As someone with anywhere upwards of 10,000 emails in my inbox — many of them unread, to the dismay of my OCD friends — I am always looking for tips and tricks to help me manage my email. One of those is to start each new year with an absolutely clean inbox. Remember what that looks like? Yeah, me neither.
While on one hand you can declare “email bankruptcy” and simply delete every old email and start over, I have a better trick for how to clean out your inbox if you use Gmail, and plenty of other services too.
This has been so popular since I first published this in 2015, that I’ve updated for 2020, to incorporate some of the new Gmail features added since then.
My genius Inbox Zero trick. Here’s how to do it.
1. Search for every item in your inbox. Traditionally you can do this by typing in: label:inbox into the search barand Gmail will autofill it for you.
If you’re using the Gmail tab view (Primary/Social/Promotions/Updates), you can search this just by checking off the “select all” box in the top left that highlights everything in your Primary tab.
2. Just below this box, click the pop-up notification that reads “Select all [number] conversations in Primary.” This allows you to click all 8.994 instead of just 100 at a time…which takes forever. If you’re like me.
(Note that if you’re searching using the traditional, non-tab version of Gmail, you click “Select all conversations that match this search.“)
3. Create a new label called Inbox 2020. Click apply, then give it a moment; it can take a while if you have a lot of emails in need of labels.
(Of course you can name it whatever you’d like; I tend to add an asterisk to the top of my most recent year, to bump it to the top of my list of tabs in my sidebar.)
Now all of your emails from the year in your inbox have this same label, regardless of other labels or whether they are read (in light type) or unread (in bold type.)
4. Next, click the label in your left column called Inbox 2020 (that’s where my asterisk trick helps bump it to the top), or alternatively, search for label:inbox-2020. Again, “Select all conversations that match this search” so you can batch edit them and save lots of time.
5. Now, with all those checkboxes still selected, click the Archive icon.
Voila! Each of those until-now unfiled emails are no longer in your inbox. They are now archived under the”Inbox 2020″ label.
(Note that this is in addition to whatever other labels they may already have, so if you have a message using a label like “urgent” or “taxes” or “kid stuff,” all those labels still apply unless you delete some or all of them, so they are archived in fewer places.)
6. Behold! As your shiny new 2021 inbox is now empty. Well, unless you’re like me and you’ve gotten 27 new emails since you started the process.
A few more tips for inbox zero:
– You can proceed to archive older emails as well by year that’s helpful — you can search through emails quickly using a Gmail search operator like after:2019/01/01 before: 2019/12/31.
– You can just file your old emails for when you need to search them, or, if you really want to get organized, you can return to that Inbox 2020 label and clean it out even more thoroughly — unless you have a ton of storage and don’t really care how much is archived. However this is a great quick fix to get you on a better path right off the bat.
-If you can continue following the “touch it once” rule — act on an email as soon as it comes in, whether it’s to file for later, archive, delete, or respond — you’ll be able to keep up a lot better. Then, when you have a little more time, go back to that dated label and you can pare those down too.
– Not a Gmail user? No worries. You can try variations of this Gmail inbox hack with any email system that allows you to apply multiple labels or folders to a single email message, like Yahoo Mail or Outlook.
– And hey, if you’re really committed to staying organized, use a service like unroll.me which can bundle all your subscription emails into one place for easier deletion or action, too. That’s helped me a ton over the past few years, and really helped me to realize just which online catalogs and political groups send seventy bazillion emails a day to their subscribers. Unsubcribe, thank you.
– Reading this in February, June, or November? No worries! Do this any time at all that you need to start with a clean inbox.
Here’s to a clean start for everyone.