Tip Tuesday: Gmail filters for an organized inbox

Gmail filters are a powerful way to manage an overflowing inbox. Many advocates recommend that we implement what is called “Inbox Zero” – meaning there are ZERO messages in your inbox. But with emails coming in all the time and from so many different avenues, that can be difficult. When you open your inbox and see 5000, 10K, or even more waiting for you, it’s enough to make you break out into a sweat! But help is available in Gmail filters!

What are Gmail filters?

Gmail filters are automation rules that allow you to create labels for emails that are coming in. Labels look like folders but they really aren’t. Your mail is not actually moved into a folder. I will explain later why this is an important distinction.

These automation rules are simple to create – you don’t need a coding degree or even to have the knowledge for logic like you do with tools such as Zapier.

Why create Gmail filters and labels?

How many emails do you currently have in your inbox? If it’s more than you can easily get through in a day, then you may need filters.

I will confess that I have multiple email addresses that help me separate out client emails from business admin (software tools I use), but I also have a “junk” email address that I use whenever I sign up for newsletters.

I do have some important information coming to this email such as my Disney+ subscription (I can’t miss out on re-watching Phineas and Ferb for the 100th time!). However, I have plenty of emails from retail and online stores I like to frequent, business advice newsletters, knit and crochet designer or yarn shops, etc.

Using Gmail filters really helps group those emails into topics that makes it easier to quickly read through them when I have the time – and focusing on one topic at a time.

Going back to the examples of different emails I have, I might create filters for “shopping”, “fiber arts”, “books”, etc. By creating these Gmail filters, I am able to view each filter separately, reading only those emails and keeping my brain on-task for a short period of time.

For example, if I’m in the mood for reading, I will go through my “books” Gmail filter reading through everything my favorite authors have to say. Once I’m done cleaning up that filter, I can switch gears and go onto another group. Much simpler than having my brain attempt to process dozens of different topics I’m interested in during the same email cleanup session!

Creating a simple filter

Unfortunately, I have not found a way to set up Gmail filters on your phone. However, if you go to https://gmail.com in a browser you add Gmail filters through these steps:

Create a filter from the inbox
  1. Select one or more messages that you want to group together into labels by checking the boxes to the left of the message. Note: If you check the box at the very top – the one where in my example it shows a line through it, you will be selecting all the messages on the screen. That’s not what you want in this case!
  2. Click the three dots on the right side.
  3. Select “Filter messages like these”.
Search filter from the inbox

Normally, the search criteria grabs the “From” information – who is sending the emails to create the filter. Sometimes it puts what looks like random letters into the “Has the words”. You can always change the filter at this point. As you can see, you can filter by:

  • who sent it
  • who should be receiving it; if you receive more than one email in your Gmail account. I don’t cover that in this lesson, but let me know if you want to learn more!
  • the subject of the email; this is helpful if you want to watch for words like “payment received” or “flight information”

Click “Create filter” and it will bring up another window to specify what you want to do with these messages:

Actions

Check the box next to Apply the label and use the label to create a new one or select an existing label. I would also check the box at the bottom. 

Pro Tip:

The “apply filter to matching messages” checkbox will automatically update all the messages you’ve already received with your new label. I recommend selecting this option when you create or update a filter. Click the “Create filter” button and your label “folder” will appear on the left of your screen. Ta-Da! Your messages will be grouped together.

Another way to add Gmail filters

The method of creating Gmail filters I just described is helpful and easy to do. But after a while, all those separately-created filters can become a very long list! Here is a way to combat that. This is also good to know if you just want to manually create a filter without using the inbox. While in your Inbox, click on the gear icon in the upper right and select “See all Settings”. 

All settings

In the middle, there is an option for Filters and Blocked Addresses. 

Filters and Blocked Addresses

This will show you a list of all the Gmail filters you have created. You can edit them or delete them from this screen to help keep the list clean.

To create a new filter click on the “Create a new filter” link. It will be at the bottom of the screen if you have several filters built already.  For this example, I’m going to show how you might group all correspondence with your child’s school. If you were to use the Inbox method mentioned above, you would have to receive an email from all the teachers in the school, the principal, the administrator, etc. so that you could create one filter with each of their email addresses separated by an “OR” clause.

However, the simplest way to group all school correspondence would be to create a filter with the school website name like this:

simple filter

It will find all of the messages that come from the same website!  So teacher1@schoolname.com, principal@schoolname.com, and info@schoolname.com would all go to the same label grouping. Slick, eh?

Just like the first example of creating a filter from the inbox, you would click the “Create filter” link, specify what label to apply, apply the filter to matching messages and Create!

Pro-tip:

Gmail allows you to take bulk actions on filters. While viewing the list of filters, use the checkboxes on the left-hand side columns and choose one or several filters to mass-delete them.

Search criteria

If your search filter (such as schoolname) is unique enough you wouldn’t need to specify a “.com” at the end of the filter string. Your filter can be anything you want!

You can use full email addresses like teacher1@schoolname.com, just the site name schoolname.com or if it’s easier you can include search criteria in double quotes such as “My Favorite Company”. As long as you put an “or” between them you can keep adding to your filter. Putting the “or” in all capital letters isn’t necessary but I find it easier to see the breaks between filter criteria that way.

Pro Tip:

Clicking on the Search button will allow you to see what emails will get included, but just be aware that clicking Search will result in you have to go back into the filters settings again to actually create your filter.

Nested labels

You may have noticed in one of the examples above that I am applying a label with a right-leaning slash mark: “/” (crafts/fiber). That is because you can create labels nested under other labels!

For that example, I have a higher-level label called “crafts” and one underneath that for “fabric”. That’s to separate out if I want to read about sewing-type crafts versus knitting or crochet versus general crafts (did I mention I get a LOT of different emails at this junk address?!)

nested labels

I also have a business group for newsletters related to running my business that I figure someday I’ll read…As you can see, I am nowhere near Inbox Zero! And that’s ok!

Color coding your labels

I almost forgot to mention that you can even color-code your labels! This is a screenshot from my phone and you can see how that works in the Gmail app there.

filters in the Gmail app

I have each label as a different color, although I use the same or similar colors for things like my crafts nested labels.

Again, this needs to be changed in a browser at gmail.com, but to change the labels, hover over the label on the left side and look for the three dots to appear. Clicking on those dots will bring up a menu that will allow you to change the label color.

label colors

Remember when I mentioned that applying a label doesn’t actually move it to a folder with that name? That makes it easy to use the “Remove label” because it doesn’t remove any folders! In other words, removing labels will NOT delete your messages. It just removes the labels from those messages.

Summary on Gmail filters

I have only scratched the surface of all the wonderful things you can do by grouping your emails using Gmail filters. Filters can be a wonderful tool to help you keep your Inbox clean(er), group topics of emails, or even automatically delete emails you don’t care to read.


I hope this helps you keep a tidy Inbox! I’ll be back in a future post with even MORE tips, so be sure to subscribe to get updates!

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