How to categorize emails in Gmail: Organize your inbox

If you need to organize and manage the mountain of email in your Gmail inbox, here is one way to bring order to the chaos. Automatically categorize emails in Gmail according to the content.

Some email services organize messages in your email account by using folders. Rather like the way we organize files into folders on the disk, messages are organized into folders in your email account. It has the advantage of being able to clear your inbox because messages are out of sight when they are moved to folders.

Google Gmail is different and it uses labels instead of folders. These are tags or keywords that can be attached to email messages. Google automatically applies labels to incoming emails and organizes them into categories. Here are a few benefits.

  • Gmail labels can be viewed or hidden in the inbox.
  • Labels can be viewed or hidden in the Gmail sidebar.
  • Labels can be organized into categories
  • Labels can be used like folders to organize email.

Automatically label and categorize email

Gmail automatically adds labels to incoming email messages. You do not need to to do anything and it just happens. Inbox is actually just a label and it is automatically added to incoming emails. When you select Inbox in the sidebar, what you are actually doing is saying, show me all the emails tagged with the Inbox label.

An email cannot be seen in the inbox if it does not have the Inbox label. When you delete an email, the Bin label is added and the Inbox label is removed. Other email services have a Deleted Items folder that emails are moved to, but Gmail’s Bin label has the same effect.

Gmail goes further than simply adding the Inbox label to messages and it analyzes the contents of them and automatically adds certain labels. It is not perfect and sometimes the wrong label or no label is added to an email, however, it does correctly label most messages and this is a great help when organizing your inbox.

Gmail can automatically add the following labels to email messages: Social, Forums, Promotions and Updates. They are called categories.

Show or hide categories labels

Categories is an item that appears in the sidebar of Gmail and it appears in its collapsed view initially.

Gmail sidebar showing categories
Categories in the Gmail sidebar

Click Categories in the sidebar to expand it and show the four labels it contains. These category labels are automatically applied to incoming messages.

Categories in the Gmail sidebar
Show the category labels in Gmail’s sidebar

Labels can be visible or invisible. Move the mouse over a category label and click the three dots on the right to show the menu. There are two sections:

  • In label list: Show or hide the label in the sidebar on the left.
  • In message list: Show or hide the label in the message list on the right.
Gmail categories labels menu
The label menu in the Gmail sidebar

In the screenshot both Show options are selected and you can see the labels under Categories on the left and in the message list on the right. Setting different colors for the category labels helps them to stand out in the message list and you can easily see how many of each type of email there are and which messages belong to which category. Gmail does not correctly label every message, but it is reasonably good at working them out.

View emails with categories

Gmail categories labels
Select a category label in Gmail

Select a category label in the Gmail sidebar and only messages with that label are shown. This is a good way to simplify the inbox view because all other messages are hidden. You only see what you want to see and without the clutter of other inbox emails.

Move emails to categories

When looking at the inbox, click and drag emails to the sidebar and drop them on a label, whether it is an ordinary label or a category label. This removes the Inbox label and applies the target label.

Select a category label to see all the emails with it. Drag messages and drop them on the category label in the sidebar to remove the Inbox label. So if you are viewing Promotions, drag the emails to the Promotions label in the sidebar. The Promotions label remains, but the Inbox label is removed.

Message dragged and dropped on labels are removed from the inbox and they can only be seen when the label in the sidebar is selected. When used in this way, labels work just like folders in other email services.

This is a great wat to clear your inbox – drag and drop messages on labels. You don’t even need to create basic labels because Gmail automatically creates them under the Categories heading.

Configure Gmail categories

Click the gear icon, click See all settings and select the Labels tab. Scroll down and below the system labels are categories. We saw how to show and hide category labels earlier, but here is an extra option here and you can choose to show or hide Categories in the sidebar.

Configure Gmail categories in Settings
Show or hide Categories in the Gmail sidebar

It is up to you whether you use Categories labels and you can use some or all of them, hide ones you don’t need and even hide Categories itself if you do not find it useful.

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