Places I don't like clutter: kitchen counters, bathroom counters, on my desk, on the dining room table...okay fine, I really don't like clutter anywhere. Including my email inbox! Even though I don't have a full time job and I diligently unsubscribe to unwanted ads and newsletters my inbox can feel out of control pretty quickly. But not any more! I've been using a Gmail organization system for over a year that has tidied up my inbox and keeps it tidy. Are your ears perking up?
The way email inboxes are set up, with one long list of emails and maybe some folders where you file emails, is like a pile of mail on the kitchen counter. Even if you recycle the junk mail you're left with a stack of things to do or respond to but they get buried quickly. How can you identify the really important things from the REALLY important ones? I tried filing emails that needed responses by different categories but didn't have a good system for going to those folders to complete the responses. I've also heard the rule that you should only touch an email once. I love the idea of this rule but what about the emails that you're keeping for informational purposes or when you're waiting for a response? Following the one-touch rule still didn't make an inbox zero attainable for me.
Enter the multiple inbox system on Gmail which I read about via Andreas Klinger. It's been a total game-changer for me. This system allows for inbox zero AND keeping important emails visible. What sorcery is this you ask? Let me tell you more. Using the multiple inbox feature allows you to create smaller lists of emails in addition to your main inbox list and to categorize them in whatever way makes sense for you. It's amazing! Although maybe it doesn't sound very amazing or even make much sense at this point. I think visuals will help. Here's what my inbox looks like currently:
It might be a lot to take in all at once so let me give you an overview tour...
A main email inbox is like triage. You need to assess the email to see what it needs: is there a task? Is it informational? Are you waiting for someone else to reply? The multiple inbox system gives all of these emails a tidy place to go!
You can see that I have my email set up to have a main inbox and then the following categories, each with its own symbol:
NEEDS ACTION: self-explanatory. For me these emails will include the soccer registration email, the podcast listener email I need to respond to, or updating payment information on an account.
AWAITING REPLY: This is perhaps my favorite category. I hated emails cluttering up my inbox that I couldn't delete because I was waiting to hear from someone else. No longer! The other bonus is that at a glance you can see which emails still need a reply and ping the person if needed. Whereas previously it's so easy for those emails to get buried.
PODCAST: I added this category several months ago once I found that I was dealing with enough podcast-specific emails about sponsorship or back-end stuff that I wanted those active emails to have their own spot.
BULLETIN BOARD: Essentially this is an email version of a bulletin board. I put emails here that don't require action but that have important information I want to be able to easily access. I use this for travel emails which I keep until a trip is over. I also put online shopping emails here such as confirmation emails and shipping emails until I receive a package. Informational school stuff for the boys also lives here if needed.
You can set up more or fewer inboxes than this, assign them a symbol, and name them whatever you like. You can make it fit your email workflow and your life. Hopefully you're starting to see how this setup can be so great. So let's get into the nitty gritty. First I'll explain how the multiple inboxes work and then I'll show you how you can set it up in Gmail.
How emails are sorted into the different inboxes
The emails get sorted into the multiple inboxes by archiving the email into the category you assign in. Usually archive means send an email out of view but with this set up you can keep archived emails visible if you've assigned them a symbol. This is a different action than I was used to using in Gmail so it took me a little bit to catch on.
Here's how you sort an email into one of the categories you created:
+ Hover over the blank star to the left of the sender name in the email. Click in the star and continue clicking until the symbol you want comes up. (When you setup multiple inboxes you'll choose which symbols to use for each category.) As you click, the different symbols you have assigned to categories will appear.
+ Once the right category symbol is showing, check the checkbox to the left of the symbol to select the email.
+ Archive the email. You can do this from the main email action bar or by mousing to the right within the same line as the email (a few grey symbols will appear including the archive symbol, an arrow pointing down).
+ If the email doesn't move immediately try a hard refresh on the page. The email should move to the right category and be marked with the corresponding symbol. Ta daaaa!
Moving an email from an active inbox category to a folder
I also organize my emails into folders but only if 1) there is no active task associated with the email and 2) I actually want to keep the email. Once I've completed a trip or received a package I delete the emails associated with them (unless there's a chance I want to return something). I keep a lot of emails related to my podcast and any freelance writing that I do so I file those away.
How to move an email from an inbox category to a folder:
+ Open the email and in the top email menu bar click on the "label" tab (looks like a fat arrow pointing right) and select the right folder label. Don't forget to click "apply" at the bottom!
+ Return to your main email overview page.
+ Click on the email symbol (star, question mark, exclamation mark – whatever you've set it as) until it goes back to a clear star. This removes the multiple inbox category from it.
+ Refresh your inbox. This might require a full page refresh and not just clicking "inbox." The email should have moved from the inbox category into the right folder.
To move an email from a folder into an inbox category:
+ Simply click on the star symbol next to the email until the category symbol you want appears.
+ Refresh the main page of your email and it should appear.
Why this works: To move emails from a folder to an inbox category you're essentially just changing how they are labeled. An email in a folder and an email in one of your inbox categories are both "archived" but only emails assigned a symbol will show up in your inbox categories. So to make it appear in an inbox category you have to make sure it has a symbol. To send it to a folder you must make sure it has the right folder label but no inbox category symbol.
How to set up multiple inboxes in Gmail
Now that you know how to use the multiple inbox system you're ready to transform your inbox! Before you go all in on this system, however, you should know that unfortunately you can't choose different symbols to assign to emails in the mobile version of Gmail. And you can't see your different inbox categories. Womp, womp. So if you primarily work in email on your phone this system might not be the best for you. But if you can be okay with only doing the categorizing and tidying when you work on email at a computer then the system could work. I've removed email from my phone and only use my computer so it works great for me.
If you still want to try the multiple inbox system I would recommend spending a little time thinking about your email workflow and what inbox categories will work for you. Do you want to separate them by action such as needs response, awaiting reply, delegated, and informational (or similar)? Or you could also split them out by category such as business, travel, school, kids, etc. Personally I've found it more helpful to divide my emails by action needed. This is because it doesn't matter to me if it's a podcast email or a school email, if it needs a response then I only have to look at one list for emails that need a reply. If emails are divided by category then emails needing your attention could be split over a few lists. But that might work for you! Or I'm sure there are other ways to organize the multiple inboxes – that's what makes it so great.
Let's talk details of getting Gmail to set up multiple inboxes:
+ Click on the "settings" icon (knobby wheel) in the top right corner of your email window.
+ In the "general" tab of settings, scroll down to the Stars section. You'll need to drag any icons that you want to use to the "in-use" section. Click on "save" at the bottom of the page. (Just added this important step on 7/25 – thanks for the heads up, Jacquie!)
+ Now from the menu select "settings."
+ Under settings you'll see several options written left to right. Select "Advanced."
+ Choose to enable "multiple inboxes."
+ Now in the options written across the top you should see "multiple inboxes" as an option. If you don't do a page refresh.
+ Select "multiple inboxes."
+ You will see two columns of blank text boxes with column headings "Search query" and "Panel title." The search query is where you'll tell Gmail what symbol you want to use and panel title is where you'll enter the category name.
My set up is written this way:
+ Enter the symbol and category names you want to use. The symbols have to be written in a specific way. The photo below shows the different symbols that you can use. The top four are the ones I use. The lists below shows you how you have to write them out to tell Gmail to use them. An asterisk indicates the symbols that I use in my inbox setup:
- Exclamation point
- has:orange-guillemet (the >> symbol)
+ You can have an inbox category that includes multiple symbols. For example, maybe you want a symbol for travel emails and a symbol for school emails but want them both to show up in the same list. In the search query column you can enter multiple symbols using OR such as "has:yellow-star OR has:blue-info" – note the space on either side of the OR.
+ After entering the symbols and names, note that you can choose how many emails are visible in each inbox category on the main page. I have mine set at 15. You can also choose where the inbox categories will appear. I like mine on the right-hand side.
+ Select save changes and go check out your new inbox!
But wait! If you aren't seeing the new inbox setup activated you might need to go turn off some of Gmail's other features that could be overriding the multiple inboxes. This means turning off the tabs feature where Gmail automatically sorts promotions, social, etc.:
+ Go to your email settings and select Inbox.
+ From the inbox type drop down menu select "default."
+ From the list of categories check Primary and uncheck everything else.
+ Next to Importance markers select "no markers."
+ You might want to switch the view layout to compact since you'll be viewing email lists side by side now. To do this select settings from the main email page and choose display density. Choose compact and select ok.
+ With all of these changes in place, return to your email main page and do a full page refresh. Hopefully you'll see your inbox categories along the right side (or left or below if you chose that layout).
That is a lot of information! I hope you've made it this far. What I love about this system is that from a long list of unread emails I can quickly categorize, archive, and move emails into more manageable lists based on what action the email needs. I love that I can get to inbox zero while still seeing important emails. It makes my life feel more organized.
Let me know if you try this out and what categories you set up! I'm always curious about how other people organize things.