TechWorld

How to use Gmail labels to tame your inbox

Gmail labels can serve as your secret weapon against inbox chaos. Here's how to tap into their full potential.
  • JR Raphael (Computerworld (US))
  • 06 November, 2019 22:00

So, you've got email, you say? Lots of it? More than you can possibly manage without losing the few metaphorical marbles still sloshing around in that soggy ol' brain of yours?

I hear ya. In fact, I think we all can relate (even those of us whose brains are, erm, slightly less soggy). And I'm here to tell you: It doesn't have to be so difficult.

Gmail has a variety of built-in tools for making your messages more manageable. Some of 'em are a little bit different from what you might be accustomed to using in more traditional email clients (here's lookin' at you, Outlook) — but if you take the time to figure out how they work, you might just be surprised at how effective they can be.

There's no better example than Gmail's label system. It's a strange concept to wrap your head around at first, especially if you're used to the more typical folder-based method of inbox organization, but here's a little secret: Labels actually are folders, in a sense. That, however, is just one small part of their inbox-organizing power.

Think through these nine label-centric possibilities and get ready to see Gmail's labels in a whole new light.

1. Use Gmail labels like super-folders for categorizing your email

First, the most basic Gmail label mindset to master: You can think of a label like a folder — but with an important twist: Instead of a message being placed into a label, the label is placed onto the message.

That subtle-seeming distinction is actually quite significant. What it means is that a message doesn't have to be associated with only one label, as is typically the case with folders; rather, you can apply as many labels as you want to any message, and each one ends up acting like a sticker — a label, one might even say! — that sits atop the email along with any other labels you've applied.

So, for instance, if you keep tabs on stats for your company's website, you might label all incoming emails from Google Analytics as "Web Reports." But maybe you also have your own personal website for which you receive Analytics updates. You could label the reports from your personal website as "Web Reports," too, and then add a second label of either "Work" or "Personal" onto every message to create a distinction between the two types.

The easiest way to create a label is to click the label icon in the toolbar at the top of the screen when you're viewing a message or when you've selected something from a message list, then start typing whatever name you want to use for the label. Once you're done, simply hit Enter, and Gmail will create the label for you and apply it to the message. The next time you click the label command, you'll see your newly created label as an option.

2. Save yourself a step and label while archiving

Here's a handy command to remember: If you want to add a label to a message and simultaneously dismiss the message from your inbox, use Gmail's "Move to" option — the icon showing an arrow inside a folder, directly to the left of the regular label icon. That'll handle all the steps in one fell swoop.

3. Apply labels while you're composing an email

Gmail labels aren't only for incoming messages; you can also proactively apply them to a new message you're composing and then know that that email and any replies associated with it will remain properly organized and present in all the right places.

All you've gotta do is hit the three-dot menu icon in Gmail's compose window and look for the "Label" option in the list that appears — then create a new label right then and there or select any existing label to apply it.

4. Organize your label lists

All right, so you've got your messages labeled — now what? Well, first, you can always browse through your labels to find something you need. Gmail keeps your list of labels (in alphabetical order) in its left sidebar. You can collapse or expand that sidebar by tapping the three-line menu icon in the upper-left corner of the screen, and you can click on any label in the list to see all of the messages associated with it.

By default, though, that list is probably quite the unruly mess. So let's get it organized:

  • First, if you see a line in the list of labels that says "More," with a downward-facing arrow alongside it, click it to expand your full list of existing labels.
  • Now, click the three-dot menu icon next to each one of your labels. (The three-dot icon appears only when you hover over a label.) Assign each label a color, if you'd like; that'll make it more visually distinctive and give it more or less emphasis (depending on the color you choose) when it appears in your inbox.
  • In that same three-dot menu, look at the "In label list" section and consider if you want the label to always appear in your label list, to remain permanently hidden beneath that "More" divider, or to appear in the list only when unread messages are present within it. The less unnecessary clutter you have visible, the easier it'll be to find the labels you actually use often.
  • Next, look at the "In message list" section and think about whether you want the label to show up as an option when you're adding a label onto a message. If it isn't a label you ever actively apply to messages, you might consider hiding it to reduce clutter and increase your efficiency in that area.

5. Combine related labels into groups

While we're getting your labels organized, take a moment to mull over whether any of your labels would make more sense as sublabels within a broader category. Maybe, for instance, you'd have one label called "Expense Reports" and then sublabels within it for "Staff," "Freelancers," and "Travel."

You can find the option to create a sublabel by clicking the three-dot menu icon next to any label name and then selecting "Add sublabel" from the list that appears.

Just note: Somewhat confusingly, sublabels and parent labels are treated as separate but related entities — so if you were to add a message to "Staff" in our previous example, its label would show up as being "Expense Reports/Staff." The message wouldn't, however, show up when you click "Expense Reports" in the left-of-screen label list; it'd appear only when you clicked "Staff" in that same section. If you wanted it to appear within the results for both the parent label and the sublabel, you'd have to add both of them onto the message.

6. Use your labels for smarter searches

Gmail's labels aren't just for browsing; you can also use them as variables to narrow down a search and make it easier to find a message you need. To include a label as a variable in a search, just click the Gmail search box at the top of the site, type label:work (using the name of your actual label name in place of "work," of course), and then type in any other term or variable you want.

If you were trying to find a travel-related expense report from Tim Cook's trip to Chicago, for instance, you could type label:travel from:tcook@apple.com chicago into the search box. Including the label would narrow down your search considerably — skipping over messages from Tim Cook that might've just mentioned Chicago in some other context — and let you get to what you need more efficiently.

You can even narrow down your search further and search for messages that contain multiple specific labels — like label:travel label:work, which would show you a list of all messages that have both of those labels in place.

7. Don't forget about Gmail's built-in labels

Gmail actually treats many of its own built-in message designations as labels, too — so in addition to searching for your own custom labels, you can search for things like:

  • label:inbox
  • label:unread
  • label:promotions
  • label:social
  • label:starred
  • label:muted

Keep those special labels in mind and make your future searches even more effective.

8. Let Gmail apply labels for you

Here's where things really start to get interesting: In addition to manually applying labels to messages as you see fit, you can train Gmail to automatically categorize and process messages for you.

The first step is to think about what factors would make an incoming message fit into a particular label — whether it's the sender's email address or domain name, a specific word or phrase in the subject line, or maybe even the address to which the message was sent.

In my own inbox, for example, Gmail applies a red "VIP" label to emails that arrive from editors whose messages tend to be timely or important. It applies a green "Invoices" label to messages that come in from the address quickbooks@notification.intuit.com and with the subject "Invoice from JR Raphael," as that's how carbon copies of invoices generated from my accounting software appear. And it applies a blue "Saved Articles" label to messages that come in from an address with the domain emailthis.me, which is a service I use for saving stories directly into my inbox for later reading.

In some of those cases, like with the "VIP" label, the messages remain in my primary inbox. But in others, they end up moving to less attention-demanding places — like the invoice copies, which skip over my inbox entirely (since I'm keeping them mostly as records and don't need to be bothered dealing with them every time they come in) and the saved articles (which move to my inbox's "Forums" tab, where I keep lower-priority things that are mostly just for leisure-time reading).

Once you decide what factors should apply to what label — and what else should happen once the label is applied — a Gmail filter is the key to making the magic happen. I outlined the exact steps to setting one up in my separate Gmail filters guide. Go have at it!

9. Let your labels limit your notifications

Last but not least, instead of getting distracting alerts for every new message that lands in your inbox — or going to the opposite extreme and not getting any email notifications whatsoever — use your Gmail labels as a way to control which messages alert you.

You can pick any label that seems notification-worthy and then limit your notifications only to messages with that label attached. You can even set up label-driven notifications to function on your desktop computer and on your mobile device. (Provided you use Android, that is. Sorry, iPhone folks, but Apple's garden doesn't allow this level of customization to fly.)

That's exactly what I do with my aforementioned "VIP" label, in fact. And it's actually quite easy to set up. I put together a step-by-step guide here.

And with that, my inbox-dwelling comrade, your label education is complete. Go ahead: Label yourself organized. You've earned it.