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How to Keep Your Gmail Inbox Clean

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Taming the beast that is your inbox may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done. Like most of us, I receive dozens of emails each day, ranging from important business tasks to the ever-so-annoying spam messages. But unlike most, my inbox rarely has more than five emails sitting in it at any given time.

In this tutorial, I will share all of my tips, tricks, and techniques I use to turn a crowded messy inbox into an organized workflow. You'll learn why to archive emails instead of deleting them, how to automatically filter messages and get priority inbox to work for you, and how to get rid of annoying automated emails.

Archiving Over Deleting

One of my favorite Gmail features is that by default, it has you archive an email once you are done reading it, instead of the typical delete button found in most email apps. This is great because it lets you clear your inbox without worrying about what needs saved for later.

As an example, suppose you receive a bill payment confirmation email. You may be tempted to keep this in your inbox until you see the payment actually post to your account before you delete that message. But with Gmail's archive feature, you can simply archive it without giving it another thought!

Gmail archive
Archiving an email in Gmail.

According to the first line of Gmail's support document: "Archiving removes messages from your inbox, but keeps them in your account so that you can always find them later." So anytime you get an email that you aren't sure what to do with, simply click the archive button instead of the trash button. If you ever need to find it again, use Gmail's powerful search function to pull it right back up!

Gmail search
Finding an archived email in Gmail

With a free 15GB of storage space allotted to each Gmail account, and the ability to buy more if needed, you can archive with impunity. In fact, my rule of thumb is that if I don't know what to do with an email, I archive it. It allows for a clean inbox and a no-stress way to retrieve mail, all at the same time.

You can combine archiving with labels to organize your emails, but in most cases, you can just archive messages and find them again with a quick search. That's the simplest way to start getting your inbox organized, and you can go further with your organization efforts later if you want.

And, if you're manually organizing your inbox anyhow, be sure to check out our tutorial on Gmail keyboard shortcuts to speed up your work.

Automatic Filtering

Filters are easily one of the best features of most modern email clients. But in Gmail, they are also incredibly simple to set up. Once you add one or two, you will be addicted. The premise of a filter is simple: You set a rule that if an email contains, is from, or has X, your email client will automatically do Y with said email. 

As an example, imagine you are signed up to receive a daily email that sums up all major news events from the previous day. This is a great service, but those emails are taking up room in your inbox until you get around to reading and archiving them. You could instead create a filter that files them away automatically—or perhaps just archives those emails after you've read them.

To set up a new filter, click on the settings icon in the top right of Gmail. Then click on the Filters tab. Finally, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on Create a new filter.

Gmail filters
Creating a new filter in Gmail

Now, choose how you want to locate or search for the emails you would like to filter. Be as specific as possible here as an overly general filter may grab more than you bargained for. You can filter by as many of the following as you'd like:

  • From:
  • To:
  • Subject:
  • Has the words:
  • Doesn't have:
  • Size:

Once you have your filter set, click Create filter with this search. The next screen will give you an array of options that Gmail can automatically execute for you. It can do everything from sending a canned response, to moving the mail out of your inbox and into a folder you can look at later. I would recommend doing that for any daily emails you receive, but don't need to read until you have free time.

Add a filter in Gmail
Creating a filter in Gmail

Priority Inbox

Priority inbox is a relatively new feature in Gmail. It adds some some auto-filtering by default to your inbox, so you can keep things clean without having to setup too many filters. The Gmail team knows that almost everyone receives three types of email:

  1. Important and unread
  2. Starred
  3. Everything else

To activate priority inbox click on the settings icon, then choose the Inbox tab. Besides the default three tabs, you can also activate tabs for emails from social networks, promotional mails, and forum updates. Set the Inbox drop down from default to priority inbox, then scroll to the bottom and click Save Changes.

Gmail Priority Inbox
Priority inbox in Gmail

Once activated, Gmail will start using a variety of signals to automatically determine which category each email should fall into. Your inbox will now have a different tab for each category. If Gmail makes a mistake, you can teach it about which emails are a priority by toggling the yellow flag next to each email. 

Unroll.me

Unroll.me is a fun new service that works incredibly well with Gmail. By simply signing up and granting Unroll.me access to your Gmail, the service will automatically detect any bulk emails and newsletters you receive. They will then give you three options:

  1. Unsubscribe from that email list with a single click
  2. Add that email to your daily 'rollup' or
  3. Leave that email alone and let future emails land in your inbox

The daily rollup is a single email sent to your inbox once a day with all of the mass emails you received beautifully broken down into segments. If you see a segment you want to view fully, simply click on it and be taken directly to the full email. You can even log into the site and see a breakdown of all emails into categories. It's another nice way to stave off inbox overload and still get the news you need.

Unenrollme
Unroll.me rollup breakdown.

Conclusion

When you can archive without fear and put your subscriptions on auto-pilot, keeping a clean inbox becomes much easier. In fact, I currently use my inbox as a bit of a 'to-do' list. If an email requires action from me, it stays in my inbox. Otherwise, it gets archived or moved to a folder. If it is a subscription then my auto filters and Unroll.me team up to manage it for me.

You can combine some or all of these features to tame that pesky inbox monster. Leave a comment below if you have another great Gmail tip you'd like to share, or if you have any trouble using archive, automatic filters, or priority inbox.

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