Gmail Hints

In other articles, I've discussed why I like Gmail so much. Whether you use Gmail for your personal email ( or your small business email (, these hints apply equally.

In this article, I'll go over some tips and tricks that make Gmail so useful and superior. Sorry, it may be lengthy, Gmail has a ton of features. But please jump around some, looking for tips that seem interesting (in bold Green).

Gmail is one of Google's biggest, most important products. So their developers and engineers are busily improving Gmail and making sure it's the best solution available.


Some of Gmail's best features may not necessarily be unique to Gmail or even have originated with Gmail. But Gmail certainly improved them and made them popular. So here are my favorite features, in no particular order.

Category Inboxes

Gmail examines incoming email and automatically directs it to one of several "inbox categories" for you based on the flavor of the email. If Gmail decides that a message is important and that you'll likely want to see it, then it's directed to the Primary Inbox tab. This is your regular inbox, just like all emails programs have.

But if Gmail decides that it's not all that important, then it's directed to one of the other inbox categories. The default categories are Primary, Social, and Promotions.

  • Social Inbox gets all your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and other social networking-related emails. Most of those emails are pretty useless anyway and Gmail knows it.

  • Promotions Inbox is where advertising and promotional email (but not spam) from the various online retailers that you may have used in the past are directed. Home Depot, Office Depot, Zappos, Best Buy, and any other company that's advertising to you. As with Social, Gmail knows these emails are pretty useless as well. These emails generally aren't spam in the classical sense but nor are they useful, either.

  • Updates and Forums are initially turned-off but can be easily added.

By minimizing unimportant email, your Primary Inbox has a much more favorable "useful email to crap" ratio, making you more productive. New gmail accounts automatically get this Inbox view. If you don't have this enabled or if you want to tweak it some, here's how:

  • Open Gmail

  • Click the large gear near the top-right of the browser window. A hover tip will say "Settings"

  • In the dropdown menu, click "Configure inbox"

  • Check and uncheck the desired categories then click Save.

Gmail is remarkably accurate with it's choices. But if it gets something wrong you can teach Gmail easily enough. Here's how:

  • In the Inbox list view, click and hold (grab) the errant email (You need to see the inbox list, don't open the email itself)

  • Drag toward the top and hover over the correct category: Primary, Social, Promotions, etc.  The mouse arrow will turn into a closed fist (indicating a hold) while dragging and a hover tip will say "Move nn conversation" when you're over an inbox category tab.

  • When you are on top of the correct category, release the mouse and the message will be directed to that category.

  • A yellow message will appear above asking if you want all future emails from that address to be redirected as well. You can also undo the move if you want.

Conversation View

A "conversation" in Gmail is a collection all the emails you are exchanging with one or more people that are related by subject.

In most other email systems, when you have a busy "back and forth" session with someone, there may be numerous emails in both the Inbox and Sent Mail folders. If you want to refer to any particular message, you may find yourself digging through both the Inbox and Sent Items, looking for that particular message. If the back and forth in question spans days or weeks, then you'll likely be endlessly scrolling up and down, bouncing between the Inbox and Sent Items trying to find your target message or to just reacquaint yourself with the topic.

Conversation view solves that. All emails, sent and received, are gathered together as a single line in your Inbox view -- this is called a conversation. By clicking on the conversation, you can see everything that was sent back and forth to all participants, all neatly arranged together in one place. While viewing the conversation, the later emails are below the earlier ones -- so it flows naturally, sort of like a text conversation on your phone. Gmail knows if you've read a particular email in the conversation and will collapse it, so it doesn't take up valuable screen space. You can easily uncollapse (expand) any email by clicking on it. Click again to collapse it.

Each collapsed email in a conversation is shown with a long horizontal line, sort of as a placeholder. But if there are many consecutive collapsed emails, then Gmail limits the number of horizontal placeholder lines as sort of a "double collapse" to save even more space. e.g. 37 read collapsed emails won't show 37 horizontal lines -- generally only 4 with the actual collapse count indicated. But if you click on that double-collapse, then they'll all expand into single line summaries. Now you can click the summary line of your choice and see the entire email. Very clever and it works well.

It may look a little confusing the first time you see all this. But I guarantee you that you will get the hang of it and appreciate the feature all the more.

I *love* the conversation view -- it's probably my favorite Gmail feature! It makes following a conversation so easy without seeing all my other (irrelevant) email mixed in.

Labels -- not Folders

Labels act pretty much like folders. Just as you can make a folder called "Invoices" in any email system, so too can you create a label by that name in Gmail. But that's where the similarity ends.

Using a folder in other email systems, you can drag an email from the Inbox and move it to the desired folder. But it can't be in more than one folder at the same time unless you actually copy it which wastes space and has other problems. And if an email was important to you in several ways, each way having it's own folder, then you either have to pick the most important folder to drag to or copy the mail for each folder that you wanted it in. Both suboptimal and sloppy.

But instead of moving emails into folders, what if you could attach a label to the email? This is what Gmail does. You can attach one or more labels to each email, with each label representing an important attribute. e.g. You might have the labels "Clients", "High Priority", "Referred by xxx", "Grumpy", and more. Then attach all the labels necessary to describe or tag that email in all the ways that are important to you.

You can then click on or search for conversations that bear that label. Of course, you can do regular searches as well, labels or not. But labels give you a way to gather otherwise unrelated conversations together, such as using "Grumpy" for email conversations with unpleasant people.

How to create a label:

  • Open Gmail

  • Click the large gear near the top-right of the browser window. A hover tip will say "Settings"

  • In the dropdown menu, click "Settings"

  • A new screen will appear with menu strip near the top beginning with General, Labels, Inbox, etc.

  • Click Labels

  • Below you'll see two or three sections, all divided with horizontal lines, with the last one called "Labels"

  • Click "Create new label" and give it name. Just as folders can be inside other folders, so too can labels be "inside" other labels. The proper term on Gmail for this is "nesting".

How to use: If you are in the Inbox list view, select the conversation you wish to label by clicking the square check box on the far left of the line. When you check the box, you'll see additional icons appear above the Inbox. See picture below. One of them (#5) looks like a price tag. That's the label icon. Click it to assign one or more labels to that conversation.

Cool tip: Hover your mouse over the label names on the far left and you'll see a grey floating bar as you move the mouse. At the right-end of the grey bar is a down arrow. Click the down arrow and you'll see a small menu appear that lets you customize the label. The first item in the menu is "Label color" and lets you change the color used when the label is shown on the conversation subject area. Try it. Very nice.


Stars is a cool feature that lets you flag a conversation for whatever reasons are important to you. (See #7 in the picture below) Stars don't intrinsically mean anything to Gmail. It's simply a flag that you can put on a conversation. By default, you can add or remove a yellow star on a conversation. But if you go into Settings, you can turn on up to twelve different stars -- some which aren't even stars at all. Very cool. And you can click the "Starred" label to see only emails that you have starred.

Don't Delete -- Archive

Free Gmail accounts give you 15 GB of storage, that's a lot of space. And you can buy more pretty cheaply if you need it.

With that in mind, there's really no need to delete emails in the name of saving space. Just archive it instead. When you archive a message, it disappears from the inbox view, but it isn't actually deleted. Then if you ever need to refer to that email, even years later, you'll still have it. That could be pretty handy if you needed to prove something from long ago.

How to use:

  • While viewing a message view that you want to archive, click the icon of the folder with a down arrow in it (#1). (Picture at bottom)

  • While viewing the Inbox itself, select conversations by checking the square box (one or multiple) at the far left of the line, then click the same icon showing a folder with a down arrow inside (#1).


OK, Gmail has its quirks that annoy some new users until they realize these are better ways. 

Quirk: One of the biggest such complaints is not being able to sort the inbox by name. Why would you want to sort by name anyway? If you want to see all email from a particular person grouped together, just do a search. Google is, after all, the king of search.

Answer: Type this into the search box: or just their name.  It'll begin auto-filling with possible email addresses. If you want to be specific, type in There are a ton of special search operators you can use to perform highly customized searches. See them all here. Yes, these search options can look complex, but they give you a great deal of search options.

Quirk: There's no preview feature.

Answer: Actually, there is. Go to the Labs to enable it. (Go to the what?)
Here's how:

  • Open Gmail

  • Click the large gear near the top-right of the browser window. A hover tip will say "Settings".

  • Click Settings in the drop-down menu. The page will change.

  • Observe the menu beginning with GeneralLabelsetc.. Toward the right end is Labs. Click that.

  • In the box "Search for a lab", type in preview

  • Look for Preview Pane by Peter B and Michael K, then click Enable, then click Save Changes at the bottom

  • Gmail will reload and the preview option will be available. But you still have to turn it on. Look next to the settings gear (top right) and you'll see a new option.

  • To set a time in seconds after which a previewed email will show as read, goto Settings (you remember how, right?)

  • Scroll down in the settings a few inches, look for Preview Pane: and select an option from Mark a conversation as read. Then Click Save Changes at the bottom.

  • Voila!

While you're at it, look at all the other cool labs available.

Other Cool Stuff

Google is your friend. There's a ton of cool Gmail add-ins that expand functionality in ways that no other email service does.

  • There's an ad-blocker that rids you of the already low-key ads (Gmelius) and enable some useful user interface tweaks.

  • There's an add in that lets you send encrypted email

  • much more.....  Just do some searching on Google

I'll add more tips and tricks as time goes on.

​Below is a screengrab of several icons and some clickable features.

  1. Archive: Remove from inbox (still visible in All Mail)

  2. Flag as spam and report to Google (makes spam detection smarter for everyone)

  3. Delete: Delete emails resides in Trash for 30 days

  4. Move: Apply a single label and remove from Inbox (this is more like a "folder move"). It simply adds a single label the removes the Inbox label. This feature isn't particularly useful since #1 and #5 together do the same thing.

  5. Apply label(s): Assign on or more labels to selected conversation

  6. Checkbox: Check one or more checkboxes to perform an action (1-5 above) on selected conversations

  7. Star this conversation

  8. Mark this conversation as "important"

gmail logo
diagram of various gmail features