How many emails are currently in your Gmail inbox? If you’re like most users, you’re forced to sigh every time you log in. There are hundreds, or even thousands of emails cluttering up your inbox. Wouldn’t be nice if you knew how to clean up Gmail quickly and easily?
If you don’t have a clear system of Gmail organization, or if you haven’t always been attentive to your inbox hygiene, this can be extremely overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a simple, 10-step process you can follow to clean up your Gmail inbox.
Table of Contents
- What Does It Mean to “Clean” Your Gmail Inbox?
- Tools to Help Clean Up Gmail
- How to Clean Up Gmail in 10 Steps
What Does It Mean to “Clean” Your Gmail Inbox?
“Cleaning” an inbox typically means removing the items you no longer need, and setting up a structure that allows you to minimize the presence of unnecessary emails in the future. There are several advantages to this approach:
- Reduce storage. By default, Google will give you 15 GB of storage space, and you may have access to even more if you’re paying for an account. When you first sign up, this seems like a lot, but eventually, you may push against this limit. Clearing out your inbox will make more space, giving you more storage to work with.
- Eliminate noise. When your inbox is cluttered with messages that don’t matter, it can be hard to find exactly the message you’re looking for when conducting a Gmail search—or tell, at a glance, what your current workload is. Cleaning you inbox allows you to eliminate this noise, so you can better focus on the work that really matters.
- Minimize incoming junk. Part of your Gmail cleaning exercise will be focused on minimizing the amount of incoming junk messages you receive from unwanted or unimportant sources, including blocking emails; this way, you’re less distracted by notifications throughout the day, and your inbox can stay cleaner for longer.
- Review overlooked messages. Cleaning an inbox is also a great opportunity to find important messages you may have overlooked; are there any people you’ve forgotten to respond to, or threads that died prematurely?
Tools to Help Clean Up Gmail
Gmail has a ton of built-in tools and features you can use to clean your own inbox, and I’ll be covering some of them in the following 10-step program.
One of the best features is its intuitive search feature, which you can use to sort your inbox however you see fit—and identify exactly the right messages to delete as quickly as possible. There are also built-in sorting and categorizing features that can help you organize the important messages that remain (and better sort incoming messages in the future).
However, if that’s not enough, you can look to third-party tools to help you search, sort, organize, and delete your inbox messages. One of my personal favorites is Clean.email, a bulk email cleaner that allows you to define your own rules and filters to apply across your inbox. With just a few clicks, you can set a new set of criteria for the organization of your inbox, and get to work sorting your email inbox.
For example, with the “Quick Clean” feature, Clean.email will recommend old emails, miscellaneous notifications, and other emails that should be deleted. With the “Smart Unsubscriber” feature, you can quickly see the marketing and sales email lists to which you’re subscribed, and unsubscribe from them permanently. You can also use the “Auto Clean” feature to get rid of emails that meet certain criteria automatically.
Regardless of which tools you choose to help you get the job done, it’s best to clean your email inbox in batches—especially if you’ve gone without cleaning your inbox for an extended period of time. Instead of trying to make your inbox perfect in the span of an afternoon, set aside just 15 minutes per day to make a dent in your backlog of uncategorized messages.
It will be far less overwhelming, and it will set you up for a positive organization habit you can use well into the future.
How to Clean Up Gmail in 10 Steps
If your Gmail inbox is cluttered, overwhelming, or just poorly organized, try these steps for how to clean up your Gmail inbox:
1. Delete big attachments.
Start by deleting the emails that feature big attachments; these are likely taking up a disproportionate amount of space in your inbox, reducing your available storage in Gmail. There’s an easy way to do this in Gmail itself. Click on the dropdown arrow on the right side of the search bar, and you’ll be presented with a list of advanced search criteria.
Check out the “Size” line and select “greater than,” then define a specific size; I like to start by looking for emails that are more than 1 MB (see our post on the Gmail attachment size limit). You could also check the “Has attachment” box to include only emails that feature an attachment. Click Search whenever you’re ready, and you’ll generate a list of all emails with especially large attachments. If there are any attachments you need to save, consider saving them elsewhere and deleting them from your inbox.
2. Delete entire categories.
Gmail offers a number of “categories” you can use to sort your inbox. When active, Gmail will automatically detect incoming emails that meet these category criteria, and sort them appropriately. By default, you’ll see a Primary category tab, as well as tabs for Promotions and Social (social media notifications). Head to the Settings menu and click on the Inbox tab; here, you’ll have the option to add or remove categories. You can add tabs for Updates and Forums if you wish.
I recommend you use all categories that are relevant to your inbox. When you’re ready to clean, you can visit one of these tabs and delete all emails associated with it; in the upper-left corner, click on the box to Select All messages. By default, you’ll select all messages in the current view. Head to the top of the screen and click the prompt to select all conversations in the tab and delete them at once.
3. Unsubscribe from annoying lists.
Most of us get at least a few emails every day from lists we subscribed to a long time ago, but are no longer relevant—or maybe we ended up on a list we never subscribed to in the first place. There’s a simple solution: unsubscribe. But most of us don’t take the extra time to take ourselves off of these lists—instead, we just delete emails one at a time and roll our eyes whenever we get a new one.
Stop the cycle by using a tool (such as Clean Email) to generate a list of all your current subscriptions, or use Gmail’s search bar to search for all emails that include the word “Unsubscribe” in the body. It will take some time to manually unsubscribe from all these lists, but it’s worth the investment.
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4. Block unwanted senders.
Next, consider blocking any unwanted senders that are flooding your inbox. Are there any persistent salespeople that just won’t leave you alone? Consider blocking them. Are you getting inundated with notifications from one of your project management platforms? Log in and change your settings so you no longer receive so many messages from this. Here’s a guide on how to block emails in Gmail.
5. Delete by sender.
Clean up your inbox efficiently by looking for senders that no longer matter. For example, is there a client you no longer work with? Would you be interested in deleting all messages that came from a specific platform, like LinkedIn? If so, click the dropdown arrow on the right side of the Gmail search bar. In the “From” field, type the email address of the sender you want to delete.
You can modify your search with additional criteria if necessary, or search for multiple senders at once, then click Search to generate a full list of emails that meet these requirements. From there, you can delete all these emails at once.
6. Delete by date.
Again, you can head to the advanced search mode of Gmail to look for emails that meet certain criteria. This time, try sorting by date. After all, do you really need emails that you received 5 years ago? Search for emails within a certain period of time from a date of your choosing; for example, you could choose to look only at emails sent within 1 year of 2011, covering all emails from 2010 to 2012, and delete them all at once.
You can also sort your inbox so that the oldest messages are listed first; to do this, hover over the numbers you see in the upper-right corner. By default, “Newest” will be selected, so that you see your newest messages at the top of your Gmail inbox. Click “Oldest” to reverse this, and review emails based on the oldest entries. You can use this sorting feature to modify any of your other searches as well, improving your sorting and organizing as you manage your inbox. Check out our guide to learn more about sorting by date in Gmail.
7. Delete by content.
Are you interested in deleting all emails that have to do with a specific subject, or those that include certain words or phrases in the body content? You can use Gmail’s advanced search features to hunt these messages down. Call up the advanced search feature with the dropdown arrow, and search for emails that have certain words and phrases in the Subject line, or those that have specific words or phrases in the body. Use quotation marks around complete specific phrases you’re searching for.
8. Create new labels.
In Outlook, users organize emails with the help of a system of folders and subfolders. But in Gmail, things work a little bit differently; rather than physically moving an email to one specific folder or trying to copy it to multiple folders, you’ll create labels and assign those labels however you see fit. In the left-hand panel of Gmail, you can scroll down to find and click “Create label.”
Here, you’ll be able to name a label of your choice, and choose whether to “nest” it under a different label. Once created, you can apply this label to any individual message in your inbox—and apply multiple labels to a single message. Then, you’ll be able to call up a label anytime you want and review all emails associated with it. It’s an incredibly useful way to organize the valuable emails that remain in your inbox—and you can even use them as part of your automatic filtering system, which we’ll set up in step 10.
9. Make use of organization features.
Gmail comes loaded with a number of features meant to make it easier for email users to stay organized. For example, you can mark emails as read or unread to determine their status, use stars to immediately mark valuable emails to keep long-term, and use importance markers to identify emails that still require a response. You can even set up additional colors for each organizational feature in Gmail’s advanced settings if you need more options. Make use of these, and use them consistently to reap their full value.
10. Create new filters.
Hopefully, by this point, your Gmail inbox should be mostly clean. But how can you ensure that it remains clean indefinitely? Obviously, you can apply your new system of organization consistently to new emails as they arrive, but this can take a lot of time, and you might not be perfectly consistent with it. Instead, it may be better to set up automatic filters for incoming messages.
After conducting an advanced search for emails that meet certain criteria (like containing certain words in the subject line or being sent by a specific sender), you can create a filter for all emails that match these criteria in the future; from there, you can tell Gmail to automatically label them or mark them in a specific way, or even tell Gmail to archive the message immediately. With the right filters in place, you can consider your Gmail inbox to be almost entirely self-cleaning. Make sure you read our full guide on setting up Gmail filters for more information.
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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 selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.