Despite being the central hub for most of our work, email can be a real productivity killer. Everyone is vying for your attention at all hours of the day, and that little unread icon taunts you until you give in and re-open your inbox to see what’s happening. This, of course, interrupts the flow of your actual job.
I’m a slave to the notification icon as much as anyone. In an ideal world, I’d learn to keep pushing forward and deal with email when I actually have time between other tasks. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. So instead of changing my own behavior, I’ve learned some Gmail tricks that will help me spend less time emailing and more time working.
Yes, you could just close your email tab, but chances are you actually need access to some messages for work. In that case, you need a Gmail add-on called Inbox Pause. Install the extension in your browser, and you’ll see a big Pause button on Gmail’s left sidebar—click it whenever you need to stop incoming messages. Don’t worry, you won’t miss anything, and you can choose to let certain senders through if you’re expecting something urgent.
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If you’d rather not install a third-party extension for this job, there are some other workarounds that may help. If you only need access to old messages and would like to prevent any online distractions, you can use Gmail offline, for example. Just click the cog icon in the top right corner of your screen, hit See all settings, and select the Offline tab. There, check the box next to Enable offline mail and finish with Save Changes. This feature will let you view your email even when you’re completely disconnected from the web. (Of course, this only works if you don’t need the rest of the internet for your work).
You could also set up your Gmail account using a third-party email client like Thunderbird or Apple Mail. This will allow you to open the app and put it in offline mode whenever you want some peace, so you can keep using the web while your email stays frozen. Just head to Gmail’s Settings, go to the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab, find IMAP access, and check the box next to Enable IMAP. This will allow those desktop programs to access your email.
Despite the advice of productivity experts, my inbox doubles as a to-do list. (Hey, I’m not the only one.) It just works for me: unread emails act as a constant reminder that something requires action.
Not all of these tasks require an immediate response, though, and having them sit unread in my inbox nags at me. Plus, they make it harder to see the urgent stuff that’s mixed in. For that, Gmail’s Snooze button has become my new best friend: on desktop, hover over the message in question and click the little clock icon that appears to the right, or right-click on an email and select Snooze. On mobile, slide an unopened message to the left or right, depending on your personal configuration.
Snoozing banishes an email from your inbox until a time you specify—say, tomorrow morning when you have free time to schedule an appointment with the mechanic. That way, you can keep things clean and anxiety-free while you take care of what’s really important at the moment.
Dealing with email as it comes in is rarely a productive use of your time. It’s better to batch a few email sessions—say, once every couple of hours—and knock everything out in a single chunk. That way, you aren’t constantly interrupting your momentum with an unrelated task.
The problem is, it’s hard to time those inbox sessions perfectly for every email. Gmail’s Schedule button lets you write the email when you want and schedule it to send later—so it arrives precisely when you mean it to.
Once you’ve written your email and chosen its recipient, click the downward arrow to the right of the Send button, then hit Schedule send. Gmail will suggest three predetermined times for you, including tomorrow afternoon and Monday morning. If none of those work, you can click Pick a time & date, and use the emerging calendar to pick the exact moment you want your message to hit its destination. Finish by clicking Schedule send. On the Gmail app, the process is similar: just tap the three dots in the top right corner of your screen and select Schedule send.
Your scheduled messages will sit and wait in the main Gmail sidebar within the Scheduled folder. If you need to make changes or unschedule any of them, you can find them all there.
It may seem silly to say that “writing email is a waste of time,” but in the age of automation, it’s true. Gmail has a number of features that can help you draft messages more quickly, so you can get back to doing actual work.
Templates have been around for ages, though they used to be known as “canned responses.” These allow you to save certain blocks of text that you use often and insert them into any email with a few clicks. For example, you could use them to enter your address, or ship off a form response to a question you get asked every day.
If you have a Google Workspace account (through your employer or education institution, for example), you can create a template by opening a new message, typing the text you want to save, and clicking the three dots in the bottom right corner of your message. On the emerging menu, hover over Templates and choose Save draft as template. Then, when crafting a reply to an email, you can go to that same menu to insert text from any template—you’ll be able to recognize them by the subject line.
Smart Compose on Gmail is another useful feature, and it’s available for all users. This tool will predict what it thinks you’re about to type and shows the rest of the sentence in gray text. You can press Tab to complete the prediction, and keep on typing. If you disabled this feature—I get it, it’s distracting—you should give it another shot. Once you get used to it, it’s amazing how quickly you can breeze through some messages. If you want to skip the typing altogether, you can choose one of Gmail’s response chips, which you may see when replying to an email. These AI-generated options might be all you need, so you can choose one of three mostly innocuous phrases like “That sounds good!” or “Have a great weekend too!” and hit Send.
Google recently integrated its AI platform, Bard, into the web version of Gmail. If you signed up for Google Workspace Labs, you can enable Duet AI—an experimental AI-email composer that will write your message for you after you give it a prompt. To sign up, you can visit the Google Labs website and choose to join the Workspace Lab.
Once you do, a multicolor navigation bar will appear when you compose new Gmail messages —click Help me write to get started, and then write a prompt. You can try anything, like “compose a happy holidays message for a potential client,” or “an email apologizing to my kid’s teacher after they bit the classroom pet.” Hit Create to see the results. You can also ask Duet AI to give you a second draft by clicking Recreate, or request changes—click Refine and then choose to Formalize, Elaborate, or Shorten. When you see something you like, click Insert to add the message to the body text. Remember that AI takes a lot of creative and factual liberties, so you’ll need to make sure everything looks good and accurate before you hit Send.
Finally, you can use Gmail’s multiple signatures feature to switch between different sign-offs based on who you’re emailing. Just go to Settings, and under General, scroll down to Signature and click Create new. Once you have everything you need, click the pen icon in a Compose window to switch between them.
I have friends and family that like to start long, multi-person email threads sharing silly jokes, political debates, or other time-wasting nonsense. Unfortunately, there’s no way to leave a thread completely without nagging someone to move you to BCC. But Gmail offers the next-best thing: the Mute feature, which prevents the thread from showing up in your inbox when new messages arrive.
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To mute a thread in Gmail, right-click on it and choose Mute—that’s it. Further messages will still be marked as unread, but they’ll skip the inbox altogether and enter the bowels of your All Mail tab, never to be seen unless you search for them. That way, you can catch up on those threads later, if you want—and you can even unmute them if they become relevant.
This story has been updated. It was originally published in 2020.