If you’re a techie person, email is essential but it’s hard to stay on top of all of it. If you use Gmail and Firefox, here’s a few tips to get email under control.
The first tip is remedial: keep most mailing list emails out of your inbox. I already prune as much of my Gmail inbox email as I can. I subscribe to a bunch of mailing lists, but add filters like “If the email is to some-mailinglist, skip the inbox.” That way it doesn’t clutter my inbox (which is my to-do list), but it still gets indexed so that I can search for it later.
Once you’ve done the first tip, you probably still end up with a lot of email. How can you prioritize the most important emails, such as the emails from people that you work closely with? Here’s how:
- Install Firefox and Greasemonkey. If you’re a techie, odds are you already have both of these running.
- Go to this page and click on the “Saved Searches” link to install a Greasemonkey script that augments Gmail with persistent searches. This script was written by Mihai Parparita, a Google engineer who actually works on Google Reader, not Gmail.
- Go into Gmail and you’ll see a new sidebar with several example searches. It looks like this:
To run a saved search, just click on the search you want to run in the sidebar. Click on “Edit Searches” and add a new search for the team of people you work with.
How do you add a new search? It’s easy. Imagine that you work at Example.com and you work with a team of three people: Alice, Bob, and Carol. This search would find emails from any of those people that are still in your inbox and that are directly to you:
to:me AND label:inbox AND (from:email@example.com OR from:firstname.lastname@example.org OR from:email@example.com)
So let’s click on “Edit Searches” in the sidebar and add this new search. Here’s what you’ll see:
Under the text “Create a new persistent search” fill in the “Label” field with something like “My team” and in the “Query” field, add a query like the one I mentioned, then click “Save Changes.” If you want, you can move your new saved search up to the top of the priority list (the script comes with a few default searches).
Now when you’re facing a bunch of email in your Gmail inbox, you can click on the “My team” link and you’ll see the most important emails that you need to respond to first. You can add quite a lot of people, too.
There are all sorts of other tricks you can do with labels and persistent searches. You could make a persistent search for different groups of people at work, or a search for email from your family.
Here’s one last tip. Suppose you work at Example.com and you get a mix of email from inside Example.com and from outside. You want to exclude any outside email (that is, any email that’s not from example.com). From the inbox, click on “Create a filter”. In the From: field, enter the rule -example.com . Then click “Next Step” and create a new label called “outside” and click to create the filter. After creating the filter and label, you can do queries like “to:me AND -label:outside AND label:inbox”. Now you easily can jump back and forth between handling internal and external email.
By the way, big props to the Gmail team for making a great web email product, the Firefox folks for making a great browser for Gmail plus the rest of the web, Aaron Boodman for his Greasemonkey script, and Mihai Parparita for his persistent searches script (Aaron and Mihai both work at Google). Oh, and I guess thanks also to the Google Code and open source team for offering the free source-code project hosting that Mihai is using for his scripts. All of these projects help a ton of people in day-to-day life and generate massive positive karma.
Okay, anybody else want to offer their best email/Gmail productivity tip?
Update: Paul Buchheit, one of the original architects of Gmail, dropped me a nice note to refine one of the tips above. Here’s the refinement, quoted with his permission:
Gmail query syntax is pretty flexible. You can rewrite
(from:firstname.lastname@example.org OR from:email@example.com OR from:firstname.lastname@example.org)
I learn something new every day. Thanks Paul!