When it comes to email, it's usually a case of can't live with it, can't live without it. These messages make up an essential part of modern-day communications, but sorting through them takes up an inordinate amount of time, time that could be spent doing something more productive.
Fortunately, if Gmail is your email service of choice, it comes with a number of features for blasting through your incoming messages quickly. On top of that, there are plenty of helpful add-ons for getting down to an empty inbox as efficiently as possible.
The key is offloading as much work as possible to automatic filters and other tools that will do some of the organizing for you, leaving you to deal with what's really important. Here are five tricks for making inbox zero a reality.
1. Get Gmail to prioritize your messages
If you haven't set up tabs in Gmail, now's the time to do it. Click the cog icon (top right in the web interface) and then choose Configure inbox to choose which categories show up on screen. Gmail will try and guess which messages are important, and you can help it along by clicking the importance marker to the left of any truly significant conversation.
What's more, you can drag emails between tabs to teach Gmail how to sort your messages in the future based on type or sender. How is this helpful for reaching inbox zero? Well, you can ignore the less important categories (Social, Updates) in your inbox until the end of the day, then spend a few minutes managing and processing all these messages in bulk.
2. Set up your own filters
Filters are one of the key ways you can organize your incoming messages automatically. Click the down arrow in the search box at the top of the screen to set up some search terms. Then click Create filter... to set it up. You can also create new filters from the drop-down message available next to each message (choose Filter messages like this).
If you've got multiple email addresses coming into your Gmail account, for example, you can mark messages sent to other addresses as less important. Another option is to immediately archive certain emails and mark them as read—they won't appear in your inbox, so less work for you, but they will still be available via search if you need them.
3. Get creative with Gmail stars
Right from the beginning, Gmail has avoided offering a folder system. Instead, you can use labels and stars to sort your messages. On the web, click the cog icon, then Settings, then open the General tab. You'll see a total of 12 different types of star you can use. To make more available inside Gmail, drag them up to the row at the top.
How does this bring you closer to inbox zero? By starring and then archiving messages, you can clear your inbox without losing track of important messages. Each star category can be resurfaced with a simple search, such as "has:yellow-star" or "has:green-check". To see the search term associated with each star, hover the mouse over the relevant icon on the Settings screen.
4. Unsubscribe from everything you can
Gmail has a built-in unsubscribe feature to quickly get yourself off newsletter and notification lists you don't want to be on. You should see an Unsubscribe link up in the header of any compatible message. Essentially, Gmail is just scanning messages for "unsubscribe" links and making them easier for you to find right up at the top.
To begin with, this takes more time than normal, but you'll be amazed at the amount of time you can save by being ruthless with your subscriptions—all those seconds clicking the Delete button really add up. For something even more comprehensive, you can make use of an unsubscribe service that works with Gmail. Unroll.me is one of the best, and also lets you combine multiple incoming messages into a single newsletter.
5. Use Inbox by Gmail on your phone
Google itself developed Inbox by Gmail, which you can use on Android, iOS, and the web. In many ways, it serves as Gmail 2.0—more automation, smarter features, and less manual control over what gets sorted where. You don't have to abandon Gmail to use Inbox though—you can use them in tandem on the same account without too much trouble.
One way to do this is to use Gmail at your desktop and Inbox on your mobile devices. That lets you quickly sort through emails while you're out and about—snoozing unimportant ones til later, quickly deleting or archiving messages that aren't important with a swipe—which means you'll have fewer messages to process once you're back at your desk. And that brings the sweet dream of hitting inbox zero that much closer.