9 Gmail features to help keep your e-mail under control

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Gmail logoI love my Gmail accounts (yes, that’s plural). Like many areas of my life, my e-mail accounts are not perfectly organized, but the systems and bits of organization I do have in place, make things work fairly smoothly. Here are nine features that keep me from dreading opening my mail. The features marked “webmail” apply to the webmail client for Gmail, but those features have counterparts in many mail readers such as Thunderbird and Outlook.

1. Starring (webmail) – Have you ever read an e-mail message that needed a response, but not had time to send the response that moment, then forgotten to send one later? Starring is a great way to mark those messages that need a response. Just click the little star next to the sender’s name to toggle the star on/off. You can click the “Starred” link on the left to show only the Starred messages. For more information, see Gmail help on starring.

2. Archiving (webmail) – When you log into Gmail, that big list of messages you see is your Inbox. Did you know that you don’t have to delete messages to move them off that list? Once you’ve read a message and dealt with it, you can move it to the archive by clicking the “Archive” button. The message is out of sight, but not out of mind. Archived mail is still hanging out there on Gmail’s servers. You can click the “All Mail” link on the left to see it all. By default, the search function searches in both your Inbox and Archive so you don’t have to remember if you’ve archived the message for which you’re looking. When you get a new message in an archived conversation, the conversation shows back up in your Inbox. Archiving simply moves the message out of immediate eye sight. Just doing that can make your e-mail account feel much less overwhelming. For more information, see Gmail help on archiving.

3. Labeling (webmail) – Labeling messages makes them easier to find. When you label a message, Google creates a link on the left hand side with that label title. When you click on that link, you see all the messages with that label. That much sounds a bit like good, old-fashioned folders, but there are at least two differences. One difference is that you can put more than one label on a given message. Another is that the label(s) shows up next to the subject line in any listing of messages such as when you search your account for messages matching specific keywords. For more information, see Gmail help on labeling.

4. Forwarding – Gmail allows you to forward your mail from your Gmail account to any other e-mail address(es) (one-time verification is necessary). This feature makes it easy to maintain multiple accounts, but not have to worry about checking each one regularly. For example, you could set up a Gmail account that you use only when you make a Craigslist posting. Instead of checking that account obsessively during the day to see if anyone has sent you a question, you can set up forwarding to your regular account (which may or may not be on Gmail). Another example would be a Gmail account for your homeowner association board. You could set it up to forward to all of the HOA board members so someone on the board would know there was an outstanding issue to address. For more information, see Gmail help on forwarding.

5. Send mail as (webmail) – This feature is probably most often used in tandem with mail forwarding. You can set up your Gmail account so that you can send mail that looks like it came from another account you own (one time verification is necessary). To use the Craigslist example again, if someone sends e-mail to your account for Craigslist mail (account C) that is forwarded to your personal account (account A), you don’t have to sign on to account C to respond. You can send a response from account A that shows account C in the From field. Account C doesn’t have to be a Gmail account, but it’s a little less complicated to set up if it is. For more information, see Gmail help on send mail as.

6. Plus-addressing – There’s this wonderful thing called plus-addressing that Gmail supports. Mail sent to username+anything@gmail.com goes to username@gmail.com (no special set up required so you can make up the “+anything” on the spot). What’s so great about this? It gives you an easy way to categorize incoming mail. For example, I sign up for all my newsletter subscriptions as myname+news@gmail.com. I have a filter set up that labels and archives any mail with myname+news@gmail.com in the To line. All my newsletters get neatly tucked away where I can read them when I have time. The only caveat with plus-addressing is that there are some web forms or programs that incorrectly identify e-mail addresses of that form as invalid so you may not be able to use plus-addressing in every instance you want. For those exceptions, you could set up a special filter to grab and redirect incoming messages from that source.

7. Filters – Adding filters for incoming mail can be pretty powerful. Filters are basically search parameters that the system applies to all incoming messages and then takes your specified action for any messages that match the filter. You can filter incoming messages by information in the From, To, or Subject fields or in the body of the message. You can then do things to those messages automatically such as archive, delete, label, star, or forward them. Perhaps you want to star any mail from your boss or label and archive anything coming in to yourname+fred@gmail.com. For more information see, Gmail help on filtering.

8. Spam filter – Google’s spam filter has served me well. I very rarely have to deal with spam.

9. Search (webmail) – Whether you’ve been able to add some structure to your account or not, you can always put the power of Google’s search to work. You can build up some fairly complex queries to find exactly the message for which you’re looking. Besides just searching for specific words, you can add restrictions like “label:fred” to look only at messages labeled “fred” or “is:unread” to look only at unread messages. For more information, see Gmail help on search operators.

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