Gmail is easily the most popular email application among power users, and with good reason: It’s an excellent app. But if you haven’t gotten to know its best shortcuts, tricks, Labs features and add-ons, it’s time you made Gmail sing.
Photo remixed from Google’s own Become a Gmail ninja page.
Most, if not all, of these tips and features will also apply to the Google Apps accounts set up by businesses and organisations, but your administrator may not have enabled everything you see here.
No one really needs to be sold on Gmail anymore. Either you like the threaded conversations, powerful search, built-in filters and awesome Gmail Labs functionality, or you don’t. I love these things, and below I’ve attempted to put together my comprehensive guide for turning Gmail into the ultimate communication and productivity hub.
I’ve broken things down into sections, starting with keyboard shortcuts, then moving down into the best Labs add-ons, third-party add-ons, search techniques, etc. Ready to power up your Gmail? Let’s get started with how to set up and use Gmail’s robust keyboard shortcuts — my favourite Gmail productivity booster.
Beat Your Inbox into Submission from Your Keyboard
If there’s one thing we love around Lifehacker, it’s the productivity boost we get from keeping our hands glued to the home row. (Seriously, our love of keyboard shortcuts is almost pathological.) Anything that allows us to perform tasks from the comfort of our keyboards — without requiring us to drop everything we’re doing, move over to the mouse, hunt for a link or button, and click — ranks high on our list of productivity boosters. If you share even a 10th of our enthusiasm for keyboard shortcuts, I’ve got good news: You can do absolutely everything in Gmail from the keyboard. Here’s how:
Next, click over to Gmail Labs. Labs is full of experimental features capable of adding functionality to Gmail (which we’ll get to in more detail below), but for now we’re going to focus on just one, called Go to label. Find it, enable it, and save your changes.[imgclear]
That’s all well and good, but it’s also a little overwhelming, so let’s break it down a bit.
o and Enter open messages: Now let’s say you want to read the message next to the cursor. You’ve got two choices: either hit ‘o’ or Enter. (I prefer ‘o’ because it’s less of a stretch.) Not bad, huh? When you’re viewing an email, pressing ‘j’ or ‘k’ will move you to the next or previous email without going back to the list.[imgclear]
Labelling and Moving Messages:
You use Gmail to do more than just read emails, right? Hopefully you’re already taking advantage of Gmail labels. Now it’s time to learn to label to your heart’s content from the keyboard. And — surprise — it’s very easy.
x ticks a message checkbox: Instead of moving to the mouse, again, press ‘j’ or ‘k’ to move between messages, then press ‘x’ to tick or untick the checkbox next to a message. You can mark as many as you want, and when you’re ready to label, it’s the same drill as above: ‘l’ + the name of the label.[imgclear]
To remove a label that’s already been applied to a message, you’ve got two options. You can use the same method as above, except rather than typing the name of the label you want to apply, you type the name of the label you want to remove; doing so when a label has already been applied will remove it.
y removes a label: Alternately, if you want to remove the label you’re currently looking at (for example, if you searched for label:followup or clicked on your followup label in the sidebar), pressing ‘y’ will do the trick. From the inbox, ‘y’ will archive the message. (‘e’ will archive from any view.) From other labels, pressing ‘y’ will remove that label.[imgclear]
star, spam, and trash: When you’re either viewing a message or have messages selected, you can press ‘!’ to make a message as spam, ‘#’ to send it to the Trash, or ‘s’ to star it.
Composing, Replying and Forwarding:
You’ve got reading, labelling and moving your messages down pat, but you do occasionally write email, too. These shortcuts are a breeze to remember. You can compose a new message at any time by pressing ‘c’, reply to an open email by pressing ‘r’ (or reply all with ‘a’), and forward an email by pressing ‘f’. Easy enough, right?
Search and Navigate Your Inbox:
The only major thing left to do is navigate your inbox and labels, which is part of why we installed the Go to labels feature above. Navigating anywhere in Gmail starts with pressing ‘g’, for Go. From there, it’s a matter of knowing where you want to go.
- g then i goes to your inbox
- g then s goes to starred messages
- g then t goes to sent messages
- g then d goes to drafts
- g then a goes to all mail
- g then c goes to contacts
- g then k goes to tasks
- g then l then label name goes to that label. This also works to navigate to any of the other ‘g’ shortcuts that have quicker shortcuts; for example, you could press ‘g’ then ‘l’ then ‘inbox’ to navigate to your inbox rather than ‘g’ then ‘i’.
Note: Surprisingly, I wasn’t exhaustive above, but I did highlight the shortcuts I use the most. For a more exhaustive rundown (minus the Go to label shortcut), see Gmail’s shortcut help page.
Add More Functionality with Gmail Labs
You were briefly introduced to the the shortcuts feature above, but that’s only the tip of the Gmail Labs iceberg. Gmail releases experimental features regularly in Gmail Labs, and some of them are must-haves for the true Gmail junkie. We rounded up 10 of our favourites last year, so I won’t go in depth beyond pointing out a few of my current favourites. (Remember, to install any of these Labs features, just point your browser to Gmail Labs and enable any you like.)
Above I listed a few of my favourite Labs features, but if you take a few minutes looking over what Gmail Labs has to offer, you’ll probably find others you like, too.
Beef Up Gmail with Extensions
- Add Row Highlights: Highlights the letter rows in the new Gmail when you hover over them with the mouse cursor.
- Attachment Icons: See what kind of attachment an email has in list view.
- Attachment Icons (Native): Same as attachment icons, but uses icon images native to your system.
- Bottom Post in Reply (Plain Text only): Inserts cursor after the quoted message in plain text replies automatically.
- Folders4Gmail: Lists labels in a folder-like hierarchy.
- Hide Chat: Hides Gmail’s Chat box in the sidebar.
- Hide Invites Box: Hides the Gmail invites box on the sidebar.
- Hide Labels in Message Row: Hides the labels that appear in a message row unless the user hovers over the message.
- Hide Spam Count: Hides Gmail’s Spam message count.
- Inbox Count First: See unread message count first on Gmail tab title.
- Show Unread Message Count on Favicon: Shows the number of unread Gmail messages in the favicon in your Firefox tab.
Disect Your Inbox with Laser-Precise Searches and Filters
Gmail’s philosophy from the get-go was “Search, don’t sort”, which is why they replaced traditional folders with labels despite the occasional complaint from new users. It should come as no surprise, then, that Gmail’s search is excellent, and in combination with Gmail’s filters (which allow you to execute actions on incoming messages that match a specific search criteria), the sky’s the limit for how you can slice and dice your inbox.
Manage All Your Email Accounts from Gmail
Last, the great part about Gmail is that — apart from being a killer service — it’s also a great email client, and whether or not you want to use your @gmail.com address, you can still use Gmail to manage all of your other email with aplomb.
A person could write a book on all the ins and outs involved in getting more from Gmail (this post somehow turned into a novella), so rather than do that I’ve tried to focus on some of the best and newest stuff above. If you’ve got your own favourite features or functionality that I didn’t mention, or you just want to drop a “hell yeah” about a feature I mentioned, sound off in the comments.
Adam Pash is the editor of Lifehacker. His special feature Hack Attack appears regularly on Lifehacker.