Gmail Ninja or How to Have an Empty Inbox

Do you fear signing into your email box because it looks like this?

Are you missing important emails because they just keep piling up?

Whenever I give training one-on-one or in groups, someone always stops me and says, "How do you keep your Gmail Inbox empty?"

Yes folks, I am a Gmail Ninja. I am also a huge fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done philosophy. All of us are busy and most likely we are getting emails from friends, family, colleagues and it is enough to go crazy and give up. Yet, is here to save the day!

Keeping your Gmail (or email in general) manageable does not require you to sit and read emails all day. In fact if you know how to use Google Search then you can find peace once again and rule email instead of the other way around.

Step 1: Open your Inbox. Sounds silly, but you would be surprised how many people are avoiding it because it is so overwhelming. Take a nice deep cleansing breath, it's going to be ok.

Step 2: Decide if you need to create labels (link to earlier post on Labels), which are like Google's Filling System. You might create labels like "Parent Emails, Funny Emails, Student Work, etc". These are completely optional, but they do help many to organize their email.

Step 3: You may wish to set up some filters. I use them when my students send me homework so they automatically go to my "Student Work" folder. Here is a link on how to setup your own filter in Gmail.

Step 4: Now the fun begins, read the first email and decide what needs to be done with it. In my opinion there are three options:
  1. Delete it because it is just quick information and you no longer need it (e.g. meeting changed to 3pm, or Jimmy will be absent today). If you decide to delete an email, don't worry as Gmail will still save your deleted emails for up to 30 days before it goes away. I'll show you how to get it back in a minute.
  2. File it away in a label or archive it if you will need the email later but it no longer needs to be in your inbox. (e.g. parent email, receipt from vacation airline booking, etc). In order to do this, either click Archive which saves your email in your Gmail storage but removes it from your Inbox. Or click the Move To menu button and select which label you want to file the email away to. Once again, I'll show you how to retrieve your emails in a second. Keep in mind that this process takes the email out of your Inbox but it is still stored in your Gmail as opposed to deleting it.

  3. Add it to your tasks. Tasks is Gmail's built in ToDo list. I use this for those situations where I need to be reminded to do what is in the email. (e.g. grant proposal instructions, project notes to refine, Agenda for All Staff Meeting).
    • Click on the Tasks button on the left to activate your Gmail Tasks.
    • Now select an email that you want to add to your GTasks by checking the box next to the email.
    • Click on the menu that says More Actions and then click on Add to Tasks. This will add it to your tasks with the subject of the email being the reminder. You can click on the smaller link Related Email in your tasks if you want to quickly refer to the email.
    • Finally, archive the email unless you need to keep it in your Inbox.

If you have a lot of emails this initial process will take some time. However, once you have processed all of your old emails you can make the decision to delete, archive, or add to tasks in seconds without distracting yourself from your primary focus.

How to Retrieve Emails

So you have archived your emails and are biting your nails wondering where in the world did my email go? Now it is time to realize the power of having Google power your email. Once your email is archived, retrieve it by searching for it.

Right next to the big Gmail icon in the upper left is the familiar Google Search bar. Try searching for the subject, sender, text in the email, or anything else that you can remember. Gmail will quickly search through your emails and find anything that relates to your search. The more specific you are, the less results you will get so if you can't find it at first, try being more broad.

So that's it. Ok, well there is a ton more you could uncover but these steps will get you to that heavenly state called "The Empty Inbox".

If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or otherwise leave a comment.