Most email platforms, including Gmail, have some method of organization so you can keep things in order. In Outlook, you can create custom folders to keep your emails organized. So can you do the same thing in Gmail?

Yes, you can. In this article, we’ll walk through how to create folders in Gmail.

Gmail Labels: Gmail’s Version of Folders

Gmail doesn’t actually offer “folders” in the conventional sense (as Outlook does), but it allows the creation of labels instead. Gmail labels work much like folders—and once you get used to them, you’ll find they’re actually more versatile and functional than folders.

In Gmail, you can create as many “labels” as you want. Each label will assign some meaning or category to an email. For example, you could create a label for emails related to “marketing” or one for “legacy client” emails. Then, you’ll assign labels to the appropriate emails; you can assign many different labels to a single message, or leave some messages completely unlabeled. It’s entirely up to you. You can also “nest” labels, creating sublabels that function as subfolders within the parent label.

When created, your labels will appear in the left-hand side of your screen. There, you can click individual labels (and sub-labels) and manage all emails that have that label applied. It’s essentially the same as opening a specific folder.

Gmail labels

Why Labels Are Better Than Folders

If you’re used to using Outlook, or if you’re just confused as to why Gmail would use of labels instead of folders, it helps to understand the distinct advantages of using labels:

  • Multiple label assignment. The biggest advantage is the fact that you can apply many different labels to a single email. Labels essentially function as a tagging system, rather than a relocation system. With folders, you’re forced to remove an email from your inbox and move it to a singular alternate location. If you copy the email, you may be able to include it in multiple folders, but this is a waste of time and creates unnecessary copies of emails. With a good label system, you can rely on as many or as few notations as possible for each message.
  • Searchability. Labels are also much more searchable. If you have a folder system, you can either search for the content of a specific message, or you can use a trial-and-error approach to dig through various folders until you find the right one. With a label system, you can search for one or more labels simultaneously using Gmail search operators, and more easily find your desired message(s) with a single search.
  • Core inbox retention. Applying labels doesn’t permanently change your inbox. Moving an email to a folder takes it away from its original position, which removes it from immediate visibility and can disrupt your perception of email timing (not to mention organization). With labels, you can still group emails as you desire, but your “core” inbox view will never be permanently altered (at least until you start archiving and deleting).

How to Create Labels in Gmail

Let’s get down to it. How do you create Gmail labels (functioning as folders) in Gmail?

There are a few different approaches. If you’re creating labels from scratch, you can head to the Settings menu. The second tab from the left is Labels, where you’ll be able to manage existing labels and create new ones.

Gmail settings labels

Scroll past “System labels” and “Categories” to get to “Labels” at the bottom. There, you can click “Create new label.” There’s nothing fancy to worry about here. You’ll just need to name your new label.

You’ll also see an option to “Nest label under.” This is intended to serve as a type of subfolder. If you check this box, you can use the dropdown menu to select an existing label, and “nest” your new label under that parent label.

Name new label

Once you create a few Gmail labels, you’ll be able to manage them high-level from the same menu. You can choose to show the label by default, hide it by default, or show it only if it’s unread. You can also edit these labels or remove them at any time. If you remove a label, it will not delete the messages that are marked with that label.

list labels

How do you apply labels to messages in Gmail?

First, open the email you wish to label. In the top row of icons, you’ll see a tag-like icon toward the right. Click it.

apply labels to Gmail messages

From there, you’ll be able to check any and all labels that you wish to apply to this label. You can also use the search bar at the top to search for a specific label by name, or “Create new” labels with a single click at the bottom of this submenu. There’s also a shortcut here to “Manage labels,” which will take you to the Settings menu we just explored.

You can label and relabel your emails at any time.

Note that you can also label outgoing or “Sent” emails. When you open a Compose email, click on the vertical ellipses in the lower-right corner. You’ll be able to apply a label using the same submenu pictured above.

How to Apply Gmail Labels Automatically

You should also know that there’s a way to apply Gmail labels to different types of emails automatically, to save time and improve your email productivity. The basic idea is to create an automatic filter, and use that filter to automatically apply new labels. We have a complete guide on Gmail filters here.

As a basic overview, you can create filters within the Settings menu or by using the default email search feature, and saving your search criteria as an initial basis for your filter.

create Gmail filter

For example, you could list a few email addresses in the “from” field that apply to one of your clients—let’s call them Client A. When you’re satisfied with the search parameters, you’ll click “Create filter.”

apply Gmail label

Then, you’ll check the box next to “Apply the label,” and you’ll choose a label to assign to those emails. In this case, you’d mark those emails as “Client A.”

You can use many different search parameters to create complex filters, either by themselves or in combination with each other. The possibilities are pretty much limitless.

When you save this new filter, it will automatically apply your new label selections to all new emails that match your search criteria. It will not retroactively apply to existing emails that match these criteria.

Ideas for Labels in Gmail

You might be unsure about how to create Gmail labels that are meaningful and helpful. To get you started, here are a few of the main types of labels and sublabels that Gmail users create to stay organized:

  • Clients. If you choose your main contacts or an entire domain of email addresses as part of your filter, you can assign labels to emails based on the client they come from.
  • Projects. You can also apply Gmail labels to different projects, either manually or by creating a filter for various keywords on the subject or body of each message.
  • Level of urgency/due dates. It can also be helpful to create labels based on the urgency of a given message, though this can be problematic if levels of urgency change. You may also group them by due date, creating new labels weekly to keep yourself on task—but here, you may be better off using stars or “important” markers, which you can toggle on and off easily.
  • Level of urgency/due dates. If you plan to keep certain types of attachments grouped together, like videos, invoices, or spreadsheets, you can apply those labels to your emails, respectively.
  • Memos/updates. Creating a “memos” or “updates” label can help you keep track of messages you’ll need to refer back to regularly in the future. The value of this one will increase over time.
  • Notifications. Gmail can automatically detect and group your automatic notification emails using the “Social,” “Updates,” and/or “Forums” categories. However, you may wish to take more control over how those messages are labeled. Either way, it’s a good idea to keep your inbound automatic emails organized.

If you’re looking to save time in Gmail or improve your overall email productivity, learning how to create folders in Gmail is one of the best things you can do because it helps you stay organized.

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