A Minimalist’s Guide to Gmail


Dec 08 2016

Gold Tape

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

If there’s one thing I’ve got down in my daily routine, it’s my Gmail tackling system. While my general Inbox Zero tips will get you started, this guide goes into MEGA detail on how to set your inbox up for success, when to work on it, and the why behind every Settings decision. Ready? Here’s my first major tip:

Don’t check your email.

Yeah. I know it’s tempting. It’s frighteningly easy to open up your Mail app or a tab on your browser to check check check just in case there’s a treat waiting for you. Your brain will trick you into thinking that you need to check your email. That there might be something important and urgent waiting for you! Especially if you are waiting for a particular email. That’s the worst. Check check check all day long.

The sad truth is, checking your email sporadically will give you nothing but extra stress. You’ll find something annoying that you’ll have to deal with waiting in your inbox. It’s frustrating because your brain is like, that’s not what I wanted! I don’t want to have to reply to this email and schedule this thing! I came here to be delightfully surprised that I won that giveaway for a trip to Hawaii! 

You know the How I Met Your Mother rule “Nothing good happens after 2am”? It’s kind of the same with email: “Nothing good happens from checking email out of boredom”

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

Do this instead.

Skip the bursts of checking and save your inbox for a once-a-day dive. Most of the time, your inbox can wait. Enjoy the juiciness of letting that anticipation build up, and savour that moment of opening your inbox intentionally, like it’s a Christmas stocking.

Every day after lunch, I brew myself a cup of tea, set a timer for 30 minutes, and focus on my email. All three parts are essential:


The trigger of finishing lunch sets this ritual in motion. I used to do emails first thing in the morning, but I realised that that time is better spent on myself than on others (because emailing is really about others. Which is great – being reliable strokes my Obliger tendency). I try to resist the urge to check (Gmail, Facebook Messenger*, texts) until after lunch. right now for example I am WILDLY resisting the urge to open up Messenger to share the news “I’m writing a guide to gmail! eeee you’ll love it!”.

Sometimes I slip*, sometimes I actually do need to open my email, but I am at my most focused and productive when I wait. After lunch is also the perfect time for an energy boost, a sprint in the middle of my day to set me up for a successful afternoon.

* Facebook messages especially tend to get buried, and the best solution I find for this is to wait to open them!


Working on my emails (read: different from checking my emails) is the kind of task I dread, but feel SO good about afterwards. So to make the ritual more pleasurable and less of a chore, I brew a cup of tea to sip while I work. It fits into my post-lunch flow: take dishes to the sink, fill up the kettle, boil, brew, sit, enjoy, work work work work work.


I find that 30 minutes is the optimal time to work on my emails every weekday to stay on top of them. Pressing play on a timer rocket starts me into motion, and keeping an eye on it is utterly enlightening. Sometimes replying to an email can feel so tricky and time-consuming that I think it’s taken up the full half hour when no! That was 4 minutes!

Sometimes I’ll spend the full time in my Primary emails, other times I’ll get to delve into the treat jar that is my Promotions tab. I tend to tackle emails from top to bottom; if I allow myself to hop around I’ll end up procrastinating and avoiding the emails that challenge me.

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail


A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

The tabs at the top of your Gmail are called Categories. You can add them by clicking the + tab. I recommend keeping these at a minimum. I mostly use Primary and Promotions to separate personal/work emails from newsletters. I recently added Social as my notifications for YouTube and blog comments started to pile up. 

  • Tip: Less is more. Don’t use too many Categories. If you don’t post on Forums, don’t activate Forums!

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

I like the separation of these categories because they allow me to focus on certain types of email at once. I tackle Primary emails first, then go through Social, which takes me out of my inbox and onto YouTube, Twitter, and my website. My treat afterwards is to peruse Promotions, which for me are newsletters for my favourite businesses (Kate Spade, Godiva Boutique), business inspiration (Sincerely Stephanie Melissa, XO Sarah), favourite blogs* (Yes and Yes, Me and Orla), and artists and venues (Punchdrunk, KAYE). 

*If a blog’s newsletter is just a notification of new posts, I will follow them on Feedly instead. I don’t want a pile up of blog posts in my inbox. If a newsletter points me to a longer article, I will save the link in a list on Evernote.

  • Tip: Drag emails between tabs and select for emails from certain accounts to always go to a certain Category!


How many emails are in your inbox right now? If they exceed a page, you have some archiving to do! My goal is to keep my Primary tab above the fold, meaning I can see all of them without having to scroll.

Perhaps my favourite tool in Gmail is Archive. When in doubt, archive. When you’re certain you won’t need the email again (like an expiring sale), delete. The only thing that’s not an option is to leave it in your inbox! 


But what about folders? Can you guess what my advice is? Yup, keep this at a bare minimum too. Go through and delete folders you haven’t touched in forever. As in right now. Go do that.

There, that feels better.

To be technical, what I call a folder is actually a Label in Gmail. A Folder is a group of Labels. 

Only label emails you find yourself searching for regularly. Most things you can find through the search tool, because in case you forgot, Gmail = Google mail. 

  • Tip: Add emojis to your labels. I was doing this pre-emoji, even, because I’m a visual person and well, it’s more fun.

My folders and labels:

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

✈️ Tickets: All in one place. Not ‘travel’, not ‘theatre’, not designated by vacation, not ‘cinema’ not ‘confirmations’ not ‘coupons’ – anything I’ll be pulling up out of the house, whether it’s at the box office or to present a discount code at Muji.

New House: I keep addresses, viewing details, and solicitor emails in this folder as we search for and purchase a flat. I will delete this label once we move in!

? Holly + April: for emails related to the children’s book I’m co-writing. It includes publishing resources as well as notes on edits/story details at which to take a closer look during designated book-writing time with the manuscript* in front of me.

? Kitty: all emails for my mentor Kitty Cavalier’s Deep Dive and Vérité courses. In my archives, course emails with links and downloads got mixed in with Kitty’s newsletters, so now they’re easier to find.

HT: My only folder is for keeping Heroine Training labels grouped together.

Fan Mail: lovely notes from readers (like Sarah von Bargen’s Smile Folder!)

? Examples: newsletters from other entrepreneurs that have blown me away with their creativity. I consult these for inspiration when I feel like I’m stuck in a rut creating my own newsletters. I am grateful for every reader who has given me their email address, and I intend to provide continually inspirational content for them!

? Accounting: all receipts and sales/income notifications get dropped here. 

*using the word ‘manuscript’ makes me feel very Jo March. Which reminds me, I should back up my files.

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail


Let’s get into the nitty gritty of Gmail Settings. Here are my Settings tips.

    • Choose a font you like as your default.
    •  Set your keyboard shortcuts! I rely on these for Archive and Delete. Keyboard shortcuts make tackling my email feel more like a video game.
    • Turn off importance markers (under Settings > Inbox) .
  • Set all of your email addresses to forward to one inbox. You can choose a default ‘from’ email and select from all connected accounts each time you send a new email.

In short:

    • Keep things simple.
  • Respect your personal need for aesthetics. 


Did you know you can customise your stars?

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

I use the gold star, tick box, and arrow symbol:

Tick box: I keep ALL my accounting related emails for the year, so once I go through and add the amounts to my accounting spreadsheet (I do this every other week), I add a tick box. So satisfying!

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

Arrow: I use this in my Tickets folder to indicate what’s coming up next. I’ve got travel confirmations and tickets waaay in advance so this helps me locate what’s necessary easily. Cursed Child tickets have been sitting in there for everrrr.

A Minimalist's Guide to Gmail

To be honest, I don’t really know what I use the star for. It seems wrong to deactivate it. A girl can indulge sometimes.

The most important thing to remember:

Your inbox is not your to do list.

Your inbox is not entertainment.

Your inbox is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Your life is way more interesting and important outside of your inbox, so don’t let your email reign over you.


Now let me know: which of these tips are you most excited to try?


P.S. If you’re overwhelmed (it’s a lot, I know!), start here.

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