After a long courtship, I recently pledged my everlasting love for Gmail, forsaking all other e-mail systems (well, almost) in favor of Google's free, Web-hosted service. But as in any relationship, my passion for Gmail is constrained by practical concerns. Though it possesses many excellent qualities, Gmail is far from perfect. Fortunately, I've uncovered some strategies that will give my walk down the aisle with Gmail a good chance of yielding a happily ever after.
Read, Label, Archive
Most e-mail users dream of an empty inbox--evidence that we've read and deleted (or filed) all incoming messages, and are now free to take the rest of the day off. Because Gmail offers you more than 5GB of storage, the only messages you need to delete are those you never want to see again. To banish pieces of e-mail from your inbox but keep them handy, add a check mark beside them under Select on the left side of the screen, and then click Archive. This step hides messages from plain view without expunging them (there's more on archiving below).
To make your archived messages easier to find later, use Gmail's labels to categorize them by topic, project, sender, or any other criterion that makes sense to you. Most e-mail programs let you sort your mail into folders, but Gmail's labels improve on folders in one powerful way: Instead of requiring that mail go into only one folder at a time, they let you assign Gmail messages to multiple categories simultaneously. For example, a single properly labeled message that pertains to both Project A and Project B will appear in the collection of messages labeled 'Project A' as well as in the 'Project B' group.
To categorize a message, open it and choose one of the labels on the More Actions drop-down menu, or check one or more messages in one of the message list views, and then choose the label from the same menu. Alternatively, to create new labels on the fly, choose New label from the menu (see the image at left). To view or modify your labels, first choose Settings, Labels in the upper right-hand portion of Gmail's interface; this will open a page where you can rename or remove individual labels, view a list of messages tagged with each label, or create a new label. Unlike deleting a folder in a standard e-mail program, deleting a label doesn't wipe out the messages tagged with that label, so feel free to delete any labels you no longer need.
You can also remove labels from individual messages without deleting the labels themselves. First, open a single message or check multiple messages in the mail list; then choose More Actions. Scroll to and select the unwanted label beneath the 'Remove label' heading. To find messages no longer tagged with a label, click All Mail in the far left pane to see the list of every message stored in your account.
Gmail's inbox is just another tag that incoming messages receive by default. Should you mistakenly archive a message (which strips it of its 'Inbox' tag), you can return it to your inbox by clicking All Mail, selecting the message, and clicking Move to Inbox. A similar method enables you to retrieve messages that you inadvertently send to the Trash folder. Gmail's handy habit of grouping e-mail conversations into message threads also means that messages you've archived will pop back into your mailbox as soon as someone else posts a response to an earlier message in the thread. If you no longer have any interest in the conversation, prevent it from reappearing in your inbox by checking it, and then choosing Mute from the More Actions menu.