Ask LH: Why Does Gmail Have An Archive Feature?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m a long time user of Gmail and have recently been looking into archiving my older messages, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’d want to “archive” something rather than just leave it sitting in my inbox. I’ve only used 2GB of my 7GB, so space isn’t a problem. So what are the benefits of archiving in Gmail? Thanks, Archiving Agnostic

Dear Agnostic,

Ever since its launch, Gmail has made much of the fact that you don’t need to delete or file anything — there’s plenty of room and a fast search function, so it’s perfectly feasible to simply leave everything in your inbox. But that doesn’t mean everyone wants to work that way.

I started using email more than a decade before Gmail launched, and it’s always been my habit to use an empty inbox as a measure of whether I’ve dealt with everything. My system is that any message still in my inbox needs handling in some way, which is a habit that’s stuck with me through multiple email systems and clients. On a desktop mail client, I can either delete a message or file it in a folder to make it disappear from my inbox, and I can get through a lot of mail pretty quickly that way.

Deleting is partly a longstanding habit from back when mailbox size limits were rigorously enforced. On Gmail, as you note, that rarely seems necessary and means you lose the handy archival copy, but if you’ve developed the habit of wanting to clear email away, then a better option than just leaving it in the inbox is needed. That’s where archiving comes in.

By clicking the Archive button on an individual message, or after selecting messages in a Gmail view, it disappears from my inbox. It’s still searchable, and still has labels if I’ve applied them, but it’s no longer in my inbox — so as far as I’m concerned, it’s not something I have to worry about. That’s not an approach everyone uses, but it’s certainly not uncommon, especially if you’ve developed email habits in the pre-Gmail era.

As it happens, that’s not the exact approach I personally use with Gmail: I still prefer to handle my day to day email in Outlook, while having everything copied to a Gmail account which creates an easily searched backup. I don’t ever “work” in that copy other than conducting searches, so I don’t care if the inbox is full to the brim. This approach means I’m more ruthless about deleting mail in Outlook, knowing there’ll be a spare copy at Gmail if I need it while giving me that fresh, clean inbox feeling. But if I wanted to work exclusively in Gmail, archiving would be an essential tool in my setup, even with options like Priority Inbox around.

Since you’ve gotten to 2GB of email and don’t seem in the slightest bit distressed, there’s no reason to use archiving, frankly. By the same token, not everyone uses other Gmail features like labels or auto-replies or the many handy Labs settings, but it’s nice to know that they’re available.


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