Simplify Your Inbox: Simple Sorting for Gmail

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Simplify Your Inbox: Simple Sorting for Gmail

In a previous lifetime — oh, about two weeks ago — I had an inbox that had over 275 filters attached to it. If you had EVER sent me an email, you probably fell into one of those filters — to get you into a label (that’s a folder for Outlook users) and to keep everything ORGANIZED.

The problem is, when I started working with the Steve on, my inbox grew even more obnoxious. Since I get copied on almost everything that runs through his business, I was setting up dozens MORE filters to try to get things back under control. The result? I was spending literally hours every week (sometimes every DAY!!) just going through the labels that had unread mail. It seemed I never got enough done.

About three weeks ago, I got a report from Google that gave statistics on my account. I usually glance at that or just send it to the garbage… but that particular week, I decided to read it more carefully. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I’d handled over 27,000 emails…IN ONE WEEK!!!! No wonder I felt like I did nothing else! 🙁

At that moment, I decided something had to give and I started considering my options. I wanted to try the new(ish) Google tabbed interface, but my first experience hadn’t been a good one. I needed to create an easier way, so this is how I started…

Although I had most of the individual coupons, newsletters and sales flyers going into a labels “shopping” and “to review later” — I wanted a better way to do this. I am currently doing a test-run on a service called “unroll me” — so far, so good — but it’s only been a week. I have my “rollup” delivered in the evening, so I can review (or not) without it interfering with my work day. That means there are just over 100 less emails that run through my account each day. I can review these in a thumbnail view (which helps me quickly decide if I want to see the whole email, or if I can safely skip that one).

With that service in place, I was ready to begin simplifying my inbox. I use Google Apps, but the same steps will work for Gmail users.

First Step

I turned on the tabbed option (go to the settings “gear” icon in the upper right hand corner of your gmail or Google Apps account and select “configure inbox” and enable tabs.) I also opened the “Categories” label under “more” on the left hand column of the gmail screen so I could play with those. I also enabled Smart Labels in Google Labs.

Second Step

I made a backup copy of my filters (in case I needed to stage a rapid retreat) and I created one big label called “OLD LABELS” and nested all the previous labels under there (also in case I needed to make a hasty retreat — or in case I needed to find something that was a few years old, in the old filing methods). I wanted to simplify, not throw it all in one big pile and start over!

Third Step

I knew I’d need a few filters to separate out my personal email from my email from my DCD email. So I created the following labels:

  • Family and Friends
  • Clients – DCD
  • Clients – Wicked

Fourth Step

I created a few filters (less than 30) for family and friends, and current clients for DCD and Wicked. The old clients are safely nested under the “old labels” label so I don’t have to look at them and browse through them each day. It’s my email “archive” right there on Google!

I’ll add more filters for incoming clients as needed, to keep them organized between his, mine, and ours. Whenever family or friends email me, and it lands in my inbox, I’ll add another filter to get it into the “family and friends” label.

When I create new filters, I make sure that I click the box that says “Also apply filter to matching conversations.” This method means that I’ll get the necessary (and current) communications with people sorted as they come into my inbox. It’s less painful than trying to create a bunch of filters all at once. And, it means that people that no longer communicate with me don’t get a filter. So, if I need to change a filter, I don’t have to wade through pages and pages of them to find the one I want!

Fifth Step

Cleanup. When all this is put in place, my Categories and Three filters had quite a few “unread” emails. Some I need to read, some I just need to delete or mark as read — so my sidebar becomes useful again, and I can tell what’s NEW that needs to be handled.

A quick way to do this is to click on the label and add “label:unread” to the search bar. This means I can see ONLY the unread emails under each category or label. That makes it easy to determine if they need to be handled now, starred for later action or discarded.

To make it easier in the future, I went into settings (the “gear” in the upper right hand corner) and selected the “inbox” tab. Under “Inbox type” I used the drop down menu to change from default to “Unread first” and hit the save button. Now, the unread emails will appear on top of all others, which will encourage me to deal with them immediately and keep my inbox in better shape.


Now, I have exactly three (count them!) items in my inbox — it will probably change before I can finish this sentence, but it’s there now! Additionally:

  • I’ve cleaned out hundreds of unneeded emails.
  • I’m utilizing the “starred” label to keep my “to be handled” emails in one place — that’s NOT my inbox — so I can attack them as my schedule permits.
  • I have a simple sidebar with categories, three in use labels, an archive (old labels), and the important email tag, chats, sent mail, all mail and trash.

I’m anxious to see how this works long term, but for now, I am thrilled! Simplifying my digital life has always been the most difficult thing for me to do. But, this email fiasco was cutting into my productive time — meaning more of my life was being eaten away by handling email instead of leaving work a little earlier and enjoying my personal life a little more.

If you have tips or tricks for taming email overload, please share in the comments!

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