Getting Things Done with Gmail

When I joined Infinity Works, one of the biggest changes to my workflow was ditching Outlook for Gmail. After a difficult couple of weeks wrangling with Gmail’s simplicity, I gave up and installed Outlook (for Mac). Frustrated with my lack of progression, I vowed to ditch Outlook as quickly as possible and began trialling the most popular MacOS email clients. AirMail was my favourite, with Spark a close second. But still, I kept beating myself up that I hadn’t made Gmail work for me.

I decided to spend some time researching how others were managing their Gmail inboxes, and how they were implementing Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero. After a lot of reading and experimentation, I think I’ve finally found a solution that works (for me, at least, but feel free to improve it).

My success criteria -

  • Needs to work for a significant volume of daily email
  • Automatically prioritises important emails so I don’t miss them
  • I need to be able to find emails from months ago, so no deleting
  • No plugins, extensions, or Google Labs tweaks (spoiler: they break stuff)
  • Must work on Gmail mobile too

So without further ado, let’s do this.

Click the Settings cog, click Display density and change it to Comfortable -

Click the Settings cog again, choose Configure Inbox -

Then click the Settings cog again, and click Settings -

  1. Change Maximum page size to 100 conversations per page
  2. Set Default reply behaviour to Reply
  3. Turn Smart Compose on
  4. Turn Smart Compose personalisation on
  5. Tick both Nudges checkboxes
  6. Turn on Desktop notifications (your choice, really)
  7. Turn on keyboard shortcuts
  8. Turn off personal level indicators
  9. Turn off snippets

In Settings, go to labels and create these —

Why the numbers before the label name? Personal preference — it keeps the labels at the top of the list on the left, and in order. I’ll explain my process and how I use the labels further down.

Then, hide Starred, Snoozed, Important, Chats, Sent, Drafts, All Mail, Spam, and Bin to declutter the list on the left.

Next, go to Filters And Blocked Addresses in Settings. We’re going to create some rules to automatically label high priority emails and filter the noise.

The Priority label helps me identify important emails to process first

Let’s create a filter that draws our attention to the most important emails, so that we can process them first. Consider who should be in this exclusive list — not everyone gets priority. Go to Settings and create a new Filter in Filters and Blocked Addresses -

from:(legal@mycompany.com OR importantperson@mycompany.com OR etc@etc.com)

Apply label: “Priority”

Next, create a few filters to automatically remove noisy emails from your inbox. You know the type — the ones you receive on a daily or weekly basis that you never read. This will be highly specific to your Inbox, although here’s an example of one I use -

from:(*@mycompany.com)

subject:(GDPR)

Apply label: “Noise”

Mark as Read

Skip the Inbox (Archive it)

At this point, you’ve got two options. You can either Archive your entire Inbox, or archive it past a certain date and process what’s left manually. Option 1 will take about 15 seconds. Option 2 will take longer.

Option 2: Filter emails older than 14 days, select them all, and hit Archive!

Archiving is a safe, non-destructive, operation. Should you need anything, it’s still there and searchable, just not sitting in your Inbox stinking it up.

I don’t have my email open all day, and I don’t have notifications enabled on my phone. I process my emails when I first arrive at my desk, going straight for the Priority ones, then everything else.

When I’m processing, I have 6 outcomes -

  1. Create an action from it. These go to 1. Needs Action
  2. I’m waiting on a reply from someone in the distribution list, or I’m waiting on a reply to something I’ve sent. These go to number 2. Awaiting Reply
  3. Delegate an action to someone, these go to 3. Delegated
  4. If it has useful information in it, such as a URL to a system, or directions somewhere, these emails go to 4. Information
  5. If it’s something that requires my focus, and will take a while to read, I’ll add it to my reading list 5. Reading
  6. Archive it (means I’ve read it, processed it, no further action) — this is the default action for most of my email.

I then go through 1. Needs Action and spend 10–15 minutes processing them (of course, I observe the 3 sentences or less rule). Once they’re done, I can either move them to 2. Awaiting Reply, or remove the 1. Needs Action label to archive it. I Archive emails from my Inbox, and drag emails to the label to quickly assign them a label.

Next I’ll skim through 2. Awaiting Reply and 3. Delegated to ensure I’m on top of them.

I’ll clear my Inbox four or five times throughout the day, which seems to be enough. I recognise this is made possible by Slack, which I leave running all day, and I use the Do Not Disturb mode when I need to focus.

I read through my reading list when I’m commuting, or on a Friday afternoon when I have some dedicated “me time” for admin and whatnot.

If you made it this far, great! I hope you found this useful, and if you have any improvements, comments or questions, I’d love to hear them.