3 Tips for a Better Gmail Inbox

Email overload can cripple your productivity. When you have an unread message badge count numbering in the hundreds or thousands, the notification system ceases to effective. When the default tools aren’t working for you, and it’s time to consider making some changes. If you’re a Gmail user, there are three very simple tricks you can use to filter messages and regain control of your inbox. They’ve been around so long that hardly anyone talks about them anymore, but they’re powerful as ever for helping you clean up your inbox.

1. Add Dots to Your Email Address

With Gmail, adding periods or dots inside someone’s email address doesn’t affect it. For example, if you have the address [email protected] and some sends a message to [email protected] or even [email protected], it will reach you all the same. If your inbox is messy, you can use this to your advantage.

For example, you might tell your friends and family to send emails to the ‘johnsmith’ address, but tell businesses acquaintances that you’re ‘john.smith.’ That way, you can create a filter in Gmail to separate the two types of messages automatically when they arrive.

You don’t need to do anything to start using the new address(es), but you do have to set up filters if you want messages sent to one of your aliases to skip the inbox and go directly to another folder. Set up a filter with these steps:

From the cog icon in the upper right, go to Settings. Select Filters and Blocked Addresses. Select Create a new filter (it’s at the bottom). In the To field, enter the Gmail address with the periods. Choose Create filter. On the next screen, choose where you want the incoming messages to go. If you want incoming messages for that address to go directly into a designated folder, select two options: a) Skip the Inbox and b) Apply the label (then choose the label you want or create a new one). You must apply both filters or else the new mail will still end up in your inbox. Hit Create Filter to save your changes. Finally, if you’ve already received messages to this alias, you might want to add the option “Also apply filter to X matching conversations.” Doing so sweeps all the relevant mail to the new folder right away.

The next tip is similar to this one. It’s a different variation on making email aliases. This one with the dots is subtle, however. It’s good to use with people because they can’t tell that you’re going to filter messages from them. The next variation on creating aliases is better to do with robots and automated processes.

2. Filter Automated Messages With Plus Sign Aliases

The second trick is nearly the same as the first, but here, you use a plus sign and words before the @ symbol to make aliases, rather than periods. If your address is [email protected], all these aliases will work without you having to set up anything special in your settings:

This is a great trick to use when you sign up for a new web account or app. If you make an account on, say, JCrew’s website, you can use the address [email protected] as your login name. You benefit in two ways. First, you can automatically filter all your mail from JCrew into a separate folder. Second, if your email address ever gets leaked or sold, you’ll be able to tell who the source was. As you start using your new ‘+word’ email addresses, be sure to create filters using the steps listed above.

3. Customize Your Inbox With One Click

The last tip is to customize what goes into your inbox with one click. If you’re not about to create a whole bunch of folders and filters, this is the tip worth using.

Hover over the word Inbox on the left side of your Gmail account. Click the down-facing triangle to open the menu. You’ll see a few options for how to customize your inbox:

  • Default
  • Important first
  • Unread first
  • Starred first
  • Priority Inbox (which combines aspects of Important, Unread, and Starred to try and put the most meaningful messages in front of your eyes first).

When you apply one of the options (other than default), Gmail reserves the top of the inbox for the message type you chose. It also gives you a toggle so you can collapse and expand the messages in the different sections.

Do What Works for You

These Gmail features are particularly useful for people who want to better manage their inboxes without creating new email addresses. It is perfectly acceptable to simply create more email addresses and use them for different purposes, too. It’s more important to do what works for you than to follow some prescribed “right way.” As long as you choose a method that you can stick with, it’ll help you maintain sanity with your inbox.

You might, of course, decide that Gmail isn’t for you. In that case, you should read our primer on how to quit Gmail and get started on a new provider.

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