Sooner or later, everyone’s Gmail inbox becomes an overwhelming mess. There are plenty of tricks to deal with email overload, but there’s one right under your nose that you might not be using: good old Gmail labels.
Labels have been around for a long time now, so they have almost become blind spots for many of us. I’ve been a Gmail user since its inception, but I never used labels till recently. It has entirely changed how I approach email, finally helping me tame my inbox.
Using labels successfully depends on a few core productivity principles, just like any to-do management system. Here are the tricks that helped me and can help you too.
Labels Shouldn’t Make You Think
Applying a label should be mechanical; the action you take based on a label should be mechanical.
This is perhaps the most important part of using labels in Gmail. Initially, you will be tempted to come up with a long list of labels. “Each task or email is unique,” you’ll tell yourself. Avoid falling into this trap. The more labels you have, the more they make you think, the more time it takes you. You have to actively battle decision fatigue, so that’s what labels should be.
Have as few labels as you can. Each label should serve a single purpose. As a thumb rule, use these primary labels, and add five more that are specific to your work needs.
The 5 Primary Labels: Today, Done, Waiting For, To-Do, Reply
Several inbox experts recommend doing a daily scan of your email in the morning, so you know what to do with each email. Treat this scan as the time to arrange your inbox, much like you would arrange your to-do list.
The zeroth rule of email management: If you can delete it, delete it. For the messages you can’t delete, you can usually categorise them with these five primary labels:
- Today: Mark this on any email that has an action to be taken today. It’s okay if an email is marked Today as well as something else; the point is to know that this email is pertinent to today.
- To-Do: If an email has a project or task that you need to do today, then mark it with this label. Key point: The task needs to be more than just replying to that email. You can try coupling this with Sortd to turn Gmail into a Trello-like task board.
- Reply: Mark this on any email that needs a reply. So an email could be marked “Today + To-Do + Reply” indicating that it contains a non-email task, and has to be replied to by end of day.
- Waiting For: Mark this on any email where it’s important to you, but you have to wait for another person to take an action. I picked up this trick from ActiveInbox founder Andy Mitchell’s tips on managing email overload.
- Done: The most important label. Any email where your input is no longer required, mark it as Done. I’m not a fan of deleting emails since I prefer to have that paper trail; and even if you’re archiving an email, a reply from the sender will bring it back in your inbox. You need that “Done!” label—especially if you’re a fan of the Done List productivity method.
Labels Are Great as Placebos!
Whenever I got a new email notification, my first instinct was to open, read, reply or delete. It was disruptive for my workflow. But that unattended notification would bother me, so I ended up interrupting whatever I was doing to address it.
Now, I just apply a label and get back to work. I address the email later, once my current work is done. Applying a label gives me the mental satisfaction of having interacted or addressed the email, without spending the amount of time I would have otherwise.
Labels are a fantastic placebo for those who compulsively need to do something about incoming emails.
Labels Should be Easy to Access, Apply, and Identify
Gmail has plenty of tools to make labels as user-friendly as possible. Spend a little time customising the appearance of labels, it will boost your usage.
Go to Gear icon > Settings > Labels to see all your labels and manage them. Here, I also recommend hiding most of the other items you see in the left sidebar, like Sent Mail, Drafts, Important, Categories, Circles and more. If your labels appear first, it becomes easier to spot them and drag-and-drop onto emails.
Also, colour-code your labels. Click the tiny drop-down in any label in the sidebar to choose colours. Simple colours applied to your primary labels will help you identify them easily. I use a green label for “DONE!”—it’s satisfying to look at and to know I don’t have to bother with that email any more. Similarly, I mark the “TODAY!” label with bright red so it always catches my attention.
No Extensions, No Frills
The beauty of labels is that it’s built into Gmail. You don’t need any RAM chewing extensions that you can use on Chrome but not on the mobile Gmail app. It works perfectly whenever you open your inbox. The best productivity systems are those that get out of your way, and that’s what labels are.
If you have a trick to use labels more effectively in Gmail, we’d love to hear! Drop your suggestions in the comments, or ask any questions you have.
Image Credits: Cairo