Welcome to Product Support, a column devoted to helping you get the most out of the gadgets and software you already use.
In this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to keep your inbox tidy and even harder to reach that magic Inbox Zero. Most of us are busy trying to manage a mountain of messages that gets bigger with each passing day.
There are a handful of snazzy new (and expensive) email services that promise to solve this problem but good old Gmail also has tools and options that can help. You can live without them, sure. You probably have been! But they can make email a little less of a stressful chore.
1. Use email aliases
Periods don’t matter in Gmail addresses — if your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you’ll get messages sent to email@example.com as well, and indeed firstname.lastname@example.org. They all go to the same place.
You can also add plus (“+”) signs to your email address to create alternative addresses: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org will still come through to your Gmail account, for example.
Why is that useful? Use addresses with periods and plus symbols when you’re signing up for newsletters, or new apps, or anything else that demands your email address and you can filter incoming messages sent to these specific addresses to be marked as important, or to skip your inbox, and so on.
2. Get aggressive with filters
Speaking of filtering, filters are one of the best ways to tame an unruly Gmail inbox. On the Gmail web interface, you can create a filter by clicking the arrow to the right of the search box, then setting out your criteria. You can also create filters from inside individual conversation threads by clicking the menu button (three dots) on the right, then choosing Filter messages like this.
Filters cover all kinds of different scenarios: it’s possible to pick out emails based on who sent them, or words that appear (or don’t appear) in the body of the email, or how big (or small) the emails are. You can identify emails with attachments too.
The real power of the Gmail filtering system comes with what you can do with emails once they’ve been highlighted as matching your criteria: they can be marked as important or not important, starred, marked as read, sent straight to the archive, given a particular label, and more besides.
3. Take a minute to help train Google’s algorithms
Google tries to do some clever email sorting for you, but if you take a few minutes each day to help it along, it’s going to get smarter over time. Take email importance, for example: emails that seem important by Google’s standards get put in the Primary tab, with a yellow arrow next to them. If Google has got it wrong, click this yellow arrow to mark the email as not important (or vice versa).
Your Gmail inbox is most likely split up into tabs for social media emails, less important updates and so on, if you’re using the default layout (click the arrow next to Inbox on the left to change the view). On the web, just click and drag emails to put them in different tabs—Gmail then asks if you want to sort all future emails like this in the same way.
Don’t neglect your spam folder either. Take a few moments, when you can, to dive into the spam folder and fish out genuine emails, as well as flagging junk messages in your main inbox that Gmail hasn’t caught automatically—as time goes on, you should find spam email becomes less and less of a problem.
4. Reach for the stars
Gmail’s system for starred emails is more extensive than it might seem at first glance. Open up the Settings pane on the web by clicking the cog icon on the right then choosing Settings. Switch to the General tab and under Stars you’ll see a total of 12 stars and other symbols you can make use of.
Drag the small icons to the top row to have the associated stars enabled in Gmail. You can then cycle beyond the regular yellow star by clicking again (andagain) on the star symbol next to messages in your Gmail inbox on the web.
Besides helping you better organize your emails into different lists or priority rankings (urgent, needs following up, family or whatever), you can also use these stars with searches—try “has:green-star” in the Gmail search box, for example. Hover the mouse cursor over the various icons on the General tab of Settings to see the name that Gmail gives to each indicator.
5. Clear out the ancient stuff
There comes a point in the battle against email where it’s best to just cut your losses and start again from scratch (or maybe just from the last three months’ worth of messages). If those deleted messages were important enough, someone is bound to follow up.
This isn’t for everyone — you might have old messages with a lot of sentimental value, for example — but if you’re ready to take the plunge, then a simple “before:01/01/2019” search on Gmail on the web will do the trick. Just change the date to whatever you want. Click the Select all checkbox (top left), then Select all conversations, then take a deep breath and click Delete (the trash can icon).
Those older emails then get wiped from the record and your inbox is suddenly a lot cleaner. Unfortunately, Gmail can’t do this sort of tidying up automatically, but you can run the search every month or so, as well as combine it with other search terms, if needed — “before:01/01/2019 is:unimportant” for example.
6. Use the snooze
Don’t have time to deal with an email straight away? Feeling overwhelmed with all the messages coming into your inbox? Gmail’s snooze function can help here: with a conversation open on screen on the web, click the Snooze button (the clock icon), then choose when you want the thread to reappear. The emails in the conversation disappear from your inbox until the specified time and date.
This feature is arguably even more useful in the Gmail apps for Android and iOS. You can find the Snooze option behind the menu button (three dots) whether you’re in a conversation or looking at the overview of your inbox (long press on an email in the list to select it).
Snoozing is different than muting. If you choose Mute (an option on the same menus as Snooze) then you won’t see any notifications from the selected email conversation thread until you unmute it — it stays in the archive and won’t show up in the main inbox views. It can still be found, through search with a query of “is:muted” in Gmail on the web, for example.
7. Make message templates
Email wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for all those responses you have to spend time crafting and sending—whether it’s getting back to your boss or chasing up someone who was due to fix your plumbing, a big chunk of your emailing efforts can be taken up with composing messages.
Enter short email templates you can use over and over again. You might have one for telling someone you can’t make an event, for example, or for turning down a pitch that’s been sent to you for work. To enable the feature in Gmail on the web, click the cog icon on the right and choose Settings, then go to Advanced and select Enable next to the Templates option.
When you’re composing a message, click the menu button (the three dots) down in the bottom right corner, then choose Templates. From this submenu, it’s possible to save the current message you’re writing as a template to use again in the future, or to drop in a template that you’ve previously created.
8. Know your mouse and keyboard shortcuts
Knowing a few keyboard and mouse shortcuts can make a huge difference to how quickly you’re able to power through your Gmail inbox, more of a difference than you might think. Rather than hunting through menus and toolbars for the options you need, you can simply make a few taps or clicks based on your muscle memory. Keyboard shortcuts can be turned on from the General tab of Settings (click the cog icon on the right of the web interface to find it).
Google has a full list of keyboard shortcuts here, but some of our favorites include J and K for moving forwards and backwards through messages in the inbox, and E for archiving the currently selected (or open) conversation. G+I gets you back to the inbox from anywhere, while R (for reply) and A (for reply all) are really handy too.
There’s plenty you can do with a right-click of the mouse (or trackpad) too, and Gmail recently added some new options to the right-click menu when you’re selecting messages in the inbox: you can reply to messages, move them to other tabs, apply labels, find more emails from the same sender, mute threads and more.
9. Make good use of bookmarks
One way to get around your inbox faster is to start bookmarking certain sections of Gmail so you can jump between them more quickly. This works in any browser of course, and you can have your bookmarks on the browser toolbar for easy access, or have different Gmail screens open in different tabs.
So what can you bookmark? Just about every part of Gmail. If you’re logged into your Gmail account in your web browser, the following links will lead you to your starred messages, and your sent messages, and your important messages, and messages you haven’t read yet.
It doesn’t stop there either, because any Gmail search can be saved as a bookmark, or indeed any individual conversation thread. You could bookmark the most important labels and sub-labels you’ve set up in Gmail too. However you want to use this, you’ll find it gets you around your inbox more easily.