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email inboxWith three email accounts, one for work, one personal and one for MakeUseOf, I find myself spending more time checking my email and trying to keep all the messages under control than actually getting much work done. Luckily, all three email accounts are Gmail or Google Apps accounts, and so in an attempt to organise one account, I followed several steps that can be applied to all three. Gmail provides several tools that will help you declutter your inbox and, more importantly, keep it that way.

Achieving Inbox Zero is actually a pretty simple task, and maintaining it can be done with minimal effort on your part, as long as you have a decent system in place.


These are a few simple steps that can help you put that system into motion and, in addition, keep your archive free of large attachments that take up space, which even with Gmail’s huge capacity, after a few years, it can begin to run out.

Set Up Filters

The first step when decluttering your inbox is to create filters. This is useful because the filters can be applied to all of the messages that are already clogging your inbox. While Gmail filters How to Set Up Email Filters in Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Outlook How to Set Up Email Filters in Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Outlook Email filtering is your best tool in keeping your inbox neat and organized. Here's how to set up and use email filters in Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Outlook. Read More make it easy to create these filters, Syphir takes it all one step further, effectively putting your filters on steroids.

With Syphir you can filter out mass forwards, archive emails once they’ve been in your inbox for a certain amount of time, push back personal, Facebook or Twitter related emails during your work day so you don’t get distracted and keep your inbox clean and tidy.

email inbox

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A key way in which you can use Syphir to keep your email tidy and organised is to create a label system that will suit your own personal needs, jobs and projects. That way finding older emails will be a snap. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable giving a third party access to your email, you can make do with Gmail’s native filter system.

Creating filters is very important when it comes to decluttering your inbox because once you have all of your filters in place, your inbox will stay organised.

Convert Emails Into Tasks

After setting up your filters, the next step is to address the emails that are still in your inbox.

organize email inbox

I tend to keep emails in my inbox until I’ve handled the related issue or task. More often than not, the task can be forgotten, and as you receive more emails, you run the risk of completely forgetting all about it. Before you know it, your inbox is once again full of emails you have read, but have not dealt with.

To stay on top of things, convert your emails into tasks immediately using Gmail Tasks.

manage email inbox

Each task will be accompanied by a link to the related email, so you don’t spend time looking for it if you need to refer to or reply to it.

Reply To Routine Emails Using Canned Responses

Replying to routine emails using Canned Responses Save Time with Gmail Email Templates using "Canned Responses" Save Time with Gmail Email Templates using "Canned Responses" Read More makes it easy to clear out those emails that have you typing the same response over and over again.

manage email inbox

Using features like Gmail’s canned responses makes it easier and faster to get to your final goal of Inbox Zero.

Use Priority Inbox To Reply To The Rest Of Your Emails

Now that your Gmail inbox is organised, and you’ve replied to your routine emails using Canned Responses, all that’s left to do is prioritise the rest of your emails.

Use Gmail’s Priority Inbox Gmail's Priority Inbox Solves The Bacn Problem Gmail's Priority Inbox Solves The Bacn Problem Read More to figure out what order you’ll be addressing or replying to the emails you receive.

Clean Out The Archive

As a bonus step, if you find yourself running out of space in your Gmail account, you might need a quick and easy to get rid of the emails that are taking up too much space. There are several ways you can search for the largest emails in your Gmail archive.

The simples and and most direct method is to run the search has:attachment. If you would like to specify the kind of attachment, since a word document doesn’t take up as much space as an audio or video file, search for specific files using filename:mp3filename:avifilename: mov and so forth.

If you want to hand over the task to a third party service, authorise Find Big Mail and it will automatically root out all the large emails in your Gmail account.

manage email inbox

FindBigMail will perform a search and categorise your emails by size using labels in your inbox, which you can can then sift through.

email inbox

What do you do to keep your Gmail inbox empty? Let us know in the comments.

Image credit: Shutterstock

  1. Davethewave133
    January 17, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    There is no royal road to inbox zero. It is work getting there. But the payoff is that, once you develop the skills from getting there, staying there is easy.

    What you need to do is book off a couple of days (if you have several hundred emails, like I did) and steadily remove them. If you do this, you will no only have inbox zero, but you will also have the kills to keep it at zero forever.

    GOod luck!

  2. Davethewave133
    January 17, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    There is no royal road to inbox zero. It is work getting there. But the payoff is that, once you develop the skills from getting there, staying there is easy.

    What you need to do is book off a couple of days (if you have several hundred emails, like I did) and steadily remove them. If you do this, you will no only have inbox zero, but you will also have the kills to keep it at zero forever.

    GOod luck!

  3. Will Radie
    December 7, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I too have done this in the past and found it to be quite useful. However, recently I made the switch to using ActiveInbox, and eliminated my custom stuff.

    I was nervous at first and did it slowly. In the process, I noticed that I could have kept my custom stuff as well as using the great features of ActiveInbox...

    Give a good look to what they have and you might be impressed.

    Convert your current folders into "Projects" by adding "P/" to the folder names. The filters all work the same, now you have all your custom stuff, plus one of the best GTD systems for GMail together.

  4. Tilman
    November 25, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Hi! Essentially you have two options. Either you train Gmail's Priority Inbox feature over time to automatically recognize and sort messages that are important for you. Or you create a filter where you define exactly which messages are important for you.

    Since you ask about filters, let's look at that option first :) The likelihood of this method being right for you principally depends on how many people are included in your contacts. For example, if you would hypothetically have only three contacts - A, B and C - then you would create a filter, write into the from field "A OR B OR C" and put the messages into a label "fromcontacts" (or however you wanna call the label). Then you could for instance with the Multiple Inboxes lab feature display that label above (or under or next to) your normal inbox. (If those messages should then appear ONLY there and not also in your normal inbox, click the auto-archive tickbox when creating the filter.) Practically you of course have more than three people in your contacts! I don't know what the limit is how long one filter query can be (the "from(A OR B OR C)" part) but let's assume you create one filter for every ten contacts. If you have hundred people in your contacts, you would have to create ten filters. That would still be manageable (especially if you don't do all at once). Alternatively you could export all your contacts (choose Outlook CSV format), open that file with Excel, select the column with all email addresses, paste that column as plain text into Word, press CTRL+H and replace "^p" (without the quotation marks) with " OR " (again without the quotation marks but WITH the spaces around OR). Then you just select and copy ten or however email addresses fit into one filter at a time into the from field in Gmail. This way, it might be actually "relatively" fast to capture all (or at least the important) email addresses in your contacts :) Feel free to experiment with the length of the filter query! Maybe it fits much more than ten emails - I just haven't tried.

    The other method would be to use the Priority Inbox, as I mentioned above. Gmail does a relatively good job explaining how it works (see here: http://mail.google.com/support... Essentially you just click "important" whenever you get a message from a person in your contacts and "not important" whenever you get a message from somebody not in your contacts. This is how you over time TRAIN it (yeah, that's how Gmail calls the process) to automatically sort out important messages from "everything else". Note that you can customize Priority Inbox also a great deal. For instance, you might create a filter with (at least some) email addresses to always mark them as important. Or you can also do the opposite: you can define a filter to mark all messages which are NOT from A or B or C as unimportant simply by putting a minus sign either before each email address or once in front of brackets: -(A OR B OR C).

    Which method you choose - or whether you choose a combination of both methods - depends entirely on your preference. Try both and see which one you like more! I personally have used labels and filters for years, so today I have a relatively complex system of literally hundreds of labels and hundreds of filters. Together with the Multiple Inboxes lab feature, I define exactly what I see where. I have started to build my system the day I signed up for Gmail (which was years ago), and the system evolves over time as I make changes and additions to it. The result is, however, that I have created my own "priority inbox" :) If I would have to start from scratch, I might as well consider Gmail's Priority Inbox which, according to the Gmail blog (http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/... was was introduced just in August 2010, so it is still quite a new feature.

    All right, I hope I was able to help :) Let us know which method you choose and how it works for you!

  5. Count Stex
    November 25, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    What I've always been after in GMail is a way to scan my messages and somehow seperate mails from people in my contacts list from other mail as in 90% of cases mail from people I don't have in my contact list are thing I really don;t need to keep, whilst I like a good history of conversations with my contacts. Has anyone ever come up with a way to do this, maybe using filters even?

    • nm
      November 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm

      After a quick search, all I could find was actually manually creating a filter in which you copy and paste all of the contacts you want to separate from the rest of your email. It's surprising that Gmail filters don't give you a way to label emails from certain groups in your contacts, but it seems like it's a feature that has been requested before.

      • Count Stex
        November 25, 2010 at 8:42 pm

        Yup. Made a request for that myself a while back. Seems a big oversight for a really useful feature, but I guess the demand isn't there.

  6. Mark O'Neill
    November 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    That's really weird - I don't have the "add to tasks" option in my Gmail menu. Is that a Labs feature or other plugin?

    • nm
      November 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

      Not that I can tell - it's available in all my Gmail and Google Apps accounts. I can't find anything online about people not having access to the feature either. Are you sure it's not there?

  7. timmyjohnboy
    November 21, 2010 at 5:50 am

    I love gmail and will probably never look back. I love using it in the bowser and I love how it integrates well with the gmail app on my Android. Now the next task is to get me to put this stupid phone down!

    • nm
      November 21, 2010 at 10:04 am

      I couldn't agree more - no email client really comes close. And together with the ActiveInbox plugin - there's really not much else you could ask for.

  8. venkat
    November 21, 2010 at 3:34 am

    priority inbox in Gmail is productive and very useful for lot of users eases by throwing unnecessary messages into everything else section.

  9. gav
    November 21, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Wow that findbigmail.com is awesome! FREE as well ;-) Nice one..

  10. gav
    November 21, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Wow that findbigmail.com is awesome! FREE as well ;-) Nice one..

  11. Tilman
    November 21, 2010 at 12:39 am

    In my opinion, by far the best gmail productivity feature is the "Multiple Inboxes" lab feature. With it you can specify up to five different panels to be displayed either below, above or next to your normal inbox. Ok I admit, the new "priority inbox" feature comes a bit close to this multiple inboxes feature, but still I prefer the lab because it is much more versatile and customizable. Using Nancy's example of having three Gmail accounts, wouldn't it be great to keep the three inboxes separate from each other but still view them at the same time? That's exactly what you can do with Multiple Inboxes (after you have set a forwarder from the different Gmail accounts so that they all end up in one Gmail inbox)! First, create a normal filter to auto-archive the messages which you want to appear in a panel below the inbox but not IN the inbox (for example to:my.private.email@gmail.com). Then simply define a panel in the lab's settings tab (which will appear once you enable the lab) to show all messages that you just set to auto-archive in the previously created filter! And voila, it works :) Over time I have created quite a sophisticated system for myself with literally hundreds of filters and all five panels in use with looong definitions what they should show. It definitely works for me - and I love Gmail for that!

    • timmyjohnboy
      November 21, 2010 at 5:49 am

      I've been using multiple inboxes to a limit but this trick is cool. Thanks :)

    • nm
      November 21, 2010 at 10:05 am

      That's a great idea - I tried using multiple inboxes but could never really find a way to put it to good use - I will definitely have to give that a try. Thanks for the suggestion.

      • Tilman
        November 21, 2010 at 11:22 am

        How much does MUO pay me if I write a nice and long article about the many ways how to use Multiple Inboxes together with filters in Gmail? ;-)

        • nm
          November 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

          That's probably something you'd have to ask our editor in chief :)

        • Aibek
          November 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm

          We do accept guest posts. If interested please email mark[at]makeuseof[dor]com for details :-)

        • Will Radie
          December 7, 2010 at 10:15 pm

          Hey man, I am pretty solid at it too. Perhaps I can help.. I dont want any thing in return, except maybe for credit.

    • Will Radie
      December 7, 2010 at 10:13 pm

      I too have done this in the past and found it to be quite useful. However, recently I made the switch to using ActiveInbox, and eliminated my custom stuff.

      I was nervous at first and did it slowly. In the process, I noticed that I could have kept my custom stuff as well as using the great features of ActiveInbox...

      Give a good look to what they have and you might be impressed.

      Convert your current folders into "Projects" by adding "P/" to the folder names. The filters all work the same, now you have all your custom stuff, plus one of the best GTD systems for GMail together.

  12. Tina
    November 20, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Great article Nancy!

    Setting up filters probably is the most important step. It makes checking mails so much easier, especially if you receive everything into one inbox.

    I download all my eMail to Thunderbird and hence didn't know about the 'canned responses'. That's a great feature and much more convenient than templates!

    • Tilman
      November 21, 2010 at 12:41 am

      Downloading messages to Thunderbird makes sense in my opinion only if you frequently want to work with your emails without having an internet connection. But even then Gmail also offers an offline mode. (Personally, I haven't been able to get it to work for me, however, as there always comes up an error message.) I definitely prefer to use Gmail in the browser because of the vast number of lab features that have been developed. Below I explain my most favorite lab feature - but canned responses is certainly a good one, too :)

  13. Tina
    November 20, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Great article Nancy!

    Setting up filters probably is the most important step. It makes checking mails so much easier, especially if you receive everything into one inbox.

    I download all my eMail to Thunderbird and hence didn't know about the 'canned responses'. That's a great feature and much more convenient than templates!

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