Starred Emails in a Separate Tab

To-do lists that use your email are great, as email is where most of your new tasks will come from. Keeping jobs there can potentially be the ultimate frictionless to-do list. Unfortunately, we are still in the very early stages of inboxes that function effectively in this way.

Some early solutions include Gmail’s starred emails system,‘s Gmail browser extension, ActiveInbox, and Gmail’s Tasks. Some of the more advanced to-do apps can also import emails into them.

None of these really offer an ideal, functioning workflow, however. Multiple inboxes can be visually distracting, and the rest usually require an extra manual step, that can be too easily neglected.

Below we’ll show you how to set up an effective to-do system in your Gmail, by creatively hacking the new Gmail ‘tabs’ function.

This system uses

  • A Gmail account
  • A method of quickly emailing yourself from your smartphone (we use the Captio app, however there are many other methods, including Siri on the iPhone)


Many of you will already be using Gmail Stars to sort your email into prioritized tasks. Stars are great, as they are very quick to add (or change), and can be configured to suit your own visual taste.

How to survey those starred tasks all day – and how to switch from starred to incoming email view quickly – remains the question. Below is a quick survey of some of your current options, and why each may not be as ideal as our recommended method.

Gmail’s preferred way is a Starred menu item, right under the compose box. However, if you’re like me, this is too subtle to work as a proper to-do list. I need my starred view to be my default view, so that I can work first on my tasks, and don’t get distracted by new emails as they come in. Ideally the Inbox and the Starred menu items would function in an opposite way than they do now.

Some of you may have experimented with suing the Quick Links function to add extra functionality. Quick Links allows you to make links to specific types of emails in your inbox by using search indicators, such as to the default red or yellow stars, or more complex ones, such as red bangs (red exclamation marks).

This is a somewhat improvement on the above method, however it is even more hidden on your screen than the first approach.

Making browser bookmarks specifically for starred inbox views (or even setting them as your browser home page), are two common solutions around this problem. Again, for me, they are still not a ‘proper’ default view, as it is too easy to just type ‘’ into an address bar, or to reach my email from the homepage.

Using Multiple Inboxes is the way most people prioritize their starred emails. However, I find this the worst of all solutions. Firstly, it arbitrarily limits the amount of starred emails you can view, so you never feel like you have a handle on everything. Secondly, new emails remain in view as an eternal distraction. There is no place to calmly focus just on your starred to-do items – an essential feature for good productivity.

The solution, for me, came from hacking into Google’s new Tabs functionality, which originally was meant to merely sort emails into different “types” or categories, like “Social”, “Promotions” and “Forums”. If you look at the image above, you can see a standard Gmail tabs layout.

Why would this be a good productivity view? Firstly, items in one tab are hidden while you look at another, keeping away distractions. Yet they are easy to switch between. Secondly, items in one tab are able to be scrolled down a very long way, giving you a good overview of all your tasks at hand.

The question is how to display just starred emails in one tab – preferably the Primary tab. This is something I had to work out for myself.


Firstly, activate Gmail tabs, if you haven’t already. Hit “Configure inbox” under the gears icon, and select the tabs you want to use.

This system only uses two tabs – the default Primary inbox, and a second tab. I chose the one called Updates, as it sounded the least distracting (Google – please let us rename our tabs!).

Now, unfortunately you can’t easily filter starred emails into certain categories. The reason being is that filters only work for incoming emails, and stars are added, by us, later. D’oh!

Fortunately, we can take an advantage of one minor aspect of tabs, and that is its ability to automatically move our starred messages into our Primary Inbox.

How we are going to make use of this is a bit tricky. We’re going to filter all our email into our secondary tab. This will mean that our starred emails will be the only ones that are left in our Primary inbox.

To move all our emails across, set up a new filter. In the ‘to’ field, add your own email address, eg.

If you have more than one email address, separate them with an OR, like so:

to:( OR

Then click “Create filter with this search“, and then select the category you want it to be labled – e.g. Updates. Click Create Filter.

You may notice that emails with a BCC are not covered by this search, as your email address does not always appear. You may be able to come up with a more encompassing search to include all emails, perhaps searching for an @ symbol, or a period.

I got around this just by manually checking and then dragging all of my BCC emails into the second tab category in my Gmail sidebar, thus adding these senders to my filter – close enough. If it becomes annoying you can always fine tune.

Voila! Your Primary, default Inbox will now contain just your most important, to-do tasks. Secondly, your incoming emails will be routed to a hidden, less important, inbox – that you can check (and star) just once or twice a day.

One of the really nice side effects of this method is that the sender of new emails are shown in the Updates tab, meaning you can easily be notified of these, and disregard them.

For instance, I know in the above image there is nothing urgent from Elance, or CareerOne. This stops me thinking I have to check my email for new tasks, and leaves me nice and focused on my Primary tab – with its important jobs to do.

Adding to Your List Manually

I use the Captio app to send an email to myself from my phone, with just two taps. There are other, voice activated methods that could make this even quicker. Setting up a simple filter to star these incoming emails can quickly sort these into the to-do list.


  • You don’t need to ever copy an email task into your to-do list again – they are in there almost by default
  • The most important things to work on are visible, again by default
  • An attractive, distraction-free design
  • Discrete notification of new tasks
  • Removes the need to repeatedly ‘check’ your email
  • Quickly and easily add to your list


  • The starred emails, while nice and prominent, are unsorted – meaning high priority tasks may be hidden lower down on the to-do list.
  • This is not visible on your smartphone, making it useful just while near your main desktop computer.


  • Using different stars can increase an old task’s visibility, of course.

Our Rating

A really great, frictionless system. We would like to see smartphone and desktop app developers (and Gmail) move towards this a bit more. Particularly with the ability to drag and drop starred emails into an easily prioritized personal order.

Your Thoughts

Have you tried this system? What are your experiences working with it? Any pros, cons, variations, or tips?

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