This blog was originally published on August 21, 2018, but has been revised with new instructions to match changes in the Gmail settings and interface.
When I see an inbox with a block of hundreds of unorganized emails it makes me 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 emails. With the volume that many of us receive it can be a challenge to stay on top of everything that comes in. No wonder 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. It should be a priority to keep it organized in a way that keeps you on top of things and allows you to find things easily when needed. You should never “miss” an email or “forget” to reply.
Triage Your Gmail Inbox
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.
The gist is that instead of a wall of thousands of emails, you only have a handful in your inbox at any one time. Everything else is archived. NOT DELETED, ARCHIVED. You can still find it, it is still there, you just don’t have every email you have ever gotten in one list.
What is the process when an email comes in?
- An email arrives in your ‘main’ inbox
- You decide if you are going to respond to it immediately, or triage it for future
- When you triage it for future, you select a star that corresponds to a section label
- You click on the start multiple times until the correct star is visible
- Then you archive the email and it will automatically appear in the section you selected for it
Note: This only works on desktop. On mobile, you only have one star option (the yellow one) and there is no way to configure multiple inboxes.
What you get will look something like this:
Choose your section labels
You will notice in the example above that I have three labels for the different sections of my inbox:
- 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.
You can have as many sections as you want, with as many labels as you want. That said, I don’t recommend having more than 4 or 5 inbox sections because then it starts getting cluttered again.
Other labels you might consider might be:
- Delegated: Could be emails with tasks you have delegated but want to keep an eye on.
- Events/Tickets: Could be emails that have details about an upcoming event or meeting, or tickets to an event or conference.
- Blocked: Emails related to a project or task that you are blocked on and waiting on some kind of resolution.
The labels you choose don’t matter, they just have to make sense to you. Think of the types of emails you get each day. If you were to group them into categories, what would they be?
Decide on the sections you want to break your inbox into, and let’s get it configured!
How to Configure Multiple Inboxes and Stars in Gmail
This should only take you 15 minutes and I promise it is worth it!
The instructions in the original post are out of date, so here is an update to match the current Gmail settings and configuration.
Add multiple inboxes
- Go to Settings (you will find it under the cog icon on the top right)
- You will see a Quick Settings menu.
- Under Inbox Type, select Multiple Inboxes and then click Customize
- Choose your Multiple Inbox Position (I use Below the Inbox but this is a matter of preference).
You will come back to this page but first…
Choose your stars/symbols
- Go to Settings > General and scroll down to Stars
- Add the stars you want to use. Which stars you use doesn’t matter.
Filter your inboxes to match the stars
- Go to Settings > Inbox
- Add the filter rules and labels you want for your sections
Here is the list of all names of the stars:
Everything else on this page should look like this:
3. Save changes and the page should automatically refresh.
4. Start starring your emails by clicking on the star icon to the left of the email senders name. Click it multiple times to scroll through the various star options you have selected
- You might not have selected any stars yet or
- If the new multiple inbox layout doesn’t appear in your inbox after you finished the guide, Go to Settings > Inbox > Inbox Type and briefly switch to Default
- Make sure you don’t have any tabs enabled
- Save changes and then select Inbox Type > Multiple Inboxes again, and Save Changes
If you run into a problem or can’t get this to work, shoot me an email and I will help you out.
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, 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):
- Decide how far you want to go back in your email to star them. This will vary depending on the volume of emails 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.
- 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.
- After you think you have gone back far enough to capture items that need to be noted in your immediate inbox:
- Click select all (the checkbox on the top left).
- Confirm that you really mean all 9,582 emails.
- 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:
- Emails come into my inbox.
- I read and either reply immediately or select a star
- For the ones I need to do something with, but not immediately, I mark as Needs Action
- For the ones I replied to I mark them as Awaiting Reply.
- 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.
- Everything is archived out of my main inbox and organized by their respective star/symbol.
- If appropriate, each email is also labelled into appropriate folders for later reference.
Again, this is a desktop-focused 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.
Simplify your Gmail interface
Another way I clean up the clutter of my email inbox is by using an extension called Simplify. It is a browser extension you can find in the Chrome Webstore that cleans up the Gmail interface.
You go from this:
It's just so much nicer to look at!
If you decide to give this a try, let me know what you think in the comments or email me! I am also happy to give you hand if you run into any problems.