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How to Organize Your Gmail Inbox to Be More Effective

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called How to Use Gmail (Ultimate Beginner Guide).
How to Search Your Emails in Gmail Like a Pro
How to Keep Your Gmail Inbox Clean

As a small business person you rely on email. Your messages contain requests for work, invoices, client questions, and more. It's only natural that you would spend a good portion of your time working with your email messages.

But some of that time you spend on email messages could be better spent. How many times have you searched your Gmail inbox to find a lost message? Have you ever placed an email message in the wrong label? Maybe you've even accidentally deleted an important message. If you waste time dealing with all these email chores, you're not alone.

What if you could learn to spend less time on your email and accomplish more at the same time? With Gmail, you can organize your inbox to be more effective. You can improve your email inbox so that you can find your messages quickly. You'll never have to worry about a lost message again.

Everyone's email needs are slightly different. Once you understand how Gmail works you can pick and choose the features that work best for you.

What You'll Learn in This Gmail Inbox Organization Tutorial

In this tutorial, I explain how to organize your Gmail inbox for maximum efficiency. I'll start by going over some basic email concepts like folders, labels, and tabs. Then I'll provide you with detailed instructions on how to use your Gmail inbox effectively by using labels and tabs.

Before we begin, you may also wish to learn more about how to filter and block unwanted emails in Gmail or review this helpful email prioritization tutorial:

1. The Difference Between a Label, a Folder, and a Tab in Gmail

Before you can make the best use of your Gmail inbox, you need to understand some basic concepts. Folders, Labels, and Tabs in email have some similarities. But they also have some important differences. Let's look at each concept separately.

1. What is a Folder?

Many email systems are folder-based. You create folders that work much like physical cardboard folders that you might have in your office filing cabinet. In a folder-based email system, you can use folders to store related messages.

Much like the cardboard folders in your office, once an email message is placed in an email folder that is the only place it can be. Gmail is not a folder-based email system.

2. What is a Label?

Gmail labels
You can see Gmail labels in the sidebar and next to the message subject lines.

Gmail is a label-based email system. Nearly everything you would normally consider a folder in other email systems is a label in Gmail. That includes your Inbox, Trash, Spam, and Draft folders, which are technically labels in Gmail. 

Labels appear to the left in your Gmail screen. They also appear to the left of each Gmail subject line in a closed Gmail message and below the subject line in an open Gmail.

Labels are like folders in that they can be used to group related messages. An important difference between folders and labels is that a message can have more than one label.

Gmail labels have some handy features. They can be color-coded, for example. Later, I'll show you how to use that feature to organize your Gmail inbox.

There is also a way to use Gmail labels like a folder. I'll also explain how to do that as well.

3. What is a Tab?

The final concept you need to understand before you can organize your Gmail inbox is Tabs and the corresponding category labels. Categories appear on the left side of your Gmail screen with the other labels. Tabs appear across the top of your Gmail screen.

Gmail tabs
Gmail tabs appear across the top of the inbox. Categories appear in the sidebar with the labels.

Gmail provides you with pre-defined tabs for five categories:

  1. Primary - This is where you will receive most of your messages. When you open your Gmail, this tab is open.
  2. Social - If you have social media notifications turned on or use other social sites, those messages go here.
  3. Promotions - Promotional email messages go into this tab and sub-category.
  4. Updates - Messages that are notifications such as receipts and confirmations go here.
  5. Forums - If you have forum notifications turned on, those messages go here along with messages from discussion boards and mailing lists.

When you receive a message that fits one of these five categories, Gmail automatically sends that message to the appropriate tab and category label.

The message is also filed in the Categories label under the appropriate sub-label.

By default, messages sent to a tab bypass your Primary message tab and your Inbox. So, if you want to see these messages check your other tabs regularly.

Now that we understand what each component of your inbox is, let's learn how to use them so that you can organize Gmail.

2. How to Use Labels

Step 1. Create a Label

You can find the Label tools beneath the Circles label on the left sidebar of the Gmail screen. You may need to click More to see it.

Gmail Manage labels and Create new label tools
Use the Label tools to manage labels and create new labels.

To create a new label, click the Create new label option. The New Label box displays.

New Label box
Type the name of your new label and click the Create button.

Type the name of the label you are creating in the Please enter a new label name field. If you wish to nest the new label under another label, click the check box next to Nest label under. Click on the arrow to the right of the field and select the name of the label from the drop-down menu. Click the Create button to create your new label.

Step 2. Apply a Label to an Email

To apply an existing label to a new email, first open the email. Click the Label icon (it looks like a label) at the top of the email to open a drop-down label menu.

Apply a Gmail label to an email
Click the Label icon to apply a label to a Gmail message.

Click the name of the label you want to apply to the email. You can also click the Create new option to open the New Label box and create a new label for the email.

Step 3. Color Code a Label

A great way to organize your inbox is to apply color-coding to the labels you create yourself. This allows you to quickly see how messages are labeled at a glance.

As you pass your cursor over the right of the label you want to apply color coding to, you'll notice a small down arrow.

Open color coding options for a label
Click the down arrow to open the color coding options for a label.

In the example above the new label, Project Merger, hasn't been color coded yet. To color code it, I click the arrow to bring up a drop-down menu. Click the arrow to the right of the Label color option to open the Label color palette.

The Label color palette in Gmail
Use the Label color palette to color code your labels.

Click the color of your choice to apply it to the label.

Step 4. How to Manage Gmail Labels

At the bottom of the Labels sidebar you will find the Manage Labels option. You may need to click More to see it. 

If you click this option, the Labels Settings screen displays. (You can also access the Label Settings screen by clicking the Settings icon and then clicking Settings>Labels or by clicking on the Labels icon at the top of an open email message and clicking the Manage Labels option.)

Gmail Label Settings screen
Use the Gmail Label Settings screen to determine which labels are visible in the label list.

Use the scroll bar on the right side of the screen to scroll through the list of labels.

At the top of the Label Settings screen you'll see the System labels. These include labels the Gmail system has defined for you such as your Inbox, Sent Mail, Drafts, Spam, and Trash

Below the System labels you'll find the Categories labels. If you use Google+ social media, your social circles appear below that. At the bottom, you'll see the labels you've added yourself.

Beside each System label you'll see two or three options beneath the heading Show in label list. The first two options, show and hide, allow you to decide whether the message label appears in the label list on the Gmail sidebar. If show is selected, the label is visible in the list. If hide is selected, it is not. Some labels have a third option, show if unread.

The Categories labels, Google+ circles, and the labels you've added yourself also have a column for Show in message list. You can show or hide messages with those labels. In addition, the labels you've added yourself have an Actions column that allows you to remove a label or edit the label (rename it).

Step 5. How to Use Gmail Labels Like Folders

Some labels are already set up somewhat like folders. The Spam label, for example, bypasses your Inbox and Primary tab.

For most other labels, use the Move to icon (it looks like a folder) to use it like a folder. Start with an open message. Click the Move to icon to display the Move to drop-down menu.

The Move to icon
Use the Move to icon to move the message to a label.

Select the label you want to move the message to from the list. This moves the message from your Inbox and Primary tab and into the label you chose.

Note: If the message has two labels the message will still appear under that second label even though you used the Move to drop-down menu to move it. In the example above, the message is labeled Project ABC and Project Merger. If I use the Move to option to move it under Project Merger, it will still appear in the Project ABC label. However, it will not appear in your Inbox.

Step 6. Optimizing Your Gmail Inbox with Labels

Now that you understand how to use labels, you can better organize your Gmail inbox by incorporating the following features:

  • Add new labels to group messages together.
  • Color code important message labels to make them easy to find.
  • Hide message labels that you don't need to see.

3. How to Use Tabs

Step 1. Disable a Tab

You don't have to use the five default tabs in your Gmail inbox. If you don't like them, you can disable them. (The only tab you cannot disable is the Primary tab.)

To disable a tab, click on the Settings icon (it looks like a gear) in the upper right corner of the Gmail screen. From the drop-down menu, click Configure inbox. The Select tabs to enable window displays.

Select tabs to enable window
Use the Select tabs to enable window to turn on or disable tabs in Gmail.

To disable a tab, uncheck the checkbox next to the tab and click the Save button. For me, it makes sense to uncheck the checkbox next to the Forums tab. I don't have any forums notifications set up and that tab is always empty.

Be careful, though. If you disable a tab that is full of messages, those messages will display in your Inbox under the Primary tab.

To enable a tab that you've disabled, return to the Select tabs to enable window and recheck the checkbox next to the tab name. Click the Save button again.

Step 2. Show Starred Messages from Tabs

You can also use the Select tabs to enable window to display starred messages in your Inbox under the Primary tab. This can keep you from missing an important message that you want to follow up with.

To activate this feature, click the checkbox next to the Include starred in Primary option. Click the Save button. De-activate the feature by unclicking the checkbox and clicking the Save button again.

Step 3. Optimizing your Gmail Inbox with Tabs

How can understanding tabs help you configure your Gmail inbox?

First, you can disable any tabs you aren't currently using for a less cluttered inbox. Some users dislike the tabs feature and disable all the tabs except for the Primary tab.

Next, you can use the Show Starred Messages feature to mark messages that you want to follow up with. Once the feature is enabled, starred messages appear in your Inbox where you are less likely to forget about them.

4. How to Use Inbox Settings to Convert to a Classic Inbox

If you are used to an inbox without tabs, you can use the Inbox Settings screen to set one up in Gmail.

Caution: If you're not used to a classic inbox, you may wish to skip over this section.

Step 1. Access the Inbox Settings Screen

To access the Inbox Settings screen, start from the main Gmail screen. Click the Settings icon on the right. From the drop-down menu, click Settings > Inbox. The Inbox Settings screen appears.

Gmail Inbox Settings screen
Use the Inbox Settings screen to enable and disable tabs in Gmail.

As you can see, the default includes the five default tabs.

Step 2. Change Inbox Type

To restructure your inbox type, click the down arrow next to the word Default. A drop-down menu displays.

Change Inbox Type
Use this drop-down menu to change the default Gmail inbox configuration.

All the options on the drop-down menu other than Default do away with the five default tabs.

Many classic inboxes display unread messages at the top of the inbox. If this is what you want, click the Unread first option and click the Save Changes button.

The Unread messages display at the top of your inbox in chronological order from newest to oldest. Below that is an inbox section called Everything Else. Your email inbox is effectively split into two sections.

Gmail inbox with two sections
Gmail inbox configured to show unread messages first.

The other non-default options also split your inbox. Here is what you will see with each of those options:

  • Important first - At the top you will see messages Gmail thinks are important. At the bottom, you will see Everything else.
  • Starred first - At the top you will see Starred messages. At the bottom, you will see Everything else.
  • Priority inbox - This option divides your inbox into four sections. At the top you will see Important and unread messages. Next you will see Starred messages. The third section is left empty for you to customize. At the bottom, you will see Everything else.

If you decide to return to the Gmail default view, select Default from the drop-down menu and click the Save Changes button.

Step 3. How Inbox Settings Can Help You

Moving away from the default inbox settings can help you to use your inbox more effectively, especially if you don't typically receive messages that would fit under one of the default tabs.

Since all messages that you haven't moved under a label are visible in your inbox, reconfiguring the settings can help you find messages that might ordinarily have accidentally been sorted into one of the tabs.

Reconfiguring your inbox is probably not the best way to organize your email if you are on lots of mailing lists, receive lots of social media notifications, or receive lots of promotional emails.

5. How to Archive Files

One way to keep your email inbox uncluttered is to archive old messages. Here's is what you need to know about archiving messages in Gmail.

Step 1. Archive a Message

Archiving a message is easy. Start from the main Gmail screen. Click the checkbox next to the message or messages you want to archive.

Archive a message in Gmail
To archive a message, click the checkbox and click on the Archive option.

A menu displays above the messages. Click the Archive icon (it looks like a box). The selected message is archived.

Step 2. Find Archived Messages

There are two ways to find an archived message:

  1. Use the Gmail Search Function - Gmail search results include archived messages. To learn more about Gmail search, review this tutorial, How to Search Your Emails in Gmail Like a Pro.
  2. Look in All Mail Label - The All Mail label is exactly what it sounds like. A label that is applied to all email.

The All Mail label is usually at the bottom of your label list. To find your archived message in the All Mail label, go to the bottom of your Gmail sidebar. You may need to click More to see it. Click All Mail. Scroll through the messages until you find the one you are looking for.

Step 3. Unarchive a Message

If you accidentally archive a message, you can return it to your inbox.

Open your All Mail label. Find the messages you want to return to your inbox. Click the checkbox beside each message. Click the Move to inbox icon above the messages.

Finding an archived message in All Mail
Use the Move to Inbox button to unarchive messages.

When you look at a conversation in All Mail after moving it to your Inbox, note that an Inbox label (grey) has been applied to the messages.

Conclusion

You can organize your Gmail inbox using Tabs and Labels. You can also configure your inbox in a way that works best for you.

As a small business person who uses Gmail, it's important to understand both the Gmail system and your own email needs. Once you understand how Gmail works, you'll know how to organize your Gmail so that it is most efficient for your needs. Learn more in our Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Using Gmail.

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