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Sooner or later, everyone’s Gmail inbox becomes an overwhelming mess. There are plenty of tricks to deal with email overload, but there’s one right under your nose that you might not be using: good old Gmail labels.

Labels have been around for a long time now, so they have almost become blind spots for many of us. I’ve been a Gmail user since its inception, but I never used labels till recently. It has entirely changed how I approach email, finally helping me tame my inbox.

Using labels successfully depends on a few core productivity principles, just like any to-do management system. Here are the tricks that helped me and can help you too.

Labels Shouldn’t Make You Think

How-I-Rediscovered-Gmail-Labels-And-Tamed-My-Inbox-Quick-Glance

Applying a label should be mechanical; the action you take based on a label should be mechanical.

This is perhaps the most important part of using labels in Gmail. Initially, you will be tempted to come up with a long list of labels. “Each task or email is unique,” you’ll tell yourself. Avoid falling into this trap. The more labels you have, the more they make you think, the more time it takes you. You have to actively battle decision fatigue How To Form A New Habit When It Seems Too Hard To Keep Going How To Form A New Habit When It Seems Too Hard To Keep Going Habits don't form overnight. Every year, we make these resolutions that call for major changes. If you want a new habit, you need to be ready for pitfalls and how to overcome them. Read More , so that’s what labels should be.

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Have as few labels as you can. Each label should serve a single purpose. As a thumb rule, use these  primary labels, and add five more that are specific to your work needs.

The 5 Primary Labels: Today, Done, Waiting For, To-Do, Reply

Several inbox experts recommend doing a daily scan of your email in the morning How to Beat Email Addiction by Tracking Inbox Habits How to Beat Email Addiction by Tracking Inbox Habits Email is hijacking your days, and it's being sneaky about it. You can regain control over your time. Figure out how much time you devote to email right now and steal it back. Read More , so you know what to do with each email. Treat this scan as the time to arrange your inbox, much like you would arrange your to-do list.

How-I-Rediscovered-Gmail-Labels-And-Tamed-My-Inbox-Make-It-Easy

The zeroth rule of email management: If you can delete it, delete it. For the messages you can’t delete, you can usually categorise them with these five primary labels:

  1. Today: Mark this on any email that has an action to be taken today. It’s okay if an email is marked Today as well as something else; the point is to know that this email is pertinent to today.
  2. To-Do: If an email has a project or task that you need to do today, then mark it with this label. Key point: The task needs to be more than just replying to that email. You can try coupling this with Sortd to turn Gmail into a Trello-like task board Turn Gmail Into A Trello-Like Task Board With Sortd Turn Gmail Into A Trello-Like Task Board With Sortd In the modern workforce, your email often turns into your task list. Well, now you can get Trello-style organisation right in Gmail with a new Chrome extension, Sortd. Read More .
  3. Reply: Mark this on any email that needs a reply. So an email could be marked “Today + To-Do + Reply” indicating that it contains a non-email task, and has to be replied to by end of day.
  4. Waiting For: Mark this on any email where it’s important to you, but you have to wait for another person to take an action. I picked up this trick from ActiveInbox founder Andy Mitchell’s tips on managing email overload How to Deal With Inbox Overload and To-Do Lists in Emails How to Deal With Inbox Overload and To-Do Lists in Emails Email is not just communication, it also largely dictates your to-do list. Let's talk about the best tips to link the inbox to our productivity with Andy Mitchell -- the founder of ActiveInbox. Read More .
  5. Done: The most important label. Any email where your input is no longer required, mark it as Done. I’m not a fan of deleting emails since I prefer to have that paper trail; and even if you’re archiving an email, a reply from the sender will bring it back in your inbox. You need that “Done!” label—especially if you’re a fan of the Done List productivity method.

Labels Are Great as Placebos!

How-I-Rediscovered-Gmail-Labels-And-Tamed-My-Inbox-Gmail

Whenever I got a new email notification, my first instinct was to open, read, reply or delete. It was disruptive for my workflow. But that unattended notification would bother me, so I ended up interrupting whatever I was doing to address it.

Now, I just apply a label and get back to work. I address the email later, once my current work is done. Applying a label gives me the mental satisfaction of having interacted or addressed the email, without spending the amount of time I would have otherwise.

Labels are a fantastic placebo for those who compulsively need to do something about incoming emails.

Labels Should be Easy to Access, Apply, and Identify

Gmail has plenty of tools to make labels as user-friendly as possible. Spend a little time customising the appearance of labels, it will boost your usage.

How-I-Rediscovered-Gmail-Labels-And-Tamed-My-Inbox-Hide-Categories

Go to Gear icon > Settings > Labels to see all your labels and manage them. Here, I also recommend hiding most of the other items you see in the left sidebar Gmail Upgrades Labels Using Two Labs Extensions [News] Gmail Upgrades Labels Using Two Labs Extensions [News] Read More , like Sent Mail, Drafts, Important, Categories, Circles and more. If your labels appear first, it becomes easier to spot them and drag-and-drop onto emails.

How-I-Rediscovered-Gmail-Labels-And-Tamed-My-Inbox-Label-Colours

Also, colour-code your labels. Click the tiny drop-down in any label in the sidebar to choose colours. Simple colours applied to your primary labels will help  you identify them easily. I use a green label for “DONE!”—it’s satisfying to look at and to know I don’t have to bother with that email any more. Similarly, I mark the “TODAY!” label with bright red so it always catches my attention.

No Extensions, No Frills

The beauty of labels is that it’s built into Gmail. You don’t need any RAM chewing extensions that you can use on Chrome but not on the mobile Gmail app. It works perfectly whenever you open your inbox. The best productivity systems are those that get out of your way, and that’s what labels are.

If you have a trick to use labels more effectively in Gmail, we’d love to hear! Drop your suggestions in the comments, or ask any questions you have.

Image Credits: Cairo

  1. Quimba
    March 25, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Great Article!

    Some helpful keyboard shortcuts for the Label Gurus out there:

    1. Enable Keyboard Shortcuts. Settings > General > Keyboard Shortcuts
    2. Select Conversation: "x"
    3. Choose Label: "l"
    4. Go to a label: "g" then "l"
    5. Remove Label: "y"

    Workflow:

    When sorting my inbox, I use the up and down keys. I click "x" to choose a conversation(s). I then click "y" to bring up my label menu. If I want to remove a label from a conversation, I need to go to the label. From the inbox, I click "g" then "l" to populate the search bar with "label:". Then I select the conversation and press "y".

  2. SH
    March 19, 2015 at 2:27 am

    I just tried the new Gmail Inbox (on the web, not the phone app) and discovered the oddest bug (maybe a feature, but I can't figure out why). When I switched back to the original Gmail interface I discovered that the "Skip the Inbox" tag had been removed from every one of my filters (of which I have about 50). I just spent an unhappy 30 minutes, exporting my filters, manually editing the XML file and then re-importing them all. Sigh....

    (BTW, OT, but I'm not too excited by Inbox on the web.)

  3. krippled hick
    February 25, 2015 at 4:19 am

    One label/filter/folder I've found to be indespensible for cutting the crud out out of my inbox without me ever seeing it is to filter for the work "unsubscribe" which clears nearly all of the unsolicited, spam, or impersonal messages.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 25, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Good tip! So you just set up a filter to have all messages with the word "unsubscribe" go into its own label? Smart.

  4. Fohxet
    February 21, 2015 at 1:49 am

    Half of people commenting do not understand gmail is not thunderbird nor outlook client.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

      I think you're being a little unfair there. For a lot of people, they might be thinking of making the switch from Outlook/TB to Gmail now. Just because their frame of reference is Outlook doesn't mean they don't "get" Gmail.

  5. stevef
    February 20, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Great article...I would be interested in hearing your take on filing emails. I have been filing in folders (outlook client) for years .There is a "closure" effect but I can't really point to a case where it made retrieving easier down the line. Is it all a waste of time ? Should ask emails be buried in the "done"label?

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 21, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      I'm not someone who likes saying "This system is better than that system" because when it comes to productivity, it's all subjective. Whichever system works better for you, that's the best one.

      I will say this though: Try out the "Done" label. Give it about 2-3 weeks. If you find yourself liking that, then stick with it. There's no need to make hard and fast rules about these :)

  6. Dann Albright
    February 19, 2015 at 8:28 am

    I really love this idea, and I might have to give it a shot. I have a huge number of labels in my personal Gmail account—labels for each freelance client, labels for different companies I've worked for, labels for different projects that I've worked on at a number of different universities, labels for friends, family, health, photography, dancing, running, humor, legal, logins, license keys, tickets, reservations, my wedding . . . the list goes on and on. And while I do find them very useful on occasion (like when I want to see all of the emails from a particular client), I only use a handful of them and not very often. I've been thinking about dropping that whole system and going to a simpler one. I'm a bit nervous about just relying on search to find these things, though. Maybe I could try a sort of hybrid system to ease into the more simpler one.

    Very cool system, Mihir!

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 10:41 am

      Thank you, sir! I find that Gmail's search is good enough for what your needs are (I have similar needs), so I definitely recommend giving it a shot.

  7. SH
    February 18, 2015 at 11:21 pm

    I have dozens of gmail labels and well over 90% of my mail is tagged and archived as it comes in (thus completely skipping my inbox). I have labels set to "show if unread" so that I can process all unread mail in order of priority.

    I also ignore all of gmail's preset labels and categories.

    Sadly, this method fails on Android gmail app because I only get notifications for unread mail that stays in my inbox.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 5:38 am

      Ignoring Gmail's preset labels and categories seems to be a recurring trend among long-time Gmail users :D

  8. Jackiecan
    February 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    I loved this feature when I used Gmail. For past 3 years I been forwarding my Gmail to my Outlook account. Outlook has the same feature.

    • gett
      February 18, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      Outlook is great, BUT... one huge disadvantage: no more that 1500 (I think) contacts. What to do with my 6000+ contacts from 4 gmail accounts?

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 5:37 am

      I think you're talking about Outlook Sync there for the offline client. I'm not sure Outlook.com has a contact limit. Can someone confirm?

  9. dragonmouth
    February 18, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    "Sooner or later, everyone’s Gmail inbox becomes an overwhelming mess."
    Only if you wait until "later" to start managing your email. If you setup labels as soon as you get your new account, there will be no problem later.

    "I’ve been a Gmail user since its inception, but I never used labels till recently"
    You waited until much "later."

    "Have as few labels as you can."
    Not everybody organizes their mail the way you or Google do. One should create as many labels as one needs. To limit the number means that you must decide which one of the few pigeon holes does a particular email fit into.

    "I just apply a label and get back to work. I address the email later, once my current work is done"
    Thst's called procrastination. What if the email was about an emergency meeting in 15 minutes? Reading it after your work is done 2 hours later is of no use.

    "colour-code your labels."
    If nothing else, your email will look pretty. Of course, once you start using more than 4 or 5 colors, you run into "What does this color mean?"

    I find that once I get past the standard folders Inbox, Sent, Draft, Spam and Trash, all the other pre-digested labels and categories that GMail supplies us with are totally useless to me. I am an apostate, I do not organize my email the GMail way.

    One way in which Google can improve GMail and reduce the over-abundance of email is to provide a "Send to spam" option when setting up filters so messages can gotten rid of in one step. Currently it requires two steps, 1) filter dumps an unwanted message in Trash, 2) I have to manually delete it from Trash. Reporting a message as Spam works only for that particular message that particular day. The next day a similar message has to be reported as Spam again. Very inefficient.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 5:35 am

      I probably should have clarified that when I'm talking about labels as placebos, that applies for non-urgent email. Thanks for pointing that out!

  10. likefunbutnot
    February 18, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    A GMail "label" is functionally the same thing as a folder on any mail server that supports IMAP. Using Google's terminology really exacerbates the idea that Google's E-mail server is somehow different or special in ways that it really isn't.

    • Lossadj
      February 19, 2015 at 5:25 am

      No, labels are not folders , since a message can have several labels at a time. If you think of your email as a kind of database you can even use labels as fields of this database. For example you can set up sublabels like "John" or "Mark" for the label "waiting for". "waiting for" would be the name of a field of your email database and "John" andr"Mark" the values of this field.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 5:33 am

      Lossadj is right. Labels function fundamentally different from folders, which is why Gmail has both folders and labels. Labels are "tags", folders are "categories", if that makes sense.

    • likefunbutnot
      February 19, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      @Mihir, @Lossadj, it's a distinction without a functional difference. I can copy a message into multiple folders if I so choose from any IMAP client. Yes, I'd have to remove each instance of that message individually for some reason I wanted to do that, but why bother with a filing system that would create so many edge cases for that to truly be burdensome?

      And yes, @Lossadj, I do know what databases are and how they work.

      Personally, I don't use folders at all. I have 22 years worth of non-commercial E-mail sitting in my inbox in chronological order. Managing it all is a bigger waste of time than any productivity benefit it might provide and I don't have any problem finding anything from a specific person, on a given topic or from an arbitrary date.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      Are you seriously saying you don't get how labels and folders are functionally different, when given the analogy of tags and categories?

    • likefunbutnot
      February 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      @Mihir, I'm telling you that there's no functional difference. I can file something in one place. I can file something in seven places. I can do so by making a copy or by adding a tag to a single datum. Either way can in some circumstances result in a mess, or in greater inconvenience.
      The added utility of associating a message with multiple metadata is more than offset by the ability to accidentally delete that information from several places at once due an untimely tap on a screen or misplaced click.
      It does not represent forward progress in the process of filing or sorting E-mail, merely a sideways step.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 19, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      The functional difference is that I can delete one file with all its many labels in one click, instead of deleting the same file in several different folders. As someone who actually does this on a regular basis, I can tell you that the "misplaced click" has happened to me once (and Google lets you retrieve it EASILY from trash). There is far more convenience in the ability to apply multiple labels to one file and delete it everywhere, than the inconvenience of duplicating a file for each folder, and then deleting that file from each folder eventually.

      Whether it's progress or not is going to be a semantic battle. In my opinion, just because you can do something two ways does not mean one way is more convenient than the other; and in turn, that convenient way is progress, not a mere sideways step. But I understand that you disagree with that as a definition of progress, and that's fine. I'd rather not get caught up in "what is progress and what isn't." However, I'm happy to further argue with you that there is no functional difference between labels and folders.

    • likefunbutnot
      February 19, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      @Mihir,

      I stopped using GMail for anything but spam filtering precisely because tags and threaded messaging represent non-conforming organization methods, particularly with regard to the annoyance of accidentally deleting dozens of messages that happened to share a tag or thread. My cat putting her paws on a tablet screen has unknowingly flushed a dozen (disposable, granted) messages. That's unwanted and improper behavior on the part of someone whose decisions matter more for the way millions of users manage their messages.

      For every scenario in which you think it might be advantageous to add multiple tags to a single datum, I say as much can be accomplished through completely normal copies or moves. Most major webmail providers give users enough space that deletions and multiple copies of single messages should not ever be a real concern; the very thing you favor to me represents a single point of failure that I would advise others to disregard as completely as possible.

    • Mihir Patkar
      February 21, 2015 at 3:08 pm

      How many times has your cat put her paws on a tablet and flushed mails? How difficult was it to retrieve them from Gmail by going to Trash and restoring them?

      If this is just about "my scenario vs your scenario", then let's agree to disagree and move on.

      However, making a sweeping generalization like "there is no functional difference" is still false.

    • gonza
      April 28, 2015 at 3:30 pm

      OMG with that cat example you're reaching the troll zone.

      I think you're not getting the difference between labels and folders, because every scenario you presented can go right or wrong either with folders and labels. Labels are the most inoffensive and less destructive feature of any email system.

      I'm curious about how do you do to reply an email that has been copied over several folders (instead of assigning a few labels to the same message), because one copy will have the last reply and the others won't. Also, you have to keep track of all the copies if you want to delete an email, don't you?

      Its just a matter of understanding how labels work, because if you "accidentally" delete a dozen emails because they shared a label, then you should've removed the label from those messages instead of deleting them.

      Let's not blame labels for human -or cat- errors.

      PS: sorry for my english

    • likefunbutnot
      April 28, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      @gonza,

      The cat thing happened to me about a dozen times before I completely gave up on the Gmail app for Android and switched to K9 (I read on my bed. Cat jumps on bed, directly on tablet. Cat walks over tablet. Cat sits on tablet. Stuff happens ). Between that and the misfeatures of threaded and default reply-before-quote rather than inline reply style messages, I can't say anything good about it.

      I understand completely how databases work and that Google thinks my Email should be organized. Its scheme simply gives me more places to delete the same data. That is not a net positive and there's nothing particularly problematic about having an extra copy of the same message in the rare circumstance that I need to make one.

      For me, every message stays in my inbox. Period. All of them, all the way back to 1993. I can track replies simply by looking to see if the message that's in my inbox has been replied to. If I copied a message elsewhere, it more than likely contains some sort of instructions, passwords or product keys that I'll need to quickly reference later.

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