Upgrade your Outlook and Gmail Skills

7 Outlook/Gmail Features That Will Cut Your Email Time

March 3, 2021

It’s no secret that managing email is one of the great struggles of being a professional today. While the numbers vary considerably, many people spend a third of their workday reading, writing, or processing emails.

Some have turned to powerful add-ins like Boomerang or even new email applications like Superhuman and Hey to hedge in the time they spend in their inbox. Others are trying to forego email altogether with team-based collaboration hubs like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Though a sizable number of people are beginning to look beyond the traditional email providers for solutions, it seems, at least in our anecdotal experience, that few are fully utilizing the existing standard email applications like Outlook and Gmail.

Outlook’s ribbons and Gmail’s settings are littered with tools, so it’s conceivable that most are overwhelmed by the number of options and instead, choose to stick with what they know. To help sort through the countless features, we’ve listed the ones that we have found save real time and are consistent with our research-based email management approach.

Here’s a quick index if you prefer to skip to a certain feature:

  1. Reusable Email Text: (Outlook + Gmail) Quickly insert standard text into any email rather than re-typing
  2. AI-Powered Email Writing: (Outlook + Gmail) Let your email app guess what you’re trying to say and then type it for you
  3. AI-Suggested Replies: (Outlook + Gmail) Before you type a word, let your email guess what you want to say
  4. Automate Actions for Specific Emails: (Outlook + Gmail) If you always do the same thing to certain emails, let your email app do it automatically
  5. Converting an Email into a Calendar Event: (Outlook + Gmail) Skip the back-and-forth toggling between your calendar and email and the re-typing and let your email app create the event itself
  6. Quick Steps: (Outlook only) Turn a multi-step action into a single step one
  7. Automatically Archive Emails When Responding: (Gmail only) Why take the extra step to file an email after sending a response when you can have Gmail automatically file it for you

7 Productivity-Boosting Email Features

Quick Parts (Outlook) / Templates (Gmail)

Find yourself sending pretty much the same email or parts of emails over and over again? Stop re-typing those standard responses and create a Quick Part in Outlook or a template in Gmail (Gmail previously called these “canned responses”).

To access Quick Parts in Outlook, you’ll need to open a message and have your cursor in the email body field.

To create a new Quick Part, type the desired text, highlight it, and then select “Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery,” the option shown at the bottom of the expanded menu. From then on, you’ll see that Quick Part in your menu. We’d recommend adding Quick Parts to your Quick Access Toolbar to make it easier to access quickly.

Templates in Gmail functions very similarly. To enable the Templates functionality, you need to first turn it on:

  1. Select the gear icon in the top right
  2. Select “See all settings”
  3. Click on the “Advanced” tab
  4. Under Templates, select “Enable”
  5. Select “Save Changes”

Once you do, you can create new and access existing templates from any email you plan to write by selecting the three vertical dots:

Smart Compose (Gmail) / Text Predictions (Outlook)

If you’ve gotten used to your phone guessing the word you’re typing, then you’ll appreciate Gmail and Outlook (and Google Docs/Word) doing the same. This can save a substantial amount of typing time as you tab through the typing of words.

Gmail beat Outlook to this game with its Smart Compose feature. To begin using it, you need to ensure it’s turned on:

  1. Select the gear icon in the top right
  2. Select “See all settings”
  3. Click on the “General” tab (if you’re not already there)
  4. Scroll down to the Smart Compose section and select “Writing suggestions on”
  5. Beneath it in the Smart Compose personalization section, select “Personalization on”
  6. Select “Save Changes”

Once you’ve done this, you should see the Smart Compose suggestions in a light grey font color as you type. If you want to take the suggestion, click TAB. If you don’t, just keep typing.

Outlook has recently rolled out a similar feature called Text Predictions. At this time, it’s only available to some users:

  • Outlook.com and Outlook on the web: Available for English users in North America. 
  • The feature is available for 50% of Windows Beta Channel users running Version 2010 Build 13301.20004 or later. 

Smart Reply (Gmail) / Suggested Replies (Outlook)

Smart Reply, though labeled differently, is a specific tool in the Smart Compose toolkit. Rather than waiting for you to begin typing, Gmail tries to predict what short replies you may want to use. When selected, it opens a reply email with the selected text inserted. You can then send the email or add to or modify the inserted text.

This, as you probably guessed, is particularly helpful when you only need to offer a short response and/or are replying to emails on your phone.

Suggested Replies functions the same way in Outlook. If you’re using your computer, you’ll have to have the same system requirements needed for Text Predictions. Suggested Replies works in the Outlook mobile app currently. Suggested Replies also include “Schedule Meeting” and “Attach File” options when thinks those may be relevant, streamlining the process even more.

You can learn how to turn this feature on here.

Filters (Gmail) / Rules (Outlook)

Many people open their inboxes to emails that they don’t need to process when they receive them. The most common example is newsletters, but advertisements and social media notifications can also fit this criterion. In these cases, you want to automatically route these emails to a specific folder/label and have them skip your inbox. This saves you the processing time and reserves your inbox for important, action-demanding messages.

In Outlook, you accomplish this automation by creating a rule. You can create rules free form by selecting Rules in the Home tab in the “Move” section.

Rules function like if-then statements: if an email meets certain conditions, then perform this action. If you don’t see the options you’re looking for, be sure to check the “Advanced Options.”

If you want to create a rule for a certain email, right-clicking on an email you want the rule to apply to and select “Rules.”

To do this in Gmail, you create a filter. You can create a filter from your inbox by selecting the down arrow next to the search field, entering characteristics of emails you want to filter, and then selecting “Create filter.”

Or when reading a message you want to filter, you can more easily create the filter by selecting the vertical three dots and selecting “Filter messages like these.”

Converting an Email into a Calendar Appointment

Even if you’re using Calendly, Acuity, Woven, or another scheduling app (which you should be doing), there are times when you need to create an invite from an email. In the old world, this was a painfully monotonous process consisting of flipping back and forth between the email and the new invite to make sure you’ve selected the right time, adding context to the invite that was likely already in the email, and retyping the invitees’ email address.

Fortunately, that process is no longer necessary. In Outlook, you need to create one of its suggested Quick Steps – Reply with Meeting – to make this work with one quick shortcut. (See the section on Quick Steps above if you haven’t already.) When initiated, Reply with Meeting will add the email addresses from the email to the invitee field and the body of the email to the appointment description field.

In Gmail, this inefficient process is solved by clicking on the 3 vertical dots in the email sending toolbar and selecting “Create event.” This captures the information in the email and the recipients of the email and ads them directly to the relevant event fields, saving you time and the annoyance of having to re-add them.

Quick Steps (Outlook)

Quick Steps allow you to complete an action with one click of the mouse or, preferably, one keyboard shortcut rather than the multiple mouse clicks it would normally take. To create your first Quick Step, select one of the standard ones from the Quick Steps section of the Home tab or create a new one from scratch:

There are a wide variety of actions you can have the Quick Step take, grouped into the following categories:

  • Filing
  • Change Status
  • Categories, Tasks, and Flags
  • Respond
  • Appointment
  • Conversations

You can also add multiple actions in a sequence and assign a keyboard shortcut to your Quick Step using the option in the bottom left.

Here are a few of our favorite Quick Steps:

  • File to a specific folder: If you’ve adopted our 1-3 email folder approach, then it is easy to set up a Quick Step for each of your folders. Then you can skip the drag and drop gamble that regularly leads emails to end up in the wrong folder and avoid the longer move shortcut (CTRL+SHIFT+V), which requires you to initiate the move action and then select the folder.
  • Email your team: Tiredof typing all your team members’ emails into the to field every time you send them a note? Create a “New Message” Quick Step and insert your team members’ emails into the to field.
  • Send an email to your to-do list: If you’re using a to-do list that makes it possible to convert emails into tasks, set a “Forward” Quick Step and insert the unique email address given to you by your to-do list provider and make that transfer process seamless.
  • Share with your assistant (or ticketing system): Similarly, if you regularly pass emails onto your assistant or some kind of centralized ticketing system, you can use the Forward Quick Step to trim steps on this operation as well.
  • Reply with Meeting: We’ll talk more about this below, but the simple benefit of this Quick Step is its ability to convert an email into a calendar appointment.

Send + Archive (Gmail)

The core practice of our email management approach is what we call the “Single-Touch Rule.” The single-touch rule states that every time you read an email in your inbox for the first time, you should move it out of your inbox by either deleting it or filing it in a folder. For emails you respond to, this requires an extra step: filing the email.

However, if you’re using our recommended email folder structure of 1-3 email folders with Gmail’s All Mail as your primary folder for all actionable emails, then you can eliminate this extra step by turning on the “Send + Archive” button. When turned on in the settings, it will replace the SEND button as the default sending option (though the SEND button will still be visible next to the SEND + ARCHIVE button). When selected or initiated using the same sending shortcut (CTRL+ENTER), this button sends the email you wrote and archives the received email into your All Mail folder.

Here’s how you turn on this feature:

  1. Select the gear icon in the top right
  2. Select “See all settings”
  3. Click on the “General” tab (if you’re not already there)
  4. Scroll down to the Send and Archive section and select “Show “Send & Archive” button in reply”
  5. Select “Save Changes”

As far as we’re aware, there is no equivalent of this for Outlook. If you know of one, please let us know. We’d love to use it ourselves!

Features We Didn’t Include on this List:

If you’re accustomed to either Outlook or Gmail, you may find it surprising what didn’t make it on this list:

  • Inbox type (Gmail)
  • Stars (Gmail) / Categories (Outlook)
  • Snooze (Gmail)

The reason you didn’t find them on this list because we generally do not recommend using them. We’re not going to provide our rationale here. If you’re very interested, feel free to email us. We did explain our point of view on the snooze feature in Gmail several years ago.

It’s easy to assume you’re an expert on an application because you use it a lot. But unfortunately, repetition alone does not guarantee mastery. You need to keep experimenting, learning, and reflecting on what is working and what isn’t about your current use of a product.

If you think there is an important feature we missed, please email us at connect@zarvana.com and we’ll consider adding it.