You’re a busy person. You get tugged in a million directions every day. You try to keep your life as organized as possible, but your inbox is a mess. We’ve all been there.
The main flaw with modern email systems is that there is only one inbox, but we use our email accounts for so many different things.
Communicating with coworkers, managing to-do lists, keeping in touch, tracking receipts & shipments, receiving social media updates, archiving memories, following blogs… how can all of that be managed from one place!?
By default, Gmail wants you to have one inbox. Anything that isn’t in the inbox is either archived, spam or trash. Spam emails are deleted automatically every 30 days, so that’s not really a long term solution for storing email. And trash is – well – the trash.
But the archive is like limbo. Emails that are banished to the archive no longer reside in the inbox, but are still stored indefinitely. The archive is searchable by default, and emails in the archive can still be marked as read/unread, without affecting the unread count for your main inbox.
In essence, the archive is like a less-naggy version of the inbox — out of sight, out of mind. You can banish an email into the archive and it will disappear from your inbox, but it’s still there when you need to look for it later.
A fantastic way to cut down on clutter and manage your email more effectively is to make your archive behave like a series of individual, separate inboxes. And thanks to Gmail’s filters and labels, this is remarkably simple.
A note: creating Gmail filters is a very user-specific process and I definitely encourage you to play around with them to create your own email nirvana.
Creating Separate Inboxes Using Filters
For a simple example, let’s say you want to create an inbox for all of the emails that your boss sends to you, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle (although maybe you want them to…?)
Go to your Gmail account and click “Create a Filter” (at the top, next to the search box). Put his or her email address in the “from:” field and click the “next step »” button.
This is where the magic happens…
Check the box next to “Skip the Inbox (Archive It)”, and check the box next to “Apply the label:”. Then, choose a corresponding label as a name for this inbox. Something like “Boss” or “Respond ASAP”. Create a new label if one doesn’t exist already.
You can setup multiple filters that all use this label, so you could have several email address that are all automatically streamlined into one “Executives” inbox. Or create a “friends” inbox. Or a “notifications” inbox.
And you don’t have to worry about missing an email that ends up in one of these inboxes. Gmail automatically displays the number of unread emails next to each label, even though those emails aren’t in the main inbox.
You can quickly scan through the list of labels on the side of your screen and check the number of unread emails in each of your inboxes.
Streamlining Multiple Gmail Accounts
On the surface, this trick might seem only useful for sorting emails by sender, or perhaps a specific subject line. But you can extend this concept to easily manage ALL of your daily email quickly and efficiently, without needing to switch between tabs, or browsers or use bloated pieces of software.
If you have multiple email accounts with totally separate addresses, you should set them all up to redirect to the one Gmail account you’ll be checking most often. Then, you can create a filter in that main account that looks for all incoming messages where the “To:” field contains your other addresses.
I currently have 4 accounts that all automatically forward to my workplace account, and then get split out into separate inboxes based on what I use those accounts for. Now, I don’t have to login to five different inboxes, they’re all centralized and sorted in one window, automatically.
Note: You’ll want to make sure you authorize your main account to be able to send emails on behalf of the other accounts that are being forwarded to it. That way you don’t accidentally respond from your work account to an email that was sent to your personal account — a quick way to confuse your parents, I’ve found.
Tricks to “Change” Your Gmail Address
Hold on to your seats cause this is about to get crazy. Everything up to this point in the articles assumes that you have no control over the email address that people are using to contact you. Most of the time, you don’t — like when your colleagues send you a message, or someone wants to connect and looks you up online.
But when you have the option to tell someone what email address to use to contact you — like if you’re signing up for a mailing list or registering for a service — there are two really cool tips you can use if you feel like getting ultra fancy with your Gmail inboxes.
The first is that dots don’t affect deliverability in standard Gmail addresses. That means that if you register firstname.lastname@example.org you will also receive all email sent to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. The email is delivered to your account regardless of any dots in the address.
But Gmail filters will still sniff out the differences. That means you can have your parents emails you at firstname.lastname@example.org, tell your lawyer to email you at email@example.com and have all of your social media notifications forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of them will arrive in your account, and you can setup filters to look for the different dot patterns in the “To:” fields and separate out your messages.
Note: The dot trick won’t work in Google Apps accounts for your business, only on standard, public “@gmail.com” accounts
That’s kind of cool, but it’s not a very easy system to remember. The other (more useful) tip is that anything after a plus sign (+) is ignored in a Gmail address. So you could use email@example.com when you sign up for all of your social media accounts to have your notifications go to one inbox. Or firstname.lastname@example.org for purchases to make all of your receipts go to another inbox. Both sets of emails would arrive in your account and — you guessed it! — both are easily sortable into separate inboxes using filters and labels.
Note: The plus trick does work in Google Apps accounts for your business!
In my experience, separating emails out into discrete inboxes has made it dramatically faster and more efficient to manage my inbox. It helps me keep track of what I need to follow up with right away — and what I can ignore — without having to constantly scan through my main inbox.
If your email really piles up quickly, separate inboxes allow you to focus on one specific topic and chug through all of the emails associated with that topic, rather than constantly switching focus as you sift through a single inbox chronologically.
I also created a “Follow Up” inbox, that I assign an email to whenever it’s something that I need to respond to, but can’t right away. This helps me never lose track of tasks, without having to use the dreaded “Mark as Unread” (I’m an Inbox Zero purist…)
I’d encourage you to spend a lot of time thinking about the various types of email you receive throughout the day, and the best way to break that up. Even 45 minutes dedicated to setting up a more efficient inbox system will pay dividends down the road as you save time every day and become more productive.
These are only the use cases that I’ve come up with for managing the problem of a cluttered inbox. Leave a comment with your ideas!
PS: I have to give a shout-out to my roommate and productivity guru @scoober for teaching me about the dot trick in Gmail addresses. He’d give me a hard time if I didn’t mention him…