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Your Guide to Getting Productive with Gmail: Managing the Flow

Your Guide to Getting Productive with Gmail: Managing the Flow

Email Couch Potato: Get Productive with Gmail

    Last time we redirected all of our email accounts to the one place, our central email hub at Gmail. Once you have all your accounts trickling into Gmail, you’ve got to manage that flow of information so that a) it’s possible to get through all of your email in fifteen minutes or less and b) it’s easy to find next week, next month and next year.

    The Inbox is Sacred

    You must learn to see your inbox as an almost sacred place: the worst sin you can commit against it is leaving messages in there to rot. I’m not talking about days or weeks. You’ve got to deal with each message in your inbox during your email processing session. It cannot be in the inbox once you’ve finished.

    Since we’re using multiple email accounts, we have them filtering into a variety of labels. If we don’t, the boundaries between the roles and information associated with each account becomes blurred and quite often, just plain confusing. The inbox is a very useful tool for processing and this separation is an unfortunate necessity.

    In the last post we talked about using the All Mail feature to replace this, but the problem with this approach is that you can’t “process out” the incoming information this way. There are a couple of alternative solutions we’ll address in a moment, but the simplest way at this point is to deal with all mail as though it were in your inbox – it’s an attitude hack, rather than a technological one.

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    Dealing with Messages in Your Inbox

    The first step to processing your email is, obviously, to read it. Unfortunately, this is where many people stop (and it’s frustrating when you’re trying to get solid communication going).

    Read smart, not hard. Give the subject and first paragraph of the email a scan to determine its relevancy, because there will always be emails that are pointless and you don’t need to read them. If it’s totally useless to you, you can delete the message. “Never delete an email again” is not a mantra I totally believe in.

    If you’ve kept the message, you can read it properly. By the way, I should mention that if more than 15% of your inbox processing consists of deleting messages, you’re probably not creating enough pre-qualifiers and smart “obstacles” to people who want your email address. The + hack works well here, which we’ll get to soon.

    Once you’ve finished reading the message, you must process it. There are a few outcomes:

    • Reply and archive,
    • Reply and delete,
    • Reply, turn it into an action, archive
    • Turn it into an action, archive
    • Archive
    • Delete

    If you’re turning the email into an action you’ll almost always want to archive it, not delete it, for future reference. For messages that you need to deal with later, or that call for you to perform a task, turn that into an action in your task list or GTD software immediately and then clear the message out of your inbox.

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    Creating actions from emails before clearing them out of your way is the best thing you can do for your email productivity. Keeping emails in the inbox because there is a task pending creates “email apathy” and things become unorganized and cluttered.

    Alternative Solutions to Using All Mail

    Using All Mail should work perfectly if you process each unread message as soon as you open it and read it, but perhaps it’s just not working for you. There are a few other ways to deal with this.

    Starring All Email – the Star feature of Gmail is useful for marking items of interest that you want to come back to later (even though, under this system, we try to avoid that). If you don’t need or use this feature, you can make it work as a faux inbox. The star will indicate that a message needs to be processed.

    Go back to the Filter setup window under Settings, and set the To: field to an asterisk (*). The To: field tells Gmail to select emails based on who the email is sent to, but the * tells it to pick up all email. We’ll go into the asterisk and its usefulness to filters in a moment.

    Click Next Step and tick the “Star it” box. You now have a filter that stars all your incoming mail, and as you process each item, you can remove it from the list by clicking on the star, which is usually next to the “From” field in list view.

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    Not using automatic filters is another solution that I do not recommend. This takes all the power out of your system, but it will cause every email to flow straight into the inbox where you can process it into labels manually. I think this defeats the purpose and adds extra work that the computer can do for you, and in my experience it has been far from an optimal solution.

    Using Asterisks in Filters

    I mentioned the asterisk before when we talked about setting up a filter that stars your incoming mail. The asterisk, simple as it is, provides a very useful tool and provides more dynamic email filtering.

    Let’s take a look at how it works. Say I have a regular client who has given me three different email addresses (it really does happen). I don’t want to have three labels for each one of those email addresses, and I want to basically treat them all as one. Using the asterisk we can achieve this really easily.

    In the To: field of the filter setup, place an * before the rest of the domain name. So let’s say I have copywriter@unproductiveclient.com, editor@unproductiveclient.com and joel@unproductiveclient.com. To route all these email addresses into the one place, using one filter, all I have to do is set the To: field as *@unproductiveclient.com.

    This works with the other fields, too. For instance, if I receive email from a whole bunch of people at one company to my main address and want to separate it from all my other mail, I can set the From: field to *@thatonecompany.com.

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    The + Hack

    And finally, we have the + hack. This is great for pre-qualifying your email. Despite the fact that the sender may be a stranger you’ve never met or heard of before, you know what the email is about because it landed in the right label. Almost sounds like magic.

    With Gmail, you can add a + add the end of your username with a keyword attached. For instance, if your email address is lifehack.example@gmail.com you can still receive messages directed to lifehack.example+invoices@gmail.com. Better yet, you can apply filters to these email addresses. I use this on my own site, where username+postideas@gmail.com goes to a Post Ideas label, and so on.

    Better still, you can create semi-disposable email addresses without having to go create one with a disposable mail service. If a site is demanding your email address and you’re worried they’ll send you spam, just add a +sitename to your address and you can always filter that material to the Trash later on.

    Stay tuned for more advice on setting up a productive email system with Gmail.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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