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A 5-Step Plan For Conquering Your Gmail Inbox

This article was originally published in October 2011. I’ve updated it to include an exceptionally useful new app, and also to show you how to deal with Gmail’s own new features.

Alright, so let’s talk about something that bugs me a lot: badly-maintained email inboxes.

Every student is given their very own precious email address when starting school, and a good amount of them promptly let their inbox turn into the digital equivalent of a landfill.

Notifications from social sites, spam, old emails from Grandma and Grandpa, and countless other articles clog inboxes up, and legitimate emails get lost in the fray.

The end result? Shit doesn’t get done.

Students that have messy inboxes simply can’t keep track of all the legitimate email that comes to them, and they’re bound to let something slip through the cracks.

Well, no more. I’m tired of seeing crappy inbox after crappy inbox. It’s time to fix the problem. If your inbox looks like the one below, you need to read on – for both your sanity and for the sanity of those who communicate with you.

Bad Inbox
Your inbox shouldn’t look like this.

Those of you who pay attention to detail may notice that this is in fact a screenshot of my own inbox. However, this isn’t my main inbox – it’s the inbox of on of my throwaway accounts.

In fact, having throwaway accounts is a great way to reap the benefits of the internet while keeping spam out of your life. That’s just a start, though – there’s a lot more you can do.

Here’s a five-step plan to get your inbox looking like a well-tended garden of pure awesomeness. I’m using Gmail as the platform of choice here, as it’s what most people have and – honestly – it’s the best. (at least among free options – FastMail might be a better choice for those willing to pay)

If you don’t happen to have a Gmail account, I’d suggest you start out by getting one. If your school uses some other email system, you should consider forwarding mail from that account into a personal Gmail account so you can benefit from all of Gmail’s awesome features.

Plus, using a school email as your main email address is plain stupid; when you graduate, it gets deleted and you find yourself in a heap of trouble.

Anyway, now that my Gmail rant is out of the way, let’s get to the tips.

Step 1: Archive or Delete Anything That Doesn’t Require Action

Your inbox should be a place where only actionable items reside. When you wake up in the morning, you should be able to look at your inbox as a sort of to-do list; everything there that isn’t unread should have some sort of action item attached to it.

American Psycho
Mercilessly prune your inbox. If it’s not actionable, axe it.

If there is no action item attached to an email, you should archive or delete it.

If you believe the email contains information that may be useful to you in the future, archive it. If not, delete it.

However, you certainly don’t need to be too delete-happy; Gmail gives you gobs of space, so you can safely archive most of what you get without running into space concerns.

Some people will vehemently disagree with me and say that you should never use your inbox as a to-do list. They’ll say you should immediately process every email right away.

If you’re the kind of person who faithfully keeps your Wunderlist (or whatever) organized, I agree with this. However, everyone is different. I know that my inbox is the one thing I’ll ALWAYS check, every day. I often forget to look at Wunderlist.

Step 2: Label Every Email You Keep

All those emails you delete can be safely forgotten, but what about ones you archive?

It’s true that Gmail’s search capabilities are very powerful, making it easy to find an old email by searching.

However, I still think it’s a good idea to label all the emails you’re planning on keeping. Similar to using folders to separate papers for each of your classes, labeling emails gives you the ability to browse through all the emails in a certain category.

If you can’t remember enough details about an email to come up with a good search term, these separations can be a life saver.

Gmail Labels
Love me some labels

Having labels also gives peace of mind. It lets you divide emails up into the separate and distinct parts of your life, and it gives you a good picture of what’s going on in each of those parts every time you look at your inbox.

If one part of your life needs attention, you can simply go into the corresponding label and see only emails pertaining to it. For this reason, I’d also suggest giving each label a separate color.

If you don’t know how to create labels, here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Click the Labels dropdown menu and select Manage Labels.
  2. You’ll see a list of your labels now. Click Create New Label.
  3. Name the label.
  4. Now you can select emails and use the Labels dropdown to apply your new labels.

Once you’ve got your basic label structure laid out, you can get really fancy and start creating nested labels. I do this for my “collegeinfogeek” label now, as it’s simply too general for all the different kinds of College Info Geek-related email I get.

Nested labels might be a good strategy for your school email as well. You can have a main label with your school’s name, and then create sub-labels for each class. Do whatever works for you.

Keep in mind that labels don’t work the same way folders do in Outlook. Gmail doesn’t actually create a true hierarchical structure for your emails – it’s search capabilities make that unnecessary.

Labels are as they are named – they’re more akin to sticking different-colored sticky notes on paper rather than shoving it in different folders. Because of this, you can apply multiple labels to an email if you’d like.

2013 Update – How to Deal With Gmail’s New Tabbed Interface

Recently, Google has rolled out a new inbox feature – a tabbed interface. And I hate it.

Basically, Google thinks they need to organize your inbox for you. I have serious disagreements with this line of thinking; my inbox is my own, and I want to manage it my own way. I’ve been using Gmail for years, and I don’t need any help keeping things organized.

Even worse, Google has started placing ads under the Promotions tab of the new inbox. These ads look suspiciously like real emails – but they’re not. They’re ads. They’re not coming from sites you’ve requested updates or deal emails from – they’re just spam.

Unfortunately, newsletters that you do want also go to the Promotions inbox. So now, newsletters that you’ve specifically asked for – usually by double-verifying your email – are getting mixed up with spam from Google.

For people who run email newsletters (like me), this is bad news – it means that email updates I want to send to my subscribers might get lost in a torrent of ad spam. It also hurts you, as you (presumably) want to get every email from the newsletters you’ve signed up for – but you don’t want to wade through ads to find them.

Fortunately, you have a couple options to fix this problem.

Option 1: Turn off the Tabbed Inbox (this is what I do).

To me, the tabs just clutter up my inbox. I don’t like them. If you agree, here’s how to turn it off:

  1. Click the Gear Icon in the top right corner
  2. Click “Configure Inbox”
  3. Uncheck all but the Primary tab and hit Save.
Disable Tabs

Option 2: Move Email You Want to Primary

If you’d like to keep the tabbed inbox, but want specific newsletters to always go to primary, do this:

  1. Drag any email to your Primary inbox tab (see picture below)
  2. Afterward, you’ll be asked if you’d like to do this for future messages from that sender. Simply click Yes!
Move to Primary

If you’re a College Info Geek newsletter subscriber, you might want to do this with the next CIG email you get so you don’t miss anything important 🙂

Step 3: Create Filters to Deal With Unwanted Messages

Have you ever had a series of emails start hitting your inbox that you didn’t necessarily want to get rid of, but you didn’t want to see either? I can think of a perfect example: deal emails.

Emails from sites like Newegg, Amazon, AppSumo, Woot, and other sites with lots of deals are useful, but I don’t want to see them in my inbox. I’d rather have them go straight to a nice little folder where I can view them later, if I’m so inclined.

Filters allow you do make this possible. Fortunately, Gmail’s filtering capabilities are quite powerful.

You can filter messages based on the sender, the email it’s addressed to (useful if you forward multiple accounts into one inbox), the subject, words the message does or doesn’t have, and whether it has an attachment. Once you’ve chosen your filtering criteria, you can instruct Gmail to do almost anything you could so manually with the message: auto-archive it, mark it read, label it, delete it, etc.

Creating a label is easy. I recorded a short screencast that shows you exactly how to do it; check it out.

2013 Update – Read This Before Creating a Ton of Filters!

I recently discovered an even better way to deal with all the subscription emails that I’m usually not interested in, but still want to keep, via a wonderful email-management article over at Art of Manliness.

Instead of creating a filter for every single deal email and newsletter subscription, I now use to handle them all.

This service is absolutely awesome. Basically, you connect your Gmail account to it, and it’ll go through your inbox and find all your newsletter subscriptions and similar fare. Once it finds them all, it’ll give you a big list. From there, you can:

  • Unsubscribe from the ones you don’t want – with one click
  • “Roll up” the ones you want to keep

Honestly, the one-click unsubscribe option makes amazing all by itself. I certainly can’t be arsed to click the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of every email newsletter I no longer want – but this makes it oh-so-easy.

However, the “Roll Up” feature is even better. For the newsletters you’d like to keep, you can choose to roll them up. Instead of receiving these newsletters individually, you’ll just get a single daily digest email that gives you a quick snapshot of each one.

You can also view each day’s rolled up emails at Unroll.Me’s website:

Unrollme is my inbox’s new savior.

This feature has cut down on the amount of email I receive immensely.

I still allow a few newsletters I especially like out of the roll, so I never miss one (you might want to do this with the CIG newsletter, *wink*), but for most newsletters, I’m content to see them in my digest and click through to any that are interesting.

Step 4: Enable the “Mark as Read” Button in Google Labs

This is a quick little tips that can save you lots of time over the long run.

Even with a good set of filters, you’ll sometimes get emails that you want to keep archived, but don’t actually want to read. You could just archive them right away, but leaving them unread will result in your All Mail folder showing unread messages.

If you’re like me, this is unacceptable. I honestly hate seeing that I have unread messages; anything that’s unread should be right at the top of my inbox, labeled and ready to be dealt with.

The Mark as Read Labs feature helps you handle this with ease. Instead of having to open an email in order to have it marked as read, you can simply select it and hit the button. Bam, message marked as read. To enable the Marked as Read button:

  1. Click the gear icon in the top right corner and go to Labs.
  2. Scroll down to the Mark as Read Button entry and enable it.
  3. Check out some of the other Labs features; a lot of them are pretty awesome.
  4. Click Save Changes.

Step 5: Think from the Reader’s Perspective When Writing

Ok, so this last step isn’t a quick tech tip; rather, it’s my suggestion for how you should approach writing emails yourself. Use this strategy, and I guarantee you’ll cut down on needless, time-wasting confusion and bad communication.

When you need to write an email to someone, you should try to write it with their perspective in mind.

This means that you should try to anticipate any questions they might have regarding your message, and try to answer them right away instead of waiting for them to ask.

Try to be as clear and thorough as possible in your communication. Format your messages for readability by using line breaks and bullet lists, and include all the details. People will really appreciate this.

Baby Phone (image courtesy of Flickr user SparkCBC)
Consider your audience when creating your message.

Writing from the reader’s perspective is especially important when you’re sending an email out to more than one person. I think nothing illustrates this point better than when Derek Sivers estimated that one unclear sentence in an email newsletter would cost him $5000.

Unclear communication inevitably brings about a flurry of questions that have to be answered. This just wastes time. Be clear and thorough in the first place, and you’ll save tons of time.

With these five tips, you’ll become a total Gmail ninja and get, like, +11 Internet Cred. Word.

So what Gmail tips do you have?