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How to get the most out of Gmail

Gmail has a lot of organisational features to help keep your inbox clean and your mail sorted. Even if you have multiple email accounts, you can use these tips to consolidate your accounts into one inbox, sort it into categories and cut down on spam.


Consolidating your mail

Though it's sometimes best to keep accounts separate for security reasons (i.e., your work doesn't want you forwarding work mail off their servers), for convenience nothing beats checking only one mailbox. Gmail offers a lot of features for that purpose.

Multiple Gmail accounts

Hopefully if you have multiple gmail accounts, you're already aware that on both mobile and web clients, Gmail allows multiple gmail accounts to be signed in at once- a handy time saving tool. First sign into your primary account and then click on the user icon in the top right and click add account to sign into a second. The primary account is the one it will default to when opening mail and other services.

To avoid even the hassle of clicking through to another Gmail account, it's possible to set up an account to forward mail to another account under the Forwarding and POP/IMAP settings.

Non-Gmail accounts

Gmail is able to sign in and retrieve mail from many pop3 services by using settings under the accounts and import tab under settings. To avoid having to change accounts to respond to emails from other accounts, it's possible to send mail from another account from Gmail by using settings on the same page. It's important to note that it sends both email addresses in the header, which can be visible to some clients- so don't send work emails from a personal account.

Sorting mail

Gmail has a few sorting systems: Labels, categories, importance, archiving and stars. It's safe to say there's redundancy there, so it's a matter of preference. All of them can be searched for and combinations can be used to create custom layouts. A good set-up will make it easier to find old mail and allow you to ignore spam more easily.

Categories and labels

On the web client, categories show up as tabs at the top of the inbox and labels show up on the left side as a list, mixed in with the inbox, sent mail and trash. The categories are basically labels and can show up under labels if you change the settings under the inbox tab in settings. There are two differences between labels and categories: categories can show up at the top of the inbox and the default categories have default filters.

Labels, on the other hand, show up on the left side and are customisable. You're free to create, delete and reorder labels and even create sub-labels to further sort mail. For those labels that you use less often, you can drop them below the "more" button so they don't show up immediately.

To edit settings on a particular label, hover over it and click on the arrow on the right side of the label.

Stars, importance and archiving

Gmail offers two on/off flags: importance and archiving. An archived message no longer shows up in the inbox and an important message has a yellow flag next to it and can be searched for under that label. Gmail attempts to guess which messages are important based on a number of criteria, making this function less useful for micro-managers, but more automated.

Gmail allows users to star items in their mail to flag them; by default only one star is enabled, but there are eight different stars to cycle through, allowing users to flag mail as they wish.

How to use them

Consider turning off categories entirely; labels can be more useful once personalised and the tabs take valuable screen real estate. To turn off the categories tabs at the top, click on the gear icon and then click on configure inbox.

Archiving is important because it cleans up the inbox, but most effective when used with filters (if archived with no tagging at all, it's only accessible through searches and the All Mail filter). The important tags and stars are more useful in conjunction with labels than by themselves to flag emails to watch in certain categories. Stars would be considerably easier to use if the GUI for searching included them, but as of this writing, it only includes labels and categories, meaning that queries directed at important or starred emails require written constraints.


The best part of Gmail's sorting is filters- no surprise for a mail client developed by a search giant. You probably could sort all your mail by hand, but it's easier to spend a little bit of time beforehand and create filters.

Note what services send you the most email and try to unsubscribe from those that aren't actionable: anything you don't read, don't need to pay and don't need to be aware of. Try to find categories that make the most sense to you among the ones you do want to receive: messages from friends and family, travel, work, utilities. If a category is too broad, make a sub-label for it.

Once that's done, create a filter for each label. A filter can be created from any search or from the filters section of the settings. If creating from a search, click on the arrow in the search box to see the advanced options and click on create filter in the bottom right. It'll then give you the options to create actions for the filter. IT Pro Portal has previously gone over using filters, in addition to Gmail's pseudo-aliases.

If creating a label for multiple senders, use an OR in the filter or just use multiple filters. Any search action be used as a filter- including the power searches. If you want to limit the mail coming into the inbox, be sure to use the archive action. For low priority messages or messages which you'll likely never read (confirmation on a pizza order, for instance), you may want to apply the mark as read action.

If receiving mail from multiple accounts, you may want to create a label for each mail account and create sub-labels after that to make sure everything stays properly sorted.

Last touches

Once mail is being properly sorted, it's time to make sure it's displayed properly. The inbox can be set to host multiple sections. For instance, by using a 'priority inbox', mail that is marked important and unread could be in a section above the rest or just mail that's unread. If receiving a low volume of mail, this can be more effective than labels, while keeping everything on the same page.

Once everything's organised, it may be time to look around at Gmail's other features like the labs. There are also extensions like Gmail Offline for Chrome and mobile.

With just a little bit of effort, you can cut down on the daily task of checking mail and make sure you never miss messages from those important to you.