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Four small Gmail tweaks Google could make to increase user productivity

I'm a grateful Gmail user (my main email address forwards to my Gmail account), and I've been a satisfied user for the past few years. While I don't use Gmail to implement my Getting Things Done system [1], I've noticed four things that, if corrected, could increase productivity for all users. See what you think!

Make it easy to edit subjects

One of the best practices for email [2] is to edit the subject line of threads whose topic migrates. You know - it started out "let's bike this weekend" and after four times around it should be "here's Bob's phone #"! Doing this is possible in Gmail, but it's easy to miss because a) subjects aren't clearly shown, and b) the editing feature isn't obvious. Luckily, it's easy when you know where to look (see the screen shot to the right).

Related: Hanford Lemoore has a good summary of how confusing this is in Gmail: Arrow of Mystery and Subject Line (scroll down to The Subject line of Mystery).

Google's official instructions are here: How do I change the subject of a message I'm replying to?

Allow search without seeing the inbox

Often I'll need to search messages while completing an action, but Gmail's "home" page when you start it is the Inbox. Why is this a problem? Because it's sooooo tempting to just check the inbox - just for a minute - and then you've wasted tons of time and lost your focus.

Instead, it would be nice to configure Gmail to start somewhere else ("Contacts" or "All Mail"?) to avoid the allure. I've read that Google Desktop lets you index Gmail messages, but I really like to avoid installing Windows programs if I can help it.

Simplify adding contacts

Regarding contact systems, I strongly recommend that clients a) have one system to store names, address, emails, and phone numbers, and b) update them religiously (e.g., check and edit every time new data comes in). I use Gmail's contacts feature for mine (prior to this I had them in three different places), but looking up and editing is quite painful.

For example, to look up a contact:

1. Click the quick contacts input box and type enough letters to pop up the desired contact.
2. Move the mouse down to the contact of interest.
3. Carefully move the most straight to the right.
4. Move right to "__'s profile."
5. Move right to "Contact details" and click.

Step 3. is very error-prone because it's so easy to slide off target at any point during the process (see the screen shot to the right).

Allow manual or longer retrieval delay

Another best practice to avoid the inbox's siren's song is to change how often the program checks for new messages. The default is often quite frequent (I believe Outlook is 10 minutes, and Gmail seems faster than that), so it's smart to change it to be completely manual (i.e., you tell it when to check), or at least setting it to wait longer between, say one hour.

Sadly, I could find no way to change this in Gmail.

Wrap up

If you think these changes aren't worth it, just multiply the number of Gmail users [3] by time saved (say one minute a week per user?) by average $/hour, and you'll see some very large savings are possible.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. In particular, can you recommend good books on email? I've found a few [4], but I've not read any of them.

Related Gmail productivity tips

Following are just a few tips for practicing GTD within Gmail. Please share your favorites!

Reader Comments (6)

To start up with any empty "Inbox" in Gmail, you can apply filters to filter all incoming mail skipping the inbox and attach a label.

Your mail is hidden behind labels, all nicely sorted.

July 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Thanks for the suggestion, Paul. Bold! :-)

July 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

"Allow search without seeing the inbox"

You can add Gmail search to your Google Toolbar

July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHashim

Hashim: Thanks for the tip about [ Google Toolbar | http://www.google.com/tools/firefox/toolbar/FT3/intl/en/index.html ]. I gave it a shot, and sure enough - I could search my messages and bypass the inbox. Neat!

July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I received 4 emails from Joe, each with an attached video, each with no subject. Is there any way I can add a subject to Joe's messages (short of forwarding these emails back to myself)?

It would be a nice feature to be able to edit a subject without sending.

December 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy

Hi Dorothy. I searched for whether this is possible, and the answer is no. The only choice seems to be [ forward it to yourself | http://groups.google.com/group/Gmail-ABCs/browse_thread/thread/5bc90a699777c290/815566acfe510437 ] (as you said). Alternatively (and probably more effective) is have a conversation with the sender to get him to use better email practices. Do this in a nice way, explain the unnecessary costs to you, and show how easy it is to do (step him through it, if necessary). And of course, be kind.

Thanks for reading.

December 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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