Get Your Gmail Inbox Under Control Using Multiple Inboxes and Stars

When I see an inbox with a block of hundreds of unorganized emails it makes cringe. My inner chaos coordinator starts to shake with the need to triage, label, and archive. It feels overwhelming and out of control.

Most people spend an incredible amount of time reading and answering email. With the volume that many of us receive it can be a challenge to stay on top of everything that comes in, especially as our inboxes gets fuller and fuller. It is no wonder that emails get forgotten or lost as they get pushed further and further down into the abyss.

Email is the primary way that most businesses communicate and it should be a priority to keep it organized in a way that will keep you on top of things as they come in, and allow you to find things easily when needed. You should never “miss” an email or “forget” to reply.

I came across this process by Andreas Klinger several years ago. It changed how I managed my inbox. It is a way to use existing Gmail features, such as multiple inboxes and stars, to triage your emails as they come in. 

All of the instructions on how to set it up are in the original post so I won’t repeat them here but I promise you it is worth the 15 minutes it will take!

The end result looks like this:

Gmail Multi Inbox with Stars.png

Deciding on your labels

The labels you create to group your emails and the corresponding star can be whatever you want. Think of the types of emails you get each day. If you were to group them into categories, what would they be? 

These are what I use to sort my email:

  • Needs Action - Yellow star: Emails that are at the top of my radar. These require me to take immediate action to complete.
  • Awaiting Reply - Purple question mark: Emails that I am expecting a reply on. 
  • To Return To - Blue bang: Emails that I am interested in looking at but are not an immediate priority. These are often articles, newsletters or ideas.
  • Scheduled - Orange guillemet (double arrow): Emails that have details about an upcoming event or meeting, or tickets to an event or conference.

The labels and corresponding stars can be whatever you want, as long as they make sense to you and help keep your email organized.

What to do with your wall of 10,000 emails

This seems like a great idea until you look at your inbox and suddenly feel too overwhelmed to deal with it. Don’t despair. As Andreas says in his post, it’s actually pretty easy. These are the steps you can do to get that wall of email sorted out the first time (slightly varied from the ones Andreas shared):

  1. Decide how far you want to go back in your email to star them. This will vary depending on the volume of email you get. It may be a few pages, as Andreas recommends, or you may want to do it by date and go back a few weeks.
  2. Go through each of the emails and mark them based on the labels you have created. This might be a bit tedious but shouldn’t take too long.
  3. After you think you have gone back far enough to capture items that need to be noted in your immediate inbox:
    1. Click select all (the checkbox on the top left).
    2. Confirm that you really mean all 9,582 emails.
    3. Click on archive (don’t worry, all of these emails are still accessible through search or your folders).

Huzzah! Congratulations, you have just gotten your Gmail inbox under control. :)

How to keep your Gmail Inbox Under Control

Once you have everything set up you need to be diligent about using the stars. I check my email a few times a day and this is the process that I use:

  1. Emails come into my inbox.
  2. I read and either a) reply immediately or b) mark as Needs Action.
  3. For the ones I replied to I mark as Awaiting Reply or Delegated.
  4. If there are emails that are informational/don’t require immediate action but I want to keep on my radar I mark them as To Return To.
  5. Any events, meetings, tickets, etc. that I want handy are marked as Scheduled.
  6. Everything is archived out of my main inbox and organized by their respective star/symbol.
  7. If appropriate, each email is also labeled into appropriate folders for later reference. 

Note, this is primarily a desktop method of organization and not as useful for people who primarily access their email on their phones. You can use the yellow star in the mobile Gmail app to mark ‘Needs Action’ but none of the other stars/symbols.