Optimizing Gmail Settings for Productivity, Part 1

Lots of people use Google’s email, and lots of people never take the time to look at, or configure, all the settings that make Gmail the perfect product that it is. In the next few blog posts, we’ll look at all the settings in detail, learn what they are and what they do, and what’s recommended. So, get ready to configure your mail!


First up – how do you get to the settings? Click on the gear wheel symbol in the top right hand corner of your email window (located at mail.google.com). Then click Settings. The Settings are organized in tabs across the top, and starts with the General Settings. Next are Labels, Inbox, and so on. Here’s what you need to know about the General Settings, Part 1.

1. Language

The language option lets you pick which language you compose emails in, and depending on your preference, it’s easy to correspond in more than one tongue. When writing my family in Sweden, I change to Swedish in order to use our three extra letters, å, ä, and ö. If you enable the input tools, you can make all sort of magic happen, including handwriting input, transliteration from English to other languages, and using a virtual keyboard for special characters from Asian, Arabic, or Cyrillic alphabets.

Fig 1. – It’s easy to use your native keyboard on screen, instead of switching your whole interface, especially when using multiple machines throughout the day.

2. Phone Numbers

When you get an email containing a phone number, Gmail assumes you’d like to be able to call it directly, either using Google Voice, or if you’re on your mobile device, using that. The setting here assumes a certain country code, and I have mine set to United States. Yours might differ, if you’re not in the US.

3. Maximum page size

Unlike me, lots of people use the default mailbox setting (I use the Priority Mailbox), and display all mail in a running list, from newest on top, to oldest on the bottom. The maximum pages size allows you to set how many conversations you see at one time, limiting scrolling, or encouraging it, depending on you setting. Mine are set to 50 conversations per page, and 250 contacts per page. Since I use search a lot in email, I rarely need to scroll all that much, especially in contacts. Your mileage may vary.

4. External content

Lately, I’ve been getting lots of external content, or in real world speak, images and commercial content, like ads from vendors, etc in my email. I let Gmail display stuff from trusted sources (people whom you’ve sent at least two emails) so I don’t have to click an extra time before seeing what they send me. But, if you’re only ‘getting’ email from Santa this season, but haven’t sent him anything, his images of elves working hard won’t show up if you don’t want to. Some services also use the image fetching feature (like when you select to display the images) to track whether or not you’ve opened the email at all.

Fig 2. – Not ready for this guy, or other ads and images in your email? Ask Gmail to always prompt you before displaying external content in the Settings > General. As of early December 2013, displaying external content is now on by default.


If you’re nervous about seeing external content, you can have Gmail always ask before seeing external content, which might be good for some people. On a mobile device, you typically won’t see external content at all, due to the load times of pulling down images or large content.

5. Browser connection

My recommendation here is to always go for https, and use the Chrome browser. If not, you’re not requiring Gmail to use a more secure connection to your email, which leaves you open for interference from that guy behind you at the coffee shop. Use http only, and you’re likely not the only one reading your email. Security is important. Use https whenever you can.

6. Default reply behavior

Sometimes you will want reply to all as the default reply setting, like if you’re operating in an enterprise environment, and you communicate with a team, and other times you want to just reply to one person. Either way, this is where you set the default for the reply behavior.

7. Default text style

The default text style controls your visual pleasures when reading and composing email. If you don’t do anything, email is displayed in a basic sans serif font. But, if you’re more likely to read and compose stuff in Tahoma, you can make that happen here. The same is true for text size, something that’s very helpful for the visually impaired, or younger kids, perhaps.


Either way, you can control your experience, which is key. Remember, depending on the format of the email you get, these options may not be available, or may not be used – it depends on whether or not Gmail can control the incoming content.

8. Conversation View

One of the finest features of Gmail is the conversation view. Instead of displaying each new response to an email as a separate entity, Gmail displays it inline as a conversation, so you don’t have to remind yourself what it’s all about before responding, or search your inbox for the last email in the series. Gmail simply displays all email from a conversation together. Neat, right? If you haven’t tried it (although it’s the default in Gmail) you should give it a try right away. It’s usually the feature that scares Outlook users at first, but once you’re using it, there’s no going back.

Fig 3. – Conversation view is super helpful when trying to keep track of conversations – and there’s no need to search your inbox for previous emails, since Gmail keeps track of them for you, and groups them as above. Notice the compressed lines below Varun’s first email – those are conversations in the middle, and by clicking in that area, you can expand and read those emails as well for reference. Gmail always shows you email you haven’t read – so you won’t miss out. Promise.

9. Send and Archive

The send and archive workflow works wonders for me as I almost always will reply to an email, send it, then archive it. So why not put the last two into one step, the Send & Archive? If enabled, your option after replying to an email is now to send and archive at once, with a swift return to the inbox. If disabled, you’ll have to decide what to do next as an extra step. You have the option to only send the email as well, which is handy for multiple responses to different people from one email (which, yes, happens a few times a week for me).

Fig 4. – The Send & Archive (blue button) makes dealing with replys so much faster, since this workflow is so common.

10. Preview Pane

If you’re using the lab Preview Pane from the Gmail Labs, you’ll have the ability to display email using a vertical or horizontal pane setup – much like in Outlook. This controls when the email you’re looking at becomes ‘read’, as in “not new” anymore. I have it set to immediately, but I don’t use the Preview Pane, so it probably doesn’t matter that much.

11. Stars

The stars are ways of flagging your email. In Outlook, and many mobile clients, you only have a flag on or off. In Gmail, you have lots of choices – they mean whatever you want them to mean, but I’ll share mine with you here. To apply a flag, or star, you simply keep clicking to mark the email from the list view, where there’s a blank outline of a star already, to cycle through the choices you’ve setup.

Fig 5. – My stars – the yellow star is for basic follow up needs, the blue star for followup that’s specific for school stuff (our color), and the green check mark for stuff that’s done, but I want to keep the email in my inbox. The red exclamation, or bang, is for emergency issues, the blue information for just that – stuff that has info I need, and the purple question mark for emails that require more information before I respond, or take action.


Next week we’ll look at the rest of the General Settings, and explore the Signature and Vacation responder.


Andreas Johansson is the Director of Technology Integration & Curriculum for Kenston Local Schools in Ohio, a Google Apps for Education Certified Trainer, and flags emails left and right! You can find him here.