Like most people, email is a big part of my workday, as well as personal life. Over the years I’ve worked out a very efficient way of going through the tons of email I receive, never missing an important message, and never having an oppressive number of unread messages. I’ve realized that email can be used effectively as a to-do list, and use it accordingly. Hopefully someone may find these tips bring more efficiency to their email lives!

Ditch the Mouse

The mouse was a revolution in user interfaces. It allowed us to have a GUI before touchscreens were commonplace. It’s served us pretty well, but it’s horribly inefficient. It’s a single pixel of control, and requires us to do a fairly complex physical and mental switch to go from “typing” to “mousing”. Comparatively, typing is more than 10x more efficient – your fingers are already on the keyboard, and while you can still only do one thing at the time, you have 10 pointing devices (your fingers) ready to act at a moment’s notice.

So get to know your computer’s keyboard shortcuts. If you’re a Mac user, use Cmd-Tab to switch apps, Cmd-` (backtick, in the upper left corner of the keyboard) to cycle through windows in an app, Cmd-{ and Cmd-} to move through tabs in your browser window. With those four shortcuts, you will not need the mouse at all to get to your email.

I’m a big fan of the Spaces functionality in OSX. I assign a space to a specific function, and a keyboard shortcut (Cmd-1, Cmd-2, etc) to each space. This gives me single keystroke random access to a function. Email? Cmd-5. Code? Cmd-2. Music? Cmd-3. I’d confidently pit this against a “big monitor” solution that requires mousing or Cmd-tabbing to switch to an app. Random access is just faster.

In addition to learning your operating system’s keyboard shortcuts, learn your mail program’s keyboard shortcuts. I use GMail exclusively, and their keyboard shortcuts are an option you can turn on (Mail Settings … Keyboard Shortcuts On). In GMail, you can press “?” at any time to bring up a popup with all the keyboard shortcuts!

Important GMail keys:

  • k - Next message up
  • j - Next message down
  • [space] - Scroll down (this is a web browser shortcut)
  • r - Reply
  • a - Reply All
  • c - Compose message
  • / - Go to search box

So ditch the mouse. Keyboarding is 10 times faster!

GMail Setup

In the past year or so, Google added “Inbox Sections” functionality. This is now a huge part of my workflow, and brought another big step in efficiency and accuracy to my email world.

I have my Inbox sections set up this way:

  • Unread
  • Starred
  • Everything Else

Screenshot from GMail showing Inbox Sections

Email Workflow

With this setup, unread emails are always at the top of my email screen. I have two primary ways of reading email - reviewing emails, and doing work.

In this workflow, unread emails are my “to-do now” list. Starred emails are my “to-do later” list. Anything else is merely informational and can be found later using Labels or Search.

To review emails, press “gi” to Go to the Inbox and update it. Open the oldest Unread message thread (“j” key) and read it ([enter] key). If it’s just an “fyi” kind of thing, you’re done with it! Hit “k” to move to the next newer message. If it’s something you need to do “soon” (like after today) then press “s” to star the message. It will now be in the “Starred” section of the Inbox. If it’s something you need to do “now” (like today), then press “Shift-u” to mark the message as Unread.

PROTIP: Craziness like obsessing over an empty inbox or deleting emails are so 20th century. Neither goal is worth spending any time on any more! Just focus on reading things and organizing around what needs to be done.

In this setup you will usually end up with only a few unread emails that represent things that need to be done now. As you finish those things, reply to the email (“Done. -zs”) and now it’s out of your view. As you can finish the to-dos that are Starred, unstar them. I don’t really use folders/labels, but I can imagine how they may be useful for some people. In GMail, to assign a label to a message, just press “l” (small “ell”) when you’re reading the message, then start typing the label name. Fast!

I know this workflow cut my time spent in email by more than 75%, and helps me stay on top of information and things that need to be done. If you have some workflow tips, then please share below!