in Discoveries

Preface

I have to admit, the only reason this article exists is because I was being selfish. I had developed an email organization system with Gmail and wanted to share it with all my friends. But I was soon tired of explaining it over and over, and all I wanted to do was send a link to a blog post and be done with it.  Well, here we are.

Since it was originally published on October 26, 2010 it’s grown to become my most popular post and is on the first page of Google when you search “best way to organize Gmail.” If you’re one of the many people who have written in to thank me for writing this post, I’d like to actually turn the tables and thank you for sharing and linking to my blog post and increasing it’s visibility. Email, for better or worse, is a necessary part of all of our lives, but it doesn’t have to be annoying and stupid. Without exaggeration, this system has changed my life, and I hope you find it does the same for you.

There’s one thing I should point out before we get started: I don’t use any of Gmail’s fancy inboxes like Priority Inbox or Categories. I also don’t use the new Google Inbox app. I’ve tried them all and have always reverted back to Gmail’s default inbox—even after all these years it’s still the best way to maintain maximum control over your email.

Let’s get to it.

Thinking about email is bad

A lot of people’s inboxes look like this:

Gmail organization: disorganized inbox

Each time you see an email sitting in that disaster of an inbox, you have to think. “I need to respond to that one.” “I’m waiting on a response from her.” “I need to save that for reference.” “I don’t need this newsletter.” Email should be almost automatic and unfortunately for most people, it’s not.

There are four things you do with email

With few exceptions, there are four main tasks you’ll do with an email:

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

There are two main things you need to do in order to completely optimize Gmail

1. Create labels and enable them as multiple inboxes so you can slice through incoming emails like a ninja.
2. Set up filters so the only emails that ever enter your main inbox are sent from other humans. I call these Robot Filters.

Let’s explore that first one and set up the labels you need to categorize your email intelligently. You’ll need to create two labels:1

  • 01. Follow-up
  • 02. Hold

I number my labels so they show up alphabetically in that order. I also color my labels so it’s easier to see which email is labeled what.2

After you have those labels, scan through your inbox and label everything accordingly:

  • Label emails you need to respond to as “Follow-up.” Keep in mind that to-do items should never be in your inbox. If you have to-do items mixed in with emails you need to actually respond to, you’ll have to rescan each Follow-up item and think “is this an email that I need to respond to or a to-do item. Again, we’re trying to make this as intuitive and automatic as possible.
  • Label emails you’re waiting on a response from “Hold.” This could be an email you sent to someone and are waiting on them to get back to you, or it could be an email that someone sent to a bunch of people and you’re waiting on a response from one of those people before you can respond.

After you’ve labeled everything, your inbox should look like this:

Gmail organization: categorizing emails

Notice how some of those emails aren’t labeled? It’s because you don’t need to respond to them, and you aren’t waiting on a response from someone else. Select all the emails you won’t need to read ever again and click Delete.3 Now, select everything in your inbox—including your Follow-Up and Hold messages—and click Archive.

Warning, I’m about to show you what your inbox should look like. The following image may be disturbing to some who aren’t used to having achieved what we call Inbox Zero:

Gmail organization: empty inbox

What you’re looking at is a completely empty inbox. You may be asking yourself:

  • Where did all my email go?
  • Is everything ruined?
  • Why do I still have an AOL account?

Fear not, everything is in working order. It’s just organized into labels, which are Gmail’s version of folders. On the left hand side you can click on Follow-Up or Hold to see all of the emails that are organized there.

Gmail organization: Follow-up label

Gmail organization: Hold label

The rest of your emails are safely archived in the All Mail label.

Harnessing the power of multiple inboxes

You could constantly click on the Follow-up label to see which emails you need to respond to and the Hold label to see who still needs to respond to you. Or, you could use multiple inboxes and feel like you’re IN THE FUTURE.

  • Go to your Gmail settings and click on “Labs”.
  • Scroll down to Multiple Inboxes, click “Enable”, and Save Changes.
  • Gmail will reload. Go back into your settings and you’ll notice a new tab that says “Multiple inboxes”.

Gmail organization: multiple inbox lab

Gmail organization: multiple inbox settings

Configure this screen exactly as you see in the above picture. Everything needs to be exact, so pay close attention to the following:

  • 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”.4

And now the moment you’ve been waiting for. Your Gmail homepage should look like the following image. Notice how the main inbox is empty, but you have organized your emails into two main labels that sit neatly below.

Gmail organization: multiple inboxes main

And now for some theory on how to process your fancy new inbox

  1. When emails come in, they’ll appear in your main inbox at the top.
  2. If you are able to respond to it 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.5
  4. If you send an email that requires a response, label it “Hold”. You can also label something Hold if you are waiting on something else in order to respond to that email.6
  5. When you’re done responding to (or waiting on responses from) an email, remove the labels from those emails.7 When you do this, those emails will be removed from your Follow-up or Hold inboxes, but will still be archived in the All Mail label!

I started using this system around 2009 and I still use it today, despite the many fancy features that Gmail has rolled out. I hope that this system is as powerful for you as it is for me. If you ever have any questions about this system, get in touch with me and I’d be happy to answer them.

I’d also like to thank Merlin Mann for his Inbox Zero philosophy and Gina Trapani for her Trusted Trio article. Both were instrumental in me crafting this system.

Changelog:

  • 2014-10-26: Post originally published.
  • 2014-12-02: Major update to reflect the many changes that Gmail has made over the years. Updated images added. Explanation of processes simplified.
  1. You can actually call these labels anything you want. “Respond To” and “Waiting On” are completely acceptable alternatives. Use what makes the most sense for you. []
  2. 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. []
  3. These likely include newsletters and coupons, etc. []
  4. If you’re having issues getting the multiple inboxes to show up, go to your inbox and click on the label name on the left hand side. You’ll see text appear in the Gmail search bar. Copy and paste that exact text into the “Search query” fields on your “Multiple inboxes” settings page. []
  5. 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. []
  6. For example, if an email goes out about a weekend cabin trip asking who’s driving and you are waiting on someone else to respond first, mark it as hold until they respond, then when you’re able to respond, respond immediately or move it to Follow-up. []
  7. 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. []