On Back to Work episode 37, Merlin talks about how much he still loves the Gmail web interface. In short, he prefers working out of the web UI, but he still runs Mail 5 for OmniFocus processing—and perhaps for other forms of Merlin magic we aren’t meant to know.

I used only the Gmail web interface for years, but lately I’ve started working more out of Mail 5. I’m finding that instead of choosing one over the other, using both together makes me better at email.

Why I use the Gmail web UI

Triage. Web key commands like j, k, and e let me fly through mail when my inbox is getting out of control. Gmail also does a world-class job of bundling conversations. Yes, better than Mail 5. Gmail’s web UI helps me ignore what I don’t need to see.

Filtering. Gmail’s filters are a godsend. I have too many to list, but they all really accomplish the same goal: keep my inbox clean, regardless of which mail client I’m using. It’s hard for any local mail client to beat the server-side filtering Gmail offers.

Why I use Mail 5

Window size flexibility. I get a lot of email from the students that take my web-based actuarial seminars. These emails often have multiple questions, which require me to reference PDF and other documents. It’s so much easier to align a Mail 5 message window with other windows (e.g. PDF) than it is to align a browser. Being able to see the message window at all times makes replying to these emails far more efficient.

Address book separation. Since Mail 5 and the Mac Address Book are two separate programs, I don’t have to leave mail to view contacts like I do in the Gmail web UI.

Mailbox unification. Mail 5 lets me work with Gmail and non-Gmail accounts in the same place. It creates a lightening-fast unified search environment, too. Love this.

Backup. Simply by running Mail 5 regularly, I’ve created an offline backup of my mail. I know it’s not likely that my Gmail account will vanish from Google’s servers, but nothing’s guaranteed. And how much are you paying Google to guarantee the existence of your email? Yeah.

Mail 5 messages are accessible offline. Some days it’s sunny, and there are no clouds. And sometimes data plans are too expensive or impractical to leave on—like, as Merlin describes, in New Zealand, where data prices seem to be at parity with gold bullion.

The stars align

I do a lot of mail processing on my iPhone and iPad. A lot of the actionable email I get requires me to do something on my Mac with PDF, spreadsheets, and other programs before I respond.

I’ve been using Gmail stars for a long time to flag mail for later processing. It’s by far the most efficient way I’ve found to triage mail using iOS and stay with an Inbox Zero mindset.[1]

Since Mail 5 automatically flags messages in the Gmail “Starred” folder, I can count on having my ducks lined up for shooting when I get back to my Mac. In fact, I probably spend most of time in Mail 5 working out of the Reminders section processing flagged email.

The platform is secondary now

Gmail is a lot like Dropbox in that it’s a ubiquitous form of cloud-based content management. Gmail is platform-independent, so you have lots of choices when it comes to how you view your data.

Best of all, the decision to use any given platform doesn’t preclude you from immediately switching to another platform. IMAP glues it all together. What Merlin said about Dropbox is also true about Gmail: “it’s never not everywhere.”

  1. It’s worth noting that you could use the OmniFocus Clip-O-Tron mail plugin to add email to your OmniFocus inbox. I’ve never figured out how to fit this into my workflow, though. I prefer to have tighter control over what goes into my OmniFocus inbox. I see the act of processing email as time-dimensioned task itself. And in some cases, email resolves itself before I even get back to my Mac. If every flagged message automatically went to my OmniFocus inbox, I would probably start avoiding my OmniFocus inbox.