Master The New Gmail With These Tips, Shortcuts And Add-Ons

Gmail is the best email client around, and chances are you use it all day, every day. It’s also filled with tricks, shortcuts and time-saving tools you can use to kick the crap out of your email. Today, we’re going into exhaustive overdrive, covering all our favourite Gmail tricks, both old and new. Even if you already consider yourself a Gmail ninja, there’s bound to be something here you haven’t yet discovered.

Photo remixed from an original by Katerinar-spb.

It’s been a few years since we talked about our favourite advanced Gmail features, and with Google rolling out a new Gmail interface to everybody, now is the perfect time to get re-acquainted. Here’s an overview of the tips we’ll be covering (click on a link to jump ahead to that section):

  1. Tweaking Gmail’s New Layout
  2. Mouse Shortcuts
  3. Keyboard Shortcuts
  4. Advanced Searches And Filters
  5. Useful Settings You Should Enable
  6. Gmail Labs You Should Enable
  7. Extensions And Userscripts
  8. Manage All Your Email Accounts From Gmail
  9. Integrate Gmail With The Desktop
  10. Further Reading

Tweaking Gmail’s New Layout

The new interface gives you a bit more control over the way your inbox looks, which means you can further customise Gmail to suit your preferences. Here are a few of the things you can do:

Change the Display Density: Upon first enabling the new look, you’ll probably notice it isn’t quite as space-efficient as the old layout. It’s a bit easier to read, and if you have a big monitor, it might be fine — but if you prefer the density of the old layout, you can get it back by hitting the Settings cog in the upper right-hand corner of your Inbox (the one right above the Inbox, not on the grey toolbar at the top of the page) and choosing “Cozy” or “Compact” as your layout. “Compact” is very similar to the old layout, while “Cozy” is a happy medium between “Comfortable” and “Compact”. Note that if you have a small screen and your browser isn’t maximised, Gmail will automatically adjust the density accordingly.

Inbox Type: Google has added a new feature that splits your inbox up into a few different blocks, so you can see your most important emails at a glance (note that while similar, this feature is still separate from the Multiple Inboxes Lab). Head to the Inbox tab of Gmail’s settings to change it. Under “Inbox Type”, you have a few chioces, mainly deciding if any messages are shown above all your other messages in the inbox. You can choose to show starred, unread or important messages in their own separate little box above everything else. You can also choose the Priority Inbox layout, which combines all the other options, putting Important and unread messages at the very top, with starred messages in their own box below that, with the rest of your inbox under that. You can tweak these inbox sections by clicking the “Options” or “Add Section” button next to the section in question.

Mouse Shortcuts

Sometimes, checking off messages and archiving, deleting or applying labels can seem like it takes forever. Gmail has shortcuts built-in for making the inbox easier to manage. Here are a few of our favourites.

Drag and Drop Labels: Applying labels has gotten a bit more difficult in the most recent version of Gmail. Now, you need to check a message, select the label from the “Labels” dropdown and hit the “Apply” button at the bottom of the dropdown menu — which I always forget to do. A much easier way, if you’re a mouse user, is to just drag the label from the left sidebar onto the message itself. Alternatively, if you have keyboard shortcuts enabled, just hit “l” on your keyboard, type the first few letters of the label you want and hit Enter — it’ll immediately apply that label to all checked messages.

Alternatively, you can drag a message — from the left edge of its row — to a label to remove it from your inbox and apply only that label, if you prefer to use labels more like folders.

Shift-Click to Select Multiple Messages: If you want to select a big block of messages, you don’t need to check every box individually. Like a native program on your computer, you can check the topmost box, hold Shift, then check the box at the bottom to select a large chunk of messages in just a few clicks.

Keyboard Shortcuts

If you’re a keyboard lover, you can navigate nearly the entire Gmail interface without ever touching the mouse. To enable them, head to the General tab of Gmail’s settings and press “Enable Keyboard Shortcuts”. There are a lot of keyboard shortcuts, but these are some of the most useful:

Navigate Messages with j and k: From the inbox view, you can cycle through messages with the “j” and “k” keys (j to go down, k to go up). Doing this won’t select the messages with a checkbox, but it will highlight them with a thin blue line on the left side of its row, showing you that it’s ready to be acted upon.

Open Messages with o: When a message is highlighted in the inbox, you can open it by hitting Enter or tapping “o” on the keyboard. Note that once messages are open, you can continue to cycle through them with j and k.

Move Through a Thread with n and p: If you want to view past messages in a longer thread, you can use n and p to highlight messages in a thread just like you use j and k to highlight messages in the inbox. Pressing the n key higlights the next message, while p highlights the previous message, and you can expand a highlighted message by pressing the “o” key — again, just like in the inbox view.

Select Messages with x: If you want to check that message’s box — so you can add a label, move it to a new folder or whatever — just hit the x key on your keyboard. [imgclear]

Apply Labels with l: As described above, you can apply a label to a message by hitting the “l” key, typing in the first few letters of the label you want and pressing Enter. You can do this when you’re viewing the message in question or from the inbox if you’ve checked the message’s box.

Star, Spam, Archive and Trash Messages: You can star messages with the “s” key, mark them as spam with “!”, archive it with “e”, or delete it with “#”. You can do this either from the message view or after highlighting a message in the inbox.

Compose, Reply and Forward Messages: Similar to the above, you can compose a new message by hitting “c”, reply to a message with “r” (or reply all with “a”), and forward it by pressing “f”. If you hold Shift while pressing one of these keys, it’ll open the compose view in a new window, which is handy if you want to consult another email while writing one.

Bring Up the More Actions Menu with the Period Key: For your lesser-used actions, you can hit “.” to bring up the More Actions menu. This lets you mark all messages as read, or mark selected messages as unread, in addition to muting a specific conversation, adding it to tasks or filtering messages just like it.

Mark Items as Important with the + and – Keys: If you use Priority Inbox, you can mark messages as important with the “+” key (or rather, the = key, since you don’t need to hold shift when pressing it) and mark them as unimportant with the – key. This helps Gmail understand what is and isn’t important to you, so Priority Inbox can have more accurate filters.

Jump to Different Views: To quickly jump to a different part of your inbox — such as Starred messages, Drafts, All Mail, Contacts or more — you can hit the “g” key (for “Go”) and one of the following keys immediately afterward:

  • g then i goes to your inbox
  • g then s goes to your 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 the label name goes to that label

These are just a few of our favourite shortcuts. There are a ton of other keyboard shortcuts, and you can see them all in one handy cheat sheet by hitting Shift + / on your keyboard (also known as typing the “?” key). It might take a bit to get used to some of the keyboard shortcuts, but once you do, you’ll be able to navigate the inbox a lot faster.

Advanced Searches And Filters That Help You Find Anything

While many of you may be used to traditional email folders — where you file away messages into categories for easy retreival — Gmail has opted for a more search-based philosophy, in which you can perform very advanced searches throughout your entire inbox using operators. For example, to search for a message from Adam with a subject containing the words “navigation app”, you would type this in Gmail’s search bar:

from:adam subject:”navigation app”

You can perform these searches on the spot or create advanced filters that apply labels, archive or otherwise act on email as soon as it comes in. I won’t go into detail on how to create these advanced searches, since we’ve talked about it at length before — so check out our feature on building advanced Gmail searches for more info.

Useful Settings You Should Enable

Apart from mastering certain skills, you can enable a few settings in Gmail’s preferences to really get the most out of your inbox. Here are some of our favourites (all of which are under the General tab of Gmail’s settings):

Always Use HTTPS: Checking this ensures that Gmail always uses a secure connection, which protects you from people sniffing around your email. For more information, chck out our explainer on what HTTPS is and why you should care about it.

External Content: Gmail doesn’t load images in email automatically, which can be kind of annoying — when you want to see them, you have to click “load images” every time. Marking this setting will automatically load images in messages from any address to whom you’ve sent email twice (“trusted senders”), somewhat negating this annoyance.

Undo Send: This gives you a period of anywhere between five and 30 seconds to undo the sending of any messages after you hit Send (you get to choose the window of time).

Superstars: Superstars lets you use multiple colours and types of stars to differentiate starred messages from each other. It’s good if you want to mark multiple messages as important, but as having different kinds of importance — whether it’s just “more important” or whether one means “follow up” and one means “to do”. Just drag stars from the bottom row to the “In Use” row, and every time you star a message, you can cycle through the in use stars by clicking on the star icon next to the message.

Personal Level Indicators: This displays a small arrow next to messages sent to a mailing list, and a double arrow next to messages sent specifically to you. That way you can see, at a glance, which emails might be more important or personal because they were sent to you and not a group of people.

Experimental Labs That Power Up Gmail

If you head to the Labs section of Gmail’s preferences, you can enable a bunch of new, experimental features created by members of the Gmail team. There are a ton of great labs in there, so we suggest you look through them yourself, but some of our favourites include:

Canned Responses: If you find yourself sending a certain type of message over and over again, you can put them into a “canned response” to save you typing. Just select one of your canned responses in the compose form and it’ll fill out your email for you (and you can edit it as you please). Of course, you can also accomplish this with text expansion.

Quick Links: this adds a box to Gmail’s left sidebar that lets you bookmark any URL in Gmail and quickly access it — whether it’s a frequent search you run, individual messages or anything else.

Multiple Inboxes: Gmail has a version of this set up in its preferences, but if you don’t like the default inbox layouts it provides, you can make your own with Multiple Inboxes. You can also list any label or search as its own block in your inbox view.

SmartLabels: Gmail’s new SmartLabels lab automatically filters incoming email into “Bulk”, “Notification” and “Forum” messages. You can modify the filters if need be, but it’s a good way to see at a glance which messages might be spammy or notification-oriented without creating your own filters.

Unread Message Icon: This adds a small number to Gmail’s favicon, so you can see how many unread messages you have even if you aren’t currently looking at your Inbox — just check Gmail’s tab. This only works in updated versions of Chrome, Firefox and Opera.

Gmail has a ton of other labs available for experimentation, so if this has got you curious, check out our lists of the best Gmail labs here and here.

Browser Extensions And Userscripts That Customise Gmail Even Further

While Gmail contains loads of customisations in its own settings panel, you can tweak it even further using extensions for your browser. We’ve mentioned most of these before, so we won’t go into them too deeply here. Instead, check out these previous roundups of our favourite Gmail extensions:

Fix Gmail’s Newest Annoyances with These Userstyles and Userscripts: This is a collection of userstyles and userscripts for the new Gmail layout, that fixes its little annoyances or powers it up even more. If you’re just now switching to the new Gmail, definitely check all of these out. They’ll work in Firefox, Chrome or Safari.

Better Gmail 2 and Its Associated Userscripts: These tweaks — which you can grab as a single Firefox extension or as individual userscripts that work in Firefox, Chrome and Safari — add a number of features to Gmail to make your inbox easier to browse. Whether it’s adding attachment icons to your inbox view, highlighting messages as you mouse over them, or hiding the Chat box, you’re bound to find a tweak or two in here that you like.

Minimalist Everything for Chrome: This extension contains tweaks for all your favourite sites, including Gmail — and it’s still the best Gmail tweaker we’ve seen yet. It can remove ads, hide the chat box, change the links at the top of the screen (that lead to other Google Services), display desktop notifications, and even set Gmail as your default mail client (so clicking on an email address in Chrome will open up Gmail instead of another service). If you use Chrome and Gmail, this is a must-have extension.

Manage All Your Email Accounts From Gmail

Gmail is an awesome mail client, and even if some of your accounts aren’t Gmail accounts, you can still manage them from Gmail’s powerful, configurable inbox. To do this, you just need to set up Gmail fetching and Gmail’s “send as” feature — which we’ve detailed before, so we won’t go into it here. But if you have multiple addresses, this makes managing them a bit easier. Plus, couple it with the Multiple Inboxes lab, and you’ve got yourself a powerful, multi-account inbox view.

Integrate Gmail With The Desktop

Gmail does almost everything it needs to right from the web, but it could use a few extra things for when you’re not in the browser. Minimalist Everything for Chrome can send desktop notifications, as wel as set Gmail as your default mail client. Similarly, Firefox’s web protocol handler will do it automatically (by asking you if you want to use Gmail whenever you hit a mailto link). However, if you want a bit more system-wide coverage, you can install one of the following applications:

Google’s Gmail Notifier: Google has created its own Google notifier for both Mac and Windows, which sends you notifications for new email, as well as letting set Gmail as your default mail client. It’ll run in your system tray or menu bar, notify you of new messages, and take you to Gmail whenever you hit a “mailto” link.

Gmail Growl: If you use the Growl for Windows notification system, the Gmail Growl program will not only notify you of new messages, but also set Gmail as your system-wide mail client. Mac users with Growl can add the Google+Growl program to the above Google Notifier for Growl integration as well.

Further Reading

We’ve tried to cover as much as possible here, but we could honestly talk about Gmail forever. After you’ve gone through all the above tips and tricks, be sure to check out these posts for even more Gmail goodies:

As always, for even more, you can check out our Gmail tag for even more Gmail articles here on Lifehacker.

Gmail’s a pretty powerful web app, so it’s nearly impossible to contain every tip, setting, and feature in one post — but this should take you pretty far. For more Gmail tips, you can always look through Gmail’s support pages, peruse the settings and check out their Become a Gmail Ninja page. Got any of your own favourite tips that we didn’t mention? Share them with us in the comments below.

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