How I use Gmail

I’ve been using Gmail since around the time it launched in 2004, and in more recent times, I found myself hitting the 7.5 GB mailbox size limit more often that I’d like. To remedy the situation, I would then find myself going through years worth of mail and deleting content that is irrelevant, and as you can imagine, the process is really tedious.

You may be wondering how I managed to clog up my mail box so fast. Truthfully, I don’t receive that many emails, and most people will tell you that I’m a fairly organised individual with minimalist approach to things. So where have I gone wrong? Or more importantly, how can I prevent mail from clogging up my mailbox?


One of Gmail’s initial concepts was archiving; the idea that you’ll never need to delete mail at all. Users, after having read or replied to an email, are expected to stash the conversation into their archive. The archive, I believe, is analysed to improve things like spam detection, since archived mail indicates legitimacy. In addition, it allows users to track the history of messages as “threads” to follow old conversations. Now the question becomes: If I’m not supposed to delete email, how much mail can I keep?

Unlimited Storage

Since its launch, Gmail promised that users’ mailbox size will grow endlessly over time –they called the project infinity+1. In other words, by the time someone manages to fill their mailbox, more space will have been made available to them. Superb idea, although unfortunately, I still managed to repeatedly fill my mailbox! There must be an effective way to manage all this mail, otherwise it would slowly roll into one giant pile of chaos, no?


Alas, Gmail’s answer to mail management: labels. For the longest time, the way I’ve been using Gmail was something that goes a little bit like this: mail comes in and immediately goes through some filters. If it matches a certain category, for example “work”, it would get labelled and archived –the effect of putting it in a sub-mailbox. So if I glance at my sidebar, I would see something like this:

  • Inbox (5)
  • Work (4)
  • Invoices (1)
  • News (7)

In that situation, the role of my inbox became, “all mail that isn’t categorised”. I’d begin by going through the “Work” label, as I want to be sure I don’t delay anything important, and move to the other, less important labels, such as “News”, some time later. If I see a particular email that I liked, I’d star it, effectively creating an archive of favorite emails; Starred.

Getting Rid of Mail

When my mailbox got full, I had to go through the labels that were of least importance, for example, “News” and deleted everything, because I knew very well that it didn’t contain anything crucial. However, with labels like “Work”, it was difficult to tell which mail was worth keeping of not.

Whether an email contained an attachment or not had little relevance, because some mail had large important documents that I wanted, while numerous other emails contained very short conversations that I no longer cared about. I had no way of indicating “temporary” or “permanent” so I had to go through each email manually. Yeah, it was brutal…

Priority Inbox

About a year ago, Google introduced Priority Inbox, a feature that split the inbox into 3 or 4 sections such that new email would be placed in the appropriate section depending on the level of importance. Gmail attempts to learn and predict the importance of mail by analysing your previous conversations (the archive!) or, if specified, go by the filter rules associated with determining importance.

Google boasted about how Priority Inbox will help unclutter the inbox and improve productivity, but from my initial experience, it just seemed that it was adding more complexity and hassle. Not only do I have to go through each sub-mailbox, but now my inbox will have sub-categories as well –it didn’t make sense. Not to mention that while browsing labels, mail was not arranged by priority, so there was no improvement there.

A New Approach

It was only a few days ago when it finally dawned on me: at this rate, my regular mail-sorting technique was no longer effective. There are several reasons for this:

  1. If I read email in a particular label (sub-mailbox), the only ways in which I could indicate that I needed to get back to it was to either to keep it marked as unread, or move it to my inbox. In the first case, I’d subconsciously have to keep track of the number of unread “to do” emails and watch out for any new unread emails so as to not confuse the two, and in the second case, my inbox will contain both important and unimportant (unlabeled) mail that I’d have to manually check every once in a while.
  2. If I wanted to browse a category, for example “Newsletters”, it would be too overwhelming to find a particular group of emails because it would be an aggregation of many different sources. I would resort to using boolean search operators instead.

Rather than think in terms of mailbox, sub-mailboxes and jumping back and forth between them, I had to focus on the process that occurs to mail as it arrives so that I am able to track and respond to messages very quickly. (For technical people, this is analogous to setting up a policy on a router to take decisions on incoming packets).

A Simple Workflow

Alright, so here’s my new way of working with email: A new email would arrive, go through some filters where it may get labeled, and ends up in the inbox (not archived!). If it was flagged as important, my inbox count will increment:

  • Priority Inbox (1)

Any unimportant mail will quietly sit in the “Everything Else” section of the inbox and wait for me to look at it in my spare time. In practice, this means that I only have to keep an eye out for one number, and not a group of different labels/mailboxes (You can hide the other labels into the “More” item). It also prevents distractions as the number of new emails will only increment if it is truly worth your time.


A note about labels: think of them as tags that help you “group” mail rather than separate them. This is because email can have multiple labels, for example: a “newsletter” from “work”. In the separate-folder ideology, you may put such mail in the “work” mailbox and mix it with the more legitimate work emails, or similarly, if you place it in the “newsletter” mailbox it will pile with other various and unrelated newsletters. If later, you decided to do a search, you can say “find email that is labeled work AND newsletter”, rather than “find email labeled as work AND is from” (because you’ve considered the “newsletter” label for mail that is not work-related). Another solution would require creating more specific labels like “Work Newsletters”, “Other Newsletters”, etc… but that’s just adding more mailboxes that need tracking:

  • Inbox (5)
  • Work (4)
  • Work Newsletters (2)
  • Invoices (1)
  • Local News (5)
  • Other News (3)

Keeping Track

Okay, so now that your sidebar has indicated that you received an important mail, you can start by reading the “important and unread” section first. If you want to get back to an important email later, simply leave it there as it will remain in your inbox in the “important” section, otherwise, respond and/or archive it and get it out-of-the-way and look at the next one.

With no more unread important emails to attend to, the second part of the inbox is the “everything else” section, which should contain mail that does not necessarily need urgent response or immediate acknowledgement. Examples of these would be mail forwards, joke emails, marketing announcements, and so on. Simply read through those in any order you wish, and if you need to keep track of a particular message, star it so that it is placed in a separate section (optional).

Stars, in this scenario, are not the “like” indicators that I had used before, instead they are used as a temporary highlight for unimportant mail that I want to get back to at a later point in time. You may choose to not use a “Starred” section and have your starred mail mixed with the “everything else” section, but it may confuse the order in which you process your mail later.

Cleaning Up

So far, we’ve only covered how to process incoming mail with filters, labels, and managing them through Priority Inbox, but haven’t tackled the original problem of deleting or getting rid of unwanted email. If you’ve taken all the steps so far, then next part becomes easy because all the hard work has already been done for us!

Search for “has:attachment -is:important” –don’t miss the minus sign–, that is, all mail that contains an attachment, but is not important. If you’ve been marking email as important or unimportant correctly, you’ll quickly see a list of large unimportant emails that you’ll probably don’t mind getting rid of. Also, if you find a particular label for email that is consistently unimportant, lets say “Daily Reports”, you can refine your search: “has:attachment -is:important label:daily-reports” and eliminate those. Or if you intend to keep this years emails and delete any mail prior to that, add “before:2011/01/01” to your query. That’s all there is to it!

A Note About Attachements

Often, when running a search for “has:attachment”, you’ll find mail that doesn’t have the paperclip icon. I believe this is because some mail clients/services “embed” (uuencode) content rather than “attach” them (MIME standard). A workaround would be to create a label that indicates mail as having an attachment, rather than relying on the paperclip icon.


To summarize, although not perfect, Gmail is still one of the best –if not the best– email service available today. Taking advantage of its many features requires letting go of old paradigms like “folders” and “favorites” and thinking in terms of “labels” and “importance”.

I highly recommend enabling the Unread Message Icon feature from the Gmail labs, and pinning the Gmail tab within your browser like so:

That way, all you have to do is glance at the corner to see if you have anything important to read. Remember: Unimportant mail will never increment your inbox count, hence significantly reduce your distraction time.

Final tip: Learn how to use keyboard shortcuts for the most common actions, such as “c” for compose, “e” for archive, “a” for reply-to-all, and if you get mail that requires you to do something, “shift-t” to refer that email in your task list. (Press “?” to see all shortcuts).

I hope this long post has helped you make better use of your inbox. If you have any more ideas or techniques please leave a comment blow!

5 thoughts on “How I use Gmail

  1. Excellent breakdown of email sorting and taking advantage of Gmail!

    Honestly Labeling is the best thing that GMail introduced, thats the first thing that I started to do, and I started creating all kinds of filters to meet the criteria.

    Also I kept hitting the maximum storage so I expanded it and paid a little extra to get the 25GB MailBox expansion!

    I like that they have added the nested Labels at this point which helps even breakdown emails between projects!

    One note I use to help jump into emails with huge attachments! And they create labels for you to see emails with large sizes and then you can see what you need to keep and what you need to move!

  2. My oldest mail in my Gmail inbox is from July ’04. Remember when you needed an invite to join Gmail? And each user got to invite only 10 other people? I felt so special.

    <3 Gmail.

  3. Pingback: The Gmail Workflow | Anything Goes

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