Question 286 of 365: How did Gmail become the killer app for workflow?

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As much as we would like to leave email in the dust and move on to a brand new world of constant co-creation, we are never farther from this reality than we are right now. Email has become the one equalizer for everyone who cares to take part. No matter how much we might say it or like it to be true, not everyone uses Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. We can poke them to become more social in their sharing and working habits, but the common denominator is still email. We should not run away from this reality, but rather we should run toward it with open arms and see just how long and lasting of an embrace we can manage.

This is something that I have attempted to do over the last year and I think I have finally found the killer workflow for email that saves me the most time, makes me the most productive and lets me be as connected as I choose to be. I no longer feel as though email is an albatross, but rather I see it as a trusted friend. I look forward to logging in and filtering through the messages and working on some of them because I have a workflow that supports everything that I want to do. I feel comfortable in sending out a few dozen messages at a go because there is nothing holding me back. I don’t have to leave my inbox to retrieve other things to bring them back in. Everything just works.

It has taken me a long time to get to this place. And really, I don’t see too many other folks hanging around here. Mostly, I still see overstuffed inboxes that are unwieldy and unfriendly to the user. Whenever I talk with others about answering email, there is a painful acknowledgement of the necessary evil of it all. There is never a joyfulness about the process. This has to change. We are going to spend more time answering and working with our messages in the future, not less. We must figure out a way to make peace with the email monster. Here is how I did this for myself.

Non Negotiables:

Gmail – As much as I like desktop clients, the one thing that every workflow needs is consistency. You need to be able to go to any device (computer, phone, iPad, etc.) and access your email in a way that syncs up with everything else. Do not try to maintain a desktop client and gmail. Make the jump into the web client and don’t look back.

Priority Inbox– While this is a new feature for Gmail, the idea is relatively simple: Some email is more important than others. This is a way to recognize that fact and get back to those who need an urgent message back. It is also a great way to keep the things that are important (but not urgent) in front of your face. Just star them and they will stay in the center of your screen. I do this on a regular basis and even if they stay in there for a couple weeks, I know that I will never forget them.

Google Chrome– This may not be your preferred browser, but it should be. It is lightning fast and it integrates with gmail (and the extensions needed to make gmail even better) so well that it seems like it was specifically written to manage email. I recommend that you download it and then set up pinned tabs (tabs that stay in your browser indefinitely, but take up almost no room on the left corner of the browser) for Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Twitter.

Google Voice– While Google Voice is plenty productive on its own with transcribed voicemails, free SMS and call forwarding to any of the number of phones you may have; the killer part of this app is when it is coupled with Gmail. From gmail Google Voice becomes a way for you to answer phone calls directly from your Gmail window. It let’s you call out from your own number as well. Once you have signed up, simply go into the settings and check the box that says Google Talk. This will allow for people to ring through to your gmail using VOIP.

Gmail Filters– Filters are nothing new, but I think that the one thing that has boosted my productivity and simplified my workflow is creating filters to get rid of conversations that I no longer want to be a part of. The majority of my filters are set up to do about three things. One, forward mail that I don’t need but other people do. There are certain key words that I look for and if they are there, I forward them and skip my inbox. If I have set this up right, the filters are almost never wrong. Two, Delete or archive messages that aren’t quite spam but aren’t mail I need to read. I have these filters look for alterts that come frequently or notifications that don’t affect me on a daily basis. I can always go and look at these if I need to, but I don’t want them cluttering up my inbox and forcing me to manually delete or archive them. Three, I have filters that post to twitter. I use the service called Twittermail that allows me to have keywords either sent via Google Voice text that get sent to email and then to twitter, or I/others can send email with those keywords as well. This allows a whole bunch of people to post to a single account from anywhere. This is a productivity tool because it allows a large amount of people to be on the same page with a social network but it also archives all conversations for me in email.

Gmail Labs– There are a few labs that are absolutely non-negotiables for using gmail as a workflow manager. These are mostly small tweaks that I have found to be essential for everything from creating Google Docs to giving a default of send and archive. In order to access them, simply click settings in the top right corner and then click on labs.

Add any gadget by URL
by Dan P and Dong C

Adds a “Gadgets” tab to Settings, where you’ll be able to specify the URL of any gadget. This gadget will show in a box in the left column.

Apps Search
by the Apps Search team

Extends search with Google Docs and Sites results. Apps Search will find the most relevant Docs and Sites and show them below Gmail search results.

Create a Document
by Jeremie LE & David K

Allows you to create a Google Document from an email conversation or a new blank document if your keyboard shortcuts are enabled by hitting ‘g’ then ‘w’.

Default ‘Reply to all’
by Mark K

Make ‘Reply to all’ your default option for responding to emails.

Google Docs previews in mail
by Steven S, Jim M, Bob B, and Ted C

Shows previews of documents, spreadsheets and presentations directly in the email when you receive any link to a Google Doc. Also gives an option to open directly in Google Docs.

Google Voice player in mail
by Robert D

Lets you play voicemails left on your Google Voice account right from the email notification.

Quote selected text
Ryan A

Quote the text you have selected when you reply to a message. (Now works with the mouse, too!)

Send & Archive
by Pal T

Adds a button to the compose form that lets you send a reply message and archive the email conversation in a single action.

Sender Time Zone
by Marcin B

Should I reply to this mail or just call the guy? Ooops… it’s 1 am. Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb…

Undo Send
by Yuzo F

Oops, hit “Send” too soon? Stop messages from being sent for a few seconds after hitting the send button.

Google Maps previews in mail
by Mark K

Shows Google Map previews of all the addresses found in an email.

Message translation
by Darren

Uses Google Translate to translate messages you receive in other languages.

Video chat enhancements
by Manu C, Jessan HQ, Fredrik O, Tristan S, Arthur vdG

Enables new features in Gmail voice and video chat, including higher resolution and bigger windows, with more improvements coming over time.

The Addons:

0Boxer– While I added this extension for gmail, I did it as something to entertain myself with. This “email game”, however, has turned into a real productivity tool for me. It let’s me know how many messages I have written each day and how many I have cleared out of my inbox. It has given me metrics on something that formerly had none. This allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment when I write up my 100th email for the day instead of just feeling as though I don’t have anything to show for it. It is still in the early stages of this product, but I think it is one of the things that makes my email more inviting.

Wisestamp– I have always found the email signature to be an interesting thing. It can be such a mundane part of an email with a quotation or contact info, but if we could make it dynamic and visual it would give email a much needed connection to the rest of our lives (both online and off). Wisestamp allows you to have a dynamic signature by letting you add recent blog posts, recent tweets, or even the music you are currently listening to. It also provides you with a way to very quickly share all of the places you are connected online with tiny picture links. Think about how much better it is when people have not only your email but also your LinkedIn account without having to look for it.

Rapportive– This tool is exactly what email has needed for years. While you are composing or reading a message, it will pull up everything it can find about the sender/recipient. It will show you a picture of them, pull in their recent tweets, or even show you some of their most recent work to help you to write a better message or understand who your colleague is a little better. It makes email more social and more transformational at the same time. No longer are you stuck looking at a single stream of information about a person your converse with regularly. You see everything, and even if it doesn’t find them on social networks and websites, you can write notes to yourself about who they are and why they are important. These notes will come up every time you are writing to that person so that you can keep your people straight.

Zemanta– I have used this as a blogging tool for context for quite a while, but I really love the idea that I can have images and links suggested for inclusion in my email as well. If I have it enabled for a given email (say an email with a list of resources or that I really think needs backing up from other experts in the field), it layers a sidebar on top of Rapportive and analyzes what I am writing to come up with images and links to support my claims and ideas. Most of the time, the suggestions are right on and when I click them it creates a beautiful structure of corroborating evidence. It also makes email more visual and more like writing a hyperlinked blog post rather than a flat piece of information.

Paymo– This is the addon that sealed the deal for me. I had been looking for a way to track my time on a number of different projects without having to install software on every machine and device that I use. Paymo is a free service (for individuals) that lets you set up clients, projects, tasks and do time tracking. By simply adding their gadget to my gmail, I can manage all of it from within the same interface that I am actually doing most of my work. This also means that because I have added it to one computer that runs gmail, I have added to every computer. I now have a way to add time to any project that will sync with every other place I want to interact with that project, all without leaving my trusty email interface. While this may sound like something small, it has completely changed the way that I track how much I am working on any given idea, and it also lets me report out on any given idea for anyone who might want to have some oversight. Just beautiful.


I have just a few other thoughts on for making Gmail into a streamlined workflow. These are things that have kept me clear of long email trails and never ending loops.

  1. Don’t delete, just archive- There is almost no reason to delete unless you know that you will never use the message again. Gmail search is an awesome tool for brining back long dead conversations.
  2. Don’t label, just archive- I have almost completely stopped putting things into labels/folders. I use search and filtering for nearly everything I need to find. My labels are almost always less specific than the text of the email itself, so why not just search for the text of the email.
  3. Make a Google Doc from an email whenever you have a long conversation (know when to move the conversation out of email)- This can help to bring some order to the chaos of back-and-forth email. Edit all of the messages together into a coherent document and people will start interacting with it there.
  4. Use the check boxes and the keyboard shortcuts – There is a huge amount of email that you can get through by checking their boxes and then pressing the “e” button to archive all of them.
  5. Use Tasks – You can make any email message into a task and then archive it out of your inbox. This will allow you to have the tasks widget at the bottom right of your screen with the most important things on your list always at your fingertips.
  6. Use Google Talk and Video Chat – While skype still dominates the video call niche, Google Talk and Video Chat are an amazingly easy way to connect briefly with anyone who has a gmail account.
  7. Clear out email on mobile devices, answer email on a computer- I find that if I can set aside a half hour at a computer, I am much more productive than if I try to respond in short messages on my phone. I also get better responses when I take the time to actually respond to them completely.
  8. Clean up your contacts occasionally- Nearly everyone that you email in Gmail is added to your all contacts area. It takes a little tending to bring those people into your “my contacts” area. Also, get rid of all of those Facebook response email addresses.
  9. Use Disqus, Facebook email and LinkedIn email for all comments on blogs and websites- Because these services allow you to respond to ongoing conversations in email, it keeps you in your workflow and allows you to keep doing what you are doing without getting distracted by the “other things” on Facebook or blogs.
  10. Encourage others to adopt your workflow- There is no worse feeling than to have to leave your own highly efficient workflow to accommodate someone else’s laborious one. Encouraging people to use conversations rather than individual messages in Gmail is a huge paradigm shift, but a really important one to make. Moving from an email to a Google Doc rather than a conference call is also a huge time-saver and productivity tool. Use it.

So, that is my summary of how Gmail became the killer app for me. Let me know how you are using gmail for workflow management. I know I can always do something better.

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  1. Anonymous

    Hey Ben, I’m Rahul from Rapportive. This is a great article, full of very sound advice!nnYou’ve hit a number of things which have made Gmail indispensable for me: threaded conversations, priority inbox, send and archive, and undo send (thank god!).nnYou asked: how did Gmail become the killer app for workflow? I think it’s three things:nn1. Gmail led the pack in terms of storage capacity, threading, and UI responsiveness, and still leads with features today. This suggests that its users care about these factors, which attracts developers who initially seek audiences of early adopters and influencers.nn2. Many people work out of their inbox. Although some people in specialised roles have specialised tools (e.g. dedicated sales people use sales-focussed CRMs; dedicated support people use ticketing systems), at Rapportive we find that many people spend all their time writing and responding to email. nn3. Browser extensions can easily change the web. I like to think of extensions as “middleware for the web”. But unlike almost all other middleware in the history of software, this middleware is particularly easy to write. A few lines of javascript and CSS can dramatically change the browsing experience.nnWhat do you think?nnRahul, CEO of Rapportive

    1. Thank you so much for responding to this post. I definitely didn’t think itrnwould find anyone of your stature so quickly. Hopefully, I did strike arnchord with those who are struggling with their emails. I think that you haverncreated a wonderful product that pretty much everyone using gmail shouldrnhave installed. I just love being able to see more about the people I amrntalking to on a regular basis. It is what Buzz could have been in myrnestimation.rnrnMy hope is that Gmail has left the early adopter and innovator phase and isrnmaking headway in business. I feel as though using Outlook right now isrntaking a big step backwards from what I can do using a fully featured webrnapplication. While CRMs and ticketing systems may still make sense for some,rnI think that managing what comes in and out is much more about managing thernflow of information rather than individual tickets and contacts. For thernmajority of users, integrated uses of Google Calendar, Tasks, Google Docsrnand Priority Inbox is more than enough to manage the flow and insure followrnup.rnrnHonestly, I think that follow up is and always has been the killer app.rnGmail with Rapportive and others layered on top makes this happen withoutrneven thinking about it. The web is all about layers and extensions. Veryrnsoon we are going to start seeing the same kind of boon for extensions thatrnwe have seen for App Stores. People will not think of their browser as anrnapplication anymore, it will be the app store itself to add things to.rnrnAgain, thanks so much for responding to this post.

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