How to Organize Your Gmail Inbox

How to Organize Your Gmail Inbox
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Being a modern human means dealing with a steady stream of emails every single day. From work memos to promotions to newsletters, it can seem like everything is competing for our attention 24/7. If you brace yourself every time you check your email, then you’ll love this short (yet comprehensive) guide for managing your Gmail account.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to use Gmail labels (hint: they’re not folders)
  • Why filters are the most versatile feature in Gmail
  • Six ways you can change the layout of your inbox
  • The truth about inbox zero
  • And more

But first, let’s talk about why email management is a worthwhile skill to learn.

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Why is managing your Gmail inbox important?

  • It can help you reduce stress.
    Our interconnected world requires so much of us, and that often manifests itself in our inboxes. In fact, one study found that “email fatigue” was likely to push more than one-third of respondents to quit their jobs. By learning to effectively manage email, we can mitigate the effects on our mental well-being.
  • It can help you save time.
    Much of email management is about automating or learning how to take decisive action on emails. At the end of the day, that means you’ll spend less managing and thinking about email.
  • It can help you save storage cloud storage.
    Without a system in place (even if it’s just a simple one), it’s easy to let our emails get out of hand. Effectively managing your email is one way to manage your Google Workspace account — and the storage that comes with it.

Here are the best ways to organize Gmail!

Step one: Gmail labels

One of Gmail’s most unique features is the replacement of “folders” with “labels.” Folders may be a classic tool for organizing our computers, but Gmail folders are even more functional. That’s because you can apply multiple labels to a single email — whereas you usually can’t put an email into multiple folders with traditional email clients.

When an email is labeled (either manually or automatically), it’ll appear on your email list with a tag. You can even assign a label color to make your inbox even more scannable. Gmail labels also appear in your sidebar for easy access. Bottom line: Use labels to get your inbox organized and always find what you’re looking for. 

How to create a new label on your computer:

  1. Open Gmail.
  2. On the left, scroll down, then click More.
  3. Scroll down, then click Create new label.
  4. Enter the label name for your new label.
  5. Optional sub-labels: Select Nest label under and use the drop-down menu to select an existing label to add another level of organization (similar to subfolders). 
  6. Click Create.

All set! From here, you can manage your labels in two ways: in the left sidebar, and in settings under the labels tab.

Step two: Gmail filters

Gmail filters are a way to let you automatically sort your email in a customizable way. You can filter emails by sender, recipient, keywords in the subject line, and more. Then, tell Gmail what to do when an email matches that criteria. Here are some actions that a Gmail filter can take on an email:

  • Archive it (so that it skips your inbox)
  • Mark it as read
  • Star it
  • Apply a certain label to it
  • Forward it
  • Delete it
  • Make sure it doesn’t end up in Spam
  • Mark it as important
  • Never mark it as important
  • Assign it to a particular category tab

Gmail filters will always apply to incoming emails, but you can also apply them to “matching conversations” which is Google-speak for emails that you’ve already received.

Gmail filters are great when you want to automate really specific actions. Here are step-by-step instructions for creating your first filter:

  1. Open Gmail on desktop.
  2. In the search bar, click the icon on the right to open Show search options.
  3. Enter the filter criteria, e.g. Are you filtering out emails from a specific sender? Emails containing specific words? These are just a few examples of what you can do with filters.
  4. Optional: To confirm the filter works as intended, click Search to test it out. Then, re-open search options (Step 2).
  5. Click Create filter.
  6. Select which actions you’d like your filter to trigger, i.e. What do you want Gmail to do with the emails that match your filter criteria? You can check more than one checkbox.
  7. Click the Create filter button one more time.

For a more in-depth guide on using Gmail filters, click here!

Step three: Pick your preferred inbox type

Gmail lets you configure your “inbox type” — a.k.a. the layout of your inbox. To do this, all you have to do is open Quick settings by clicking the gear icon in the top right of your screen. Scroll down until you see inbox types, and pick from one of these options:

  1. Default - This setting automatically organizes your email inbox into different categories. These categories will appear as horizontal tabs in Gmail, kind of like browser tabs. Category tabs include: “Primary,” “Social,” “Promotions,” “Updates,” and “Forums.” Be sure to customize your tabs, keeping only the ones that are relevant to you. For instance, if you don’t receive email notifications from your social media accounts, feel free to disable the “Social” category tab.
  2. Important first - This setting separates your emails into two sections: “Important” and “Everything else.” Important emails appear at the top of your inbox, and everything else at the bottom. So what’s Gmail’s criteria for important messages? Gmail determines what’s important by looking at your past actions: which emails you open and reply to, whom you email (and how often), which emails you star, etc. 

Pro tip: Even if you don’t choose this inbox layout, you can still take advantage of Gmail’s “importance markers” — the little icons that indicate an important message. Just go to your settings, click on the inbox tab, and scroll down to the “Importance markers” section.

  1. Unread first - This setting splits emails into two sections, displaying unread messages at the top of your inbox, and everything else at the bottom. If unread emails often get buried in your inbox, then this inbox type is a great option for you! However, if you receive a lot of emails that you don’t need to open right away (like receipts and promotional emails), it won’t help much to sort your messages by read/unread status.
  1. Starred first - Similarly to the last two inbox types, this layout separates emails into two sections: starred messages at the top of your inbox, and everything else right below.
  1. Priority Inbox - This next layout is perfect if you want to prioritize your emails automatically. Priority Inbox separates everything into multiple sections: “Important and unread,” “Starred,” and “Everything else.” The great thing about this layout is that it’s customizable. You can reorder sections, create a section based on a custom label, and tell Gmail to display a certain number of emails per each section.
  1. Multiple Inboxes - This inbox type is perfect if you manage multiple Gmail accounts because it lets you bring everything under one roof. It’s also great if you prefer to split your emails into “inboxes,” as opposed to “sections” or “category tabs.” The main difference between inboxes, sections, and category tabs is the way they look on the screen — though they all essentially categorize your inbox. 

Step four: Redefine inbox zero

Starting in 2007, productivity expert Merlin Mann introduced an approach to email management called inbox zero. It encouraged people to adopt an action-based mindset around email — rather than simply going through your inbox, you’d take action with each email, whether that meant responding, forwarding, deleting, etc. The idea is that taking care of an email the first time around (instead of having to revisit it later) would save you time. Many inbox zero proponents took the name a little too literally, however, obsessively clearing emails to achieve “inbox zero.”

In a recent article for WIRED, Mann admitted that even his inbox wasn’t empty — and, that’s not what inbox zero is all about. We shouldn’t be fixated on trying to address every single email that comes through. The goal isn’t to have zero emails in your inbox, but to spend less time on inbox management.

All the Gmail organization hacks in the world won’t help without this important mindset switch. Email management shouldn’t be a fixation, but rather a tool for us to live lives outside our inboxes.

Pro tip: Making time for what matters is kind of our whole deal. Clockwise automatically creates uninterrupted Focus Time in your schedule for deep work.

Step five: Streamline your day with templates

Do you often write the same types of emails? Maybe you find yourself using the same language when you follow up with someone or reach out for a meeting. If so, save time by creating pre-written content called a template that you can insert into emails. It’s one of our favorite shortcuts for writing emails — just be sure to customize it when necessary.

How to create a new email template on your computer:

  1. Open Gmail.
  2. Click the gear icon at the top right corner, then click See all settings.
  3. In the horizontal menu, click Advanced.
  4. Find the section for Templates, then click Enable.
  5. Click Save Changes at the bottom of the page.
  6. Click Compose, like you’re starting a new email.
  7. Type out the content for your template in the compose window.
  8. Click (or hover over) the three dots to open More options.
  9. Click Templates > Save draft as template. Whatever’s written in the subject line will become the template’s title.

You’re all set! To use your new template, start a new email as usual and click the three dots to open More options. Click Templates, then select the template you’d like to use.

Step six: Check out Chrome extensions

If Google Chrome is your browser of choice, be sure to check out these extensions designed especially for Gmail users:

  • Checker Plus for Gmail
    With this wildly popular extension, you can receive email notifications, manage your inbox, and write emails — all without having to actually open Gmail. Checker Plus even provides support for multiple Gmail accounts.
  • Mailtrack
    Mailtrack is a free email tracking tool that lets you see when your emails have been delivered and opened.
  • Boomerang
    Boomerang is a multi-use tool that lets you schedule email messages for later, snooze incoming mail, and receive read receipts for your emails. It also functions as an AI writing assistant!

Step seven: Collaborate better with a shared Gmail inbox

Members of a Google group can start a Collaborative Inbox, which is essentially a shared Gmail inbox. This is super helpful for assigning conversations and delegating tasks for different group members.

This is a great alternative for using a regular account as a team email, because of its lightweight project management features. On top of assigning conversations to owners, you can mark conversations as “complete,” “duplicate,” and “no action needed.” Everyone stays on the same page without having to deal with any back-and-forth communication.

Step eight: Hit snooze every once in a while

Did you know you can snooze emails to appear in your inbox later? If you’re catching up on conversations (for example, if you just got back from vacation), use this feature to pause all mail and help you prioritize your first-received messages.

That way, you can make a dent in your older emails (or focus on other things). Don’t worry, you can always access snoozed messages by typing in:snoozed in the Gmail search bar.

Going forward

Here’s a recap of what we just covered:

  • Use labels to make your inbox more scannable and searchable.
  • Use filters to automate specific actions (e.g. forward, label, archive emails, and more)
  • Select the right inbox type to fit the way you work
  • Create templates to write emails faster
  • Use Chrome extensions and Collaborative Inboxes to add more features to Gmail
  • Remember your secret weapon, the snooze button

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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