I Left Outlook for Gmail, and Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Back

In the time B.G. (before Gmail) I was an avid Outlook user. As a Microsoft employee then my passion around Outlook was strongly encouraged. Yet as in any relationship there were times of endearing love and times of hate filled shouting and swearing. Actually, come to think of it, there was a lot more of the latter with Outlook, but I digress. I had been an Outlook user for  almost a decade, struggling through the awkward Exchange integration of Outlook XP, the creepingly slow performance of Outlook 2003, the half ribbonized version of Outlook 2007 and finally Outlook 2010 where the more egregious software sins had been covered over.

When I started working at Google my well used and sometimes dependable Outlook was torn from me and replaced with Gmail. As can be imagined, online tools were encouraged at Google. For two weeks I wept as my clumsy fingers typed out invalid shortcut key (Ctrl+R) after invalid shortcut key (Ctrl+Shift+R) and the context menu flinched purposelessly devoid of functionality. For two weeks I wrestled with the ghost of Outlook past, battling with habitual muscle memory.

Then one day it happened. I awoke refreshed, like a junkie on the first day with no withdrawal symptoms. My email sang in productive harmony, my calendar appointments magically found rooms free at the time I needed them and even my fingers began to dance to a new and faster tune. The time taken to recondition during those two weeks have paid dividends constantly. By using Gmail I can honestly say that I save two to three hours every week.

I’m thrilled that I now use Gmail instead of Outlook. Wild horses couldn’t drag me back.

What’s so special about Gmail?

Conversation View Works
Actually, as the default view in Gmail you have to seek out something different. I always found the conversation view in Outlook 2010 to be confusing. I’d constantly lose emails, and god-forbid a thread should fork because then you’d never figure out what was going on. Gmail solves this problem very well. By rolling up past emails they’re hidden yet always accessible if needed. Each new email in the thread is short and to the point, not a daunting recap of all the entire thread.

Shortcut Keys are Magic
I use [ and ] a LOT when going through email. It lets me quickly triage mail, and I can easily skip over mail that needs a longer reply by pressing j. You need to turn on shortcut keys (under Settings | General) and it takes a few days for them to become natural. If you’re a frequent archiver, installing the ‘Send and Archive’ lab will save you even more time. Tab+Enter will then send your email and archive the thread so it’s no longer in your inbox.

Integrated Chat is Actually Integrated
I found it so easy to launch and start a chat from Gmail. Just press q, start typing the name of your contact and hit enter. It’s as simple as that. No windows to launch, no applications to startup. It would drive me crazy how complicated Communicator integration in Outlook was, almost to the point that it’s easier to send an email and wait than start a chat.

Fast. Very Fast. Most of the Time
I spend most of my time in the browser, keeping Gmail as a pinned tab so my mail is always available without taking up processor time or Gigs of memory. You could argue that the Outlook Web App has the same characteristics, but have you ever tried to use the Outlook Web App? It’s like walking through molasses while chained to a rampaging pack of snails. Not fast. no, not ever.

Priority Inbox
Like manna from heaven, Gmail’s priority inbox delivers salvation from an overflowing inbox. We all work differently, but I find it most helpful to setup my email so that I’m only ever interrupted by priority email (My phone, the #emails indicator, etc. all key off priority inbox). I also find that I can quickly deal with unimportant email – I get in the zone of quickly moving through email and before I know it my unimportant email is gone. That’s very difficult to do if you constantly have to stop and consider whether an email is important. I don’t know how Gmail does it, but it gets the priority right 90% of the time.

Scheduling Appointments is Possible
I remember minutes of frustrated waiting while Outlook communicated with various free/busy servers to tell me whether a conference room or attendee was free. This happens almost instantly in Google Calendar – I find it takes 2-3 minutes to schedule a complex meeting (multiple rooms, VC, attendees, etc.) in Gmail. It would regularly take me (and many coworkers I spoke with) 15 minutes+ to schedule a complex meeting in Outlook.

Seamless Updates
Don’t you just hate the continuous software updates that ask you to close your apps and restart your computer? I do, and it happens almost every month with Outlook. I do not for a second miss all the time that is wasted on endless software updates that bring no new functionality but only fix a security hole or bug somewhere in the system.

Enough Space and No Backups Needed
Both my personal and work Gmail accounts have more space than I could reasonably use in a few years. I’ve never once had to worry about backing up .pst files because I ran out of storage space.  And then having nearly every offline docs caching system on Windows reject .pst files as special and refuse to replicate them. You could say an Exchange backed Outlook client should be the same, except for some reason they’re stingy with the space. Perhaps storage is just that much more expensive in Exchange?

Gmail isn’t perfect though

There are still a few things which frustrate me about Gmail. Making lists is entirely too hard. In Outlook I just type 1. and I’m off to the races. The offline gmail is different from the online gmail – I prefer the online one, but why should I have to choose?. I really like the new Gmail look, but found the icons a bit cryptic to start with, and found it a bit strange that the spam icon was so prominently featured since I never (touch wood) get any spam.

By and large, all of those are minor annoyances compared with the huge productivity gains I’ve experienced using Gmail. What are your favorite time-saving Gmail features? Why do you prefer Gmail (or Outlook)?

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