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Summary:

While Gmail is a favorite with many web workers who love its ease of use, its quick archiving, its keyboard shortcuts and its storage capabilities, the problem many people seem to face is an archive that seems to get more and more full every day. It’s […]

While Gmail is a favorite with many web workers who love its ease of use, its quick archiving, its keyboard shortcuts and its storage capabilities, the problem many people seem to face is an archive that seems to get more and more full every day.

It’s lovely to be able to press “Archive” and forget about old emails, but there comes a day when you’ll run out of space. Sure, you can always open multiple Gmail accounts to add more storage, or buy more storage, but why do those things when you can simply delete emails you no longer need.

Let’s be honest: we only keep old emails as a form of CYA, but in reality, most of us never need anything from a year ago. Personally, I never even need emails from two months ago, but every person’s situation is different.

If your Gmail archives are overflowing, consider taking some steps to declutter them.

I’d recommend a good decluttering every few months, to keep your archives clean. I’ve cleared my Gmail account down to 4% with the following steps:

1. Clear out the big stuff. Text-only emails barely take up any space. The big stuff are emails with attachments, especially video files, big pdfs or pictures, audio files, Power Point documents and the like. Do a search for has:attachment and delete as many as you can. If you want to delete emails with attachments before a certain date, add “before:2007/01/01″ (as an example). If you just want to search for certain types of attachments, try the search operator “filename:” and search for filenames such as mpg, mov, mp4, mp3, wav, pdf, and ppt. Delete with abandon.

2. Clear out the old stuff. I personally don’t need any emails older than 6 months, so I next did a search with the before operator: “before:2007/01/01″ (without the quotes, of course). I also added some “not” operators for people whose emails I don’t want to delete, such as “-from:eva” so that I don’t delete emails from my wife. Then I went through and deleted just about every email in the search results.

3. Clear out junk. There are certain emails you get regularly that you know you don’t need. Newsletters, comments or pingbacks from your blog, notifications from different services such as PayPal or your financial institutions (where the info is already available online), ads from companies such as Amazon, and so on. Do searches for each of these, and delete away. I recommend that you set up filters to prevent these from reaching your inbox again.

4. Clear out stuff from people who don’t matter. You get lots of forwarded emails from your aunt, notices from a colleague, cc’d emails from others. Search for their names and delete as judiciously as possible (I’d actually filter these out too). You might also have old emails from people who you no longer do business with. For example, I did freelance writing for a couple of publications last year (and at the beginning of this year) but I’ve discontinued my writing for them. I just looked through all my old emails from them and asked myself, “Will I ever really need these again?” The answer was no. I deleted them all.

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By Leo Babauta
  1. This is antithetical to Gmail’s strengths. While I can agree that moving things out of the Inbox (and out of sight) can be beneficial (personally I leave everything in the Inbox and use * to prioritize), leaving the archive untouched 1) cuts down on time you spend managing and 2) makes it really easy to leverage search to bring up something you need again (a lost contact, a recovered password, a URL, a meeting location, etc).

    Does everything need to be kept so that it’s searchable? No. But by not tampering with the archives, you never have to wonder if it will be there to be searchable, and you save yourself the time you would have spent deliberately cleaning things up.

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  2. I agree with Mark. Unless you’re actually running out of space, what’s the point? Who cares if your mailbox is 56% full or 37% full?

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  3. Also, with gmail, you can send your Word and Excel documents to GoogleDocs to save them there and store them. This way you delete the email and not worry about loosing the document and having the attachment eat up your gmail storage.

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  4. Another philosophy is kill the junk before you get it.

    I used to subscribe to mailing lists. Today I rely on RSS feeds. Whenever I’m tempted to subscribe to something I ask myself if I really want messages clogging up my GMail.

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  5. FYI,
    Theres a new Firefox extension called “Bring The Porn”. Kind of like Stumbleupon but with lots more features for porn. You can scrape media clips and save them to your online gallery – amongst other cool things. Check it out:

    http://www.bringtheporn.com

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  6. [...] How to Declutter Your Gmail Archives in 4 Easy Steps [...]

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  7. Thanks for the tips. One Gmail FAQ is “sort by size,” which – for some reason – they’ve not implemented. It would be very handy!

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  8. @Mark: If that works for you, there’s no need to follow the steps above. But like I said in the article, many people have run up against Gmail’s storage limit, and this article is aimed at them.

    However, I do think there’s a benefit to clearing the junk out of your archives. It’s a matter of making your searches more efficient … it’s better to have a focused search with just the most relevant results, rather than a search results page with a long listing filled with junk. At least, that’s been my experience.

    The thing is, even though I cleared all my old emails, I’ve never found myself missing them. I never think, “I wish I hadn’t deleted them, because now I need them.” The truth is that we often keep this *just in case* when in fact the just in case never really happens.

    But again, if you’re happy with your system, I’m not suggesting you change. This is meant for those who want to declutter and are looking for ways to do that.

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  9. I wish they’d include the ability to show all messages that don’t have a label associated with them, sort of like -label:*, it would make sorting my inbox much easier.

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  10. [...] reading Leo of Zen Habit’s article last Friday at Web Worker Daily, I decided to post about how I am keeping my Gmail clean and [...]

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