Ask LH: Why Does Gmail Have An Archive Feature?

Ask LH: Why Does Gmail Have An Archive Feature?

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.

Cheers Lifehacker


  • Dear Agnostic,

    I’m going to be as direct as possible here because I think there’s a basic misconception here. Archiving won’t give you space back, it isn’t the same as deleting. Deleting will delete ie. free up space and ultimately remove it from existence (after 30 days in trash).

    The only thing archiving does is remove the default label called ‘Inbox’.

    Like Lifehacker suggested, this can be used as a way of signifying to yourself what’s finished, still requires an action or a reply etc. There’s no reason you couldn’t use stars or the important/unimportant division to track the same thing.

    Having three different mechanisms that perform basically the same function suggests redundancy but also allows us to make up our own rules for how we manage and organise the vast amounts of information gmail will hold for us.

    To reiterate, archive (which is the application of an inbox label), custom labels, stars, and importance are all cosmetic changes and there to be used anyway you like.

    ‘All Mail’ will always contain all mail.

    God I love google…

    • It’s not just Outlook, any conventional mail client will automatically and continuously scan the “Inbox” for new/updated messages, and will typically keep a copy of the entire Inbox in RAM for speed reasons.

      This technically makes the initial page in GMail take longer to load. However it has a much large effect when checking your mail on devices like phones. (Though the GMail app on Android is actually very good at handling this.)

      You’ll generally get much better performance and responsiveness from any mail client by keeping the Inbox as small as possible.

      But as anything Google, just use it how you like.

  • If only Gmail’s Archive button did in fact allow one to truly archive (or “backup”) old mail.

    Having to use something like Outlook (or ~Express) to download and backup “All Mail” is a pain. If others know of a simpler, quicker, free way of backing up All Mail from Gmail (via Windows), I’m all ears.


  • I use archive to get rid of the stuff I want to keep from pushing down that important email I need to get respond to.

    Or to keep a reservation details email on the first page of the inbox- archive the other stuff.

  • Hughhh, check out to create automatic online backups of your gmail. Also works on gdocs,gcontacts, twitter, facebook and others. Its not “download, archive, delete” but it is backup

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