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This Gmail pro tip will change how you think about your inbox

With a little outside-the-box thinking, Gmail labels can make your inbox smarter than ever.

This Gmail pro tip will change how you think about your inbox
[Photo: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash]

It’s easy to think of Gmail’s labels system as a glorified filing cabinet for your inbox—but if you’re treating labels strictly as folders, you’re missing out on some of their most powerful possibilities.

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Gmail labels, for the uninitiated, are a series of custom text markers that can be assigned to your Gmail messages. You might mark all invoices with a label called “Expenses,” for instance, or mark all emails related to a particular work project with a label containing its name. Any such messages will then be grouped together in Gmail’s main menu for future reference and discovery.

That’s all fine and dandy, but where labels’ unexpected value comes into play is in their ability to control precisely how messages are handled when they hit your inbox. With a few minutes of setup, in fact, you can create a custom high-priority label that limits your notifications only to pressing messages and gives your most important emails a distinctive, eye-catching appearance. This is some next-level email management—and, yes, it has the potential to change your relationship to email for the better.

Let me explain.

Reframing the label

The first step to stepping up your Gmail labels game is to think about what exactly you’d like to accomplish. How could your inbox better serve you? What types of messages do you need to stand out? What sets your truly important emails apart from the rest?

Once you figure out those answers, you can use Gmail labels to eliminate unnecessary interruptions from your inbox while simultaneously making it easier to notice the messages that matter. It’s a significant upgrade from Gmail’s built-in system for identifying important messages and treating them accordingly—because frankly, that system isn’t very effective. It tends to result in far too many unnecessary notifications, for one, and its marking method creates a lot of clutter you’re bound to ignore over time.

Here’s how to set up labels to do it better: First, you’ll want to create a Gmail filter that automatically applies a “VIP” label to any incoming emails that meet certain criteria—those factors we were talking about a second ago that consistently set your important emails apart. The messages might need to come from specific high-priority senders or domain names; they might need to be addressed to a specific address that you designate for timely missives (maybe using this handy trick); or they might need to contain a specific word or phrase in their subject line that lets you know they’re time-sensitive.

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With your personal parameters in mind, click the downward-facing arrow in the search box at the top of the Gmail website and create a new filter for each relevant field. You can group multiple terms together within the same field using the “or” command—having something like larry@google.com or tim@apple.com in the “From” field, for instance, or “new appointment” or “urgent request” in the “Subject” field—but you’ll need to create a separate filter for each additional field you want to include.

Use the “or” command to group multiple terms together within a single field, but create a new filter for each additional field you need.

After you’ve clicked the “Create filter” button, select “Apply the label,” then click “Choose label” followed by “New label.” Type “VIP” into the label name field and click the blue “Create button.” Back in the main filter setup window, click the options to have Gmail star any included messages as they arrive and to sort them into your “Primary” inbox tab, too, provided you’re using Gmail’s default tabbed interface.

These options will make sure emails with your “VIP” label are always treated appropriately when they arrive.

One more visual adjustment: Find your newly created “VIP” label in Gmail’s left-of-screen menu, click the three-dot icon beside it, and select an eye-catching color from the set of options that appears. Now, any messages that come in with VIP status will always stand out and demand your attention when you’re looking at your inbox.

An eye-catching label color will help your high-priority messages stand out in your inbox.

All that’s left is to implement the crowning part of this setup—the custom and noise-eliminating notifications.

Enlightening your email notifications

This final piece of the puzzle will work on any Windows PC, Mac, Chromebook, Linux computer, or Android phone. Apple’s iOS, unfortunately, doesn’t support the granular form of notification customization needed for it to function (sorry, iPhone fans!).

On a desktop computer:

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  1. Disable Gmail’s native notifications by opening the site’s settings, scrolling down to “Desktop notifications” (in the “General” section), and selecting “Mail notifications off.”
  2. Install the third-party Checker Plus for Gmail extension in your desktop browser. It’s available for both Chrome and Firefox, has 1.2 million users and a nearly five-star rating in Google’s Web Store, and does not store or share any sort of personal data.
  3. Click the button that appears to configure the extension. Select the “Accounts/Labels” tab in the configuration screen, uncheck “Inbox” under the “System labels” header, and check “VIP” under the “Labels” header.

If you’re using Chrome and want your VIP notifications to pop up even when you don’t have your browser open, click over to the “Notifications” section of the extension’s settings and check the box next to the “Run in background when Google Chrome is closed” option. (That option isn’t available on Firefox.) You can also customize exactly how the notifications look and work via the other options in that same section.

On Android, meanwhile:

  1. Open the Gmail app on your phone.
  2. Tap the three-line menu icon in the app’s upper-left corner, then scroll all the way down the main menu and tap “Settings.”
  3. Tap the name of your Gmail account, then tap “Notifications” and make sure the option is set to “All.”
  4. Tap “Inbox notifications” and make sure the box next to “Label notifications” is unchecked.
  5. Next, tap “Manage labels” and find your “VIP” label in the list. Tap it, make sure its “Sync messages” option is set to “Last 30 days,” and make sure both “Label notifications” and “Notify for every message” are checked.
  6. Look through the rest of the labels in the list—any labels for which you don’t want to receive notifications—and make sure those same boxes are unchecked for all of them.

The sky’s the limit with this, and you don’t have to stop with just a single “VIP” designation. Follow the same steps for any other superpowered labels you want to create—and watch your email efficiency soar.

For even more next-level Google knowledge, check out my Android Intelligence newsletter.

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