Take Your Email Productivity Off The Scale with Gmail’s Labels, Stars & Filters

  • Get your Gmail inbox down to zero emails in 15mins without losing anything
  • Create a new email workflow that lets you prioritize emails easily
  • Combine this with at-a-glance context for emails and email threads using Gmail’s Labels feature

A bit about me

I’m the Marketing Director of SkySQL, a database company with ~70 staff distributed around the world. Whilst we have all sorts of collaboration tools available to us, email remains the most heavily used means of communication. We’re a Google Apps (and thus Gmail) shop.

Drowning In Email

Company-wide email lists are extensively used and, as a member of the management team, I’m often copied into emails that are not directly relevant to marketing. In addition, Marketing is one of those disciplines that spans an entire business from sales, legal, finance, support, engineering and product management. My inbound emails are therefore extremely varied and high volume.

Within a couple of weeks of starting with the company I had resigned myself to the reality of an email box with thousands of unopened emails. And I really mean thousands.

“If its important, they’ll Skype me”, became my solution to prioritization. Not great I’ll admit but, in the circumstances, I felt I had little choice.

In an attempt to fix this common problem Google have introduced a default email tab system into Gmail but, to be honest, it just resulted in me missing incorrectly assigned email.

I was drowning in email and my productivity was suffering.

And then came a random blog…

A post on Facebook pointed me to the solution – an excellent blog by Andreas Klinger.

In just 15mins I had an empty Gmail inbox and had prioritised the most important mails for follow-up the next day. I felt very righteous.

Just to recap, Klinger uses Gmail’s Stars feature to organise emails into ‘sub-lists’ – what I will call ‘Star Sub-lists’. He chooses to name his Star Sub-lists the following (but you can call them what you want):

  • Action / Needs Reply
  • Awaiting Reply
  • Scheduled
  • Delegated

These lists work brilliantly for building a robust, dynamic workflow that lets you power through your emails fast. But what they lack is at-a-glance Context. Whilst I now know which emails are prioritised I don’t know what they’re actually about without looking at the full thread. Less than ideal.

Klinger mentions Gmail’s Labels feature as a substitute for Star Sub-Lists that work better on mobile devices. This is indeed true but what I discovered is that Labels can be combined with Star Sub-lists to take your productivity off the scale!

More about Gmail’s Labels

Gmail’s Labels feature is customisable and colour coded so that you can append emails and/or their threads with subject topic ‘labels’. As such, the Labels feature actually complements Star Sub-lists rather than offering an alternative.

When using Star Sub-lists there’s little room for a preview pane so Labels are ideal for quickly seeing what’s in an email even though the full title may not be visible.

You can apply Labels manually or use the Filters feature to auto-label new and old emails by subject and sender.


  • Select Settings and then Filters.
  • At the bottom of the list you can ‘Create a new filter’
  • Decide how you wish to filter your emails – keep the filtering simple so that you cast the net as wide as possible. Don’t combine senders or use too many keywords.
  • Select ‘Also apply filter to matching conversations’ so that all relevant email threads are labelled correctly. This can mean that email threads can have multiple labels – this is a good thing!

After 20mins or so, a significant proportion of your emails will be clearly labelled by subject topic and colour coded.

These are now viewable at-a-glance in your new split-screen email box and as dynamically sortable ‘Labels’ email folders. Job done.



Star Sub-Lists are great, particularly if you have a large screen but if you use a smaller format screen your new Inbox can look a little cramped.

One obvious candidate for removal is the ‘People Pane’. Now I’m sure some people think the People Pane  is useful but, for me, its pointless.

Although Gmail provides a Settings option to remove it under the General tab, unfortunately this just leaves a big, blank, white hole! The email box doesn’t resize to occupy this precious screen real estate. I’m guessing this ‘feature’ has something to do with the free Gmail’s desire to advertise in this area, but if you’re paying good money for a corporate Gmail account that shouldn’t really apply.


Preview panes have been around for years and are traditionally horizontal in format – placed underneath the Inbox.

For some reason Gmail only offers a vertical preview pane that lives off to the right of the Inbox. This doesn’t work well with Star Sub-lists because they occupy the space where a vertical preview pane would live.


I have found Gmail’s default ‘Markers’ feature singularly useless, even more so when you start using Star Sub-Lists. Fortunately you can switch them off by doing:

  • Settings > Inbox tab
  • Under ‘Importance Markers’ select ‘No Markers’



Unfortunately Star Sub-Lists don’t work perfectly with the Gmail’s mobile app.

The basic Star feature works in its default setting but when you add more variations it sends Gmail’s email counter a little haywire. Why? I don’t know.

However in the context of the huge amounts of upside to Star Sub-lists I’m willing to put up with this limitation.

The Result

  • All the benefits of the once mythical ‘zero inbox’
  • Prioritised email sub-lists that give at-a-glance insight into the email thread’s subject topic
  • The ability to review archived emails and threads by Label using the colour-coded smart email boxes.

My email is no longer a horror story but a virtual garden of Zen-like tranquillity.