11th March 2010


My Old E-mail Setup

My old e-mail and calendar system was based around Outlook and I’ve always found it met my requirements very well but it had started to become slow and cumbersome and was using a large chunk of system memory.

Over the years I had created an elaborate system of folders and sub folders for my e-mails which was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. I ended up  just using the search function to find old e-mails but Outlook was taking several minutes to search the thousands of e-mails on my system to find the one I was looking for.

Outlook FoldersAfter recently reading Getting Things Done by David Allen it became obvious a much simpler method of sorting and processing my e-mails was long overdue.

I wanted something that would let me send and receive e-mails from multiple accounts, let me organise things intuitively and find what I need quickly.

I’ve had a Gmail account since 2004 but it has only ever been used as a backup system for my e-mails (I’ve set a copy of every e-mail to forward to my Gmail address) and as an emergency e-mail solution when I’m out of the office. To say I hadn’t explored all the features and settings would be an understatement! It seemed the obvious choice…

Making the Transition

My first step was to explore the features Gmail offered. My existing Gmail account proved the perfect testing ground because five years worth of e-mails that were already on the system. A quick glance at the intuitive search method gave a very favourable first impression letting me find a specific e-mail from back in 2004 in just a few seconds.

I’ve got several e-mail accounts that I wanted to filter in to my Gmail inbox (web design, hosting, blog etc…) and this was easy to setup. I could choose to either have a copy of all my e-mails from my other POP3 accounts sent to my Gmail address (which I’ve had for the last five years) or I could setup the incoming server to receive all my e-mails directly in to my Gmail account.

Gmail also lets you send e-mails from “non-Gmail” e-mail addresses via your own SMTP server (for instance, with my phil@thewebdesignblog.co.uk e-mail address) and the recipient will see the e-mail as being sent from my address rather than the Gmail address associated with the account.

And, just like Outlook, if I reply to an e-mail sent to a particular address the recipient will see a reply from that e-amil address as long as I have set up the reply-to address in the Gmail settings. Very handy.

Use your own SMTP server with Gmail

During my first week using Gmail I watched this great video from Ryan Carson explaining the benefit of using keyboard shortcuts. The basics were easy to learn and I found myself using them automatically without thinking. When viewing e-mails I quickly got used to using J and K while reading messages to move between older and newer e-mails but then I discovered using [ and ] would do the same thing but automatically archive the message without going back to your inbox each time. This has proven to be a really big time saver for me! You can literally skim through your e-mails and either archive messages with [ or ] or leave them in the inbox with J or K so they can be processed later.

If I see something is urgent when checking my messages I add it to the starred label (keyboard shortcut s) which lets me quickly view my priority e-mails. I’ve also setup custom labels for Next Actions, Someday and Projects which I can assign to each e-mail to help me sort through them at an appropriate time.

If your broadband provider is slow or having an off-day Gmail will load a reduced load page to show you just the important bits of information until your connection returns to normal.

Gmail Inbox

My Favourite Keybaord Shorcuts

Gmail provide an overlay of their main keyboard shortcuts which helped me learn them quickly. Simply press ? when using Gmail to quickly bring up the list.

Here are some of my favourites:

  • c – Compose a new e-mail
  • c + Shift – Compose a new e-mail in a new window
  • k – Move the cursor to a newer conversation (or move to a next message if you are viewing the conversation)
  • j – Move the cursor to an older conversation (or move to an older message if you are viewing the conversation)
  • [ – Archive and go to previous message
  • ] – Archive and go to next message
  • x – Check or uncheck the selected conversation
  • o / Enter – Open or expand the selected conversation
  • n – Go to the next message in a conversation
  • p – Go to the previous message in a conversation
  • e – Archive the selected conversation
  • s – Star a message or conversation
  • r – Reply to message sender (from the conversation view)
  • a – Reply to all recipients (from the conversation view)
  • f – Forward a message
  • l – View the labels menu
  • v – Move the conversation to another section
  • Shift + i – Mark as read (and skip message in conversation view)
  • Shift + u – Mark as unread (and skip message in conversation view)
  • z – Undo

Please click here to view the full list of shortcuts.

Combination Keys

You can also use a series of combination keys to quickly move around the different sections of Gmail:

  • Tab then Enter – A really useful one! Once you’ve finished writing an e-mail just press tab followed by the enter key to send the message
  • g then a – Go to all items
  • g then s – View your starred itmes
  • g then c – Open your list of contacts
  • g then i – Go to your inbox
  • g then t – Go to your sent items
  • * then a – Select all mail
  • * then n – Deselect all mail

Please click here to view the full list of combinations.

Using Labels and Filters

labelsWhen it came to deciding if I’d start using Gmail permanently it was the labels and filters that were the clincher for me.

I am so used to using folders in an attempt to organise my e-mails and I wasn’t sure if I’d get on with Gmail’s labelling and filter system but it turned out to be a piece of cake.

All you have to do is assign a few basic rules to create a filter. For example who it is from, what the subject of the e-mail is, what keywords it contains etc… and then you can decide what Gmail does with these e-mails. For instance, you could set these e-mails to skip the inbox, apply a label, delete them, star them or even send an automatic canned response.

I’ve setup several filters which apply custom labels to both incoming mail and all archived mail.

There are so many ways you could take advantage of this to organise your inbox but I’ve listed a small selection below:

  • Any e-mail that contains the word “urgent” goes gets a Urgent label
  • Missed calls and answerphone message notifications have a Telephone label
  • Client project questionnaires have a Worksheets label
  • All online payments I’ve received have a Payments label
  • Receipts (and shipping notifications) from online purchases have a Shopping label
  • Twitter and Facebook messages and friend notifcations have a Twitter or Facebook label
  • Hosting and domain renewal notifications have a Hosting label

What I Love About Gmail

  • I can sync my e-mails and contact list with my phone (more info at http://www.google.com/mobile/sync/)
  • The “Send and Archive” button (labs feature) – When you send your e-mail reply this button will send and archive the e-mail automatically which is a big time saver.
  • You get over 7GB free storage space but you can upgrade your storage space if required.
  • If you use Google Calendar you can set it up to send you an e-mail every morning with your daily agenda.
  • If your e-mail contains the words “I’ve attached” and you try to send the message without an attachment Gmail asks if you want to send anyway or cancel and add the attachment. (via Grace Smith)

What I Think Could Be Improved

  • You can already setup an automatic signature but it would great to be able to have different signatures for each e-mail address you send from. EDIT: This is now available!
  • Some times Gmail can pause when sending emails or other actions requiring a refresh to fix (but this could be a browser or computer issue)

So, after a month of using Gmail I am hooked. I’ve now started using it permanently for all my e-mails in conjunction with Google Calendar. I’ve tried to move over to Gmail several times before without really embracing the system but this time, for whatever reason, it all seems to have clicked in to place.

Over to you!

If you are a Gmail user I’d love to hear your own tips and tricks. How have you got your labels setup? What lab features do you find useful? If you’d like to share your favourite Gmail tips please leave a comment at the end of this post!

The main Gmail icon used for this article was designed by Sergio Sanchez Lopez

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