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How you can use Gmail as a lean, mean, email-processing machine

I like to see the process of managing email as a little like gardening. You need to prune the plants and keep on top of the weeds. If you get it right, you end up with a beautifully manicured garden. If you don’t, you just end up with an overgrown backyard full of weeds!

Japanese garden

Japanese garden (Randy Robertson)

With this thought in mind (perhaps I’m a little too enthusiastic about spring?), today I took the challenge of greatly simplifying my Inbox, based on one simple principle: does this item need my immediate attention?

To do this, I used the advanced features that Gmail offers to handle a lot of the ’email gardening’ for us!

I started with the low-hanging fruit: the Priority Inbox feature.

Turn on the Priority Inbox feature

The Priority Inbox feature is brilliant. It means that Gmail will automatically determine which items it thinks are important and which ones aren’t, and then shows you the priority ones at the top of the page. You can train it to teach it what you view as important and what isn’t.

You may ask, what about the items that the Priority Inbox feature doesn’t deem as “important”? I’m talking about dozens of emails every day: newsletters, notifications, bookings; as well anything important that Priority Inbox might have missed (it’s not perfect, after all!)

It would be helpful to be able to categorise all these emails, wouldn’t it? I did this by using Gmail labels.

Create labels

Labels are a very powerful Gmail feature: they allow you to classify and thereby group your emails. Think of it as an array of virtual flower boxes, organised by type of flower.

For example, I have a label called Newsletter, in which I like to group any subscriptions that I don’t need to read straight away. Later, I can read them by clicking on the Newsletter folder that Gmail creates for me the left-hand side of the Inbox.

Gmail Label

Gmail Label

I created more labels, for example, one called Facebook, for Facebook notifications. Some people have said “just stop forwarding the notifications to your email account!“. But it’s often quicker to read them as email. It also means that I don’t need to log into Facebook, which as many of us might know, can be very distracting!

Create filters

I took the label idea one step further: I used Gmail filters to let it do the work for me. Filters are another powerful feature and are used to automatically process your emails for you as soon as they arrive. It’s like having a gardener to tend to your plants for you while you’re out shopping.

So I created the filter “all emails from Facebook should be removed from the Inbox and assigned a label of Facebook“. (Another example of a filter would be, “all emails from Brendan should automatically deleted.“)

Creating a filter in Gmail

Creating a filter in Gmail

I applied a similar process for labels and filters for notifications from Twitter, LinkedIn and so on.

Process remaining emails

At this stage the groundwork has been done for an automated email-management process. The flower boxes (labels) had been set up and the Gmail gardeners (filters) had been told what to do.

I then took my Everything Else folder and went through the remaining emails, the ones that were not classified as Priority. (At this stage I had around a thousand items in this folder!)

For each email, I applied a simple process:

  1. Is this item spam?
    If yes, click on the Gmail Mark as Spam button. I find that with this feature I very rarely receive spam in my Gmail account.
  2. Is this an email one that I DO NOT want to receive ever again?
    If yes, unsubscribe and/or create a filter to automatically delete items from that address in future. (For example, a mass marketing email.)
  3. Is this an important item which needs to be read/processed?
    If so, click on the Mark as Important button to tell Gmail to mark emails like this one as important in future. Also click the Star icon to mark the item for later processing. (For example, an email from my Dad.)
  4. Is this email one that could be archived automatically in future?
    If yes, create a filter such that any emails in the future from this address are removed from the inbox and assigned a label. (For example, all hostel booking notifications from HostelBooker can be archived and assigned the TravelBooking label.)
  5. Anything else, either click on Archive or Delete as required.

The Result


What does that really mean? It means I have no emails in my Inbox that are unprocessed. Every email is in its logical place: either assigned a label for reference, or marked with star so I can deal with it later. I also have a large set of new filters to automatically process items in the future.

Is there more work to do?

Yes. I still have to go through and process the starred items. But now I know exactly how many of those there are, and as a constant reminder, I will see them every time I log in at the top of the page.

Was it worth it?

Overall, the process probably took me couple of hours to do. It was a profitable investment of my time: in future I will spend more time responding to important email and less time managing unimportant email.

In a slightly geeky way I also kind of like the feeling that my inbox is being constantly monitored by a robot that will filter the emails for me. That means less work for me.

On the other hand, I also know that I will need to be vigilant in applying this process regularly. I will need to keep creating new filters/labels to keep those pesky weeds under control.

Ok, enough about email. Now it’s time to go and have a cold drink in that garden!

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