A Fast and Simple Gmail Workflow


I created my main Gmail account in September 2004, and since then I've made almost 55,000 threads. That's about ten threads a day for 17 years. At times I've managed to keep that under control. But email becomes secondary in the high tides of life, and ten threads a day soon becomes a storm of hundreds.

Sometimes I've declared email bankruptcy, but it feels like a failure each time I do so. What opportunities have I missed because I didn't follow up in time? And how can I expect others to reply to me if I don't do the same for them?

So I've started using a simple workflow to manage my inbox, no matter how large it might get:

  1. Start with the oldest email I have.
  2. If I can handle it quickly, do so. Otherwise, deal with it later.
  3. Move to the next one.

It's simple, but the trick is in the details. With the right shortcuts and the right labels, I can handle hundreds of emails in one go. Email backlogs are no longer intimidating, and I can keep my inboxes clear.

The setup

I use the default Gmail view and the default sort order. So my inbox is a simple list with the newest emails first.


Update — I switched to a Multiple Inbox view and added a second view. This view includes only emails marked with my ! label, which I use for important emails.

The critical extension is Keyboard shortcuts under Settings > General. You can type ? at any time to see all of the available shortcuts, but four are enough for this workflow to work:

  • } — archive and move to the next newest
  • r — reply
  • l — add a label
  • ⌘+Enter — send

The core workflow

First I open the oldest email I have. If my inbox is truly massive, I sort by oldest first so I don't have to go looking for it.

The email is open with no distractions to pull me away. Then I decide what kind of email I'm looking at:

  • Irrelevant — Spam, irrelevant mailing lists, and emails that just aren't worth the time. For most mailing lists, Gmail has an Unsubscribe link next to the sender's email address. Otherwise, hit } to move on.

  • No reply — For announcements or emails that are outdated. Hit } to move on.

  • Fast reply — For emails I can write within a minute or so. r to reply and ⌘+Enter to send. Then hit } to move on.

  • Slow reply — If I need more time to reply, I add a special label to the email so I can find and follow up on it later. I type l to pull up the label menu, enter my label name, hit Enter, then hit } to move on.

    I use a short label name like ! since it's faster to type. So the full sequence is something like l!<enter>}.

The main friction here is clicking the Unsubscribe link. Otherwise, I can get through the first three types here in seconds.

Extending the workflow

If this basic workflow works for you, here are some simple ways to extend it:

  • Undo — Use z to undo an action. For example, maybe you didn't mean to archive the email you were looking at.

  • Spam and trash — Use ! to mark emails as spam and # to send emails to the trash. Unfortunately this returns you to the main inbox, so I don't really like using it. So I usually just hit } to archive everything.

And if I decide this workflow needs changing, I'll post an update.


Thanks to Naomi Alterman for her suggestions and Kai Wong for the discussion.