Taming Gmail like a pro, label it!

I started using Gmail a – very – long time ago, 2004 to be precise. Back then it was just a cool new alternative to my trusty ol’ Hotmail account and a blander sidekick to my lively Yahoo! mail account; little did I knew that I – and for that matter the majority of email users – would switch to it as the main email account in the near future, and rest is history.

Gmail was touted as a keep-it-all alternative to the email services popular back in those days i.e. it gave enough storage so that one would never need to delete any emails (I remember the pain of having to regularly prune my email accounts back then). As a nice bonus, Gmail followed the cleaner looks ideology of Google search, but as evolution has taught us so many times, things change (mostly for the best) and so did Gmail, it got coupled with the Google’s growing ecosystem of productivity apps and now almost resembles the bloated email services it strove to replace. Despite the heftiness of Gmail’s current form, it still has a relatively cleaner look and to this day I’ve never had to delete any email on it due to running short on storage (I just checked my usage, and it stands at ~4 GB, not counting any ancillary services like Google Drive etc.).

Of all the things that Gmail has added over the years, labels stand out to be the most innovative feature. To be honest, I don’t remember if something existed in Hotmail and Yahoo! mail back in those days, but I do remember using folders in my Hotmail account. Now, folders provided a nice way to group emails, but they introduced an unnecessary hierarchy which made glancing over the emails that tad bit time-consuming. Labels provide all the benefits of folders while negating their downsides i.e. they allow grouping of emails without segregating them.

Now, before I discuss labels any further, I must say that folder hierarchies work quite well when it comes to file systems e.g. personally, I’ve never felt the need to use labels in macOS (or, tags as they’re called over there), mainly because I’m not spamming my disk with tens of random files everyday.

I don’t remember when I first started using labels, but it was a revelation when I did. I started by simply assigning similar emails to a label e.g. all welcome emails for my online accounts, which served as a quick way for me to gauge my e-footprint. Then, I started to create labels for emails from/to specific senders/recipients e.g. emails from my family, emails from my school etc. At this point I also found out that I could combine filters with labels to automate the labeling process. So, I created filters to assign emails from/to specific senders/recipients to certain labels. Of course, there were still some labels that required manual assignment, but filters lowered the entry barrier enough for me to fully adopt the labels. Over time, I added nested labels, which didn’t introduce any hierarchies in the assigned emails, but made it easy for me to manage the labels. My current label tree looks as the following (please, don’t mind the blurred text):

As I mentioned before, having the above label tree would’ve been an overhead by itself if it was not for the filters. While initially, I only used the filters to assign labels, over time I started using them to keep certain type of emails:

  • out of the inbox e.g. things that don’t need my immediate attention.
  • out of the inbox and in a read state e.g. things that don’t need my attention at all (but I would still like to keep them for record).

A preview of my filters (please, don’t mind the blurred text):

What started out as an effort to keep my inbox tidy, has expanded to include my outbox as well. It acts as an extension to the threaded email view of Gmail, whereby I’m able to group emails across multiple related threads. The effect of labels has reverberated into my work life, where I would’ve gone crazy due to the plethora of emails in my work accounts if it was not for the labels to keep all the unnecessary alerts (yes, I said what-should-not-be-said) at bay.

The moral: as the more adventurous among us might have stumbled upon at some point in their life that salt and sugar look the same but taste different; for heaven’s sake, keep them jars labeled!

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