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How to tame your Gmail inbox with labels

Let’s face it — if you’re using your Gmail account for more than occasionally contacting friends and relatives, it’s likely that it’s spinning out of control. Between work-related emails, online events, invitations, advertising from your favorite retailers, and just plain spam, you’re going to find it difficult to keep track.

There are a variety of ways to organize your email, and one powerful option is to apply labels, Gmail’s analog to folders. Putting labels on emails makes them easier to deal with. For example, you can label everyone you need to send holiday greetings to; everyone who expressed interest in buying your graphic novel collection; everyone working on your current video project; everyone who you knew in college — the possibilities are nearly endless.

Here are some basics and some strategies for using Gmail’s label features. Note that all of them are done on a desktop computer; there are different ways to manage labels on a mobile device, which I’ll talk about at the end of this article.

In order to start using labels, the first thing you need to do is create some. There are a couple of ways you can do that.

First, you can create a label from Gmail’s left-hand column:

You can also create a new label and immediately apply it to several emails:

One of the simplest things you can do with labels in Gmail is to give them colors. It may seem like a small thing, but if you’re browsing through your email, colored labels make it immediately clear what category an email belongs in.

To assign colors to a Gmail label:

If you want to go back to the default colors (black text on a gray background), click on “Remove color.”

You can automatically apply labels to emails as they come in. For example, if I were planning to write a story about different types of face masks and wanted to label any emails that might concern that subject, I could set up a filter which would automatically put the label “mask” on those emails. Like this:

If you want to edit or delete any of your filters, you have to do that through Gmail’s main settings page, which is accessed by clicking on the cog in the top right corner and then on “See all settings.” Then:

When you have a lot of labels, they can be overwhelming, and so Gmail has ways in which you can show or hide specific labels.

If you click on “Manage labels” in the left column, you’ll be brought to the “Labels” tab on the Gmail settings page. Scroll down the resulting page to find a list of all your labels.

There are two ways you can tweak whether a label is visible: “Show in label list” and “Show in message list.” “Label list” refers to the list of your labels in Gmail’s left-hand column — it is handy because you can click on the name of a specific label to search for all emails with that label. Here in settings, you can choose to show that label in the left-hand list, hide it, or only show it if you have unread emails with that label.

“Show in message list” lets you show or hide the label in the main message window — in other words, you won’t see the label next to the email’s first line(s). The email will still be labeled, however.

And finally, you can edit each label or remove it entirely. (Removing it will not delete the email, just the label.)

While Gmail labels have to be created using a computer, and more complex operations have to be done on a computer as well, you do have some options on how labels are used on your mobile device.

To manually add a label to an email:

If you’re using an iPhone, you can add labels to more than one email at a time:

You can do some basic label management on a mobile device as well, but what you are able to do depends on whether you’re using iOS or Android.

To manage your labels on an iPhone:

On an Android device:

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