ultimate guide to gmail

The Ultimate Guide To Gmail

Gmail is undeniably the most superior email client to date. It comes with a lot of great features, it looks great, it gets updated regularly (not always a good thing), it works on mobile and tablets, it is free…it is simply great. Gmail works perfectly fine out of the box and it is very intuitive, but if you want to take your inbox and productivity to the next level, you need to explore some of the more advanced features. Use the guide to Gmail below to improve your overall Gmail experience.

What This Guide To Gmail Covers (Table of Contents):

  1. How To Search Gmail Like a Pro
  2. Shortcuts – How To Dramatically Boost Your Productivity
  3. How To Enhance Gmail With The Help Of Labs
  4. Optimal Gmail Settings – How To Set Up Your Gmail Account For Maximum Efficiency
  5. How To Keep Your Gmail Account Secure

How To Search Gmail Like a Pro

One of Gmai’s best features is naturally its search function (it is a Google product after all). Long gone are the days where you had to create different folders and labels to organize your emails in a way that will enable you to find something at a later point in time. Now you can make use of a very robust search option.

But “searching” does not necessarily mean just putting in a single keyword and pressing the search button. Yes, often times that would be enough to find that email from Bob about the re-design of the logo from a week ago. For simple searches just enter your keyword in the search bar or use the little more advanced drop down:

how to search gmail

  1. Search: Allows to search all emails or narrow it down to a specific folder/label such as “Sent”, “Drafts”, or any other that you have manually created.
  2. From/To: this is where you can enter a specific email address or name of a person. When you start typing a name, Gmail will automatically display your contacts which contain that name. You can select one of the suggestions or just do a search for the name. From “bob@coolwebsite.com” will return only emails received from that specific email address. From “Bob” will return all emails sent from anyone named “Bob” regardless of their email address.
  3. Subject: If you know the subject of the email(s) you are looking for you can put in a search word in the “Subject” field.
  4. Has the word: Putting a keyword or phrase in the “Has the word” field will search for your query in all the content of your emails including sender name and email address, subject, body of email and even attachments. Unless you put in a very specific keyword here or use it in a combination with one or more of the other options, this will return a large number of results.
  5. Doesn’t have: the opposite of the one above, putting a keyword here will exclude it from the search. This option is best used in combination with #4. If you put in #4 the keyword “logo” and in #5 the keyword “bob”, Gmail will return all emails that contain the word “logo” with the exception of ones that also contain the word “bob”.
  6. Date within: This is where you can narrow your search based on a date. In the drop down you can choose from anywhere between 1 day and 1 year. In the empty field, you can enter a specific date such as 5/15/2013. You can even enter something like “Today” or “Monday”. Gmail is “smart” enough to know what is your current date and time so you don’t have to use an exact date all the time.Has attachment: checking/unchecking this option will allow you to look for email containing any type of an attachment.

For best results, it is always a good idea to use a combination of the above fields. At minimum, enter the name of a person in the “From” field and include some kind of a keyword in “Has the words”. Ideally, you are going to enter an email address in “From”, use a more narrow phrase in “Has the word” and give the search some kind of a time frame.

But what if you want to go beyond the basics? What if you want to find all emails that were received 17 months ago and have an attachment larger than 2 MB but exclude all those cute cat pictures that your cousin Julie sends you every week? For that you’ll need to go advanced.

Here’s How To Perform Advanced Searches In Gmail:

All of the above search functions can be manually entered in the search bar as one long query. This gives you a lot more flexibility allows for much narrower searches.

Instead of clicking on the drop down and entering something in the “From” field, you can simple enter “from:bob” (omit the quotes) in the search field:

Gmail advanced search

Syntax is very important when you are performing advanced searches. Notice how there is no spacing between the colon and the keyword. If you enter an extra space (from: bob), the search results will be vastly different.

Here is the more advanced version of the all search functions mentioned earlier (omit the quotes):

  • From: “from:keyword”
  • To: “to:keyword”
  • Subject: “subject:keyword”
  • Has the word: “keyword”
  • Doesn’t have: “-keyword”
  • Attachment: “has:attachment”
  • Date: “before:specific date” and/or “after:specific date”

How To Become a Gmail Search Black Belt:

Now that you have mastered the advanced searches, it is time to take it up a notch:

  • OR – allows you to combine two or more search criteria, either of which can be met. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com OR from:jane@coolsite.com” will find you all the emails from either Bob or Jane. “OR” needs to be all caps.
  • in:anywhere – performs the search anywhere in your email with the exception of Spam and Trash. “from:bob in:anywhere” will show you all emails from Bob.
  • in:specific place – allows you to narrow down the search to a specific folder in your email account. Example: in:trash, in:inbox, in:travel, etc.
  • is:read / unread / starred – searches for messages that are read, unread or starred. Example “from:bob@coolsite.com is:unread” will find all emails from Bob that are still unread.
  • – (hyphen) – excludes a keyword from the search. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com is:unread -logo” will show you all unread messages from Bob that do not contain the word “logo”. You can also use the hyphen in combination with {} to exclude an email address. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com -{bob@gmail.com}” will return all emails from Bob excluding the ones sent from his Gmail account.
  • “” (quotes) – used to look for an exact phrase. Example: “meeting on monday” (including the quotes) will return all emails that contain that exact phrase. Capitalization does not matter.
  • ( ) (parentheses) – used to group words. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com is:unread (logo OR design OR graphics)” will return all unread messages from Bob that have the keywords “logo”, “design” or “graphics”.
  • before: / after: / older: / newer: – returns date specific emails. The date format is yyyy/mm/dd. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com before:2013/05/01 after:2013/04/28” will return all emails from Bob between April 28th and May 1st 2013.
  • older_than: / newer_than: – returns date specific emails but allowing the use of relative dates. Use “d” for day, “m” for month and “y” for year. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com older_than:3y” will return all emails from Bob that are older than 3 years.
  • size: – allows you to look for emails larger than a specific size. Example: “from:bob@coolsite.com older_than:3y size:2m” will show you all emails from Bob that are older than 3 years and bigger than 2 MB each.

Combining two or more of these search criteria make it literally impossible not to be able to find a specific email or set of emails in your inbox.

Here is how the search would look like for those emails from 17 months ago that have attachments larger than 2 MB but are not from your cousin Julie and contain the word “logo” or “design”

has:attachment before:2012/01/15 after:2011/12/15 size:2m -{julie@gmail.com} (logo OR design)

Shortcuts – How To Dramatically Boost Your Productivity

Learning how to use the keyboard more and the mouse/touchpad less will boost your typing and processing speed in any software. It is true for word processing products like Word, presentation software such as Keynote, drawing applications such as Photoshop and it is definitely true for Gmail. There is a shortcut for Send. Compose, Reply, Delete and most of the other major actions that you take in your inbox and making use of them will speed up your email processing, by a lot.

How To Enable Keyboard Shortcuts in Gmail

Shortcuts are not enabled by default in Gmail but you can do it manually in a few clicks of the mouse.

Click on the Gear icon in the top right corner and select Settings. In the General tab scroll down to the Keyboard Shortcuts section, select the “On” option, scroll all the way down and click on the Save Changes button.

how to enable keyboard shortcuts in gmail

The Most Important Shortcuts

Once you have enabled shortcuts, it is time to start learning and using them. Here is a list of the most important and widely used shortcuts:

  • “O” – open – opens the first message in your inbox
  • “R” – reply – opens up up the reply window for the email you are currently viewing
  • “Ctr + Enter” / “⌘ + Enter” – send – sends the message/reply you are composing
  • “#” – delete – deletes the email you are currently viewing
  • “E” – archive – archives the message you have open
  • “!” – report as spam – reports the message you have open as spam and sends it to the spam folder
  • “C” – compose – opens the compose new message window
  • “F” – forward – forwards the email you have open

This is a list of the most common shortcuts that everyone should know and use. If you a find that these are not enough for you or you want a shortcut for some other action not listed above, check out the full list of shortcuts in the Gmail help section.

How To Easily Learn The Shortcuts

Most of your typing is based on muscle and finger memory. Because you have been doing it for such a long time and you do it so often, your fingers have literally memorized where each key is. In other words, you’ve developed a habit.. Same goes for actions that involve the mouse or touch pad. When you want to click the Send button after you are done composing an email, you just reach for the mouse and click the button, it is an almost fully unconscious process.

If you want to start using the shortcuts you need to break your old habits and create new ones. The only way to do so it through conscious repetition. Choose two (2) shortcuts that you think will save your the most time. Memorize the keys on the keyboard and the next time you are in your inbox make the effort to use them and move away from the mouse. Use the two keys for all emails, all the time, the mouse is now off limits in regards to those two actions.

The more you practice, the easier it will get. Usually it takes about 30 days of repetition to turn an action into a habit. Depending on how many emails you write each day, it might take you less. The key is repetition. The more you do it, the more your fingers and brain will adjust to the new routine and you will find yourself doing it without even thinking.

Once you are comfortably using the two new shortcuts, pick two new ones and go through the same process. It is important to take your time and learn them in pairs of two. If you try to use all of the shortcuts at once, you will most likely fail when you are pressured by time or circumstances. Unfortunate, but true. When under stress, most of us reverse quickly to our old habits. The less change you introduce at once, the more likely you are to succeed.

How To Enhance Gmail With The Help Of Labs

Labs enable Gmail users to test out some new features that are not yet part of the regular inbox. Gmail calls them “some crazy experiment stuff”. Many of the features that make Gmail what it is today started out as Labs and were later added permanently. The “Send and Archive” and “Refresh” buttons are two good examples.

Where To Find Gmail Labs

Click on the “Gear” icon and select Settings.

using gmail labs


The 9th tab from left to right is called “Labs”.

where to find gmail labs

The Best Gmail Labs

Some Labs aim to make your inbox just better visually, while others provide extra functionality. They are constantly changing so some of the ones listed below might not be available anymore (depending on when you are reading this) but here are the current top ones:

  • Undo Send – gives you a window of opportunity to not send an email after you have already clicked on the Send button. Many times you realize you are sending the message to the wrong person, you forgot to include the attachment or you mistyped something, but ironically this realization comes to you the moment after you have sent the message. With this Lab you can simply click the “Undo” button for a couple of seconds and make that correction. Very useful feature that can save you a lot of trouble.
  • Unread Message Icon – it simply adds an icon with the number of unread messages you have on the top left corner of your browser tab. It is helpful to know how many emails you have waiting for you if you need to switch to a different tab. It saves only a few seconds, but it makes your life easier.
  • Authentication icon for verified senders – adds a little “key” icon to show if the sender has been authenticated. A lot of spammers will send you emails that look like the real deal from PayPal, Ebay, Bank of America and other major websites. You can get yourself in identity theft trouble if you get fooled into believing those messages are authentic. Enable this feature for a piece of mind.
  • Custom keyboard shortcuts – as discussed earlier in this guide, keyboard shortcuts can really boost your speed and productivity. If you want to use them, but for some reason do not like the default ones, use this Lab to make your own custom ones. You can only change the keys though, you cannot make your own shortcuts for functions that Gmail does not already have one for.

There are a lot of other Labs but I find most of them to be distracting, rather than helpful. For a full list of the current Gmail Labs follow the instructions above to the Labs tab and check all of the options Gmail gives you. Check that section out regularly as a lot of new Labs get added.

If you are using a Lab and have something to say about it, good or bad, go back to the Labs tab and send feedback to the creators. Labs are all “test” features so feedback is critical in the decision of whether to keep them or not.

Optimal Gmail Settings – How To Set Up Your Gmail Account For Maximum Efficiency

Gmail is great, and even if you don’t change any of the standard settings you are going to have an exceptional experience with it, but for maximum productivity here are some of the features that need to be adjusted:

Display Density

display density gmail

You can choose from one of three choices: Comfortable, Cozy and Compact. My personal preference is “Compact” because it eliminates the extra space and gives a more neat and organized feel to my inbox. Play around with the different options and see which look works best for you.

General Settings

Send and Archive – turn to “show” to display the “send an archive” button when replying to an email. This will save you a couple of clicks when you are done with sending an email and you want to archive it.

show and archive gmail button

Keyboard Shortcuts – turn keyboard shortcuts “on” to start using your keyboard instead of your mouse when processing emails. Using shortcuts, as discussed before, can be a major time saver.

keyboard shortcuts gmail

Signature – depending on whether you use Gmail for business or personal emails, your signature should display different information. For business emails, include your name, title, company name and business contact information. For personal accounts, include just your name. Having a signature will save you a lot of time when writing an email as you don’t have to sign each one individually.

I use a simple signature that says “Regards” and has my name and email below it. I use this for both personal and business emails. It is not too business-y for my friends and family and it is not too casual for business partners so I have found it to work best for me.

Check the box below the signature to make sure it gets inserted at the start of your emails, not at the bottom. When you are composing a new email, this does not make a difference. When you are replying to someone it helps prevent that seemingly endless flow of signatures at the bottom of a long thread of emails.

best signature for gmail

How To Keep Your Gmail Account Secure

Google and Gmail go to a great extent to ensure that all of their user accounts are safe and secure. Regardless, hackers always manage to find a way, a backdoor of some kind, to hack the accounts of innocent and unsuspecting people. Some do it to steal an identity, some to get access to sensitive business, personal or financial information that people often keep in their emails, some do it just for fun and because they can. Whatever reasons hackers have to infiltrate your account, if it happens to you, you loose the most so it is up to each individual user to ensure their Gmail account is as secure as it can be.

Don’t fall pray of the “this cannot happen to me” or “it is not my responsibility” way of thinking. Be proactive when it comes to security and minimize the risk of getting hacked using the following steps:

1) Have a secure password

The security of any account is based on the strength of the password used to access it. Ideally, you are going to have a different password for each account that you have. At minimum, if you are using the same password for a couple of places, have a unique one just for your Gmail account. This way, if the security of one of the other places gets compromised, the hackers won’t have access to your email account as well.

Use the following password best practices:

1) Use a combination of letters and numbers.

2) Have at least one capital letter, ideally not at the start of your password.

3) Don’t use your name, family name, the name of a family member/pet/best friend/favorite team or your date of birth. Most of this information is known to a lot of people or it can be easily found with a simple Google search.

4) Don’t use common words such as “God” or “password” or some other easily guessable word.

5) Don’t use simple number combinations such as “123 / 321” or “987”.

6) The best passwords are made out of abbreviations in combination with a number. Think of your favorite phrase from a song or motivational quote and write it down. Take the first letter of each word and use the combination as your new password.

For example, one of my favorite motivational quotes is “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best”. So the password that comes out of that (not my actual password of course) is “gbbnliruygibaybib”. To an outside person this looks like a random set of letters, but not to you.

For the numbers part, use something that makes sense to you but is not a matter of public knowledge. The year that you bought your house spelled backwards, the date of your first kiss, the last 4 digits of your mom’s phone number, the year your parents met spelled backwards, etc.

2) Add/update your recovery email address

The recovery email address is what is used if you ever need to reset your password. Make sure you enter an email account that you have access to and that you don’t use the same password for both accounts.

To add a recovery email address (or check what you have previously entered), click on the little arrow next to your profile picture and click on “Account”.

secure gmail account

Click on “Add” next to recovery email address.

set up gmail recovery address

You will be prompted to enter your password before you can add or edit the recovery email address. This way Gmail ensures that people cannot change important settings without knowing your password.

One the next screen, click on “Add a recovery email address”, enter the email address and click “Save”.

gmail recovery email address

3) Add/update a recovery mobile phone number

As an added layer of protection and to recover your password if you ever need to, make sure you have set up your recovery mobile phone number.

Follow the same steps as before to get to your account settings.

Click on “Security” from the left hand navigation.

gmail security

Under “Recovery options” click on “edit”.

recovery phone number gmail

Click on “Add phone”. Select your country and enter your mobile phone number. Gmail will use that number to send you verification text messages so make sure you enter a cell phone number, not a static land line. When you are done, click “Save” on the bottom.

recovery phone number

4) Enable 2-Step Verification

To really tighten the security of your email account, Gmail offers a 2 step verification feature. When enabled, after you enter your password Gmail will send you a one time code via a text message, call or through their mobile app, that you need to enter in order to access your account. This added layer of security ensures that even if someone steals your password, they cannot login to your email unless they also have your cell phone. You can choose between verification each time you login or once per computer which is the more common option.

To enable 2-step verification, follow the steps described above to get your security account settings. Once there, scroll down and click on “edit” next to 2-step verification.

two step verification gmail

The following screen gives you a little more information on the process. To get started click on “Start setup”.

gmail two step verification

Enabling the 2-step verification takes 4 simple steps. In step one you need to enter your phone number. If you have previously added a recovery phone number it should already be filled out for you. You can of course use a different number here but for simplicity, I suggest using the same number. Make sure to select your country as well.

You have a choice between receiving a text message (SMS) and a voice call. This is NOT the setting for the future and how you will receive your codes going forward, this is just for the one time verification process you need to go through in order to enable the whole 2-step process. If you are in the US, use a text message, if you are located anywhere else, it is best to select voice call as the text messages don’t always go through. Select your preference and click on “Send Code”.


In step number two, you’ll need to enter the verification code you should’ve received on your phone. Sometimes it takes a couple of minutes to get it via a text message. If after a few minutes you haven’t received the code click on “Didn’t get the code?” and select to receive a phone call. If you have previously selected the voice call, give it a couple more minutes and try again. When you do receive the code, enter it and press on “Verify”.

gmail verification code

Step 3 will ask you if you are on a “trusted” computer. If you are doing the verification process on your home computer or any other personal device, leave the box checked. If you are doing this from work or a public computer, uncheck the trust computer option.

A trusted computer is a computer you can use to access your Gmail account if you ever lose your phone so it is highly recommended to set up at least one.

Select the appropriate option depending on the computer you are currently on and click on “Next”.

gmail trusted computer

The final step, step four, is just a confirmation that you have successfully completed the process. Just click on “Confirm” to enable the 2-step verification.


That’s it, you are done. You have officially enabled the 2-step verification and secured your Gmail account.

The next screen will present to you the different options you have in case something happens to your phone or you lose it. Although it is highly unlikely that something will happen to your phone, you need to be prepared so you don’t lock yourself out from your own account. The backup choices are the following:


1) Enter a backup phone that can be used to gain access to your account. This can be a secondary phone of yours or the one of a trusted family member or friend. Gmail won’t send anything to them unless you tell them to so this is a phone number just for emergencies.

2) You can download the Google Authenticator mobile app on your iPhone, Android or Blackberry device and use it to obtain a verification code. You can opt-in for this to be your default way of generating a code, not just for emergencies. This option is also great if you don’t have cell phone reception or want to avoid being charged for receiving a text message.

3) Gmail also provides a set of backup codes in case you have no cell phone coverage or in case you don’t have access to your phone. Each code can be used only once. You can print them and keep them in a secure place at home or in your wallet.

5) Enable Https

If signing in to Gmail from a public place (Starbucks, hotel, public wi-fi, etc.) you should always use a secure connection (https). As a matter of fact, even if you are at home or at work, it is always a good idea to have https on, it is just a security best practice. This will protect your information from being stolen by a hacker or malicious software.

How To Enable Https:

Go to Settings (the gear icon on the top right) > General tab > Browser connection

Select “Always use https”.


Scroll down and click on save changes.

6) Check Granted Access and Forwarding Options

If a hacker has already gained access to your account in some way, chances are they have granted access to one of their accounts and/or are forwarding your incoming messages to an email address of theirs. To verify that has not happened, you need to check your “granted access” and “forwarding” options.

To check if your Gmail account has granted access to someone else go to Settings > Accounts tab. Under “grant access” there should be no account listed or at least no account that you don’t recognize if you are using this feature yourself. The option should look like this:


To check your forwarding options go to Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab. Under forwarding, no email address should be listed. If you see that your emails are getting forwarded to an unknown address, delete it, change your password immediately and use the above steps to protect your account. If there has been no security breach, your forwarding options should look like this:

gmail forwarding options

7) Revoke Unauthorized Access

One of the ways for hackers to obtain access to your Gmail account is through using a website or web application that requires access to your Gmail. You might have unknowingly allowed such access so you need to check on a regular basis to make sure nothing shady is going on. Because this access is connected to your entire Google account, not just Gmail, it can easily be overlooked.

In addition, Google has made a pretty good job at making it hard for you to find the applications to which you have granted access. Not that they are purposely trying to hide this information from you, but with the continuous updates to the Gmail and Google interface, this valuable information can get easily buried.

To check what application (if any) you have granted access to:

– login to your Gmail account

– go to this page (I’m giving you the direct link to the page so you’ll always have access to it regardless of the latest interface changes Gmail makes)

– check to see if there are any unauthorized websites or web applications listed.

– if you see something that you don’t recognize, revoke its access as a safety precaution by clicking on the “Revoke Access” link next to the application.

If you have not granted access to any website/web application, your page should look this this:


8) Monitor Activity

Despite all the measures you take to keep your account secure, you can never be 100% sure they will work all the time. I know it sounds a little doom and gloom but it is the sad truth. Hackers will always come up with new ways to try to gain access to people’s account so noone is ever 100% protected. If you have followed all the steps above, your Gmail account is pretty secure but you should always keep an eye out and monitor the activity on your account. It only takes a few seconds to check and this is the easiest way to spot any irregularities in your account.

To check the activity on your account click on the little “Details” link on the bottom of every Gmail page.


This will pop up a new tab that will show you the most recent logins to your account along with IP addresses and locations. Look for irregularities in the access type and location. For example, if you are using only your browser to access your email, your should not see mobile or POP3 logins. If you are located in San Diego, California, you should not see locations that are pretty far away or in a different country.

I am located in Canada and I mainly access my email from my computer so the following activity is what “normal” looks for me:


Ideally, you are going to regular the sign in activity once a day but if that sounds a little extreme for you, shoot for once a week.


Gmail is amazing as it is but with the help of the above guide to Gmail, you can get a lot more out of it. Optimize your account with suggested settings, learn a few of the shortcuts and advanced searches and when you are comfortable with those, learn some more. Check out the Labs on a regular basis as new ones get added all the time and most importantly be proactive when it comes to the security of your account.

What are some other trips and hacks that you use in your Gmail account? Share in the comment section below.