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The Best Email Workflow

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Initially published on Medium — February 16, 2016

For years, I struggled with efficiently and effectively tackling my e-mail inbox. As I entered the “real” world, I knew that I couldn’t have hundreds of e-mails sitting unread for weeks at a time.

I tried out a ton of different options, none of which worked on both mobile AND desktop. I needed to craft a solution that accounted for both. After spending hours reading about all of the different ways power-users tackle their inbox, I decided on this set-up.

I’ve been using this set-up for almost a year now, and although my inbox isn’t at zero every night — it gets pretty close. I’ll cover the mobile workflow at the end of this post, as well.

This is what your Gmail will look like by the end of the article:

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Example Gmail workflow:

1. Received an e-mail from Jonathon — it goes directly into my main inbox

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2. Open the e-mail from the main inbox.

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3. At this point, I have a couple of different options.

Option A) I can reply immediately, and archive the e-mail.

Option B) Move the e-mail to my Action Needed folder — so I remember to reply later.

In this case, I opted to do the second option.

4. Using keyboard shortcuts, I just simply pressed: “V” to open the prompt for “Move to”

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5. After moving to: “Action Needed” — the e-mail is out of my main inbox and now sits in my: “Action Needed” inbox

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6. Once I reply to the e-mail, I would simply remove the label and the conversation would be archived.

Do I have your attention yet? Let’s watch through the simple steps to make your inbox function like this. Also…did I mention that none of this requires extensions? It will all be done using the built-in Gmail settings.

Set-up for Desktop

Prerequisites (Desktop):

  • Set the Display density to Compact
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  • Go to: Settings → Inboxmake sure the inbox type of: Default is selected (And only Primary is selected on the categories pane).
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Step-by-Step (Desktop):

1. Go to the Labs tab of Settings, and enable Multiple Inboxes

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This is will allow us to create the multiple panes, that you saw above.

2. Go to the Labels tab of Settings, and create labels that you want to track.

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I personally only use 3 labels: Action Needed, Later, and Waiting Response — You can always create more or less. This is completely up to you!

Note: I would recommend using this time to clean-up some of your other labels, that way it will be easier to designate which labels to apply.

3. Go to the Multiple Inboxes tab of Settings, and set-up the other inboxes.

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If you have “spaces” in your label name, replace them with “-” in the search query.

Using the labels I mentioned above, my search queries would look like:

  • Pane 0: is:action-needed
  • Pane 1: is:waiting-for-response
  • Pane 2: is:later

Also, make sure the position for the extra panels is set to: Right side of the inbox

Recommended (Optional) Steps:

1. Go to Settings → General, and turn on Keyboard Shortcuts

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This will allow you the ability to easily clear out your inbox via keyboard shortcuts.

Such as: e to archive, or v to move an e-mail.

2. Go to Settings → Labs, and enable Auto-Advance

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After enabling the Auto-Advance lab, go to the General tab and make sure Auto-Advance is set to: “After archiving, deleting, muting, etc. a conversation: Go to the next (newer) conversation”

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3. Go to Settings → General and enable “Undo Send”

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Shockingly, this isn’t on by default; however, it has saved me more times than I can count.

Now refresh…

Your inbox should look a little weird now. Especially, if you were using different inbox formats before. I promise…we are going to clean it up!

Getting to “Inbox Zero” for the first time…

This is where the majority of your time will be spent. Fortunately, if you followed the recommended steps, this shouldn’t take too long.

To start, I personally recommend archiving all e-mails older than 14 days, unless you know for a fact that certain e-mails should be placed under one of your pre-defined labels. Once you narrow it down to just the last 14 days, start at the oldest e-mail and use keyboard shortcuts to sort through the e-mails quickly.

Within each e-mail decide whether it should be moved to one of the other inboxes (using the v keyboard shortcut) or archived (using the keyboard shortcut).

If you have auto-advance enabled, it will automatically advance to the next e-mail in your inbox (until you are at zero). I follow this workflow daily with e-mails that I receive from the night prior, and it helps tremendously with ensuring my inbox remains close to zero.

Bonus: Mobile Workflow for Outlook

Given the fact that we are using labels to designate which “inbox” each e-mail belongs in, this solution works quite well on mobile devices.

I personally use Microsoft Outlook on iOS.

The workflow on mobile is very similar to desktop; however, we will actually be able to utilize the swipes feature of Outlook.

Step-by-Step (Mobile)

1. Go into the Settings tab of Outlook and adjust the Swipe Options

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2. Adjust the left the Swipe Left option to Move, instead of Schedule

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It is that simple!

Now when e-mails arrive on mobile you can archive them swiping right OR move to other inboxes by swiping left.

When you swipe left on e-mails, you will see this screen, where you can specify which folders you want to move the conversation to.

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Hopefully these steps help you gain a better control of your inbox!