive a great number of e-mails each day or if you have followed the advice to label your incoming messages, then you may find a disconnect between what you have been doing and the simplicity of this new inbox. What follows is intended for you and solves the disconnect in a very elegant way.
Gmail For Power Users
If you are a power user, then my strong advice is to go back to using Gmail as was recommended at the very beginning of its life. Putting it simply, get rid of all those labels and take the simple decision for any message to either send it to trash or to archive it. Since Google’s strength is in search, rely on that strength. When you need to find a particular message, use search to find it. You will find a very significant saving in time, since you no longer need to think which folder / label to apply and you will find any message you’re looking for extremely rapidly.
If you need any proof of that higher productivity, then an IBM Study in 2011 showed that putting emails in folders is a waste of time. The full study is also available as a PDF file. A Harvard Business Review article expanded on this approach with the title, Tip for Getting More Organized: Don’t.
The other thing you will notice is that if you use less labels, then Gmail will handle your queries and requests faster..
Gmail Labels Are Really Tags
You should be clear that we are not suggesting using no labels whatsoever. The aim rather is to use the fewest Gmail labels possible. As Google emphasized, labels are not the same as folders. If an item is in a folder then it cannot at the same time be in another folder. The simplest way of thinking about this is to remember what a label is. It is often a physical tag that you attach to an object. It can be temporary or it can be more permanent. When it is no longer of use, it can be removed.
Removing the label does not mean that the item is lost in the trash. Rather it remains archived and can be retrieved whenever you might wish. One helpful mental picture is to think of all those e-mail messages as being part of a huge haystack. Some of the items have tags or labels but the majority are untagged. When a new item arrives, it is added to the haystack and given a tag or label of Inbox. When you are looking at your Inbox, you are really looking at a search result for all items with the Inbox label. When an item is archived and the label is removed, then you must use the Google search function to find it again.
Even though you may be wishing to work with the minimum number of labels, certain types of labels are useful. Here are the ones I find useful. The ‘_’ character in front of some of them is to ensure they come first in alphabetical lists of labels, which can be shown in the left hand column in Gmail. Most items are handled immediately on reading and are either archived or trashed and no label is attached to them. The labels fall into three classes and only one of these classes includes permanent labels.
Temporary labels to identify work items.
These labels are removed or switched once the item has been handled.
Temporary labels for batch handling of messages
These labels are applied automatically by an appropriate filter to incoming items which then bypass the Inbox. Google provides a good explanation on Using Filters.
One such label I use is _twitter which collects together all messages from twitter. When time allows, I check all these messages and trash them after this.
Permanent labels to identify actions taken.
I have only two such labels but others might need similar labels for their particular situation. I receive many requests from people who would like to write guest posts on my blogcs. If I feel they would be suitable as authors then I attach a label of guest_blogging to the conversation with them. By now I have 746 of these conversations. Many requests are so weak that I trash them immediately after reading. In other cases where they are almost good enough but I must reject them, then I attach a label of guest_blogging_not. My archive contains 481 of these conversations. With these labels, if someone contacts me again and deserves an answer, I can quickly identify any prior conversation with them and see what my judgment was on the previous occasion.
Use Gmail Search To Find That Needle In The Haystack Rapidly
By following the process outlined above, your Gmail Inbox can be handled extremely rapidly. As a routine you may wish to archive many more messages than you are sure to use since Gmail provides a huge amount of free storage space. You can easily and rapidly find any item you need with all the bells and whistles allowed in the Advanced Search process. It is certainly no slower than you might be able to achieve if you had to search through a list of items in a folder.
Photo Credit: adding to the haystack image courtesy of Robyn Schmid, on Flickr