Email Management

Several colleagues have asked me to put up a short blurb on how I manage email.  Much of this stuff is adapted from GTD and some I made up myself.

Key ingredients:


1. Create a set of labels to represent priority
Personally, I use six:

  • – 0 EMERGENCY –
  • – 1 Do Now –
  • – 2 Today –
  • – 3 Soon –
  • – 4 Weekend –
  • – 5 Someday –

‘Emergency’ is rarely used.  It means that the sh*t has hit the fan and I’m prioritizing everything below my response to this particular thread.  Meetings are cancelled, other email is ignored, etc.  ‘Do Now’ represents email that I will respond to between meetings and other commitments.  ‘Today’ contains email that must be responded to before I go to bed that night.  ‘Soon’ and ‘Weekend’ are self-explanatory.


  • Be sure to include the dashes and numbers in the label names.  The dashes ensure that the labels appear at the top of Gmail’s alphabetized label list, and the numbers are useful for sorting email using keyboard shortcuts. (see below)
  • Set a separate color for each of your labels to assist with visual cues.

2. Create a set of Status Labels

I use two:

  • – Waiting for Response –
  • – Scheduled –

These labels provide additional information, beyond priority, about the current state of the thread.  Waiting for Response should be self explanatory.  The Scheduled label is used to indicate that a meeting has been scheduled, or that I’ve booked time on the calendar to complete a task related to or mentioned in the thread.

3. Set up Multiple Inboxes

Go into Gmail settings and enable Multiple Inboxes within the Labs tab.  Refresh, and a new tab titled “Multiple inboxes” should be available.  Fill out the form, adding in the labels such as label:–0-EMERGENCY– and setting the positioning to “Right side of the inbox.”  (Note that dashes replace spaces in the label field.)

4. Use keyboard shortcuts to make processing email vastly more efficient

If you haven’t already done so, enable Gmail keyboard shortcuts.  This allows you to do things like:

  • Label a message quickly.  Three keystrokes will allow you to assign a priority.  For example, to assign a ‘Do Now’ status to an email, simply type: l, 1, enter. (Label, 1 Do Now)
  • Move between priorities: g, l, 1, enter.  (Go, Label, 1 Do Now)

My days in both Engineering and Finance trained me to NEVER touch a mouse.  So, processing my email using keystrokes only is important.  A typical series of keystrokes could be: j,enter, l, 1, enter, y, j, enter, l, 1, enter.  Starting in the inbox, this translates to: move down one message, open message, label Do Now, Archive (remove from inbox, still shows up in the prioritized inbox to the right), <automatically moved back to inbox>, etc.

There are still some things that aren’t perfect yet.  For example, I wish that I could set a filter to remove the Waiting for Response label when someone responds, or move a Scheduled email back to my inbox once the calendar event is complete, etc.  (Anyone know how to do this?  And, no, I don’t want to pay for Boomerang.)

6 thoughts on “Email Management

  1. Pete – do you use Stars for anything? I tend to Star confirmation emails for online purchases, then scan through them once every few days and unstar whatever items have arrived.

    How do you handle this use case? Just assume stuff will come?

  2. Hey Ethan! I’ve set a filter for e-commerce related confirmations. They skip the inbox and go into the weekend folder for processing then. I toyed with Amazon’s SMS shipping alerts, but that got too annoying so I turned them off.

    Hope you’re well!

  3. Thanks, Lex! On the suggestion of a Google employee, I sent the post to the Gmail team, who seemed to find it interesting. Here’s hoping they can take this a step further. Improved email management could be a huge help for the many of us that spend hours and hours a day inside Gmail.

  4. Lexi pointed me to this. Great system. I’ve set it up to work in apple too. Mail will see the gmail labels and you can drag them up into your mail toolbar. Once there, they can be accessed with cmd+1, cmd+2, etc. (I put “emergencies” in the 9th position – so its cmd+9 instead of zero).

    You can move emails into the appropriate mailbox with shortcut keys:
    ctrl+cmd+1 -> send to “do now”
    ctrl+cmd+2 -> send to “today”
    ctrl+cmd+3 -> send to “soon”

    You don’t get the same overview that you described with gmails inboxes, but its still pretty effective for keeping inbox zero on a mac.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *