When Gmail showed up in 2004 with its overwhelmingly generous 1GB of free space for everyone, we never thought we’d have to delete an email again—but even though that free space is now 15 times what it once was, email is more burdensome than ever.
It’s not really the available space that’s the problem in Gmail; it’s the sheer number of unread, unnecessary, and unsolicited emails clogging up the archives. Checking the inbox becomes depressing, running a useful search becomes nearly impossible, and systems of labels that once made sense have long since been abandoned.
It’s time to cut your losses, so here’s how you can start again from the beginning, and do better next time.
The first step is to delete everything in your Gmail account. Now, we can’t be held responsible if you erase a message you later realize you actually needed to hang on to, so proceed at your own risk—if you want to make a backup of your emails first, use Google’s comprehensive export tool to get your emails out—though that’s really just delaying the inevitable and necessary purge.
You can also forward the most useful messages out to another account (your starred messages and emails to and from the most important people in your life might be good places to check) or use Gmail’s POP/IMAP features to get your emails downloaded to a desktop client for safe keeping—Google has full instructions as to how to enable and use them here and here.
As for deleting all your messages, well that’s actually scarily simple: Go to the All Mail page, place a tick in the selection box to the top left, and when you see the Select all... message at the top, click it. Then click the trashcan icon at the top of the message list and in a few seconds all of your Gmail history will be gone.
Well, gone to the Trash folder anyway. If you don’t want to wait around for messages to auto-expire, you can go to the Trash and click Empty Trash now and then OK. You might want to visit the Spam folder as well, just to make sure absolutely everything’s gone. With any luck, you might experience a minute or two of peace before your inbox starts filling up again.
Gmail’s eagerness to make it simple for you to email your contacts is helpful sometimes, but it creates an unsightly mess in your contacts list if you’re not careful. People you only ever emailed once ten years ago can suddenly show up as contacts on your Android phone for no reason (we’ve seen it happen). For the most comprehensive email detox, you want to get rid of your contacts as well.
This is trickier to do, because as we’ve mentioned, your contacts sync across multiple Google services, like Android. Ideally we want to trim down any useless email addresses while keeping the important ones and without deleting anyone’s phone number along the way, and Google doesn’t really make this particularly easy to do.
A good place to start from the Contacts page is the Other Contacts category under the More heading—people that might pop up as suggestions when you’re typing out email addresses, but who you haven’t specifically added as contacts. As with emails, you can use the checkboxes on the left to select people, then click More (the three dots) and Delete contacts. You can also do some tidying by checking the Duplicates tab and seeing if any contacts can be merged.
If you have an Android phone, you’ve got another approach to try—open the Google Contacts app, tap Suggestions from the main menu, and you should get an option to remove junk contacts Google has spotted. After that it’s probably worth a manual purge through your main contacts list—be ruthless—and if you want to stop contacts from being automatically added in the future, go to the General tab of your Gmail settings and choose I’ll add contacts myself under the Create contacts for auto-complete heading.
With a fresh new inbox and purged contact list to enjoy, it’s time to think about making sure your Gmail account never gets clogged up again. Being careful about who has your email address is a good start, though admittedly it might be too late for that—starting again with a new Google account is an option, and you can always get messages from your old account forwarded if you want (look under Forwarding and POP/IMAP in the Gmail settings screen).
As we’ve mentioned before, dots don’t make a difference in Gmail addresses, so emails sent to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org go to the same inbox. Insert a dot into your address whenever you sign up for less important apps and services, and you can filter messages from all these places (e.g. emails sent to email@example.com rather than firstname.lastname@example.org)—tell Gmail to mark them as read and archive or delete them immediately for a less busy inbox.
Another idea is to regularly trash all your emails once they’re more than a few months old. Type “older_than:1y” in the Gmail search box to find messages sent more than a year ago, for example, or “older_than:6m” to change the time frame to six months. These emails can then be selected and deleted, but if you’re worried about getting rid of something important, add “is:unimportant” to your search.
Gmail actually does a decent job of keeping your inbox organized if you turn on the inbox tabs (click the cog icon on the right, then Configure inbox, to pick which ones get shown). When it doesn’t sort messages correctly, drag and drop them into the right tabs and Gmail will remember your choice for next time. You can then use searches for these groups of messages (e.g. “label:social” or “label:updates”) to select and delete them in batches.