Managing a Messy Inbox

A complete guide to cleaning and organizing a neglected gmail inbox.

The mythical empty inbox

Photo graciously provided by Krsto Jevtic on Unsplash


If you have ever had an email account for an extended length of time, you have probably seen how easy it is to let it fill up with messages. Whether it is filled with spam or useful messages that were just never deleted, this guide aims to help you empty your inbox (indeed it is possible!) and make it a little easier to keep it from returning to the land of nightmarish proportions.

Most of the tricks in this guide are aimed toward Gmail specifically, If you use a different provider, you can likely still use this advice, but you may have to do some digging to identify the exact way to do it.

Emptying an Inbox

First, lets try and get rid of some of the old messages.


Spam is one of the easiest (and most satisfying) types of mail to remove. For all of the offers or newsletters that you no longer are interested, follow these steps:

  1. Unsubscribe
  2. If you no longer want to recieve those messages, try unsubscribing. If you don't see an unsubscribe button, try hitting Ctrl - a to select all of the text. This will reveal any white text on a white background. Alternatively, you can try Ctrl - f to find the text. If unsubscribing does not work, you can create a filter to automatically delete messages from that sender, no managing required.

  3. Select all
  4. Once you have unsubscribed, you can finally rid yourself of all of those emails! In the search bar, search by sender by typing "from: " and then the senders address. One useful trick is to use the * symbol as a wild card to select all senders from a certain domain. For example, "from: *" would select all emails sent from senders.

  5. Delete!
  6. With all of the unwanted emails selected, you can finally hit that delete button! This is arguably one of the most satisfying parts of this process, allowing you to remove possibly hundreds of emails with one click.

Old Messages

This one is slightly more difficult. For personal or unimportant messages, you can search by sender and then go to the last page. From there, select all messages that are too old to be important anymore and delelete them. Instead of deleting eah one individually, here it is quickest to simply select the messages and then batch delete once you reach the top of the page. This can be done even quicker by selecting all and then only deselecting the most recent few before deleting.

For more important messages, instead of keeping them in the inbox to ensure you always have them if you need them, archive them. Archived emails no longer clutter up your inbox, but are still kept and can always be reached simply by searching for the archived message. These will be the most difficult to sort through, and again are easiest to handle by (optionally) sorting and then working from back to front. When in doubt, archive it. It will always be available, and will not fill your inbox.


An example of email organization

Color coding makes reading a cluttered inbox much easier

Congratulations! By this point, you should already have a fairly empty inbox. I was able to crunch mine down to about 30 emails from over nine hundred, in less than a day! Now that we have done all that work, it is time to make sure it stays that way. To help with that, here are a few organization strategies that make understanding and managing your inbox just a bit easier.


Labels are an easy way to categorize your messages, color-coding them to make it easy to understand at a glance. To start, you can create labels in the side bar or in settings. On the side, scroll all the way to the bottom (click "More" if you need to) and select "Create new label." In settings, select "See all settings" then move to the "Labels" tab. Near the bottom, there is a button labeled "Create new label." Each label requires a name, and an optional category to nest under. For example, "meetings" and "projects" could be nested under "work." This will just define how it is displayed in the sidebar, where nested items will be grouped under the nest label.

Once you have created the labels you want, you may notice that they are all the same shade of gray. To fix this, hover over the label in the sidebar and click the menu (…). From there you can select a label color.


However, lables are not much use if they are not applied to anything. You could select each message and apply the label manually (maybe with some special searching and select-all), but there is a much more simple method. Filters allow you to automate the process by applying a label to specific messages as soon as they come in.

To create a filter, go to settings (See all settings) and go to "Filters and Blocked Addresses". From there, select "Create a new filter" and enter search terms to select the correct messages. Here is another good place to use the * trick to filter messages by groups of senders. Additionally, you can select messages by keyword. Keep in mind that the items are inclusive, meaning that only messages that fit all of the criteria are selected.

Daily Work

Now that your inbox is all cleaned out and organized, you can make sure you keep it that way by managing it a little bit each day. After you read each email, or decide not to read it, take the extra second or two to archive it or delete it. It helps to be a quick, harsh judge, and following the above idea: when in doubt, archive.

In general, I find the following sorting system makes the most sense:


Hopefully, this guide has helped you make sense of a messy inbox. Keeping it this clean is surprisingly difficult, so it may make more sense to just abandon it and come back to clear it out every few months. Hope it helped, and good luck!