How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)

There comes a time when enough is, quite simply, enough. I had been putting off the task of organising my sprawling Gmail inbox for months, if not years. But when Lifehacker told me that we were going to have a Spring Cleaning week, I knew it was time. And I wasn’t going to waste precious hours trying to find apps or tools to do the task for me. I needed to Ron Swanson my inbox — roll up my sleeves, jump in, and manage the mess manually.

Assessing your messy inbox

Since you (likely) use your inbox every day, you probably have a pretty good idea what kinds of email you get, and from who, on a regular basis. You know what lists you’ve signed up for, what messages you receive that are a higher priority than others (perhaps even more so than what Google’s algorithms can figure out), what marketing emails you like getting, and what regular emails teeter on the edge of spam because you’re sent so many of them so often.

Gmail doesn’t have a great way to quickly see which email addresses send you the most email — and I haven’t found a good extension or trick to do that, either. But you shouldn’t really need a special solution for this. You probably already know. And if you don’t, it’s not that hard to find out.

For example, take a quick look at your Inbox — easier, if you use Gmail’s “default” inbox with its five tabs at the top — and see if there are any senders or topics that pop out more than they should. Maybe your bank blasts you a message once a day about new accounts you could open, in addition to the notification emails you get every time you transfer money between accounts. Maybe you buy a lot of stuff on Amazon. Perhaps Facebook pings you every time anyone you know does anything. That concert you saw at that venue once? It’s possible that opened you up to a sea of emails from the venue (or Ticketmaster etc.)

You can also get a sense of who is blowing up your inbox by performing a few simple searches. One of my most-used Gmail searches is “from:” followed by the name of a company or a friend, or sometimes an email address. (Also good: “from:[name] is:unread,” to really see if someone is sending you a lot of things you aren’t looking at.)

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
I do love you, Starbucks, and you definitely don’t leave me hanging in my inbox. (Screenshot: David Murphy)

I do love you, Starbucks, and you definitely don’t leave me hanging in my inbox.

Start unsubscribing

As you start figuring out who is blasting you with a ton of email — which you’re most likely to find in Gmail’s “Promotions” tab, if you’re using it — you have a great opportunity to make this entire “clean your Inbox” process a lot easier going forward.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
Nothing personal, Western Digital. I just don’t need more storage at the moment. (Screenshot: David Murphy)

Nothing personal, Western Digital. I just don’t need more storage at the moment.

Pull up emails from your more eager senders and, if you find that you aren’t reading a lot of their messages, search around the email for an unsubscribe link — assuming that exists. If you can’t find one, feel free to report the messages as spam. Though this might take some time if you get a lot of email, it’s a great way to start reducing that flow to a trickle.

Google’s default inbox automatically tries to filter marketing messages out of your primary inbox and onto a separate promotions tab, but this also makes it easier to forget about managing your mail. Don’t be “out of sight, out of mind” about your email — if nothing else, you’re missing out on valuable marketing emails you do care about because you’re being inundated with those you don’t ever read.

Labels: The keys to a picture-perfect inbox

It took me forever to get used to Gmail’s labelling system. Yes, I know; they’re basically folders for your email, only not, since something can exist in multiple labels (and your inbox) at one time. Because they’re labels. Not really folders. I get it.

I still don’t manually label emails, either by dragging a label from Gmail’s left-most sidebar over the email in question, by using the drop-down label button (which looks like a luggage tag), or by dragging the email itself into the label-not-folder on Gmail’s primary screen. I encourage you to give any of these techniques a try; they’re not for me — at least, not manually. More on that in a bit.

  • Resist the urge to create a million labels

When I’ve played around with labels, I’ve found that I was making life more difficult for myself by being way too precise. For some, that works; I’ve seen work colleagues have a special “VIP” inbox for every single member of their team, every manager they have, and every super-important colleague they work with cross-functionally. When you get an absurd amount of email each day, I suppose that’s a great way to make sure you never miss a message from important people — one worth considering for Gmail, if you’re inclined.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
Oh, my mysterious labels, what are your names? (Screenshot: David Murphy)

Oh, my mysterious labels, what are your names?

Instead, I use a few labels to capture important topics I care about. For example, I have a “Daily Email” label for frequent emails I receive that I should care about. I use “News” and “Theatre” sub-labels within “Daily Email” to track daily messages and updates from the various news entities I subscribe to and a few theatre listservs I’m on in my area. (Each listserv is set to automatically send me a batch digest of the day’s messages, or else I’d probably have individual sub-labels for each.)

I have a simple “Finance” label that I use for anything money-related, including account updates from my banks, marketing messages from my banks, any and all messages from the various credit card companies that like to hit me up, and a dumping ground for sites like Nerdwallet, Slickdeals, and AwardWallet — to name a few.

The only email label I pay a great deal of attention to is my “_important” label — named as such so it floats to the top of my label list. Within there, I have sub-labels for any and all emails sent from my roommates (usually about planning an upcoming event or to yell at me about the dishes); a sub-label for emails sent from my girlfriend (same); and a “_to do” sub-label, coloured red, that I use to track any urgent tasks I need to get one.

One last label — “_shipping” — is my catch-all for anything from Amazon, UPS, FedEx, or USPS. If it’s coming to my house at any point, it will show up in shipping. And it’s nice to see a little (1) appear in the morning, which usually means something awesome is arriving soon, if not that day.

  • Organising your labels

One of Gmail’s most useful features is its ability to show and hide labels as needed. This lets you archive old labels if you were using them to track a project that ended some time ago; it also allows labels to “appear” on Gmail’s left-hand sidebar whenever there’s something for you to look at (which I find incredibly helpful for getting my attention).

To adjust your labels’ visibility, pull up Gmail’s settings menu by clicking on the gear icon in the upper-right corner of its primary window and clicking Settings. From there, click on Labels. The screen that pops up next looks intimidating at first, but it’s the best way to keep your inbox free of label clutter.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
Confusing? A little. Powerful? Incredibly. (Screenshot: David Murphy)

Confusing? A little. Powerful? Incredibly.

For example, you can hide system labels like “chat” or “spam” if you know you’re never going to root through either. You can also hide all of Gmail’s categories, already displayed on the top of its primary window on Gmail’s default view.

Show or hide labels you’ve created or, if you want to go for the dynamic approach, set them to only show in your sidebar if you have unread messages. Though, that’s a bit of a lie, since you can also access any label you’ve created by clicking on the “More” button at the bottom of your sidebar’s label list. These lesser labels won’t appear in a more prominent position unless you have a message to look at.

Let Gmail do your labelling for you

Labels are great and all, but if you have a pretty big chunk of incoming email you have to deal with on a daily basis, the process of organising it all can feel daunting. Pair your labels with some creative Gmail filters, however, and your inbox will auto-sort itself on your behalf. Though filtering your Gmail can feel a little daunting, and requires a bit of time to get right, it’s a process that pays off in the long run.

  • Setting up your first filters 

The easiest way to create a Gmail filter is to click on an email and allow Gmail to create a filter based off the email’s parameters. So, if your favourite sandwich shop is blasting you with emails every single day, but you want to make sure you catch them (for those sweet sandwich deals), open the email, click on the More button under Gmail’s search bar, and select the “Filter messages like these” option.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
Why, yes, I do enjoy a good Dungeons & Dragons clicker game. (Strix is the best.) (Screenshot: David Murphy)

Why, yes, I do enjoy a good Dungeons & Dragons clicker game. (Strix is the best.)

  • Customising a filter to make it more accurate

When you’re letting Gmail figure out filtering for a message, the service might categorise an email by its “list” rather than the sender’s email address. That should be fine for most marketing messages, but you can also delete that and use wildcards in the from field — like * to ensure a filter captures every single message a company sends you.

To continue that example, if your sandwich place starts sending their emails from addresses that use a variety of subdomains, you can’t multi-wildcard. So, entering *@*sandwich* in the “from” field isn’t going to find everything. You can, however, use vertical bars — shift-backslash — to add additional entries to your filter. So, in this case, you could write * | * | * into the from field to capture multiple incoming emails from the same company.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)
When dealing with Gmail’s filters, wildcards are your friend. (Screenshot: David Murphy)

When dealing with Gmail’s filters, wildcards are your friend.

You can also try going generic: Typing in from: Starbucks should find everything the coffee creator sends you. You’ll only need to get more specific if you’re trying to filter some messages, but not others. For example, if you want messages from a specific theatre company to receive one label, rather than all messages about all theatres (or theatre in general) — or, if you’re not big into the arts, messages from a specific Jim (of the New Hamp-Shire Darkmagics) instead of all Jims.

  • Why it’s worth going wild with filters

You can get incredibly creative with Gmail’s filtering, even going so far as to completely lock down your inbox from email accounts that you haven’t already whitelisted. It’s extreme, but it’s a possibility. (You can even use Gmail to make unlimited email addresses and filter that way: giving your banks a “[email protected]” address, for example, and filtering all Gmail messages based on the “To:” field instead of the “From:” field.)

I find it easier to observe a simple rule: If I have a label, I should have a filter. So, in my case, I have a filter set up to label any email I send to myself as “To Do,” star the email, and mark it as important — a handy way to email myself a reminder about anything. My finance filter looks a little more unruly, but it works: from:(* | * | * | * | * | * | * | *

  • You can get creative with filter actions, too

The other important half of the filtering process is all the other actions you get to play with once you’ve set up your triggers. It’s easy to tell Gmail to label a certain email from a certain sender. In order to keep your primary inbox (and categorical tabs, if you’re using them) clear of clutter, consider telling Gmail that you also want these filtered emails to skip your inbox.

How To Clean Your Overwhelmed Gmail Inbox (By Hand)

This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to read these messages, or notice them when you receive them. Instead, this auto-skip feature means that your primary Inbox won’t get clogged with emails from your favourite sandwich shop; instead, you’ll see a growing number by your sandwich filter, alerting you that there are messages you should look at. I find this much easier to manage than having an inbox full of emails with colour-coded filters, and it functions a bit more like the ol’ “Create a rule” functionality in Outlook or Mail that you might be more familiar with.

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