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How to Organize Your Gmail Inbox in 15 Minutes: Seventeen Secrets

Dec 15, 2021
14 min read

An average employee spends 1/3rd of their office time on emails. At $142K (average salary of  Bay Area tech worker), we pay employees $47K per year to manage their inboxes!

That’s not even the worse part. Every time you stop what you’re doing to check your email, it takes about 23 minutes to get your focus back.

The ugly truth is: people will keep reaching out to you whether you like it or not. And it’s not very easy to ignore that unread pop-up.

You spend hours sifting through emails, determining what to do with them, and actually dealing with them eventually — you basically end up spending a lot more time in your inbox than you had initially planned.

When you cannot escape altogether but still want your peace of mind, becoming more organized is the best way out.

This post will tell you how to organize your Gmail inbox such that it’s more of a productivity and collaboration tool and not a distraction.

Table of Contents

1. Put more relevant emails on top

Do you really need all the new emails right at the top of your inbox? I am sure you don’t read all of them right away.

A great way to keep your inbox organized is to put the relevant emails at the top, such as the ones that are marked important or starred.

Gmail gives you five options to organize your inbox.

    • Head to your settings (the gear icon at the top)
    • Click the dropdown next to the inbox type.
You can organize your emails using any of the five given options

And here’s what each one of them means:

Default: It shows the emails in the order that they came in — the layout we see every day.

Important first: Gmail uses its own prediction to determine which emails are important, and places them at the top of your inbox with a yellow marker. Everything else goes below that.

Unread first: This setting displays unread emails above recent emails. This is especially helpful if you use the read/unread as a to-do list.

Starred first: This is for the ones who use stars to prioritize their inbox. The starred messages appear first, followed by everything else.

Priority Inbox: Gmail learns what kind of emails you interact with the most, and puts them at the top of your inbox. This is great for folks who have to deal with a lot of emails every day. 

An example of how you can organize your emails by relevance

This is one of those Gmail organization tips I can vouch for. It has worked wonders for me in terms of keeping away emails I don’t want to deal with right away.

2. Get rid of tabs you don’t use much

You don’t have to have all the five tabs inside Gmail. You can disable the ones you do not use much. The only tab you cannot disable is the Primary tab.

Here’s what you have to do:

    • Click on Settings.
    • From the dropdown menu, click Configure Inbox
    • Select tabs you want to enable or disable.
How to disable a tab in Gmail

Pay careful attention here: If you disable a tab, its messages will appear in the Primary tab. Always remove the ones which do not receive many emails. One up for Gmail organization!

3. Use Labels to neatly organize Gmail

Gmail is a Label-based system. Inbox, Trash, Drafts—are technically Labels.

Labels are a great way to organize Gmail. They are like tags you can add to emails you send or receive. The great thing is that you can add more than one Label to an email. Another feature you’d love is the ability to add colors to Labels.

You can add colors to your labels to organize them better

You can also have Gmail apply labels to emails as they arrive, saving you the manual effort. For example, you can have all the emails from your lawyers labeled as Documents. All you have to do is create a Filter.

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4. Automate emails to be assigned to your team (without forwarding)

A large number of emails you receive would require someone else from your team to work on them.

The usual course of action when you want to organize Gmail is sifting through emails and forwarding them to teammates — an absolute waste of time.

If you delegate a lot of emails to your team, you’ve got to try out Hiver. You’ll be able to specify conditions based on which emails will be automatically assigned to your teammates.

For example, say you have a teammate who looks after all the emails from your shipping partner. Using Hiver, you can have all incoming emails from their email address assigned to them automatically.

You also get the ability to specify multiple conditions, such as the sender email and a specific word in the subject line. The possibilities are basically endless. Try it out

5. Stop writing emails for internal conversations

The one way all of us flood ours and our teammates’ inboxes – sending emails for things that can very well be done otherwise.

If a topic has many aspects that will need to be explained or discussed, take it to a personal meeting. In case of a last-minute cancellation of meetings, get-togethers, or interviews, tell them in person, or use the phone.

If nothing else looks feasible enough, there is one resort that works like a charm every single time – Email Notes.

Notes are messages you can write to your teammates and they appear right next to the email thread you’re discussing (unlike Slack or Hangouts where you have to tell people which email you’re talking about and what happened and all that).

Use Hiver notes to give more context to your teammate regarding a task

Unlike chat, you can always go back and see what you conversed about a thread — you never lose context.

You can use Notes for exchanging client information, offering tips, or basically anything that does not involve writing an entire story. Every step towards unclogging one’s inbox is worth it.

6. Archive emails you do not need in the near future

A lot of times, we do not delete emails only because we might need them later. And then they keep piling up like there’s no tomorrow.

For example, every time you buy something from a vendor, they send you a receipt. You do not need them now but they might come useful when you are getting your accounts done at the end of the year. This is where the archiving feature comes into play.

Archiving does not delete your email but removes it from your inbox. They remain searchable too. Your Gmail inbox is better organized. Everybody wins!

Select an email and look for the file-like icon at the top. Click it and you’re done.

Archive unimportant emails to organize your emails better

You can also automate archiving by using filters – am explaining this in the next point. 

7. Use filters to automate common actions

Gmail has a really strong filtering capability. You can filter emails by subject, sender, recipient, content, and more. Once you’ve filtered the messages, you can instruct Gmail what to do with them — label them, set priority, decide whether the emails make it to your inbox.

What you’ll absolutely love is automated filtering. You can set criteria and actions — every email that meets the criteria is dealt with by Gmail automatically.

All you have to do is start an advanced search. Click the grey arrow at the extreme right of your search bar.

How to use filters to automate common actions

And a dropdown opens up.

The dropdown box to create the filter

Type in an email address and click “Create filter with this search” at the bottom right of the popup.

For example, if you get a bunch of newsletter emails you have no interest in, you can create a filter that will automatically archive all emails that come from that address.

An example of how to create a filter

Ways in which you can use filters to organize Gmail:

    • Star every email from someone important (say your bank)
    • Automatically forward emails from a certain address
    • Archive emails that contain a certain word (say Free trial)

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8. Experiment with Gmail Advanced (you’d love Multiple Inboxes)

If you’re new to Gmail Advance (formerly Labs), the first thing you need to know is that it is a testing ground for Google. The successful ones go on to become standard Gmail capabilities and others might get shelved — but it’s definitely worth giving a shot.

The one feature that has been a part of Gmail Advanced for years is Multiple Inboxes. It allows you to create multiple panes, each designed to display a certain category of emails, based on the email type, topic, or personal preference.

You can have emails from a particular sender, or emails that bear a certain label appear in a separate mailbox.

For example, you can add labels such as needs response, to-do, project backlog, and weekly reading — all the emails with a particular label appears in the respective inbox:

Multiple inboxes in Gmail

Here is a handy video if you’re looking to organize Gmail using Multiple Inboxes.

9. Set up desktop notifications for new emails

If you’re in a customer-facing role, we’re fairly certain you get a lot of emails every day. If you prefer real-time engagement, then we strongly recommend setting up desktop notifications. This way, you see notifications pop up in the top right of your screen every time you receive a new email.

To enable desktop notifications here’s what you have to do:

    • Head to your settings (the gear icon at the top)
    • In the general settings menu, scroll to ‘Desktop Notifications’ and click on the radio buttons to enable them

Pro tip: Sometimes desktop notifications can become annoying as well as distracting. To avoid falling into this trap, turn on desktop notifications for emails only marked as “Important.”

Enable desktop notifications for emails marked ‘important’

10. Turn on Nudges

Thanks to a ton of spam emails it is often very easy to miss an important email on Gmail. The Nudge is an algorithm in Gmail which brings emails back to the top of your inbox when a reply hasn’t been sent by you or a recipient. It is great if you need constant reminders to send replies or follow-ups to important emails.

Nudges in Gmail are of two kinds:

    • Suggest emails to reply to: Emails you might have forgotten to respond to will appear at the top of your inbox.
    • Suggest emails to follow up on: Sent emails you might need to follow up on will appear at the top of your inbox

You can turn Nudges on/off under the “General” tab in your settings.

Turn on Nudges to get constant reminders to reply to important emails

11. Star important messages

Gmail always tries to do its best to detect which emails (both individual messages as well as threads) are more important to you than the others. It usually highlights these with ‘Importance Markers’ (a yellow arrow right next to the star).

Until recently, Gmail did have pointers within the app clarifying why an email was marked as important, as opposed to the “important according to our magic sauce” that it says now.

While Gmail for the better part still manages to mark most of the important emails correctly, there are times that it still manages to get things wrong.

To make the algorithm work better for you, be sure to tag important messages yourself – this way the algorithm will eventually quickly catch on. One way to this is manually adding/removing the Importance Markers. Another way to do this is by Starring messages.

In Gmail, Stars are used for individual messages in a single thread, whereas Importance Markers are used for entire email threads. Stars and Importance Markers also help you organize Gmail searches more quickly, so taking the time out to add these is definitely worth it.

12. Mute Conversations

If you’re tired of getting stuck in email conversations between co-workers/customers that don’t necessarily involve you? Then the ‘Mute Conversations’ feature in Gmail is just for you.

Mute a conversation in Gmail and you won’t see any further messages related to it in your inbox. All emails that are added to the conversation after you’ve muted it will still be stored in your Gmail account but will be automatically archived. You’ll still be able to search for the conversation and view new messages.

To mute a conversation in Gmail, open the conversation and then click the “More” drop-down menu. Choose “Mute” from the list and the conversation is archived.

How to mute a conversation in Gmail

Any new messages sent to the conversation thread will not appear in your inbox but will be added to the archive.

Pro tip: To find muted conversations faster, type “is:muted” into the Gmail search bar.

You can always unmute a conversation. To unmute, simply search for the muted conversation, and delete the “Muted” label from the email thread.

13. Use Gmail’s Smart Reply and Smart Compose options

Gmail’s ‘Smart Reply’ feature shows suggested replies with short phrases based on the content of the email you received.

You can turn on Smart Reply for Gmail from the General Settings tab.

Use Gmail’s Smart Reply feature to get suggested short phrases for a response

By using this feature, you can click on the suggested short phrases you want to use as a response and send it as is, or edit the reply before clicking send.

This is especially helpful if you need to fire-off quick replies to your emails.

Smart Compose builds off the idea of Smart Reply but helps you compose full-length replies to your emails as opposed to just short phrases.

An example of the Smart Compose feature | Google Blog

You can turn on Smart Compose from the General Settings tab in Gmail.

Turn writing suggestions on under Smart Compose

Pro tip: Use the Smart Compose Personalization option to allow the Smart Compose option to adapt to your writing style and improve writing suggestions.

You can turn on Smart Compose Personalization from the General Settings tab in Gmail.

Use Smart Compose Personalization to improve writing suggestions

14. Reply to emails faster with Canned Responses

If you find yourself typing out the same type of email replies to multiple customers or co-workers, you should consider setting up Canned responses (templates).

Canned Responses are email templates that allow you to respond to emails with predetermined text.

Blogger Ryan Robinson regularly gets questions from his readers and he uses this feature to quickly share helpful pieces of advice, direct them to free resources around his site, and send links to guides (like his tutorial on how to start a blog) for further learning.

You can enable templates from the ‘Advanced’ tab in Gmail settings.

Enable the Templates option from the Advances tab

15. Activate Undo Send

This has got to be one of the handiest Gmail features. If you’ve ever sent an email to an unintended recipient or made a typo in an email, you’re no stranger to the unfortunate embarrassment caused by your gaffe.

Fortunately, Gmail does have an Undo Send option that allows you to “unsend” emails for up to 30 seconds after it’s been sent.

You can enable this option from the General Settings tab in Gmail settings.

You can unsend emails within 30 seconds after it has been sent

After you’ve enabled this, you don’t have to panic over a wrong recipient or a typo. Instead, you now have between five and 30 seconds to “unsend” your email and take steps to correct your errors.

16. Enable Hover Actions

With the new look of Gmail unveiled in April 2018, Gmail introduced Hover actions. Hover your mouse pointer over any email in your inbox and you’ll see a collection of buttons.

Gmail’s Hover action

These buttons, also called ‘Hover Actions’ let you quickly act on an email in one click. You can archive emails, delete them, mark them as unread, or even snooze them. It’s a small feature that makes interacting with emails a lot faster.

Hover Actions can be turned on from the General tab in Gmail settings.

You can enable hover actions from the General tab in Settings

17. Snooze emails for later

Speaking of hover actions in Gmail, you now also have the option Snooze emails. This option removes emails from your inbox only to bring them back later, which is perfect for anything you need to act on eventually but can’t act on right now.

You can snooze emails to respond to them later

The functionality is simple: just click the Snooze hover function and choose when you’d like to see the email again. When the time is up, the message shows back up in your Inbox.

A few tools to get you started

Below are a few tools to help you get started with organizing your Gmail, keep in mind it’s usually a good idea to have a project management tool for small businesses which integrates with your Gmail to help you organize your emails and tasks.

Hiver — Delegate emails as tasks automatically. Write Notes (and not emails) for internal conversations. Use email templates.

Sanebox — Prioritizes and summarizes messages by analyzing their headers. Files unimportant emails under a ‘SaneLater’ Label for you to deal with them later.

Maildrop — Helps you stay clear of spam.

Unroll.Me — Helps you manage all your newsletters from one dashboard. Makes unsubscribing surprisingly easy.

AwayFind — Let’s you decide which emails are worth a notification. You can choose between being informed via SMS, phone call, desktop alert, or the AwayFind app.

Wrapping up

Distractions at work take up more time than you think. They derail your mental progress and your brain takes a while to get back to focussing again. Given that emails are a big source of distraction at work, it’s only natural to do something about it.

You’d be surprised by the amount of time you can free up just by organizing your Gmail better.

Don’t let the inbox take over.

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Harsh is the content lead at Hiver. He's jocular, loves dogs, and is always up for a road trip. He also reads - when Netflix gets boring.