Geeking Out With Gavin: 3 Tips for Keeping Gmail Clean

A week ago, I was having some issues with my laptop and I happened to mention it to the neighbor kid (okay, so he’s really more of a young man as a 20-year old college sophomore. studying computer science..but the older I get, the younger they look!).

Anyway, while he was helping me fix my laptop, he also started sharing some great tips for increasing productivity with Gmail. So I asked him if I could ask him a few questions now and then in order to share some of his tips with you. So we’re calling the series “Geeking Out With Gavin.” Let me know if you have questions about using Gmail and I’ll pass them along.

Q: How do I keep my Gmail inbox clean?

I usually keep my (Gmail) inbox clean by only allowing a message to remain in my actual ‘inbox’ if it is one of two things:

– a message that describes something that I need to do (including email reminders sent to myself, since I also use it as a to-do list),

– or an email I’m waiting on a reply from.

If the email is anything else, it gets archived.

Now, following these rules will quickly fill the archive to the point where it is too large to search by hand. In order to find archived emails when/if I need them later, I’ll need a way to pinpoint what I want easily. I do this with labels, stars, and adding keywords.

1 – Labels in Gmail are, in my opinion, one of its best features; they act like folders for your emails, allowing you to file and find emails easily. The difference from traditional folders is that you can apply as many labels to an email as you want.

2 – Starring is essentially another label, except with slightly easier access: there is a ‘starred’ link right under the ‘inbox’ link on the left. The catch is that there is only one kind of ‘star’ (unless, of course, you head by Gmail labs and enable ‘superstars’). I use stars mainly for information that I know I will need at some point in the future, but not right now (my plane ticket information for this coming semester, for instance).

3 – Adding keywords simply means forwarding the email to yourself with some key terms that you think that you might search for in the message body. With Gmail’s conversation view, this won’t create a new email, but simply add the words on as the most recent part of the conversation. Later, however, when you are looking for this email and use those terms in the search box, the email will come to the surface.

Labels and the Starred section both show up in the left sidebar of Gmail: however, the most powerful tool for finding an email is the overhead search bar. There are a number of operators you can use there, including is: (used for is:starred or is:unread), label: (for a label of ‘Projects’, search label:Projects), and any and all key terms you are looking for.

A more thorough guide on the search bar’s additional featured can be found at (

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Shannon Donelson

Keep the tips coming! I love Gmail to death, and I know I don’t always manage it well. These tips are really going to help keep me organized!

Francine Krasowska

Google tools in general are great, but they have some downsides. Are you going to focus on Gmail only, or perhaps also how it interacts with other Google tools? I have questions/frustrations re Google Dox, Buzz, etc. But here’s a Gmail question: Is there a labs feature that allows you to rotate sig blox? In other words, could you designate a document (or copy into a field somewhere) a group of sigs and have them randomly come up when you compose new mail? Or could you suggest a way to home-brew this?

Dan Israel

Hi Francine,

One workaround I can think of to use multiple signatures is the “Canned responses” lab in Gmail. That allows you to create common messages for your email. Instead, you could create a canned response for each signature you want – and use that as the starting point to each new email. You’d have to pick a canned response/signature each time, so it’s not random, but would allow you to rotate them.

Let me know if this is a workable solution for you.


Jay A. Allen

As a former “power user” of MS products (actually using Communicator and Tasks in the Federal workplace!), when my new workplace migrated to being a Google Apps environment, it was quite the cultural change. In fact, we even hosted Google reps to our office to help share some of the “new ways of thinking” to encourage adoption and increased productivity. Here’s a few insights gleaned:

1. The most eye-opening shift is going completely against the grain of Rule #1 of any MS Outlook ninja – “Do not let your .pst file approach 2GB.” I believe MS may have raised the limit recently, but this issue regarding “email file size” is completely gone when working in the cloud with Google. In both my Apps and personal Gmails, I am still in the single digits regarding my allowable space. In MS terms, the IT Nazis would have shut me down months ago.

Lesson Learned (chant this repeatedly): You do not have an Inbox. You only have a box. Fill it up.

2. Leverage Google’s mainstay feature: Search. If you can remember a snippet, you’ll find it (that is, if it ever existed in the first place). I have to admit that I have only been stumped once in finding something important, but I have come to believe it must have been a phone text message and not an email. To the final point made in the original thread, learn the many ways to conduct searches (e.g., From:, To:, Contains:, etc.)

Lesson Learned: Beef up your knowledge of how to Search in Google.

3. Take advantage of Google’s ever-present feature expansion through Labs. Labels, Stars, Multiple Inboxes, Filters, there is so much to play with that you will likely have a more difficult time landing on the combination which suits you the best. I presently have my Starred emails as my first Inbox, my Drafts underneath that, my Unread Inbox under that, and then all the rest.

Lesson Learned: Explore and play with the features found in Google Labs.

Hope this adds to the conversation!

Gavin Borg

Hey all, Gavin here again. A quick update: to those of you who use Outlook, baydin also makes a boomerang for outlook. It is only free, unfortunately, as a trial.

Also, as Jay and Dan talked about below, Gmail labs has a huge offering of useful additions. Turn them on in the settings and try some out! Undo Send and Nested labels are my current favorites.