If you’re like most professionals, you’re sending and receiving dozens, if not hundreds of emails a day. You can take the time to properly tag and organize your emails as they come in, but a better solution is to make use of one of Gmail’s built-in tools—Gmail filters—to establish automatic sorting rules and workflows, so you spend less time managing email and end up with a much better organized inbox.
In this article, we’ll cover what exactly Gmail filters are, how to set them up, and advanced Gmail filters tricks every professional should know to supercharge productivity every day.
What Are Gmail Filters?
What exactly are Gmail filters? A Gmail filter is simply a set of rules applied to incoming email. You can customize these rules as you see fit, making sure that certain types of emails end up somewhere other than your inbox (like the trash).
Most people use filters to get rid of or properly categorize emails that are predictable or repetitive, like email marketing newsletters, social media notifications, or automatic notifications from your project management app. But the only limit to their utility is your creativity—there are plenty of hacks and tricks you could utilize to make them function better.
How to Create Gmail Filters
You’ll understand filters a little better once you know how to create one. You’ll also be pleased to know they’re ridiculously easy to set up.
You can think of this as a 3-phase process: in phase 1, you’ll initiate the creation of a filter, in phase 2, you’ll choose filter criteria, and in phase 3, you’ll choose how the filter handles emails matching those criteria.
You can create filters in Gmail in 1 of 3 main ways. No matter which way you choose to initiate this process, you’ll be met with the same options in phase 2 and 3.
In option 1, you’ll create a filter from scratch. To do this, head to the Settings menu and click on “Filters and Blocked Addresses.” You can then click “Create a new filter” to begin the process. This will bring you to Phase II.
In option 2, you’ll open the filter criteria options simply by clicking the down arrow on the Search bar at the top of your inbox. This will also bring you to Phase II, and is arguably more convenient (unless you’re already in the Settings menu).
In option 3, you’ll start to set up a filter based on an email that already exists. This is ideal if you’re not sure what your filter criteria should be, but you definitely want to filter emails similar to one you’ve already gotten. For this option, you’ll open an email, then click the vertical ellipses in the upper-right corner.
When you do this, you’ll be brought to Phase II as well, but some filter criteria will already be filled in. You can modify these to your liking.
In Phase II, you’ll be able to select the filter criteria for your new filter. No matter how you got here, you’ll be met with the same options in a screen that looks like this:
Most of these parameters should be obvious, but just in case:
- From allows you to filter emails from a specific email address (or multiple addresses).
- To allows you to filter emails sent to a specific email address. All emails in your inbox include you as a recipient, but you may wish to filter emails also sent to a colleague or someone outside your organization.
- Subject allows you to filter emails with specific keywords in a subject line, or a specific subject line.
- Has the words allows you to filter emails with specific keywords and phrases in the body.
- Doesn’t have allows you to filter emails that are missing specific keywords and phrases in the body.
- Size refers to the total size of the email, including the attachment. You may want to use this in combination with the “Has attachment” option.
- Date within only appears when you access this option from Search; it bears no relevance on the filter you eventually create.
- Search only appears when you access this option from Search; it bears no relevance on the filter you eventually create.
- Has attachment and Don’t include chats allow you to further specify which types of messages are included.
Note that you can include multiple filter parameters for each filter you create. When you’re done, click “Create filter” in the bottom right corner, and take yourself to Phase III.
One other important note: like with Gmail’s basic search function, filters allow you to apply Boolean operators—search terms like AND, OR, and NOT. This allows you greatly customize your search parameters, excluding any emails within those parameters you might wish to categorize differently.
Phase III is where the magic happens. Now that you’ve specified specific types of emails to filter, you’ll decide what Gmail should do with them.
There are several options available to you, and you can apply multiple options if they’re compatible with each other:
- Skip the Inbox (Archive it) will automatically archive incoming messages that match your filter criteria.
- Mark as read will automatically mark those messages as read.
- Star it will mark those messages with a star.
- Apply the label will allow you to apply an existing or new label to these incoming messages, helping you easily categorize them.
- Forward it lets you forward it to a specific email address.
- Delete it automatically deletes these emails. Use this one cautiously.
- Never send it to Spam whitelists emails that match these criteria.
- Always mark it as important and Never mark it as important allow you to automatically add or remove an importance marker (the chevron-like symbol) from these messages.
- Categorize as: allows you to choose a category like Primary, Social, Updates, Forums, or Promotions where you can send incoming emails like this. Google does a good job of detecting these types of emails to begin with, but an extra filter can help you out in fringe cases.
- Also apply filter to matching conversations. Ordinarily, filters will only apply to emails moving forward. This option allows you to properly mark or categorize emails in your inbox that currently match your criteria.
At this point, you should have everything you need to create filters at your discretion.
How to Delete and Edit Gmail Filters
At some point, you may want to edit a Gmail filter to reflect your current needs, or remove it. If this is the case, head to the Settings menu once again, and select the Filters and Blocked Addresses tab. There, you’ll see a full list of all the filters you’ve created. You can click “edit” to bring yourself back to Phase II and Phase III, and customize your filter. You can also simply click “delete” to get rid of it forever.
Gmail Filters Tricks
Now that you understand the basics, let’s take a look at some of the ways you can use Gmail filters to boost your productivity (or simply help you stay sane):
1. Sort out your newsletters.
Most of us subscribe to multiple newsletters, staying informed about the latest deals from our favorite stores or just learning more about a specific field like marketing. These can be useful, so you may not want to unsubscribe from them altogether, but at the same time, they can take up your time if you’re forced to delete them on a regular basis—or if they get in the way of your more important emails. Set up a filter based on the email addresses sending you these newsletters, and either archive them automatically, or put them in a specific category.
2. Put marketers in their place.
Email marketing is a valuable strategy, and as a consumer, it can be a useful way to learn about new products, services, and special offers. But if you’re not in the mood for them, they can bog your inbox down. You can set up a Gmail filter based on subject lines, senders, or keywords to limit your intake, relegating them to an archive folder or a specific label you can peruse at some point in the future.
3. Identify spam and junk it.
Google has a built-in spam filter for Gmail, so you shouldn’t ever have to see some of the most egregious offenders (i.e., Nigerian Prince scams). However, some spam emails inevitably get through. If they’re consistent enough that you can identify them with a specific marker, you should be able to set up a filter that directs them where they belong—the trash. For more info, see our post on why emails go to spam.
4. Hash out your app notifications.
If you’re like me, you’re constantly getting notifications from the wide range of apps and platforms you use on a daily basis. You have productivity apps, social media profiles, project management platforms, and other miscellaneous accounts all sending you email alerts for events that range from significant to useless. You can usually control what types of emails you get and when, but if you’d like to keep receiving them, you can manage them better with filters. Send them to a different category or under a new label, so you can hash them out properly.
5. Stop getting messages from annoying people.
Some people on your contact list will inevitably annoy you, either because they send you dumb chain letters on a regular basis or because they never seem to have anything important to say. If they’re cluttering up your inbox consistently enough, you can identify them as a sender in your filter parameters, then escort their messages straight to the archive folder.
6. Delegate more effectively.
You can also use filters to delegate certain tasks, assuming they enter your inbox consistently enough. For example, if you get notifications of new leads that need to be followed up with, you could automatically forward those leads to an individual on your sales team. This is tricky to get right, especially because your incoming emails will likely vary, but if you can identify them with a specific subject line, keyword, or sender, it can be helpful.
7. Keep the right people up to date.
Consider using the forwarding feature to keep key people on your team up-to-date on specific projects. For example, let’s say one of your account managers, Terry, is responsible for Project: Elephant. You can set up a filter that sends a copy of any incoming message with the keyword “Elephant” to Terry directly—that way, you won’t have to worry about notifications and updates that get sent to the wrong person.
8. Label your Calendar (and other) reminders.
Labels are one of the most useful organizational features built into Gmail, assuming you’re using them consistently. They can help you find emails easier with more intuitive searches and make sure important emails don’t get lost. They’re especially useful for sorting out reminders—like emails about important dates coming up in your Calendar. Just create a filter that applies a label based on the subject line and/or sender.
9. Mark to-do messages as important.
If you know certain messages are associated with a to-do item, you can automatically mark them as important by applying a certain filter. For example, you can mark important all emails from a specific person, or those that include an attachment or keyword phrase. Then, you’ll be responsible for marking them not important whenever you’re done with them; do this consistently, and you’ll be amazed how much more productive you’ll be.
10. Star memos and informational updates.
You can try a similar approach with emails that contain important information, like project overview messages or company-wide memos. To distinguish these from your to-do items, you can mark them with a star; that way, you can easily sort through them in the future, knowing that you don’t have to follow up with them, but you might need to refer back to them in the future. Again, you’ll just have to find some kind of key identifying characteristic, like a specific subject line or sender.
11. Keep your attachments clean.
Over time, your attachments can clutter your inbox unnecessarily; they may slow the speed of your inbox, and eventually, you’ll come up against the upper storage limit for your account. You can manage your attachments by sorting through them manually, but it’s helpful to apply a filter to emails with attachments above a specific size, so you can categorize them for easier organization.
12. Filter emails with media.
By using the “filename:” search parameter, you can set up a filter for all emails with a specific type of file attached. For example, you can identify emails with filename:mov for .mov files or filename:jpg for .jpg files. From there, you can apply a unique label, or lump them all into a specific category.
13. Back up emails that are most important.
If certain types of emails are more important than others, or if you just want a personal copy of those emails, you can set up a filter to forward them to a personal (or alternate) email address. For example, you might send emails with sizable attachments to your backup email address for when you work from home, or if you’re worried about the security of your main account.
14. Separate different projects or clients.
Use filters to easily distinguish emails associated with different projects or different clients. Depending on the urgency of these clients and projects, you might mark some as important, while sending the others to your archive folder. You could also label them appropriately.
15. Write yourself notes.
This is more of a creative use of filters, but if you master the art, it could be incredibly helpful. Take notes during meetings, or throughout your day, and email those notes to yourself. When you do, always include a specific keyword in your subject line, which would never be included in a normal email. Then, you can create any kind of filter you want, reliably sending all your notes to one specific place.
16. Cover an entire domain.
For various reasons, you may wish to trash, archive, or specifically label all incoming emails from a specific domain. To do this, you can use an asterisk to fill in for all emails within a specific domain; for example, *@yourdomainhere.com. If a particular website seems to be spamming you, or if one client is more important than all your others, you can take greater control of their incoming messages and sort them automatically.
17. Make use of categories.
Categories are a useful way to keep track of emails of a certain type, like promotional offers, social media notifications, or forum updates. But you can also hijack these categories for your own use by setting up custom filters. If you’re getting a certain string of messages that would be better reviewed in one of these big-picture categories, you can easily make things right with an intelligently constructed filter.
These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Use these as a template and modify your own custom Gmail filters, or create some entirely from scratch. The more you learn about your own email habits, the more filters you’ll effectively create.
Creating and managing comprehensive Gmail filters is one of the best steps you can take toward mastering your Gmail productivity. But they may not be enough if you still have persistent bad email habits—especially if those bad habits are organization-wide.
If you want to learn more about how you’re using Gmail (and how you can improve), give EmailAnalytics a try. With EmailAnalytics, you’ll learn how often you’re emailing, your average response times, your busiest times and days, and dozens of other metrics, all with in-depth visuals to make your analysis even easier. Sign up for a free trial today and see what EmailAnalytics can do for you!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.