How a Google expert manages his Gmail account

Email notifications are the enemy of productivity. But in some cases, alerts can be useful — and even provide peace of mind.

There isn’t just one way to manage your inbox, and if you’re anything like me, there’s probably room for improvement on that front. Lots of room and yet not a lot of space (hello, way too many unread emails).

So I knew I could learn a thing or two from JR Raphael, the technology journalist who is frequently found covering all things Google and Android for Fast Company and Computerworld. He publishes the weekly Android Intelligence newsletter offering a goldmine of recommendations and practical tips.

JR graciously provided a peep inside his systematized inbox for an interview with The Gmail Genius. Some highlights from the exchange follow.

When you open an email, don’t just let it sit there

While giving a rundown of his daily email routing, JR noted, “My golden rule is to never open an email twice and never leave an item in my inbox beyond a single day.”

“I’m by no means perfect about that, but it’s what I strive to achieve.”

He says he tries to only have his inbox open for an hour or two in the morning, a quick block after lunch, and another one in the late afternoon. He also admitted to one final inbox session before the end of the night.

“My goal each time—whenever I look at my inbox, really—is to process everything that’s there. That doesn’t necessarily mean I answer every email right away,” he said. Instead, he suggests taking one of three actions within a few seconds of looking at a message:

  1. Archive it — if the message doesn’t require any response or action.
  2. Respond to it — especially if I can do so in a minute or less. (And then archive it.)
  3. Snooze it — if it demands a level of thought or response I can’t get to right away. I might snooze it for later that day, later that week, or a month down the road, depending on when I think I’ll be in a good position to deal with it.

Super-specific alerts can help

JR acknowledges that email notifications are the enemy of productivity. But in some cases, alerts can be useful — and even provide peace of mind.

“Most of us receive at least some messages that truly do demand our immediate attention, even if they’re a tiny fraction of the total,” he wrote in his Computerworld column. But with a “teensy bit of custom-tuning,” you can set things up so that your “most urgent incoming messages will alert you — and everything else will wait politely in your inbox without screaming for instant scrutiny.” In the article, he describes how to set up a filter in Gmail and then configure it your Android device to only notify you about the messages sent to that label.

Bet you didn’t know you can alter the snooze time

Notification customizations are only the tip of the iceberg. Taking the time to modify Gmail’s features according to your own rhythms and preferences is key to exerting control over your inbox — and not letting it control you.

Another helpful — and highly underutilized — setting to adjust is the default snooze time for a message. “You wouldn’t know it by looking anywhere in Gmail itself, but you can actually customize the specific time of day each option uses,” JR said.

He explains:

  • Open up Google Keep and click the “Settings” option in its left-hand menu. See the section labeled “Customize your reminder defaults,” with choices for morning, afternoon, and evening? Change those times to whatever times you prefer.
  • If you want messages you snooze for “Tomorrow” to show up at 10 a.m., for instance, set that as your morning time. If you want emails snoozed for “Later today” to show up at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., or 11:47 p.m., set your evening time accordingly.
  • Once you hit save, you’ll see Gmail start to use those new times within its default snooze suggestions.

Helpful, right?!

For additional next-level tips, definitely take a look at how you can customize these little-known Gmail settings. Tinker to your heart’s content, but whatever you do, stop organizing your inbox into folders. I’ll leave you with JR’s wise words on that, “As a wise virtual princess once said, let it go. Stop worrying about organizing all of your incoming email and just power through it. Then, when you need to find something in the future, search.”

When she’s not interviewing people about their email habitsJaclyn Schiff is a strategist who loves getting her feet wet at the intersection of media, partnerships, and content. Her writing has covered topics ranging from healthcare innovation to travel budget tips to digital nomads. She’s had bylines at NPR, HuffPost, AllAfrica, Thought Catalog, The Muse, Modern Healthcare and others.