Getting to Gmail Inbox Zero with Filters and Labels

Over break, I set a goal for myself to get to Inbox Zero 360: Inbox Zero-ize all my active email – which are all Gmail – accounts. I was fortunate in that my previous three jobs, I was using Gmail for Business, and every time I started a new work email I retained the IBZ regimen and never let it get out of control. For personal Gmail accounts, though – and some go back to 2004, 2005 – it would mean processing pretty old correspondences, and I put it off for years.

But I got it done; my Unified Inbox now proudly proclaims that I don’t have any more email to read or process. I wanted to share my process, and specifically, how it was made easier by leveraging Gmail’s features. Read on if you’re interested, especially if you’re like most and can’t seem to get started or want to know more about how IBZ works in a modern context[1].

Adaptions for Gmail

For Inbox Zero to work with Gmail, I made some adjustments to fit the Gmail style of email handling. Happily, the product designers at Google seem to understand the option of adapting a IBZ system, and have built in plenty of functions to make the entire process easier. Some of the adaptations:

The pros and cons of Gmail Inbox Zero

The why of IBZ is well-documented at this point: people are feeling overloaded by their email, afraid of missing some important piece of conversation, and some have (repeatedly) declared email bankruptcy. Even if you’re convinced by that argument, I’ve found that there are some additional plusses and minuses in keeping with the IBZ philosophy, especially in how it relates to adapting it to Gmail.



Continue on for the nitty gritty details!

The process

I ended up doing all the work in the web Gmail client; in addition to having great keyboard shortcuts (a must for fast processing), it’s also the only place I know that allows you to set up incoming filters. It also let me periodically manually empty the trash to free up used disk space[2].

To start…

  1. Turn on keyboard shortcuts.
  2. Create/rename a set of labels that cover 90% of your email for that account. Give the important ones a color too.
  3. Turn off priority inbox.
  4. Delete any outdated filters.
  5. Set max page size to 100 conversations per page, to make for easy scanning.
  6. Familiarize yourself with Gmail’s advanced search operators.

With that set up, this is what I did over and over again (keyboard shortcuts in parens):

  1. I start with the Inbox (g, i).
  2. I look for 3-4 emails that look like they can be labeled, and try to write a search (/) using some combination of from:, to:, subject: and is:. Partial matching is encouraged here, e.g., I use from:quora to match all Quora-originated notifications.
  3. If the emails are not recent and I don’t expect more email from those sources, I select all (*, a) – remembering to select “all conversations that match this search” – and either label (l, <name>) + archive (y), just archive,  straight delete (#) or spam (!) them[3].
  4. If the emails will keep coming and are somewhat important, I create a filter to skip the inbox and apply a label, applying it to all current conversations.
  5. For individual conversations that are important and need to be saved, I star (s).
  6. For my sales/online shopping account, I eventually just searched for before a certain date using before: and hard deleted everything prior. I got tired of processing leftover ads.

Maintaining the Sanity

If you repeat the above loop over and over, you’ll end up processing big chunks of email at a time, and after a few hours arrive at IBZ with a new set of labels, a handful of starred items and a clean inbox. The cognitive burden of a mountain of email is lifted, but the real trick is continuing to keep your email manageable. Fortunately, you’ve mostly set yourself up for this:

Dealing with Apps

It’s 2013, and it’s unreasonable to manage email just in a desktop web browser. For the most part, you can do the management on a phone or tablet; labels map naturally to folders, and moving to a folder is akin to applying a singular label. Flags are stars, and most modern apps will treat deletion as archival over IMAP. You don’t get access to filter management in a client, but it’s workable for day-to-day management.

One caveat is that some email clients aren’t as friendly displaying and loading folders, particularly with unread items. Sparrow (both the iOS and Mac versions) works well with labels, and obviously the official Gmail apps deal with these tools just fine.

Conquering Email, One Filter at a Time

The crux of what makes this strategy work is processing via filters and labels. Filters (and the searches that generate them) allow you to batch process emails in swaths, and labels serve as rough buckets of importance while also acting as a search anchor. I can attest that once the system is set up, it’s not hard to maintain an Inbox at zero, even over years of use. It’s essentially email automation, with my filter list acting just as an .emailrc.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. Alternatively, check out this version by Keith Rarick on an even simpler version of Gmail Inbox Zero via muting.
  2. You’d be surprised, but I’ve recently seen a few instances where people did not receive email due to lack of storage space. And people thought 2GB was enough.
  3. Another helpful Gmail feature is that if you mark what looks to be an ad/newsletter as spam, it will try to unsubscribe via sending to unsubscribe@<originating domain>.