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Clean Up Your Inbox: Pro Tips from a Gmail Insider

A few simple steps to getting your email situation under control—and keeping it that way.

Organizing an unruly inbox can be a daunting task, but with a few simple steps you can get your email under control—and keep it that way.

Start with a makeover

First, your email account can get messy if you don’t like spending time there. Take a few moments to set up a theme that makes you happy. I recommend Gmail’s Cherry Blossoms theme to get you in a springtime mood, or you can try Beach if you’re already longing for summer.

Prepare to purge

Be honest with yourself—if it’s not on the first few pages, you are probably not going to browse back to it, so don’t feel guilty about sweeping away older messages and making a fresh start. You will feel much better as that unread count gets closer to the zen of “Inbox (0).”

Before you start slashing and burning, let’s talk about your three clean-up options:

1. Delete. If you are confident that you don’t need the messages, you can delete them.

2. Archive. Archived messages are still in your account, but they will no longer show in your inbox. It’s a little bit like magic—your mail isn’t in your way, but you can still find it again easily through search, labels, or All Mail.

3. Archive and label. Labels are tags for your messages that help you find them again more easily. When you combine them with archiving, labels are almost the same as folders, except that the same message can be tagged with multiple labels at once.

Sweep away messages in groups

Rather than assessing each email individually, save time by grouping messages. Try a search to find all messages older than a certain date, say, one month. In Gmail, you can click the dropdown on the search box for advanced options, or you can use operators like in:inbox before:2012/03/15. If the idea of mass-moving older mail is too scary, use specific categories of messages—try or Once you’ve isolated a group of mail, you can use the toolbar buttons to archive, label, or delete all of those messages at once.

You can ensure your Gmail does this on an ongoing basis by filtering new incoming messages—instantly applying labels, archiving, marking as read, or marking as priority. To do this, click the dropdown on the search bar to open the filter creator. You’ll use checkboxes instead of buttons to select the options you want, but be sure to tick the box to also apply the filter to existing conversations.

Pro tip: As you clean up groups of messages, let’s make sure you don’t clutter your label list. Use sublabels to create collapsible groups. You also don’t need to access every label every day, so get the less important ones out of the way. Click the gear, open your Settings, and visit the Labels tab. You’ll notice that for each label, you have the option to show, hide, or show if unread. “Show” means that your label will appear by default in your left navigation. “Hide” means that your label will be neatly tucked into the “More” menu, so you can get to it quickly but it’s out of the way. “Show if unread” is my favorite, especially if you set up filters—the label will show in the left navigation if there are new messages in there, but it will automatically tuck into the “More” menu once you read everything.

Keep it clean

Congratulations! Now your inbox is clean, but the real trick is keeping it that way. Here are a few tips to help you stay on top of your mail:

If you can reply to a message in less than 5 minutes, just do it. Don’t put it off. Then, archive the message, delete it, or drag it into a label to get it out of your inbox.

For anything that will take longer, star it and come back to it later. Gmail offers multiple star types, so you can use different stars for different purposes. Set aside dedicated time each day or each week to clear out your starred items.

Unsubscribe from unnecessary newsletters and notifications, or filter them out of the way. If you missed some newsletters in your cleanup, set up a filter by opening one of the messages, clicking the dropdown next to the reply button, and choosing “Filter messages like this.” Most other email clients support filtering, too.

Embrace Gmail’s Priority Inbox, which creates a special inbox of only your most important mail. Priority Inbox users spend 43 percent more time reading important mail compared to unimportant, and 15 percent less time reading email overall as compared to Gmail users who don’t use Priority Inbox. Visit the Inbox tab in your Settings to change your inbox style. Then, train Priority Inbox by marking the yellow flag on your most important messages, and unmarking the ones that aren’t urgent.

Quickly find emails from friends and family by using the Circles labels. You can add any email address to a Circle in Google+, and then view your messages by Circle to show only mail from those people.

Don’t forget about Contacts

One last piece of housekeeping left: clean up your contacts. In Gmail, any information your contacts are sharing with you through Google+ will automatically be brought into your Contacts list, so their address and phone number can always stay up-to-date.

If you email people who have multiple email addresses, you might have ended up with duplicate entries in your list. Try the “Find and merge duplicates” feature to automatically clean up your Contacts—you’ll find this option in the “More” menu. If you don’t want Gmail to automatically store the email addresses that you send mail to in the future, you can make the change in your Gmail settings.

What are your tips for keeping your inbox under control? Let us know in the comments.

Top photo via (cc) Flickr user Frederick Md Publicity. Other photos courtesy of Gmail.

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