March 23, 2006
Hack Attack: Become a Gmail master
by Adam Pash
Gmail is hands-down the best web-based email service on the ‘net. Conversation threads, search, tagging, and keyboard shortcuts have completely revolutionized the way I look at my inbox. I manage all of my email from my personal Gmail inbox, including the daily flood of Lifehacker messages. At this point, I can’t imagine a program I could use to manage my email any more efficiently.
Despite my undying love for Gmail, there are still a lot of people who aren’t won over by sheer enthusiasm alone, and still others who just aren’t taking full advantage of the features and functions they’ve got at their fingertips in Gmail. Either way, the only thing a Gmail naysayer needs is a better understanding of everything you can do with Gmail.
Today I’ve got a rundown of the methods and add-ons I use to make Gmail more powerful. By the time you’re done with this article you’ll be a bona fide Gmail power user, too.
Quick look at what to expect
When you’re done setting up your Gmail account, you should be able to do everything you see in this short video without once leaving your keyboard (which means beaucoup productivity for you):
Let’s get started down your path to Gmail mastery.
Set up labels
The first thing you’ll want to do to flex Gmail’s muscle a bit is set up a few labels. If you’re new to labels, think of them as folders, or better yet, tags.  Your email doesn’t have to specifically reside in any folders to be just as accessible. In fact, labels are great specifically because you can apply multiple labels to one email, making your email that much easier to find. Setting up labels is super-easy:
- Go to Settings, and then select the Labels tab.
- In the textbox labeled, “Create a new label:” simply type your label and click Create.
Yep, that’s it. I’d suggest going through your email and figuring out how you might want to categorize and label your emails. I generally create labels for any mailing lists I’m on, along with labels for different work-related emails and an ever-important Follow-up label for the emails I want to make sure I remember to reply to (e.g., those emails I’m not going to reply to immediately but I don’t want to fall through the cracks).
Of course, your labels will revolve around your needs (as they should), and if you don’t already have an email system, I’d encourage you to examine your email and develop one.
Set up filters
While labels are great on their own – and I label a lot of messages after they land in my Inbox – there are a lot of instances where you can assign labels automatically based on the characteristics of the message, thus saving yourself the work. That’s where filters come in.
Gmail can filter an email based on six criteria: From, To, Subject, Has the words, Doesn’t have, and Has attachment. Obviously this setup offers a lot of power for filtering your incoming mail. After you choose your criteria, you can choose any combination of the following options: Skip the Inbox (Archive), Star it, Apply the label…, Forward it to, and Delete it.
When I set up a new filter, I commonly choose to Skip the Inbox and Apply a label. For a detailed description of how to do this, check out my feature on bookmarking with Gmail .
Managing multiple email accounts with Gmail
It’s not at all uncommon to have more than one email address these days (actually, for many of you it’s been pretty common for years now). Though you may never be able to consolidate all of your email to one address, you can at least deal with all of your email from one account.
If your non-Gmail account allows for email forwarding, set it up to forward your mail to your main Gmail address (this process will vary based on your email account, but it’s generally really easy to do somewhere in the settings). For example, all of the Lifehacker tips email (which comes to Gina, Keith, and me) comes straight to my personal Gmail address, at which point it’s filtered out of my inbox and labeled “Lifehacker Tips.”
With Gmail’s recent addition of smart replying, you shouldn’t have to worry about sending email from the wrong address. When someone sends you an email, Gmail will automatically use the appropriate email address when replying (whether it’s a Gmail address or not).
Using keyboard shortcuts
This is where Gmail really starts to shine. Despite the fact the Gmail does a lot of things very well, a lot of these features were just sort of ho-hum for me. It wasn’t until I started using keyboard shortcuts, and then the Gmail Macros script, that I completely fell in love with Gmail.
The first thing you’ll want to do is enable keyboard shortcuts in Gmail. This is as simple as navigating to the General tab in the Settings and selecting “Keyboard shortcuts on.” The keyboard shortcuts let you navigate through your messages, within your conversations, archive a conversation, and jump to your inbox without ever having to go for the mouse. Here’s a list of the default Gmail keyboard shortcuts.
Gmail’s keyboard shortcuts by themselves are great, but if you really want to take control of your Gmail inbox, I very highly recommend installing the Gmail Macros script for Greasemonkey. Though it does a lot, the most powerful thing you’ll use the Gmail Macros script for is navigating through your labels (including your inbox, trash, drafts, etc. – after all, they’re all just labels) and labeling your conversations with a really slick Quicksilver-like interface.
First you’ll need to install the Greasemonkey Firefox extension if you don’t already have it installed. Next, install the Gmail Macros script. There are a couple of different scripts available on the linked blog post, but I prefer a patched version of the script that stays more true to Gmail’s original keyboard shortcuts.
Here’s a quick look at the key commands that the Gmail macros script provides (click for a larger version):
It may take a little time to get the shortcuts embedded in your memory, but you can easily bring up the list of shortcuts at any time in Gmail by typing a question mark (?).
Knock out repetitive email
If you do a lot of repetitive typing in your emails (if I type the same thing three times a day I consider it repetitive), you can really knock down your repetitive emails quickly with AutoHotKey HotStrings. I’d never get through my inbox without them, and they’re very easy to set up and edit.
Searching your Gmail inbox
Of course, a solid Gmail tutorial wouldn’t be complete without a quick rundown of searching your Gmail (it’s Google, after all!).
Search operators in Gmail work much the same as they do with Google. Type the operator followed by a colon, and then your search term (e.g., to:email@example.com). Likewise, you can exclude terms from your search with the hyphen (-).
The search operators allow you to limit the scope of your search to the to (to:), from (from:), and subject (subject:) fields. Easy enough, right? You can also search based on labels (label:), emails with attachments (has:attachment), and even dates (after:/before:yyyy/mm/dd).
Search operators will come in especially handy if you need more flexibility when setting up filters (you can add any search term to the “Has the words” field). Here’s a comprehensive list of Gmail search operators.
Take your Gmail toolbox on the road
Finally, to make my Gmail add-ons (Greasemonkey, Gmail Macros script, and AutoHotKey assignments) as portable as possible, I email them to myself as attachments so that whenever I’m away from my computer I can work just as efficiently as if I were at home.
With all of my systems in place, I’m more pleased with Gmail than I have been with any other email client, desktop or web based. Of course, I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the matter. Gmail users: what tips and tricks do you use to enhance your Gmail experience? Non-Gmail users: What methods do you use that blow Gmail out of the water? Give us your thoughts in the comments or at tips at lifehacker.com.
 There are a lot of advantages of Labels or tags over folders. One huge benefit of labels is that if you choose to delete a label because you no longer find it useful (perhaps your system has evolved and you want to clean house), the associated email will not be deleted. Instead, the label is simply removed. Remember that with Gmail, the whole point is that you don’t have to delete any of your email – ever. A second benefit of labels is that you can mark one email with as many labels as you like. [back up]
 If you want to use Gmail as a bookmarking tool, drag and drop ‘+escape(location.href)+escape(”),’gmailForm’,’scrollbars=yes,width=680,height=510,top=175,left=75,status=no,resizable=yes’);if (!document.all) T = setTimeout(‘popw.focus()’,50);void(0);”>this modified GmailThis! bookmarklet onto your browser’s bookmarks toolbar and edit email address and the text labeled “bookmark here” to the labels you’ve setup for your bookmarks. [back up]