One More Gmail Fanboy

I’ve been officially using Gmail for all my email for a week now and I must say, I really like it. For awhile now, I’ve known that email was a real bottleneck for me: going from an email discussion to actually getting something done was not happening as easily as it should, and a recent cleaning of my inbox made me realize how negligent I’ve become in responding to messages. I know lots of long-time Gmail users who rave about how it works, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Those long-time Gmail users may find everything in this post old-news, but it’s still new & fun to me.

I’ve actually had Gmail for almost a year now (when I switched email hosting over to Google Apps, which btw, if you own your own domain, is a great option.), but I’ve mostly only used it as an on-the-road access point for my personal email account. I’ve had two main email accounts for years now: one for school stuff and one for personal stuff. Ever since OS X 10.0, I’ve used Apple’s Mail to connect via IMAP to both of them; prior to that I used Eudora. However, while Gmail offers IMAP access, to really take advantage of the way Gmail works, you need to use the Gmail interface.

The defining features of Gmail are 1) the “conversation,” not the individual message, is the key unit of organization, and 2) the use of “labels” as opposed to “folders.” Both of these design choices are, as far as I know, only available in Gmail and they’re both outstanding ideas.

For organization, I’ve tried to use folders to keep my email organized, but it hasn’t worked so well. With folders, messages can only live in one folder at a time. So if I move a conversation about this blog into a folder called “blog,” all those individual messages are now only in that folder. If I get a follow-up rely to one of these messages, that follow-up goes to my inbox, but all previous messages in that thread are hidden away in the folder. The result of this: you only move threads into a folder when you’re sure the discussion has ended; folders are where conversations go to die. In Gmail, I could label that thread “blog,” archive it (which simply removes the “inbox” label) and when I get a new message, it pulls the whole conversation back into my inbox. This makes it easier to just “label and archive” whenever you’re ready, without worrying about whether the thread has run its course.

I’ve found there are basically four things I need to do with any email conversation worth keeping.

  1. Archive for future reference: it either contains information I may need at some point or is just a conversation I’d like to save. Traditional folders do this just fine, and I’ve got a bunch of labels set up to organize these emails. Of course, it’s Gmail so you can always just search all your messages, too.
  2. Reply: I need to reply, not necessarily right away (because I need more time or haven’t decided what to say), but at some point soon. What I’ve traditionally done is to keep these messages in my inbox and either flag them or mark them as unread. The downside to this strategy is that once I’ve got enough in my inbox that I have to scroll to see new messages, that message is basically lost. So I’ve bought into the whole “Inbox Zero” philosophy: the inbox should be for new messages you haven’t read yet: that’s it. And the “unread” label should be for messages that are, well, unread; and a simple “flag” (or “star” in gmail) is just too ambigious. So I’ve created a label called “@reply” (the @ keeps it at the top and, as you’ll see, groups it together with other “actionable” labels). If I need to save a message that needs a reply, I label it @reply and archive it.
  3. Follow-up: This is slightly different than a message that needs a reply: perhaps I’ve already sent a reply and I’m waiting on someone else. Here I simply need to mark a conversation as something I need to follow-up on; don’t let it completely fall off my radar. So I label these “@followup” and archive.
  4. Todo: I don’t need to reply or follow-up necessarily, but I need to do something pertaining to this email: like book my hotel room for ASA even though they’re almost all booked already and those left are so f%#^ing overpriced it’s ridiculous…for example. So “@todo” and archive. (One more step: using either the Firefox RTM plugin or the handy RTM bookmarklet found here, I’ll add this to my todo list as well. Both methods add the URL for that conversation to the RTM task so the two are nicely integrated.)

So the email workflow is now: 1) New messages arrive in the inbox, from there they either get deleted, marked for future finding or flagged with one of the “action” labels: @reply, @followup, or @todo. 2) Once I’ve dealt with the inbox, move on to those three action labels. The new “Quick Links” option available through Gmail Labs makes this even easier: I’ve saved a custom search for “l:@reply OR l:@followup OR l:@todo” and called it “actionable.” (A term I just love.) So it’s a two-step process: inbox then actionables. When I’ve done what I need to do, just remove the “@” label and archive. If the other person(s) respond, Gmail pulls the conversation back into my inbox for me. And because conversations can have multiple labels, I can mix and match all four kinds of labels together: labeling my “Book ASA Hotel” conversation with “@todo” but also “soc crap,” for example.

There are lots of other little things I really like as well. For example, say you just sent an email and forgot to add one thing. If you go into your sent mail and reply to the email you just sent, it correctly makes you the sender and the recipient the recipient. In, you end up replying to yourself unless you manually switch the addresses. This is a little thing, but it’s really nice.

I’ve also moved both my main email accounts into Gmail: I forwarded my school email to Gmail and can reply to emails from my account within Gmail. After a long time of keeping the two separate on purpose, I realized the boundaries between school and my personal life are way too porous to actually have the email boundary serve any useful function. I do, however, have Gmail automatically label all email with a “” label.

There are some things I don’t like, of course. Contact management sucks, for one thing, but there are about fifty different services & software out there in various states of beta for syncing Gmail contacts, so I’m pretty sure this will be improved soon. (Although it’d be nice for Gmail to have an option to not save every email you ever interact with in your Contacts. Or, at least, create a group to differentiate those they add automatically from those you add on purpose.)

Also, for all my love of labels, they could make applying labels easier. Right now you have to use the “More Actions” dropdown to apply labels. You can install the Better Gmail 2 extension if you’re using Firefox and get a Quicksilver-like interface for adding labels, but a) I’m not really thrilled with how that works, and b) I prefer using Gmail in a Fluid Site-Specific Browser on my Mac. Ideas? Add a little “+” icon next to each label in your label list to add that label to the currently selected message. (Kind of like how you can remove labels in conversation view by clicking the “X” next to each label name at the to of your conversation.)

Oh, one more thing: Gmail Notifier + Gmail+Growl = very nice.