The Best Gmail Hacks for Getting Work Done

A few simple plug-ins can transform you into a model employee, or make you seem like one

If your Gmail has the same features it did when you first signed up, you could be missing out. Installing a few tweaks can make you more productive, or at least make you look that way to your co-workers.

Google’s e-mail program is one of the most flexible ever created and has given rise to a small ecosystem of add-ons. You can endow your e-mail with superpowers that go way beyond sending and receiving messages. Sure, some are the equivalent of adding racing stripes to a car, but others are downright “how did I live without this” tools. If you’ve ever encountered simple frustration with your e-mail, chances are pretty decent that somebody’s built a plug-in that solves it. Here are a few of the ways tricking out your inbox can change your work life. 

Eliminate regrets

It’s an immutable law of e-mail: The second after you hit “send” is the moment you realize that maybe you shouldn’t have attached that picture, or have copied your boss, or really be e-mailing anybody at this ungodly hour. Gmail’s “Undo Send” gives you a mulligan. Instead of immediately flying off into the ether, messages linger for a few seconds while an “Undo” button sits at the top of your screen. 

To enable the feature, you’ll need to dig into Gmail’s “Labs,” which is basically a clearinghouse for experimental e-mail features that users can opt into. Click “Settings,” then “Labs,” then scroll down to “Undo Send” and select “Enable.” And you really should do this: “Undo Send” is one of the simplest and most useful e-mail add-ons ever created and has saved my hide more times than I can count.

Clone yourself

There’s an art to replying to e-mails. Shoot back a response too quickly, and you could come off as eager or desperate. Do it in the middle of the night, and you risk coming off as weird or being drowned out by a flood of overnight e-mails.

Boomerang For Gmail is a plug-in that lets users schedule outgoing e-mails—Perfect for fooling colleagues into thinking you work late into the night; you aren’t salivating over an impending deal; or you sent a "not feeling well, have to work from home" e-mail the moment you woke up, rather than the night before to lock in a late wake-up time. Basically, you can construct a fake you that does everything at just the right time. 

The plug-in works with Chrome, Firefox, and Safari Web browsers and has a free basic plan for users looking to schedule up to 10 messages per month. Heavy users will need to upgrade to a paid plan that allows for unlimited scheduled messages, as well as other features aimed at business users ($5-$50 per month).

Know whom you’re dealing with

If you’re dashing off a hundred e-mails a day, keeping track of the who, where, and why of it can be tricky. Numerous plug-ins have stepped in to solve this problem by giving you a quick-glance rundown of who's at the other end of your conversation. The best-known of these is probably Rapportive (available for Firefox and Chrome users), although FullContact offers a similar plug-in that is gaining traction. (You’ll need Chrome, though the company also has an iOS app)

Both products work similarly: When you open an e-mail, they display a sidebar that's essentially a stat-filled business card, complete with a photo, personal info, social media links, and other info that helps you answer that one question: “Who the heck is this person?” In practice, I've found FullContact to be the slightly more useful tool. Unlike Rapportive, it lets users add personal memos about their contacts and automatically retrieves more info from a wider range of social media sources (Rapportive’s info is largely limited to what it pulls from LinkedIn).

Detect e-mail white lies—and cover up your own

In the world of accountability-obsessed workers, there's a quiet, passive-aggressive e-mail arms race emerging. On one side are e-mail tracking plug-ins such as MailTrack that tell senders if, and exactly when, a recipient opened their message. On the other: E-mail-tracker trackers, such as Ugly Email, which lets wary users see which incoming e-mails have a tracker embedded. 

Mailtrack adds a column of check marks to your inbox indicating which messages have been opened. Ugly Email displays a small “eye” icon next to the subject line of tracked e-mails. Whether you're more interested in nailing e-mail recipients who feign ignorance of your memos or protecting your own right to do just that, there's a plug-in for you. 

Do just about everything else 

Of course, Gmail’s seemingly endless flexibility means there are countless other useful plug-ins I haven’t gotten to. A rapid-fire list of others worth checking out: Sortd turns your inbox into a bunch of manageable lists; Gmail Labs’ “Attachment Reminder” feature scans your e-mail for language that suggests you intended to attach a file and reminds you if you didn’t; Gmail Offline does what it sounds like, letting you search and prep messages when you don’t have an Internet connection; and HelloSign lets you add legally binding signatures to documents without leaving your e-mail.

If you use Gmail for any portion of your work communication, you're only cheating yourself if you don't at least experiment with some of these solutions. The next time you wonder what your most efficient colleague is doing right, consider that the answer might be as simple as souping up her inbox. 

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