Computing @ College: gMail

Computing @ College is a series focused on helping college students enhance their lives through technology tools they already use or potentially could use, increasing their awareness of the capabilities and limitations of the technology they might already possess or perhaps should possess. The series is neither traditional news-reporting nor works of opinion, but rather a lifestyle feature for college students who are progressively finding that clever technology use is paramount to their success.

E-Mail: We can’t live with it, we can’t live without it. How many important emails have we sent that were never replied to? How many cool opportunities did we miss out on because we ourselves waited too long to reply—or even worse—lost that email containing the opportunity!? So chaotic, so disorganized, no wonder most of us turn FaceBook into some type of lame quasi-email system. That all ends today! By the end of this column, you’ll have yourself embracing email once more as a way to make life easy. We’re all busy college students who need to stay in touch as best we can, and the best way to do that is to use an email system that, to borrow a phrase from Cupertino, “just works.” That system is gMail + the “empty inbox regime.” Confusing? Arcane? Another cheesy diet plan? This column unfortunately won’t provide you with any of that, but it will almost certainly teach you a thing or two about email that will change your life forever!

First and foremost, you should all know that the fancy “@_insert_university_here.edu” address you’ve been given does not last forever (unless you plan to work your way through academia up to tenured professor status at the same campus). You will have one year (at most institutions) to transition out of that address into something more permanent. At that point, you should already have a handy gMail account ready to go, and if you don’t, you should get one now. Why gMail? You’ll know just why after reading through my advice.

gMail doesn’t use ‘folders.’ Instead, it uses ‘labels.’ This beats all other e-mail providers because it solves the problem of having an e-mail that might belong in multiple folders. Simply slap on multiple labels and search those labels to pull up what you’re looking for.

Having simple labels like ‘Family’ or ‘Shopping’ makes life easier, but it won’t make you truly efficient. Consider adopting an ‘e-mail regime’ that will really help you take control of your inbox. Your aim should be to always have an empty inbox. Upon receiving an e-mail, you must make a decision right at that moment whether or not you will read it, and if you read it, whether you will be able to respond to it right away, or at a later time, or if it’s to be deleted, or if it’s to be archived. If you have time to respond, do so and then archive your message. (In this age where providers hand out gigabytes of space, there’s no reason to delete your messages anymore.) If you aren’t able to respond immediately, flag it with a label like “Follow Up” (you may want to use caps and red coloring to make it stand out). For messages that you send and are waiting to hear back on, apply a label like “Hold” or “Stand-by.” This way you know which emails you must respond to and which ones you’re waiting for a response from. Using this system will clear your inbox quickly and you’ll even start to see e-mail as a task-management system, with messages serving as part of an active to-do list of sorts (because emails are always somehow tied to various projects and activities we’ve got going on).

There are certainly a few more advantages to using gMail none of us should forget. For example, the service does not account for periods in an email address, so if there’s a site you don’t feel comfortable handing your address to, you can simply give them one that reads, “jo.hn.do.e@gmail.com.” If that site ever spams you, you can then block all messages that are routed to that specific address you gave it. Also, you can use “+” in your address to filter messages as well. For example, I use “johndoe+food@gmail.com” when I sign up for online ordering sites like Chipotle’s, Domino’s, etc… Then I can use that “to”-address to create more labels.

Finally, returning back to where this column started, gMail is really great for consolidating e-mail accounts (especially when you’re forced to transition out of your university e-mail account). In the ‘Accounts and Import’ tab of the Settings page, you can import/move (which is not the same as forwarding) all your messages from other accounts with providers like Yahoo, Hotmail, etc… then also setup forwarding to continue that process. Don’t forget that you can slap labels onto the various messages coming from different accounts as well to get an even better communications workflow going. For example, I’ve assigned the “@CalMail” label to all messages sent to my “@berkeley.edu” address. With that example and the other ones mentioned, it’s easy to see how a fully tweaked gMail account can turn a quick glance at an inbox into a comprehensive snapshot of all your critical communications.