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5 tricks to take control of your Gmail inbox

Michael Ansaldo | July 23, 2015
About 80 percent of us experience "email apnea"--the habit of holding our breath when we open our inbox--and who can blame us?

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About 80 percent of us experience "email apnea"--the habit of holding our breath when we open our inbox--and who can blame us? Each day we're inundated with hundreds of email messages, all contending for our attention. Sure, there are third-party email managers that will filter, sort, and prioritize your messages for you, usually for a fee. But if you're a Gmail user, you already have plenty of tools at hand for taking back control. Here are five ways you can start today.

1. Use keyboard shortcuts

As any productivity nerd knows, it's keyboard shortcuts that put the "power" in "power user." Because your fingers never have to abandon the keys to use a trackpad or mouse, keyboard shortcuts let you navigate your inbox more quickly and accurately. By default, Gmail has several shortcuts enabled, including "Send message," "Advance to next Window," and "Add CC recipients." Turn on the full complement for maximum effectiveness.

To do so, click the gear icon at the top right of your inbox, go to Settings > General > Keyboard shortcuts and select the radio button next to "Keyboard shortcuts on." Remember to save your settings. If you can't remember a shortcut, just press Press Shift--? to open the built-in cheat sheet.

2. Choose your inbox style

By default, Gmail shows your messages in the order they came in, which is fine if you like to tackle your email in chronological order. Most people, however, prefer to prioritize messages. Fortunately, Gmail offers four other ways to sort your inbox:

  • Important first--With this inbox style, Gmail predicts which messages are most important to you based on your email habits, tags them with a yellow marker, and puts them at the top of your inbox regardless of when they arrived.
  • Unread first--This style surfaces all unread messages to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
  • Starred first--If you use stars to manually prioritize important emails, this option will make sure those emails are always at the top of your inbox.
  • Priority Inbox--If you prefer to automate all sorting, this option will prompt Gmail to learn which kinds of email you interact with most and sort your messages into three categories: "Important and unread," "Starred," and "Everything else."

To change your inbox sorting method at any time, hover over "Inbox" in the left navigation bar and click the arrow to access your options from the drop-down menu.

3. Turn on Category tabs

If you prefer to use Gmail's default timeline style, you can impose some order by enabling Categories. This will sort your email by type into five sub-inboxes: "Primary" for personal messages; "Promotions" for deals and marketing offers; "Social" for alerts from your social networks; "Updates" for receipts bills, statements, and confirmations; and "Forums" for messages from discussion boards and mailing lists. These inboxes are accessible through tabs placed at the top of your main inbox.


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