Start the Year with an Empty Inbox!

Here’s a nice Gmail tip that will make you feel like a million bucks: empty out your crufty email inbox. There’s nothing like an empty inbox to motivate you and give you a fresh start for the year.

“But Matt,” you say, “my inbox is my to-do list!” I know, me too. So here’s how to do it without losing that to-do list. Add a label like “oldinbox” to everything currently in your inbox and then archive all the email in your inbox. Presto! Your inbox is clean and empty, but you can still visit the “oldinbox” label when you’re ready to whittle down those older emails. I know it sounds scary, but there’s only two simple steps, and both can be undone.

Step 1: Add a label to all the email in your inbox. Click on “Inbox” at the top left of your Gmail. Then look for “Select: All” and click on the “All” link. If your inbox is bigger than one screenful, you’ll see a message like “All 25 conversations on this page are selected. Select all 666 conversations in Inbox.” Click on the second sentence of that message to select everything in your inbox. Now click on the “More Actions” button and select “New label…” . You’ll be prompted for a label name, so enter something like oldinbox as the label name and click OK. Gmail will ask if you’re sure you want to apply this label to all the selected emails, so say yes by clicking that OK button. Congrats! Everything in your inbox now has the label “oldinbox”. Now we just need to archive every email with that label.

Step 2: Archive all your email with that label. Look for the “Labels” box on the left-hand side of the screen, and click on “oldinbox” (or whatever label name you gave). Click Select: All. Do the trick to select all conversations if you need to. Then just click the “Archive” button. That’s it. Your inbox is now empty, but you can get to those older emails if you need to by clicking “oldinbox” in the Labels box.

Can you undo these changes? Yes!

Putting the email back in your inbox. If moving things out of your inbox is too stressful, you can move them back into your inbox. Click on the “oldinbox” label (which you can find in the Labels box on the left-hand side of the screen). Select all of the emails with that label. Then click “More Actions” and click “Move to inbox.” In a jiffy, all that old email is back in your inbox.

Removing the “oldinbox” label. Under the “Labels” box on the left-hand side of the screen, click “Edit labels” and then you’ll see a “remove” option for each label. Note: do not remove the “oldinbox” label if you’re still using it to keep track of your old inbox.

Try this trick to start out the new year with an empty inbox. It’s also great if you want to declare email bankruptcy, but think that you might find the time to get back to those old emails as some point. Try this trick, and you’ll feel like you’ve got a fresh new chance at keeping your inbox at zero.

62 Responses to Start the Year with an Empty Inbox! (Leave a comment)

  1. I almost had Inbox Zero around Christmas, but now my clients are bothering me again. 🙂

  2. Oh man…I can’t imagine doing this, because even though I logically know that I can label them and stuff them aside, I’m afraid that by doing that, I’m never going to get to them!!!

    I’m on the edge…I wanna do it, but the little angel on my shoulder says no. The devil, of course, is saying “Do it you pansy! No one has to know!!”.

    What should I do!?

  3. I have 2672 unread emails :

  4. GTD! Using your inbox as a to-do list isn’t usually a very efficient way to handle it, though I’m sure some of you have worked out a good system. After implementing a GTD model for my tasks, my inbox is empty a few times a day. It’s great!

  5. That’s assuming stuff like inbox zero/GTD works for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t for me.

  6. Ryan, do it! You can undo it 10 minutes later if you want. I did it. 🙂

  7. Great idea Matt! I love having an empty inbox. As far as organizing to-do’s, I added the Remember The Milk application to my gmail and absolutely love it. It’s an easy way to setup tasks in your inbox without having to keep all of your emails front and center.

    Happy New Year!

  8. I had to stop using my email as a “to-do” list. There is just too much. Especially for blog comments, I am so happy you use the RSS for comments.

    Hey, Matt. Can you send me the code for that? I haven’t found it yet. i think is pretty easy, but I bet WP has a plugin or something.

    I know don’t laugh, but I use Windows XP and I find that MS One Note is a perfect app for a to do list. When I move to ubuntu I will find one like it. The best feature is in Outlook I can take an email and send it to One Note.

    I have a lot of clients and this helps me to organize all my work into notebooks for each client, plus I have an Ideas Notebook, so I never lose an idea…

  9. I just did it. Labeled everything #2008inbox. I feel like a newborn baby.

  10. Morris Rosenthal


    Done and done. In fact, now that I know it works, I’ll undo it and set up some different virtual mailboxes, something I didn’t realize you could do with gmail and was too dumb to ask.

    I suspect I could have gone my whole life without clicking the drop down arrow next to “more options” – just didn’t register on my court view since the rest of the controls are buttons or hyperlinks.

    Side note: I do create new mailboxes for business activities in my old Eudora every year, but at 39 of them, I’m running out of screen space.


  11. I get close to 200 emails a day with most of them being actionable. I try to protect my gmail the best I can but it’s inevitable that you need to provide your email for logins, etc. A trick that I have found works is to set up an email such as “”. If you begin getting spam you can turn that mailbox completely off. Then, if you ever need a password sent to you, you can easily turn the mailbox back on to receive it.

    Just to help,

  12. Sometimes, Matt, I feel like you are reading my mind. Perfect timing!

  13. You know, I used my inbox as a to-do at work and at home (Outlook), though I never thought of doing that in my gmail webmail… good idea. I’ll try it out, but seems like it would work out great.

    – Ryan

  14. Dave (originial)

    Message rules are a good way to keep you inbox empty.

  15. Empty Inbox !! I am on Edge

  16. Dave (originial)

    David, I find it best NOT to have a catch-all email address as ALL spambots/spammers need is your domain. They then send spam to all the usual suspects as,, etc etc… I blackhole the “usual suspects” and only allow certain through. Combine that with a service that forces users to reply to their own email (tow be whitelisted) and spam drops by 95% or more.

  17. Thanks Matt!

    9815 emails going away in…….5….4…..3…2….1

  18. Matt your company is simply the best. I cant believe all the cool free stuff Google has.

  19. Just absolutely great! Simple and very effective.

    I think I have a lot more grip on my Inbox now.

    Thank you!

    [note to self: now try to keep it clean!]

  20. Wow awesome – Many thanks for the advice, I tend to hoard emails, thinking that I am sure that I will need “that one” or “this one” one day. Because of this, I have hundreds, if not thousands of emails that I will probably never read again, but still can’t bring myself around to deleting them. This way I get to “delete” them without actually deleting them!

  21. What would you do next year? Everything that is ‘old’ is going to be ‘older’ and every ‘New’ thing is going to be replaced by something ‘newer’, why not to have some sensible label like ‘Inbox07’ or ‘InboxQ308’?

  22. when will gmail have folders?

    most of the emails I’m receiving are labeled. then there’s the 5% which usually come from family or friends (impossible to label all friends’ email). so the 5% are buried in my inbox, amongst the 95% labeled ones.

    i want to filter the 95% to specific folders. so i have visibility of the rest of the emails in my inbox.

    any suggestion on how you handle this kind of problem?

  23. Thanks for showing off this simple way. You`ve won a new reader.

  24. Am I the only one that doesn’t see the point? The emails will still be there, waiting for you all (myself included) to get off your lazy bums and action them…

    In fact, it won’t be long before your inbox fills up again, and you’ll just end up with two folders of mail you have to deal with. Great! (Not.)

  25. Hey nice tip….scarred to do it – but I’ll give it a shot. Can’t do that in Outlook!

  26. Thanks Matt for your good job at Google. Happy new year for you and every body.

  27. I am terrible email horder, i keep hundres of mails in my inbox and sent items never know when you need to glance back at them! But think im going to bite the bullet this year and start a fresh.


    Cudos to Matt on the blog and for having probably the best job in the industry

  28. Can’t do it. I have maybe 20 emails in my inbox at one time, and some of them are labeled (DO NOT DELETE, etc). I don’t think I have ever had an empty gmail inbox. I have a folder labeled “Personal” and “Do Not Delete” in my Outlook, too.

    One thought – I often hold on to “important” emails that contain usernames or passwords, important dates, account info, etc. I am going to print those and file them, rather than keep them in my inbox. I don’t generally print things, as we’re essentially a paper-less office, but I think filing the important stuff away and maintaining an empty inbox may be worth it.

  29. I use a method all year round where I create a folder called “followup” where I add emails that need lengthy explanations, more time or thought to respond. The rest of them get answered right away or deleted. No questions asked. That way the inbox is cleared every few days, while i spend time on the followup folder every night to get back to everyone that emails me.

  30. I think we had same thoughts when starting a new year – just clean it up with a single task.

    Congrats for your new Favicon- MC

  31. Great advice for starting off 2009 right! Taking the time to organize your inbox on a regular basis is a highly effective way to increase productivity. It prevents you from unnecessarily rereading old emails in order to locate important ones.

  32. I am finally FREE. Thank you for freeing me from all the clutter. This was the right thing to do.

  33. Dave (originial)

    Am I the only one that doesn’t see the point?

    No, me too. But hey, people often fool themselves by outa-sight-outa-mind. Placebo effect is VERY powerful, especially when self-administrated. Just look at the Google Chrome promotion: “Speed up the Web”..(I do wish Google would remove that false statement) and suddenly most who download Chrome actually believe this to be true, when in MOST cases is makes not 1 iota of difference. It reminds me of the Muscle building powders, drinks, pill etc. Far less effective than a *good diet” but it’s THE magic bullet to those who spend Billions on them.

    Prevention is better than cure a message rules are “prevention” and keep emails neat and filed away in their correct folders.

  34. It’s a good suggestion. One in which I’ve practiced for many years now.

    The most tedious of tasks for the first month of the year no doubt. Clearing it all out is not the issue, it’s going through several thousand and then filing them accordingly. *ugh*

    But hey, at least the task is complete, and all is archived and there is just a sense of satisfaction once done.


  35. Going to take the leap of faith and take your word for it Matt. If any of my contacts start complaining I will point them all in your direction! 😉

  36. Late Randy Pausch gave an in my opinion great presentation on time management where he also talks about your inbox.


    The video was a real eyeopener for me. R.I.P. Randy.

  37. Oh, I thought Gmail said that we will never need to delete email ever again :p.
    Empty Inbox? Naughty naughty.

  38. Done. Nice tip, this is going to be a yearly process for me from now. Labeled email ‘Pre 2009’ and will label by year from now eg. 2009, 2010… you get the idea.

    Why is it though I still get that guilty feeling for not deleting old emails and tidying up the inbox even though I’m only using 1% storage of my gmail account???

  39. Good Stuff Matt.

    I’ve a new, empty mailbox! 🙂

  40. Wesley
    I can’t sympathize – right now I have 18079 unread, mostly junk I know. In a few minutes, I’ll have zero.

    I understand the view of the scoffers but some may have tidier ways than I, so good for you.

    I have used a similar system with Outlook for years. The stuff is always there and usually google desktop can find it. But it’s not bugging me anymore.

    Thanks Matt

  41. empty inbox i wish i get 100 a day, clearly i need to set up message rules and Matt/guys does anyone know when Gmail will have folders….



  42. Don’t forget this will work in Google App’s as well.

    I use it to run , admin, sales, info and personal mail accounts…I’ll have all my 2008 orders backed up and can start to monitor 2009 orders effectively. Great help..Many Thanks

  43. That felt good and sadly I had never noticed the “Select All Messages” link before. Occasionally I had deleted 80 emails from a source and was stuck deleting 25 at a time just because I didn’t look around.


  44. Okay, I deleted my inbox Matt! That was a challenge 🙂 Now, I have to gather the strength to empty the trash…

  45. Funny, what I did too was unsubscribing from heaps of my email lists plus mark really silly emails as blocked senders, but for some reason for every list I unsubscribe or every sender I block, there seem to be more coming in after….!
    I think I will delete the whole lot! 😉

  46. Matt you really has great stuff and I have deleted my all mails from my Inbox and now my Inbox is empty….

    Thanks for your stuff Dude

    Great working 🙂

  47. This is cool, why I never thought about that, oky I’ll archive my inbiox per year or maybe per month.

    Thanks for the info!

  48. great idea, i am going to take the plunge.

  49. Saw this on someone’s twitter feed for the 2011 new year. I am a long time Gmail user (since 06), and I feel like I will never learn all the features this app has! Thanks for the tip.

  50. Top idea. This is just what I need.

  51. Inbox free! Thanks for this tip!

    Happy New Year, Matt! 🙂

  52. Just cleaned by inbox and an hour later its full again. I enjoyed the hour free inbox i had

  53. Hey Matt – any ideas about an add-on or something for gmail that I can use to automatically respond to messages of a certain label AFTER a particular amount of time?

    ie… I get requests that I don’t HAVE to respond to if I don’t have time… I usually assign them their own label. It would be nice if after a certain number of days, the sender gets an AUTOMATIC email explaining why I haven’t responded.

    Any way to make that happen in gmail?

  54. I have more than like 10k mails.. and about 40Labels already 🙂

  55. i have 6353 … no 6354 unread emails in my gmail …. and i’m fine with it. i don’t treat my gmail as a to-do list so that number count does not matter anymore.

  56. Now why would you want to do this? I don’t see the value. Anyone with 100’s of unread messages just needs to take Email 101.

  57. @franz — What does cleaning your inbox have to do with treating it as a to-do list? I keep my inbox clean, but I certainly don’t use it for to-dos; it’s very difficult to do both.

    That being said, how can you have that many unread items in there? Do you just not respond to people? Why check it at all?

  58. I’ve been obsessive about keeping a Zero Inbox. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve achieved GMail Nirvana, despite the massive amount of email that comes in every day. Nothing, and I mean nothing, stays in my inbox. Everything is immediately filtered, labeled or discarded.

    For starters, I use a TON of filters to keep my inbox manageable. All lists go to “Lists,” admin reports go into “Admin,” social networking notifications are starred and archived.

    For the rest of the I use the First Things First matrix for all my organization. Four labels (UI, NUI, UNI, NUNI) form the matrix, along with a few other labels for maintenance related tasks (data center stuff and honey-do list items). Every piece of email is filed in one of those labels and archived, or its deleted.

    Finally I use Priority Inbox to glue it all together. Important, UI, Starred, and everything else. Gives me a birds eye view. When mobile, I read stuff, delete it, or I star and archive it. When I get back to my full GMail the starred stuff is filtered.

    Only certain labels are left viewable, and I use Minimal Gmail to create a serene enviornment for my EMail so very peaceful. Sounds complicated, but it keeps my inbox at zero, which for me is important for my sanity!

  59. ““All 25 conversations on this page are selected. Select all 666 conversations in Inbox.””

    666 😮
    Was I the only one to nice this?

  60. Pretty Late.. But I did it… Hope this new year will bring more and more business emails to my inbox.. not spam emails.. 😉

  61. I do this with my desktop each year on my laptop-people are stunned with how pristine my desktop looks…ah, now you know my secret!

  62. A great way to clean your gmail inbox fast but only on relevant messages is to do a search for:

    in:inbox before:2010/12/31 !is:starred is:read

    and then all, Select all matching search, and then “archive”. That way you don’t need to archive recent messages.