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wait, really? The best way to organize your Gmail inbox

I work for Google.

But Google doesn’t know it.

I’ve signed almost everyone I know up for Gmail and taught them helpful techniques on how to keep their inbox organized.  Naturally, when I heard about Google’s Priority Inbox feature, I was extremely excited to try it out. In this post I’m going to talk about two things:

  1. How to organize your email inbox
  2. Why Priority Inbox isn’t for me

There are only 4 things you’ll ever need to do with an email.

For real. Without getting too fancy, you’ll most likely only need to do the following with an email:

  1. Respond to it
  2. Wait for someone else to respond to it
  3. Keep it for reference
  4. Delete it

This is what a lot of people’s inboxes look like:1

email inbox resize

Hundreds of emails, some read, some unread, some you need to respond to, some you’re waiting on a response for, some you should save for reference, and some you should delete forever.

Thinking about email is bad.

Each time you see an email sitting in a cluttered inbox, you say to yourself, “What do I need to do with this?” While it may only take few seconds per email to remind yourself what you need to do with it, if you have a ton of email, that’s a ton of seconds! And like the old saying goes, “A ton of seconds is a penny earned.” Or something. Just know that thinking takes too much time. Processing your email should be almost automatic. For most people, it’s not.

Gmail has labels. Use them. But the right way.

First, make labels called “01. Follow-up” and “02. Hold.”2 If you want, you can also color-code your labels to make things even easier.3 After you have those labels, quickly scan through your inbox and label everything accordingly:

  • Label emails you need to respond to “Follow-up.” Keep in mind, these emails shouldn’t be to-do items. Keep a separate to-do list.4 Otherwise, you’ll have to rescan each Follow-up item “is this an email that I need to follow-up with or a to-do item?” Again, thinking takes up too much time.5
  • Label emails you’re waiting on a response from “Hold.” This could be an email you’ve sent to someone and are waiting for them to respond to, or an email that someone has sent to a lot of people, and you’re waiting on a response from one of those people before you can respond.

This will result in an inbox that looks something like this:

labeled resized

Some of those emails won’t require an action. That means that you need to either save them for future reference or delete them.  Select the emails you don’t need to read ever again and click Delete. Select everything else in you inbox—even your follow-up and hold messages—and click Archive.

Your inbox will now look like this (WARNING, THE FOLLOWING IMAGE MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME USERS WHO AREN’T USED TO HAVING AN ORGANIZED INBOX):

empty-inbox resized

What you’re looking at is a completely empty inbox. Feel free to say some of the following commonly-heard phrases upon seeing this image:

  • Where did all my email go?
  • Is everything gone forever?
  • How do I enable this “theme” on Hotmail?

Fear not, your email is all there. It’s just organized into labels, which are similar to folders. On the left hand side you can click on Follow-up or Hold to see all of the emails that are under those labels, like so:

follow-up resized

See? It’s all there. And the rest of your email is safely tucked away (Archived) in the All Mail label.

There’s one final step in really maximizing your inbox workflow. Instead of having to click on Follow-up or Hold constantly to see what you need to respond to or what you’re waiting on a response on, let’s take advantage of Google Labs Multiple Inbox feature!

Click on the green lab icon next to your email address in the top right corner of Gmail and find this:

multiple lab resize

Click Enable and go to the bottom and click Save Changes. Next, click on Settings in the top right corner of Gmail and find the Multiple Inbox option. Your screen should look like this:

multple inbox setting resize

Configure your page exactly like I have mine:

  • In Pane 0, enter “label:01.-follow-up” in the first box, then “Follow-up” in the second box.
  • In Pane 1, enter “label:02.-hold” in the first box, then “Hold” in the second box.
  • Enter “50″ in the maximum page size.
  • Make sure that “Below the inbox” is selected.
  • Click Save Changes

And now the moment you’ve been waiting for. Your Gmail homepage will now look like this:

multiple-inboxes resized

What a beaut.  Here’s how your new inbox will work:

  1. Each time you receive an email, it will appear in your main inbox at the top.
  2. If you are able to respond to an email immediately, do it!
  3. If you aren’t able to respond immediately, select the email and use the “Move to” drop-down to move it to your Follow-up label.6
  4. If you ever send an email and are waiting on someone to respond to you, then label it Hold. You can also label something Hold if you are waiting on something else in order to respond to an email.7
  5. When you’re done responding to (or waiting on responses from) an email, you can un-label those emails.8 If you do this, they will be removed from your Follow-up or Hold inboxes, but will still be archived!9

Now that you know how to organize your inbox, let me explain why I don’t like Priority Inbox.

It’s simple: Priority Inbox doesn’t play nice with this organizational system. It tries to, but it just doesn’t.10 I find the system that I describe slightly more complicated to set up, but much easier to use once it’s in place.

However, you might enjoy Priority Inbox. Perhaps try both methods out to see which one works better for you.

A very special thanks to two of my favorite articles of all time: Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zeroand Lifehacker’s Empty Your Inbox with the Trusted Trio. To say they changed my life is an absurd understatement. My inbox workflow is based heavily on those articles.

This is the first email inbox tutorial I’ve written, and it feels like a mountain of information to explain without being in person. So if you have questions, definitely get in touch with me.

  1. For the ubergeeks that are reading this, I’m having to cheat some of these images to illustrate my points. For example, the first image I have on my post isn’t of my inbox, but it’s of super old archived emails. The principles are the same, however. []
  2. Putting the 01. and 02. in the actual label name so that they show up first and second alphabetically. []
  3. You can easily select various colors for your labels by clicking to the left of the label name in the and selecting a color from the drop-down menu. []
  4. I use Gmail’s Tasks feature for my to-do list. I like it because I can easily view it on my phone by going to gmail.com/tasks. []
  5. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. You don’t want a bunch of to-do items clogging up your Follow-up inbox. All you want in there are emails that you need to respond to. That way, you can load up  your email and immediately know what’s what. Have a few minutes to respond to emails? Load up your Follow-up, don’t think, and start typing! []
  6. The “Labels” drop-down and the “Move to” drop-down work similarly. If you use the Labels drop-down, the email will be labeled, but not automatically archived, i.e., it will remain in your inbox. If you use the Move to drop-down, it will label the email and archive it in one step. This is typically what I use. That way, it immediately moves down to one of my two lower inboxes. []
  7. For example, let’s say you and 5 other people were sent an email about weekend plans, but one of the other people is really the person who should respond. You can also mark this as Hold since you are waiting on someone else to respond first. []
  8. You can un-label an email by selecting it and using the Label drop-down to deselect that label. You can also open up a labeled email and click the small “X” next to the label. []
  9. Again, you can always find Archived emails by going to the All Mail label or by using the search box at the top of Gmail, which is what I usually do. []
  10. To get super nerdy and technical, Priority Inbox has a multiple inbox system that’s similar to this, featuring a follow-up system using the Star option instead of a custom label. However, this requires you to keep the emails in your main inbox, i.e, you can’t archive the emails. This causes a huge problem when you try checking your email from a mobile device! Especially one that doesn’t have a built-in Gmail app featuring Priority Inbox. []