Danny Tran

Danny Tran

Web application developer

How to be a Gmail ninja?

August 20, 2014

Disclaimer : I don’t want to pretend to have the most ninja workflow, but this is how I manage my emails through my semesters in college getting emails from several student societies I was part of.

Emails have been around since forever. We have been using them to send important business emails, birthday pictures, job applications and stupid chain mails. Nowaday, everyone and everything send emails and it’s easy to get overloaded. Being in over three or four student societies at the same time, I had to find a way to manage the high influx of emails. Here’s how I got started from a guy with tons of unread emails to “Inbox Zero”.

1. Cleaning your inbox to reach “Inbox Zero”

Do you have over 9000 unread emails in your inbox? If you said yes, something is wrong with your email flow. You should not have emails in your inbox. You should always try to reach the goal of “Inbox Zero” and have an happy empty inbox.

Actual real “in” boxes used to be a bin on your desk where you would put all incoming mails while you open and read them all. Being actually done with work would mean going through that “in” box.

It should be the same for your electronic inbox.

Alright, so how do I get Inbox Zero, I just delete everything? What if I need that email some day?

So, you’re the kind of a email hoader eh? I’m kidding, obviously, I don’t go and delete all my emails once I am done with it… I “archive” them.

When Gmail was released by some search engine you might know as “Google” in 2005, they reintroduce a feature known as “archiving”. The act of “archiving” is to move your email into archive as if you would put all your documents in your cabinet. When you are done reading an email, you should not leave it in your inbox. It should be always be archived. Archived emails are in a separate section of Gmail named “All Mails” where you will find all emails, archived, inbox, labeled etc. This is where most of my emails goes.

“What if I have too much irrelevant emails? Should I archive them anyway?”

First rule I used when I start cleaning up my emails was to unsubscribe to all mailing list that I have not use for. It took around a week or two to unsubscribe to them all. Some took more time to come in, but as they come in, I always have to choose to archive or to unsubscribe.

When you unsubscribe from all unwanted emails, it feels really nice to get emails because you would actually want to read them and this helps a lot on keeping your inbox clean since you won’t leave useless unread unwanted emails in your inbox.

So now, your inbox is always empty and happy. If emails come in, you always go through them and should decide to archive them after you read them or unsubscribe if they are unwanted.

Here is the flow you should have :

  1. Read email
  2. Unsubscribe if crap (or mark as spam for spam)


  1. Archive

Simple right? I also suggest to really mark spam as this will help Google to learn what are spam or not. Do not mark unwanted not-spammy emails from Facebook as spam, as this would not help them to perfect that machine learning. You should go through the trouble to disable and unsubscribe from that list.

2. Label ALL the emails

Now, that you got used to keep your inbox clean, you need to get some order into your archive “cabinet”. At first, we threw every emails in there. You will tell me what’s so different than when we used to leave everything in the inbox and you will be right. It’s the same. That’s why we need to label our emails now.

Labels are the feature integrated into Gmail to organize your emails. Different from email folders of other email clients, emails can be tagged with several labels which make it easier to organize emails in several tags. For example, an email from PayPal would be tagged with “Finances”, but that was a purchase for the company so we will also tag it “Company purchases”.

I have a few main labels :

  • Personal
  • School
  • Finance

Each of them would get sub-labels for futher label action :

  • Personal
    • Family
    • Career
    • Friends
    • Sports team
  • School
    • Classes
    • Public announcements (those emails who are sent to every students)
    • Student housing announcements
    • Internships
    • Several student societies I am part of
  • Finance
    • PayPal
    • Bank
    • Bills

Labels make it easy to search and organize your emails. Most emails should be labeled. If you have no label for that category, you should make one. If that email would be the only there, it could be that you should not get that email and should be unsubscribing from it. Or it could be for any others reason, use your ninja-sense to evaluate.

To recap the workflow with the labels :

  1. Read email
  2. Unsubscribe if crap (or mark as spam for spam)


  1. Label with the appropriate label
  2. Archive

To recap, the first step to get to the ninja road of “Inbox Zero” is to clean up your incoming emails and keep your inbox empty by archiving all read emails and unsubscribing unwanted emails. Then, you should get organizing by setting up labels and sub-labels (you can also go to sub-sub-*-labels if needed).

Do you use Gmail the same way as I do? If not, feel free to tell me your ninja tricks on Twitter @dannytranlx.