Tame your unruly Gmail inbox with these 6 sorting methods
Don't settle for the default.
For a lot of us, opening our Gmail inbox is a daily ritual, and Google’s email client comes packed with labels, filters, stars, and other features meant to help you manage your messages as quickly as possible. But those are just surface-level—you can go deeper.
Experimenting with Gmail’s layout is another way to boost your email productivity. It can surface the most important messages first, help you avoid inbox clutter, and give you a different perspective on your mountain of emails.
1. Show unread emails first
Deal with your unread messages before anything else by clicking the cog icon (top right) in the main Gmail interface, then select Unread first under Inbox type. This creates a divide in your inbox layout, with messages you haven’t opened yet at the top, and everything else underneath.
Click the three dots in the top-right corner of your inbox to choose how many unread emails appear on screen at once (up to 50). From the same menu, you can also opt to have the section hide itself when all your emails are read.
You can also use a simple “is:unread” search in Gmail to see everything in both your inbox and archive that you haven’t opened yet, in reverse chronological order. This will hide all your other emails from view, and won’t change the layout of your main inbox.
2. Show important emails first
You can also have Gmail show you the most important emails in your inbox first, as judged by Google’s artificial intelligence algorithms—those algorithms are based on indicators such as who you email most frequently and the keywords in your messages. Emails that Gmail thinks are important have a small yellow arrow next to their subject headers.
Click the cog icon (top right) in the main Gmail interface, then choose Important first under Inbox type. Emails deemed to be important appear in the top section, in reverse chronological order, and everything else appears in the bottom section. Click the three dots (top right) to choose how many important emails appear on screen at once, and whether or not the section should be hidden when it’s empty.
Irrespective of your inbox layout, you can run an “is:important” search to see all the important emails in your Gmail account, in reverse chronological order, without changing your inbox layout. You can also click the arrow markers to the left of email subject headers to mark the messages as important or unimportant.
3. Show starred emails first
You might not have realized how comprehensive the stars system in Gmail is: Click the cog icon (top right), then See all settings and General, and under Stars you’ll see there are 12 different types of stars to choose from (you don’t have to use them all).
Click Save Changes, then the cog icon again, then Starred first under Inbox type, and all the messages you’ve put a star next to will go right to the top of your inbox. They will appear in reverse chronological order, and with every star type grouped. Click the three dots (top right) to set how many starred messages appear on screen at once.
[Related: 4 tips to bring your Gmail inbox to zero]
You can search for starred emails too, which won’t change the layout of the Gmail inbox. Run a query for “is:starred” to see everything with a star next to it, or use a search like “has:orange-star” to find specific star types (hover over the stars on the General tab of Gmail’s settings screen to see what their individual labels are).
4. Switch to the Priority Inbox
Another alternative layout that Gmail offers is what it calls the Priority Inbox: This splits your inbox into sections that include important emails, unread emails, or starred emails. You get to choose the sections and how they’re arranged.
Click the cog icon on the main Gmail interface (top right), then select Priority inbox under Inbox type to switch to it. Click Customize just underneath, and you can choose how many sections show up on screen, as well as what gets put in them.
One of the most useful sections is Important and unread, which shifts every important email and every email you’ve not yet opened up to the top of the conversation list (click the three dots in the top right to choose how many emails are shown in each section). Any label that you’ve set up in Gmail can be used to fill out one of your sections.
5. Tweak the default setting
You can make adjustments to the default Gmail layout too, which uses tabs at the top of the inbox to split your emails into categories. If you’ve never explored these options, they’re worth experimenting with to see which setup suits you best.
Click the cog icon (top right) on the main Gmail interface, find the Inbox type heading, look next to Default, and choose Customize. You get to pick which tabs show up on screen—from Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums—and Gmail will try to sort your messages into these tabs as they come in.
Based on our experience, this sorting works pretty well, but Gmail can occasionally get a category wrong. You can always drag emails between tabs to tell Gmail where a certain type of email should go, which should improve its future classifications decisions.
6. Go for a multi-pane view
Traditional email clients usually show your list of messages alongside the body of the currently selected email, and Gmail can do this too. Up in the top-right corner of the interface, you’ll see a Toggle split pane mode icon, and if you click the arrow next to this, you can choose between No split, Vertical split, and Horizontal split.
As soon as you select an email, it will appear in the pane alongside your inbox, and you can keep browsing the message list while you read your emails. It can save you some time jumping between individual emails and your main list of messages, and should make it easier to triage emails as they arrive.
If you don’t currently have any of your conversation threads selected, the second pane shows the amount of free storage space in your Google account, which is shared between Gmail, Google Photos, and Google Drive.