Productivity Tips: Using Filters & Labels to Get the Most Out of Gmail

Somewhere along the way, I became a Google devotee. All my friends (and most of my coworkers) have iPhones, while I’m a proud Samsung Galaxy owner. iCal? Try GCal. And while I haven’t made the switch from Mac to Chromebook, given my track record, it’s not that far off.

Of course, the one piece of Google’s arsenal that everyone can agree to love is Gmail. Its simple, elegant and intuitive interface can make even the most hardened G+ naysayer swoon.

But what I love most about Gmail is the same thing I love about everything Google makes: customizability. I think of it as the Aston Martin of email clients: clean, classic lines, a beautiful interior, and a powerful engine that can really get up and go, once you know how to operate that stick shift.

Also, because Aston Martins are sex on wheels.

Also, because Aston Martins are sex on wheels.

I’ve been using Gmail for over six years now, and just like any long-term relationship, we both know a few secrets about one another that others might not. (For example, Gmail is far too familiar with my online shopping addiction.)

However, two of my favorite not-so-secret Gmail tools are labels and filters. They’ve helped me keep track of emails more than anything else, and are invaluable in cutting down the time it takes to track down specific correspondence and run searches.

Here are some tricks I’ve learned in using these two simple productivity features.


Using labels and filters together has helped me keep my inbox and archive organized better than any other tool Gmail has to offer.

A label is an easy way to organize your emails so you can find them with one or two clicks. Here’s how I’ve organized my labels:



You’ll notice that, just as my inbox lets me know when I have unread messages (by telling me how many there are and bolding itself in the listing), my labels also tell me when I have unread emails within them.

PRO TIP: Color-code your labels to distinguish the email when it appears in your inbox along with your regular messages. Eventually, you’ll start responding to the colors the same way Pavlov’s dog responded to food stimuli. But with less drool.

So, labels are fantastic — but applying them to each individual email sounds laborious, right? Well, that’s when I turn to one of Gmail’s other most powerful tools: the mighty filter.


Setting a filter means creating a list of criteria for an email to meet. Whenever your Gmail account comes across an email that meets these criteria, it applies a set of characteristics to it according to your needs.

Gmail’s available options of search criteria include:

  • Who it was sent by
  • Who it was sent to
  • Words in the subject line
  • Words in the body of the email
  • Whether it has an attachment
  • The size of the email

For example, let’s say you receive regular correspondence from your good friend Tyler Durden (email:, and you want to find a way to automatically file his emails about your soap deliveries into a readily accessible place. You can do this by following this set of rules:

filter - tyler

Once you’ve figured out what criteria you want to use to filter the emails, you proceed to a dialogue box that lets you decide what to do with them. You have a number of options to choose from.

filter - what to do

Your options include:

Skip the inbox (Archive it)

Skipping the inbox, or archiving an email means will not appear in your general inbox. If you activate this option, you’ll have to search for those particular emails or have them appear under a set label in order to find them.

PRO TIP: I usually use the archive option in conjunction with a label. This helps enormously when I want to collect specific types of messages — like social media notifications or website updates — in one place without clogging my general inbox.

Mark as read

Instead of appearing white and bolded, like other unread emails, these emails will look like emails you’ve already read.

Star it

The Star it option will automatically designate emails to your starred email list. This is a great way to “bookmark” an email you’ve already read and want to remember to act upon later. 

PRO TIP: Gmail lets you organize your inbox with several tiers, including “Unread Messages,” “Starred Messages” and any of the labels you’ve created. I’ve organized my screen to show unread messages, then starred messages, and then my regular inbox.

 Apply the label

Select this option and these emails will be automatically marked with a label of your choosing. You can either use a pre-existing label, or you can create a custom label to correspond with your new filter.

Forward it

These emails will be automatically sent to a specified third party.

Delete it

This sends those emails to your trash bin, where you may retrieve them within 30 days. After 30 days, the messages will be permanently deleted.

Never send it to spam

This will prevent emails from being caught by your spam folder.

Send canned response

Selecting this option will send an auto-reply to the sender of those emails. You can draft your auto-reply while you’re putting together filter settings, or you can use an email you’ve already written.

Always mark it as important or Never mark it as important

“Important” is a special label that can be applied to emails to make them easier to locate. This functions in a similar manner to starred emails.

PRO TIP: I don’t automatically star any emails, and reserve it for important emails of which I’d otherwise lose track.  Meanwhile, I use “Important” to mark all my client emails.

Categorize as

This option categorizes the emails into larger groups like “Personal,” “Promotional,” “Social,” Updates” and Forums.” This lets you keep track of a large number of emails that come from different sources or have different information but also fall into a larger category.

Before you create the filter, you will also be given the option of applying the filter and its settings to emails you’ve already received that meet these criteria.

PRO TIP: If you want multiple types of messages to show up under a specific label (e.g. multiple senders from the same company), you can create filters with the different criteria and have them apply the same label to the messages that meet their individual criteria.

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