Despite being the central hub for most of our work, email can be a real productivity killer. Everyone is vying for your attention at all hours of the day, and that little unread icon taunts you until you give in and re-open your inbox to see what’s happening. This, of course, interrupts the flow of your actual job.
I’m a slave to the notification icon as much as anyone. In an ideal world, I’d learn to keep pushing forward and deal with email when I actually have time between other tasks. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. So instead of changing my own behavior, I’ve forced my inbox to do things my way so I spend less time emailing and more time working. Gmail has been a great ally in this, and the platform’s steady stream of new features has given me ever-increasing power to bend my inbox to my will.
Snooze unimportant emails for later
Despite the advice of productivity experts, my inbox doubles as a to-do list. (Hey, I’m not the only one.) It just works for me: unread emails act as a constant reminder that something requires action, and since I check my email regularly, I never forget about those tasks. One unread email reminds me that I need to reply to a client when they have questions, and another reminds me that I need to go get my car’s oil changed. I’ll even email myself to remind myself of certain to-dos.
Not all of these tasks require an immediate response, though, and having them sit unread in my inbox nags at me. Plus, they make it harder to see the urgent stuff that’s mixed in. For that, Gmail’s Snooze button has become my new best friend: just hover over the message in question and click the little clock icon that appears to the right. Snoozing banishes a message from your inbox until a time you specify—say, tomorrow morning when you have free time to schedule an appointment with the mechanic—so you can keep things clean and anxiety-free.
Schedule emails to send at the most opportune time
Dealing with email as it comes in is rarely a productive use of your time. It’s better to batch a few email sessions—say, once every couple of hours—and knock everything out in a single chunk. That way, you aren’t constantly interrupting your momentum with an unrelated task.
The problem is, it’s hard to time those inbox sessions perfectly for every email. Maybe it’s Friday afternoon, and I’d rather send a message Tuesday morning when it won’t get buried over the weekend. Or maybe an email isn’t relevant until next week, but I want to get it all down while it’s on my mind. Gmail’s Schedule button lets you write the email when you want and schedule it to send later—so it arrives precisely when you mean it to.
Stop wasting your time on typing
It may seem silly to say that “writing email is a waste of time,” but in the age of automation, it’s true. Gmail has a number of features that can help you draft messages more quickly, so you can get back to doing actual work.
Templates have been around for ages, though they used to be known as “canned responses.” These allow you to save certain blocks of text that you use often and insert them into any email with a few clicks. For example, you could use them to enter your address, or ship off a form response to a question you get asked every day.
You can create a template by opening a new message, typing the text you want to save, clicking the three dots on the right of the Compose bar, selecting Templates, and then saving that draft as a template. Then, when crafting a reply to an email, you can go to that same menu to insert text from any template. (Advanced users may prefer system-wide software like PhraseExpress, which lets you type those templates even faster with a keyboard shortcut.)
Smart Compose is a new-ish feature that you probably already know about because it’s enabled by default: it predicts what it thinks you’re about to type and shows the rest of the sentence in grey text. You can press Tab to complete the prediction, and keep on typing. If you disabled this feature when it first came out—I get it, it’s distracting—you should give it another shot. Once you get used to it, it’s amazing how quickly you can breeze through some messages.
Finally, Gmail recently started allowing multiple signatures, so you can switch between different sign-offs based on who you’re emailing. It’s rolling out slowly, but you can click the gear and head to Settings > Signature to see if you have it. Once you create multiple signatures, just click the pen icon in a Compose window to switch between them.
Mute distracting email threads
I have friends and family that like to start long, multi-person email threads sharing silly jokes, political debates, or other time-wasting nonsense. Unfortunately, there’s no way to leave a thread completely without nagging someone to move you to BCC. But Gmail offers the next-best thing: the Mute feature, which prevents the thread from showing up in your inbox when new messages arrive.
To mute a thread in Gmail, right-click on it and choose Mute—that’s it. Further messages will still be marked as unread, but they’ll skip the inbox altogether and enter the bowels of your All Mail tab, never to be seen unless you search for them. (That way, you can catch up on those threads later, if you want—and you can even unmute them if they become relevant.)
Pause your inbox to stop the barrage of notifications
When muting a thread isn’t enough, it’s time to mute your entire inbox.
You could just close your email tab, but chances are you actually need access to some of your old messages for your work. In that case, you need a Gmail add-on called Inbox Pause. We mentioned Inbox Pause in our list of the best Gmail add-ons—check that story out when you’re done here—but it works like this: install the Boomerang extension and you’ll see a big Pause button on Gmail’s left sidebar. Click it whenever you need to stop incoming messages. You can still let certain senders through, though, if you’re expecting something urgent.
If you’d rather not install a third-party extension for this job, there are some other workarounds that may help. You can use Gmail offline, for example—just head to Settings > Offline and check the Enable box—which will let you view your email even when you’re completely disconnected from the web. (Of course, this only works if you don’t need the rest of the internet for your work).
You could also use a third-party email client like Thunderbird or Apple Mail. Even if you don’t want to use a desktop client all the time, you can add your Gmail account, then open the client and put it in offline mode whenever you want some peace. That way, you can keep using the web while your email stays frozen in an offline state. Just head to Gmail’s Settings > Forwarding > POP/IMAP to enable IMAP access—that’s what allows those desktop programs to access your email. Then you can go ahead and log into your email app of choice.