Email Couch Potato: Get Productive with Gmail

Gmail is a powerful tool, but many users of this service aren’t tapping into its full potential. To help you get more productive and get the most out of Gmail, I’m going to spend the next few articles talking about the most effective features of the software and the techniques and practices you can use to make the most of it.

In this first installation, we’ll talk about account consolidation. This will make your life easier by a thousand times (yeah, yeah, hyperbole – or so you say for now!) if you’re not already doing this. Here’s what we’re going to do:

Make it Your Central Email Inbox

Today, most people have at least two email accounts and usually more. Through my own projects, personal accounts, and working with clients closely enough to warrant them providing me with an email address, I’ve amassed close to twenty (active) accounts.

Having twenty email accounts is a bad, bad thing for productivity. As Dustin has mentioned in his Back to Basics article, the fewer inboxes you have, the better; it means less chance that something will slip through the cracks and fewer places you have to remember to check each day for new information.

Gmail provides a number of ways for you to turn those multiple inboxes into one single place. When you’re filtering all those different accounts into one place without losing the ability to reply using the address they were sent to, your inbox hell problem has been solved. Here’s how to consolidate this part of your life.

1. Set up the Send mail as feature.

The first thing you need to do is go to the Accounts tab under Gmail’s Settings. This is where you can set up Gmail to send mail as if it were sent from your other email addresses. In order to maintain professionalism and to keep the mail sorted using Gmail’s filters, this is important.

Click the “Add another email address” link and follow the steps. A confirmation message will be sent to your account, to prevent spoofing, and once you’ve confirmed that you are who you say you are, you’ll be able to send email from that account.

Rinse and repeat until every account you intend to filter into Gmail has been set up.

2. Get your email out of your other inboxes and into Gmail.

There are two ways you can get the email from your other accounts to end up in your Gmail account; forwarding or POP3. Forwarding is a better long-term choice, since Gmail only allows you to set up five POP3 accounts, and only checks your accounts from time to time. If you forward your email from your existing account and into Gmail, the emails are pushed through automatically and you can do this for as many accounts as you have.

However, to keep your archive of email centralized, should you ever need to find important old emails (using Gmail’s excellent search facilities), POP3 will come in handy at first. Set up your accounts under Settings > Accounts to download everything via POP3, five at a time. The setup process gives you the option to specify a label for the account, which you should do from the outset.

When you’re done, head into your other account’s settings and set them all to forward to your main Gmail account. Only once you’ve set forwarding up should you return to Gmail and remove the POP3 accounts or you might miss out on some emails.

If you don’t have email archives on your email server, but instead in your email application, don’t worry – you can still get them into the account. I used Apple Mail to migrate everything, so it might vary somewhat from program to program. Head into your Gmail webmail interface and set up labels for each of your accounts. Then go back to your desktop email application and set your Gmail account up using IMAP (not POP3). You should see your labels under that account. Select all your email from a given account and drag it to that label. Using Apple Mail, this removed the emails from my hard drive as it uploaded each one, so make a backup before you begin if you wish to keep offline archives as well.

I once did this with a very old email account that had an archive count in five figures. It takes time, so be patient, and perhaps set it up before heading to bed.

3. Ensure your accounts are all heading into the right labels.

Having every email from every account flood into your inbox is going to be organizational hell. Make sure that you set your labels and filters correctly while you were completing step 2. If you downloaded your email from IMAP and then set it to forward to Gmail, you may have missed this step. Here’s how to do it:

Head to Settings and click on the Filters tab. Click on Create a new filter and fill in the email account you’ve redirected to Gmail in the To: field. This will specify that whenever an email is received that has been sent to that account, it will be processed with this filter.

Click Next Step and tick Skip the Inbox and Apply the Label, selecting the appropriate label from the dropdown menu (this is the label you set up in step 2). Click the Create Filter button and you’re good to go.

Use the All Mail Feature

So, now you want to batch process all of your new email. Switching between labels to deal with messages from each account is a bit like start-stop traffic; it takes a while to get anywhere, though you eventually do. Fortunately, we’ve got the prominent but seldom-used All Mail feature.

All Mail is really just a glorified label that is automatically applied to every single message (though the label is not a visible one). It lets you see all your messages in one place; as simple as that is, when you get up to check your email in the morning, flicking into All Mail allows you to power through them one by one without stopping to navigate from label to label. It’s not uncommon to put one label off because “nothing important happens in there anyway” and this sabotages the entire point of batch processing.

I used to do this myself, especially with one particular account that had ended up receiving little human email and a lot of mailing list traffic. Using All Mail forced me to get out of my procrastination zone and deal with each message. The first few days were spent by unsubscribing from a lot of lists and, if the content was valuable, switching to an RSS feed. If they didn’t make a feed available for the same content, I just completely wrote them off (so there’s a lesson for you email marketers reading this). Since doing this, I spend more of my email time dealing with humans and less fighting useless bulk email (and got rid of the niggling guilt for not processing all my mail properly).

Your next installment coming soon!

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