How to clean out your Gmail inbox

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Recently I wrote about the advantages of using Gmail instead of the email account that is provided with your internet service.  That prompted a Podcast Voice Mail (727-386-9468, available 24/7) from my friend Nancy.  Nancy already uses email and has for quite a while, and now her Gmail inbox is absolutely loaded with emails.  She wants to clean it out, but Gmail only displays 50 messages at a time, and she has thousands of them to get rid of – so she asked, “Is there a way to get rid of all of them at once?”  Yes, there is!


But I’m actually going to show you something even better – you can clean out your Gmail inbox, without having to delete any of those emails!

Believe me, I understand how quickly a Gmail account can get overwhelmed by email.  I have one computer that I work on fairly regularly that has over 60,000 emails stored.  Yours probably isn’t quite that “stuffed” but it doesn’t take long before your Gmail inbox can be too full to easily handle.

You need a fresh start – and here’s how to do it.

To demonstrate this, I will use one of my Gmail accounts that I don’t look at very often.  As you can see, this account currently has 3,575 emails in the inbox.  And Gmail only displays the most recent 50 emails:

Gmail inbox

The first thing you want to do is look in the top left area of the window for a single lone checkbox.  It is not outwardly labeled, but it’s pretty powerful as we will see:

gmail check all box

When you check that box, you will see that it automatically also checks the box in front of each of those 50 emails that are currently listed.  But that’s not the exciting thing.  At this point, you will see a simple, one-line link that is now added to give you another option:

gmail select all

This is big!  You have the option of just selecting the 50 that are displayed, or you can place a checkmark in front of all 3575 emails that are currently in the inbox.   This means that whatever you want to do with these emails, you can do all at one time – instead of having to handle 70 individual groups of 50 emails.

So you click that link and now all 3,575 are selected.  What do you want to do with them?  Remember, whatever you choose to do, it’s going to happen to all of them at the same time.  You basically have two choices:

1. You can delete them.  This means that they will eventually be gone from your Gmail account, never to be seen again.  This is a little scary – can you say with 100% certainty that you will never again need to see any one of those 3,575 emails?  If you can, then go ahead and delete them by clicking on the “trash can” icon:

Gmail trash can

2. You can archive them.  I like this option much better.  When you archive all of them, it serves two purposes:  First, it cleans them out of your inbox – and for some people, the feeling of having an empty email inbox is something they haven’t experienced in a long time.  It’s great!  Second, it stores them safely elsewhere in your Gmail account, so that you can access them at any time in the future if you need to.  You can do this by clicking on the “Archive” icon:

Gmail archive icon

You will get a warning message: “This action will affect all 3575 conversations in the Inbox.  Are you sure you want to continue?”  Click OK.

Now take a look at your inbox:

Gmail empty inbox

Congratulations – you have an empty inbox!  Enjoy this moment, because it probably won’t be that way for very long!

At this point, you might be wondering – if you didn’t delete those emails, and they are no longer in your inbox, where did they go?  In other words, how do you find them if you need to read one of them in the future?

Here’s how to see where they all are.  Look over on the left side of the screen and you will see a list of labels:  Inbox, Starred, Important, Sent Mail, etc.  One of those will be called “All Mail”.  If you don’t see it listed, click on “More” and you will see it:

Gmail All Mail icon

When you click the “All Mail” you will see every email you have archived.  They will all stay right there, safe and sound forever, unless you delete them.

Now the fun part – what if you need to find a specific email?  For example, you know you got an email from a particular person sometime in the past year, but you don’t recall exactly when.  It would take forever to scroll through all those emails to try to find it.  There’s a super-easy solution.

Look at the top of your Gmail account window.  You will see a search bar:

Gmail search bar

I have found that a lot of people think this is just another way to search the internet with Google.  It’s not.  That is where you can search your Gmail email account.

For example, if you wanted to find all the email from a particular person, just type in that person’s email address.  Or his or her name.  If you want to find all emails that have a certain word in the message, search for that word.  The search results come up very quickly (Google’s specialty is search, after all).

This means you really don’t have to worry about filing your emails in a particular manner.  You can just throw them all into the “All Mail” area like you just did, and through the search process you should always be able to find the one(s) you’re looking for.

It’s the best of both worlds – you have an empty inbox, but still have quick, easy access to all of the information in all of those emails.

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January 14th, 2013

My gmail screen doesn’t look like that and doesn’t have the all-inclusive check box you show here.

Scott Johnson
January 14th, 2013

Karen, Gmail does offer some different layouts now – it’s possible that yours is not exactly the same. But you should still have the top-level checkbox available though. I would have to see it to see what’s going on.