This post has been updated. It was originally published on March 6, 2017.
Email: you can’t live with it, but you can’t live without it. The messages in your inbox make up an essential part of modern-day communications, but sorting through them takes up an inordinate amount of time—time that could be spent doing something more productive.
Fortunately, if Gmail is your email service of choice, it comes with a number of features for blasting through your incoming messages. On top of that, there are plenty of helpful add-ons for getting down to an empty inbox as efficiently as possible.
The key is offloading as much work as possible to automatic filters and other tools that will do some of the organizing for you, leaving you to deal with what’s really important. Here are five tricks for making inbox zero a reality.
1. Get Gmail to prioritize your messages
If you haven’t set up tabs in Gmail, now’s the time to do it. Click the cog icon (top right if you’re using a browser), go to See all settings, and select the Inbox tab to choose which categories show up on screen. Gmail will try to guess which messages are important, and you can help it along by clicking the arrow-like importance marker to the left of any truly significant conversation.
What’s more, you can drag emails between tabs to teach Gmail how to sort your messages in the future based on type or sender. How is this helpful for reaching inbox zero? Well, you can ignore the less-important categories (like Social and Updates) until the end of the day, then spend a few minutes managing and processing all those messages in bulk.
2. Set up your own filters
Filters are one of the key ways you can automatically organize your incoming messages. Click the down arrow in the search box at the top of the screen to set up some search terms. Then click Create filter to set it up. You can also create filters from individual emails. Check the box to the left of one or more emails, then click the three vertical dots at the top of your inbox. Choose Filter messages like these and Gmail will run a sort.
If you’ve got multiple email addresses coming into your Gmail account, for example, you can mark messages sent to other addresses as less important. Another option is to immediately archive certain emails and mark them as read—they won’t appear in your inbox (less work for you), but will still be available via search if you need them.
3. Get creative with Gmail stars
Right from the beginning, Gmail has avoided offering a folder system. Instead, you can use labels and stars to sort your messages. On the web, click the cog icon, then See all settings. Scroll down the General tab until you see options for Stars. There are 12 total, but you’ll only be able to mark emails with the ones next to In use. To make more available, drag them into that group from the row next to Not in use.
How does this bring you closer to inbox zero? By starring and then archiving messages, you can clear your inbox without losing track of important messages. You can resurface the emails marked by each star with a simple search, such as “has:yellow-star” or “has:green-check”. To see the search term associated with each star, hover the mouse over the relevant icon on the settings screen.
4. Unsubscribe from everything you can
Gmail has a built-in unsubscribe feature that will quickly get you off newsletter and notification lists you don’t want to be on. You should see an Unsubscribe link in the header of any compatible message. Essentially, Gmail scans messages for “unsubscribe” links and makes them easier for you to find by placing them right at the top.
You’ll be amazed at the amount of time you can save by being ruthless with your subscriptions—all those seconds clicking the Delete button really add up. For something even more comprehensive, you can find an unsubscribe service that works with Gmail. Unroll.me is one of the best, and also lets you combine multiple incoming messages into a single newsletter.