How to Use Gmail's Labels To Keep Your Inbox Neat and Tidy

By David Nield on at

Labels are Gmail’s secret weapon that let you organise your inbox on your own terms. Once they’re set up, they do most of your message processing automatically and make it easier to skim through your inbox. If you’re not using labels in Gmail yet—or not using them with any kind of method—here are 6 ways you can start organising your inbox immediately.

1) Apply labels automatically

Who has time to apply labels to individual messages individually? If you do, we salute you, but if not, set up as many filters as you can to get your incoming emails organised at the same time as they arrive. Head to the main Settings screen (via the cog on the right of the web interface), click on Filters and Blocked Addresses, and then Create a new filter.

Obviously your options are wide open here, so think about the types of messages you get and how you’d like them organised. Messages from a certain domain or with certain keywords can get labels, as well as emails with attachments. You can also apply labels to messages or groups of messages by dragging them in from the left-hand panel.

2) Move messages to a label, don’t archive

Gmail lets you move emails to a specific label from the inbox via the buttons at the top, which is a handy alternative to simply archiving them. If you set up a label for messages that you know you don’t need to keep long term (newsletters, notifications, unimportant updates), then you can use it as a kind of unimportant archive to file away in the vaults.

Why would you label unimportant emails? It’s often easier and quicker to mark messages you definitely don’t need for the future rather than agonising over important-ish emails one by one. Every now and again you can run a search for old messages matching this label (e.g. “label:notneeded before:01/01/2016") and delete them without worrying about it.

3) Choose which emails appear on your phone

Did you know you can customise the notifications you get from Gmail for Android on a label-by-label basis? (Sorry iOS fans, this one isn’t for you.) If you get your labels set up right by creating automatic filters for them (certain senders get certain labels for example), then it’s a useful way of cutting down on the interruptions and alerts you get on mobile.

From the Gmail for Android app, tap Settings on the main app menu, and turn on notifications if they aren’t already. Next, tap Manage labels and select the label you want to work with. You’ll need to sync the label first of all, then apply a notification to it. You can even have Gmail play different sounds depending on the labels on your incoming emails.

4) Use sub-labels for more control

Gmail lets you create sub-labels, which are labels nested under other labels, and it gives you even more control over your inbox. From the Labels pane on the Gmail Settings screen, click Create new label and then enter a name and where you want to nest the label. You can even nest labels under existing sub-labels if you need even more depth.

Sub-labels appear when you search for or select them specifically, and when you search for or select the labels they’re nested under, so you can use them in all kinds of ways: a broad label for work, for example, and sub-labels for each project, or a main label for family messages and then sub-labels for individual people or groups of relatives. This works particularly well for categorising travel emails and receipts.

5) Search for Gmail’s hidden labels

As well as the labels you customise yourself, Gmail applies some hidden labels automatically, including spam, read, unread, starred, important, draft and various others. You can bring up messages matching any of these hidden system labels with a “label:labelname” query in the Gmail search box at the top of the interface.

So you can bring up all the emails you’ve yet to deal with by searching for “label:unread” (or “is:unread”), or see everything from your social networks with “label:social”. What’s more, you can bookmark these searches in your browser and you can call them up with a click, or combine them with any of your own labels by searching for two labels at once.

6) Apply labels as you send emails

A well-labelled inbox is an organised inbox, but you need to find a balance between not using labels at all and having dozens of overlapping ones that take forever to manage. One way to save time is to label outgoing emails as you’re composing them, rather than having to find them after. Just choose Label from the pop-up menu on the compose screen.

Remember you can search Gmail by message recipient, so you don’t need a label for every different person you contact, but you could apply a couple of sent email labels for messages you need to follow up on quickly and messages that are longer term, say. A quick label search would then reveal the urgent emails that haven’t yet had responses.

Image: Alexey Boldin /