Think big. Be different.

How To Pimp Your Gmail And Turn It Into Project Management

By Julie Neidlinger on April 23, 2012 in News.

Gmail users are certainly welcome to use Google’s powerful email system just for email. We could also use our laptop just for spreadsheets and nothing else.

Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?

It’s a shame not to use the full power and possibility something has to offer, and with a few minor adjustments, Gmail quickly becomes much more than just an email system. It can help with “to-do” lists, work flow, and even personal project management.

Using Gmail labs and other setting features, you can use your Gmail for so much more than just messages.

Email management hinges on a couple of prerequisites: our ability to handle our own inbox, and our ability to not abuse the system in general. Once we’re fluent in those two abilities, we’re ready to pimp our Gmail inbox and turn it from a mere inbox into a workflow system.

Set Up Your Labels

The labels we create should be tailored to our preferences and to how we use our email. Our labels will likely accommodate family, friends, various organizations we’re part of, and whatever level of business we want to break our emails into. We might include “To-Do” as a label if we use our Gmail as a to-do list for ourself. Freelancers or self-employed readers might want to consider what kind of labels would help them in their project management and integration with other Google products.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is to avoid getting carried away with labels and sub-labels and sub-sub-labels. Gmail is easily searched; we aren’t using it like a traditional folder system. The labels are merely an organizational tool, and one we’ll need in the next steps.

Just remember: labels are not folders.

Set Up Multiple Inboxes

In the settings area, find the Labs tab. We’ll need to be sure we have multiple inboxes enabled. Be sure to save your changes at the bottom.

Enable multiple inboxes in your Gmail settings, under the Labs feature.

Once we have multiple inboxes enabled, head on over to the Multiple Inboxes tab. We may have to exit settings and go back in to see the Multiple Inboxes tab.

Once inside this area, we’ll set up the panes. In the example with this post, these extra inboxes are located to the right of the inbox. Choose whichever works best.

We need to decide which of our labels are our top five labels, which emails we want to keep out of the inbox yet still visible despite being archived out of the inbox. In the example below, the first item is the To-Do label. Make sure the format is as shown below. Sub-labels will have “is:ParentLabel-ChildLabel” as the format, with a hyphen between the parent-child. The Panel Title area is optional, but it is a good idea to give it a useful title that will help, at a glance, organize the page.

Set your inboxes up based on the labels you created.


Optimal Use Of The System

There are a few ways to optimize the use of this kind of Gmail setup:

  1. Give respect to the inbox. The inbox should be kept clear or near clear all the time. It’s where we process and either act on, archive, or delete. The only time something should stay in the inbox is when we tell ourselves that the issue the email is about has not been completed. The inbox is for new and in-progress work. All else, delete or archive.
  2. Assign a label when an email is opened. No exceptions, unless we know it will ultimately get deleted once read. Clear out the inbox by deleting, or by archiving labeled messages.
  3. Set up the filter options. This is done in Gmail settings, and it will automatically assign labels to email that comes in often from the same recipient(s) in the same label category. Automation is good. Shave some time off of the label assignment.
  4. Get familiar with Gmail search terms. Using advanced searches is what helps makes this a system that is usable instead of a huge monster of random years’ worth of messages. Google provides a nice system for conducting a search from the drop-down box on the Gmail search bar. Or, if we’d prefer a more hands-on method, we can learn some of those advanced search operations here.
  5. For To-Do email, the subject matters. If we’re going to use this system for those quick transitory emails to ourself containing “to-do” information, make sure the subject holds the to-do, or a good summation of it. This creates a fine to-do list immediately visible in our multiple inbox setup. Once we’ve finished the task, delete the to-do email. They’re not needed. The same could be said for other project management emails that aren’t necessary for later referral.

Those Pesky Caveats

This system works best for larger resolution screens, though it works down to a 13″ screen. Additionally, it isn’t responsive. It won’t downsize to an adjusted or smaller window. And, of course, if we have an inbox already out of control, and a decade worth of email without a label, we can declare email bankruptcy and start fresh after a delete, or set our mind to do things right from this point forward.

Gmail offers a lot of other customization options, from different star markers, and whether we want our emails tagged as “important” according to Google. Experiment with these. Find out what combination works best for how we will ultimately use Gmail. As Google integrates Gmail more and more into its other products (chat, Google+, Docs, Voice), finding ways to become familiar with it as not just for messages but as a homepage for our workflow puts us ahead of the game.


  • Travis Maclay

    Thanks for the post & great insights!

    I’ve employed similar strategies over the past year with Gmail and like a few of the recommendations you’ve made. One of my biggest hangups, however, involves my iPhone.

    The native Mail app on the iPhone doesn’t play well, IMO, with Google Apps. A couple of things I dislike:

    1) Across the board, it seems I must choose the option to archive or delete messages and the swiping action across a message only accomplishes one of the two based on what I’ve chosen in my settings. From my laptop, however, I actively use both throughout the day.

    2) Labels. While I’ve found workarounds, it just is not very simple to apply a label when in a hurry.

    Here’s thinking you might already have solutions for these. Inquiring minds want to know!

  • Julie Neidlinger

    I have a terrible thing to admit: I don’t use an iPhone. I have an Android phone, and I don’t have the struggle you describe with the Gmail app. Things work pretty well.

    Having the filters set up really, really helps, admittedly. I’d say about 60 percent of the email that shows up in my inbox is auto-labeled because of how I have my filters set up. I set up applicable groups in my Contacts, and then set up my labels based on those entire groups. Made it pretty easy, and fairly accurate.

  • Jessica, The Debt Princess

    I use filters, labels and folders extensively. Although I fail at clearing out my inbox. I’ve never heard of multiple inboxes before and I’m excited to try using this. Maybe that will help me some. Thank you!

    • Julie Neidlinger

      Glad we could help out with some new information. You’ll have to let us know how it works out for you. Not everyone likes the look of multiple inboxes, but it can help with project management once a person gets used to it. I know it’s been my habit for about a year and I use it faithfully for good results.

  • Pingback: How To Cope With Email Overload – The Smile Center Blog | Family, Implant, and Cosmetic Dentistry Bismarck | Aaron D. Johnson()

  • Pingback: Use Gmail For Project Management And To Increase Your Productivity()

  • Pingback: The New Gmail Tabs Are Not As Bad As You Think()

  • CB

    For some reason, my labels do not show up in the multiple mailboxes. I have it set up properly, but I’d really like the “follow up” column to show the colored label rather than just in the categories list, and when a previously labeled email gets put back in the inbxo as part of a thread. Any suggestions?

  • Pingback: Sage & Zoo - Treat your inbox as a to do list.()