Customizing an inbox for better workflow and productivity

Email is one of the most commonly used communication mediums across the world because of its instantaneous speed and widespread availability, but it’s also one of the most frequently disorganized. Despite all the tools and safeguards in place, people have a tendency to misplace emails, fail to prioritize important emails, and communicate inefficiently.

But with Gmail, there’s a convenient set of features lurking right underneath the surface that can help you get organized—and stay that way.

These features are heavily interlinked with one another, and they all start with a custom search. At the top of the desktop app, you have the ability to perform a “normal” search, or use a combination of Gmail search operators to modify your search, narrowing it down based on criteria like these:

  • Just like an online search, you can use a handful of key words and phrases to find the email you’re looking for—assuming those keywords are present in the body or subject line of the message.
  • Senders and recipients. You can also use modifiers to filter in certain senders or recipients of the message (including those on CC or BCC lines).
  • If you know approximately when the message was sent, it can help you narrow down the message even further.
  • Labels, marks, and stars. Search operators can help you find a specific message if it was marked a certain way, with labels, importance markers, stars, or the read/unread status.
  • You can even track down messages based on the type, size, or name of the attachment included with them.

There are dozens of search operators to draw from, so as long as you remember a handful of pieces of information about your email, you should be able to find it.

Custom searches are powerful ways to track down the precise email you’re looking for, but what if you’re looking to better organize these types of messages in the future?

One of your best options is also one of your most convenient. After issuing a search, you’ll have the option to create a filter from that search—just click the Create filter button at the bottom-right corner of your search box.

With a filter established, Gmail will automatically apply a certain action to any incoming emails in the future that match the criteria you described, including:

  • Some people prefer archiving messages to deleting them, though they’ll still count toward your total inbox storage. This option will automatically archive any incoming emails that match your specified parameters.
  • You can also automatically mark those emails in any way you see fit. For example, you can mark them as read if you don’t need them to catch your attention, or mark them as important if you’ll need to review them as soon as possible. You can even assign a different color star to them (as long as you turn on those star options in the Settings menu).
  • Applying labels. You can also apply certain labels. This is especially important if you’re dealing with specific senders who all belong in the same category; for example, you could have a label specifically for emails from professors, or one from work-related contacts.
  • If you need some of your emails to be seen by other people, you can set them up to be automatically forwarded. For example, you can automatically forward your utility bill to each of your roommates to simplify the process.
  • If you’re tired of a certain type of email, you can also automatically delete it. Though you can recover deleted emails for a limited period of time, it’s best to leave this option as a last resort.

Just be careful when setting up a new filter; based on your parameters, you may accidentally include some emails you didn’t intend to be grouped together. Double check your parameters and monitor your folders carefully for the first few weeks following their creation, just to be sure they’re working as you intended.

If you’re looking for a new, permanent home for emails that meet certain parameters, you have a few options. You can create a new label, which you can use to group similar emails together, or use custom markings so you can find those emails faster. You can also use an Advanced Setting (available as a sub-category in the Settings menu) to create Multiple Inboxes. The idea here is to create a set list of parameters for which emails are shown in each of several custom inbox variants.

All of these strategies have the power to dramatically improve your ability to organize your emails (and your efficiency at communicating). Make sure to take advantage of them if you’re using Gmail on a regular basis. And be sure to check out these Gmail hacks, Gmail plugins, and Gmail extensions.