If you’re anything like me, your Gmail inbox is a mess. You’ve signed up for newsletters, eCommerce site mailing lists, random software subscriptions, and tons of other content over the years, and now you’ve got something like thousands of unread emails. You have no real way of knowing what’s urgent, you’re continually missing important emails, aren’t able to keep up with existing emails, and your inbox causes some anxiety in your everyday life. Maybe you’ve just decided to select all and delete everything with the promise to be better about staying on top of it. However, just hours after deleting, you’ve got dozens of new emails, and the cycle continues.

I’ve finally learned how to break through that cycle. I’ve organized my inbox. Only important or uncategorized emails come into my inbox, and the rest are categorized neatly into respective folders without me having to do anything except receiving the emails. Keep reading to break yourself from the neverending cycle of Gmail inbox overload.

Assessing & Unsubscribing

This first step will be the most intense and will take the most time. You need to go through what is currently in your inbox and decide to unsubscribe or keep. I don’t recommend using any services that will allow you to roll-up and unsubscribe from emails in bulk because I haven’t seen any that aren’t just a front for collecting and selling your data 🤷‍♀️.

Let’s take a look at the current state of my inbox. I’ve let it run a little wild and have subscribed to new newsletters to illustrate this step.

A screenshot of my Gmail inbox, 19 emails are shown, 4 read, the rest unread. I've censored subject lines for privacy.

I will go through each of these emails and decide whether to unsubscribe or keep them. If I choose to unsubscribe, I will follow the unsubscribe link in the email, go through the unsubscribe process, and then I will delete every email from this source. I figure that if I’m unsubscribing, I probably won’t need the past emails. This process may or may not be the case for each email, but it’s usually my flow. To delete every email from this source, you’ll need to open up the email, hit the “More” menu item at the top, click “Filter messages like these,” and then Gmail will find all the emails from this email list, hit search. Now you can select all and delete.

A screenshot of the "Filter messages like these" link in the "More" dropdown in an individual email in Gmail

A screenshot of Gmails filter after clicking 'Filter messages like these.' Gmail has populated the newsletter email address in the search bar and added the list with its unique email address in the 'Has the words' input field

You’ll want to repeat this for the majority of the emails in your inbox. A reasonable cut-off is to do this for the last week or two of emails. Many older emails than that you’ll probably want to mass delete and handle in this same way as they arrive in the coming days and weeks. You may want to tackle more than that, but for me, that task was too daunting, so I mass deleted my emails.

For emails you want to keep, don’t do anything with them just yet; let them stay in your inbox. We will categorize them in a second.

Categorizing Emails You Want to Keep

Some might be sticklers for defining inbox zero as being every single email is read. I don’t subscribe to that. I categorize my emails, and the ones in categories aren’t necessarily priorities because they are expected emails. The emails in my labels are newsletters, online stores, receipts, etc. These aren’t time-sensitive priorities, meaning anything that arrives in my inbox (potentially) needs my immediate attention. My inbox is where emails from individuals, new newsletters/subscriptions, or anything that I haven’t already categorized will live.

My email workflow is to go through my inbox each morning, categorize any new emails using my filtering workflow, respond to other emails or defer them, but make sure to be aware of everything in my inbox. Employing this process also means that my notification for unread emails reflects actual unread, unanticipated emails.

For each email you want to keep, you’ll want to go through the same flow as before, go into the email, click “Filter messages like these,” and instead of pressing “Search,” click “Create filter.” I’ve got an email from Sezzle regarding a successful payment confirmation. The Sezzle email is from a financial institution, so I’m going to label it as ‘Finances & Budget.’ You can use whatever labeling conventions you want and create new labels or nested labels right inside the panel as needed.

A screenshot of the filtering panel with Skip the inbox (Archive), Apply the label with my label of 'Finances & Budget' and Also Apply Filter to 5 Matching Conversations checked"

Now, you’ll want to repeat this process for each of the emails you want to keep. You can adjust the search values; for instance, you may receive multiple different types of emails from the same domain and categorize them differently by fine-tuning the search parameters. You can hone your filters and make them as specific or as general as you desire.

Here’s a screenshot of all my labels. Occasionally I will go into the labels and do the unsubscribe process, especially if a category starts accumulating many emails or I find myself deleting without reading; this is most common in my “Online Shopping” category 😬.

A screenshot of my Gmail categories, categories are: "Arts, Beauty, Bloggers -> (Art, Beauty, Fashion, Fitness, Recipes, Resources, Tech), Books & Reading, COVID-19, Design A screenshot of my Gmail categories, categories are: "Development -> (CSS, JavaScript, Professional Development, Ruby, WordPress), DIY & Crafts -> (Sewing), Education, Entertainment, Fashion, Finances & Budget -> (Bills, Ellevest) A screenshot of my Gmail categories, categories are: "Food & Restaurants, Gift Certificates, Home -> (Health/Doctors), Home Buying, HOME BUYING INFO, Home Decor, Online Shopping -> (Arts & Crafts, Beauty, Clothing, Deals, Decor, Fitness, Furniture, Receipts) A screenshot of my Gmail categories, categories are: "Pets, Photos & Memories, Politics -> (DSA, News), School, Tech, Travel

Editing Existing Filters

This workflow serves me well for 99% of my use cases, but sometimes my filtering can be too general, and things get swept up into a category that I’m not expecting or don’t want to be filtered or categorized in a certain way. To remedy your filters, click the cog icon in the top menu and go to “See All Settings,” once in the settings menu, go to the “Filters and Blocked Addresses” tab and find the filter you want to edit.

Wrapping up

I hope this workflow serves you as well as it has for me. Implementing the filters is a high cost of time at first, but I’ve found that it has really paid off, and as long as I stay diligent with it, I feel in control of my inbox. Here’s to taking control of our inboxes in 2021 and beyond. ✨