It can happen to the best of us. Your Gmail inbox has turned into a monster with thousands of unread emails piled up in between thousands more that you've looked at and forgotten.
It's time to take control of your Gmail and bring order to the chaos of your inbox. These tips apply to using Gmail in a web browser, but the same functions are available through your mobile Gmail app.
1. Love the labels
Think of Gmail's labels as folders for organizing your email. The labels menu appears as a little luggage tag above your inbox when you select a message. This is where you can create new labels or delete old ones. So what you can you label? Pretty much anything. Create separate labels for family, important work emails, school updates, or emails from your best friend.
Applying a label is as simple as selecting a message in your inbox, opening the labels menu, and choosing the one you want. You can also label outgoing messages. If you're composing a new email in a web browser, then open up the "more options" arrow in the bottom right corner and access your labels from there. The email's recipient won't see the label you attached; it's for your eyes only. It takes an extra fraction of a moment to apply labels, but the reward is a more highly organized inbox.
2. Automate your labels
Now that you've discovered the joys of labels, it's time to up your labeling game by letting Gmail handle the heavy lifting. Start by creating a filter. Let's say you want to put all emails from your mom under a "Mom" label. Click the down arrow in the search box above your inbox. Put your mom's email address in the "From" field and click on "Create filter with this search" at the bottom of the search window.
Here's where your options open up. You can automatically mark all your mom's emails as important or shuffle them to a specific category, but let's focus on the labels. Check the box next to "Apply the label" and choose your "Mom" label. Hit "Create filter" and you've just organized all your mom-versations into an easy-to-access place.
3. Take it to the tabs
Gmail has been using its Google brains to sort your emails into broad categories for several years. Those categories include "Primary" for your main stream of messages, “Social” for social media-related updates, and "Promotions" for all those ads and sales specials you receive. These categories show up in the form of tabs inside your Gmail window when you access it from a web browser, or in the form of menu options on your mobile phone.
If you're looking at your inbox in a browser and you don't see those tabs, there's a quick fix. Click on the gear-shaped settings menu, choose "Configure inbox," and select which tabs you want to show up. This is a great way to keep promotional clutter from hiding more important emails.
4. Make your inbox a priority
The next step in taming the email flood involves letting Google figure out what's truly important to you. The Priority Inbox feature requires a bit of faith and a bit of training time to fine-tune it to your needs.
Hover your mouse over the "Inbox" label and a little down-arrow appears. Click on this to reveal a list of inbox types. Choose Priority Inbox. Here's Google's sales pitch for Priority Inbox: "Be a master of efficiency. Combine the unread, important and starred inboxes. Power through what's important."
This instantly transforms your inbox into a repository for noteworthy emails. You won't see sales messages or extraneous Facebook notifications dancing in front of your eyes. "Important and unread" emails go on top. Starred emails come next. Scroll on down and you reach a section called "Everything else." This is where Google stashes emails it doesn't think you need to see right away. If it made a mistake, then either star that message or click the tag-like icon next to the star to move it into one of the top inbox sections. Google will learn from you and start categorizing those sorts of emails correctly.
If Priority Inbox isn't for you, that's okay. You can easily change back to the default inbox style, but it's worth taking it for a test drive.
5. Hit the mute button
At some point or another, everyone gets trapped in a never-ending email thread that no longer has any relevance to you. Maybe it's about an office party you can't attend or endless details about a family reunion with 20 people chiming in. Gmail provides a convenient mute option that stops delivery of the ongoing avalanche of replies into your inbox. Select the conversation you want to silence, go to the more options menu, and select "Mute." Now enjoy the blissful quiet.
Bonus: Turn on keyboard shortcuts
A push or two of your fingertips can work magic in Gmail through the power of keyboard shortcuts. Turn on this feature by opening your settings through the gear menu and looking under "General." Hit the button for turning on your shortcuts and save your settings changes.
You've just entered a realm of over 100 Gmail keyboard shortcuts. Check out the full list from Google. These cover everything from changing fonts in an email to opening up your drafts folder. It will make you feel like you're flying through your email chores.
The list of possible shortcuts can feel a little overwhelming if you're not a seasoned keyboard ninja. If that's the case, you can just pick out a few useful ones to learn, like marking an email as read (Shift + i), reply all (a), delete (#), compose (c), and archive (e).
Congratulate yourself on getting a handle on your Gmail. You might not be able to stem the flood of messages, but you can at least sort, prioritize, label and shortcut your way to an orderly inbox.