How to deal with messages you want to delete later: Introducing the To Delete label

The fact that Gmail has an amazing search function isn’t always the best thing. Sometimes this amazing search can get downright annoying.

not quite clear on the concept

Here’s the problem.

One of the original unique things about Gmail was that you had this Archive button. When you archived a message, it was whisked out of your inbox but would still be somewhere. That way it would show up in search results. Gmail’s motto was “never delete another email”.  To a large extent, this is an awesome system. I love not having to delete any personal correspondence- even mail with attachments stays in my archive.

I’ve had my Gmail account for over 7 years now, so when I search for a keyword, I usually get too many messages back in result. Now, if I take my time and use Gmail search operators, I can usually get a better set of search results, but it always annoys me when I search in my email and the majority of results that come back are old list-serve newsletters, account notifications, etc.

There are two ways to solve the problem. The first is by going back through your inbox and finding and deleting messages that you really don’t need anymore. If you’re good with those search operators, this isn’t so bad. Yet, it’s so… manual.

I have a more automatic solution that will help you stop contributing to the problem. Introducing…

The To Delete label

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you know that I’m a huge fan of filters in Gmail. Heck, I even have my own training course on how to create an inbox that manages itself that relies mostly on filters. This is a new one that I just came up with.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of email messages: temporary and permanent.

The permanent messages you keep (and hopefully organize) for all time. The temporary messages- email newsletters, local list-serves and classifieds- you are only interested in reading for a short period of time.

Temporary messages should get deleted later so they don’t clog up your email search results.

Ideally, you should already be filtering email newsletters and any recurring email you receive (if not, see the (free) email ninja kit). What I’m suggesting, is that you filter any temporary email so it all has the label To Delete applied. This way you can go back every month and just empty the To Delete label into the trash.

You don’t have to go back in time

Just start now with new temporary emails. Front Porch Forum is a hyper-local list serve in Burlington and other VT cities. I like receiving the messages but I don’t want them showing up later. You can follow along:

1: Open the message

2: Filter messages like this

Filter like this

Create filter3: Make sure it’s pulling up the messages you want. Then click Create filter with this search

4: Apply the label To Delete (you may need to create it)

5: (Optional) Apply filter to other matching conversations

6: Create Filter

Bam! You’ve just created the To Delete label and filtered one type of message to go there automatically.

These messages will still show up in your inbox, but when you hit the Archive button, they will be labeled with To Delete.

All you have to do in the future is empty the To Delete label into the trash every now and then.

How do you deal with old messages?

Like this post? Have a different way of doing things? Leave a comment and share your email wisdom!

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Hmm. Conceptually, I like the "To Delete" label. But the thing that's stopping me from using it is figuring out a system of defining what emails are "temporary" and which ones I want to keep for all eternity (or unless I manually delete them). I don't know of a resource that will help me create this distinction between the two classes of emails or even know which one I might be dealing with as I read a new email. I guess that's my problem though Ethan, not yours.

My Gmail account is only a couple of years old and there isn't a ton of crap showing up when I use the search functionality of Gmail to find old emails (even without modifiers). But I guess if I don't want to end up like you - and normally I DO want to end up like you - I should get some kind of a system in place. :)

I gotta think about this more. My lack of a system and vague indifference to its impact indicates I have a problem waiting to smack me upside the head if I don't take action now.


I don't really "deal" with old messages.. I usually let them pile up and pretend they're not there, lol. But, this is a way better option! :D

Shanna Mann
Shanna Mann

I love your distaste for 'manual' tasks! I personally would find it soothing to go back in my history and delete things. Like shredding old files! 

God, I am such a dork.


I love your Gmail tips! They helped me finally understand what filters were and how to use them. My inbox is so much cleaner (and my archived messages easier to find) than it used to be.

Most of my potential To Delete fodder ends up in a junk email account, completely separate from my Gmail, which I check once or twice a week. If Yahoo offered filters, this account would be a prime candidate! I'll have to watch my main account and see if I'm still getting messages I could use this approach for.


You are brilliant and may finally have convinced me of the usefulness of filters.... I'm concerned that if I don't have everything in my inbox, I'll develop ostrich syndrome and not want to look at it at all ever, but I, too, am sick of having all kinds of junk turning up in my search results. Well played. 


I'm not as proficient at keeping my old email sorted as I'd like to be. In the past year, I went through and cleaned out a ton of newsletters and other junk from regularly coming in, so that was at least a big help. 

I think I'm going to give these filters a shot!

ethanwaldman moderator

@joeyjoejoe You're definitely in touch with your future self ;)

For me, temporary emails are things that are time sensitive and have no financial or business impact for me. I used the example of Front Porch Forum because they are exactly this type of message- they are things happening in my local community this week. 

The good news is, whatever system you do want, Gmail filters can probably do it for you.  

ethanwaldman moderator

@deniseurena You could just archive everything then! Inbox zero without any organization required ;)

ethanwaldman moderator

@Shanna Mann See my comment to Michael below... and you can manually shred hundreds of bulk emails at a time :)

ethanwaldman moderator

@remadebyhand Definitely- you may still find some use for it with emails that are important now, but won't be important in the future.. like ebay or etsy notices or temporary notifications from facebook.  I'm too disorganized to work with multiple accounts beyond one business and one personal.. I just send everything to my main accounts and filter from there...

ethanwaldman moderator

@michaelwroberts I know how you feel. This is kind of a going forward solution. But if you do follow the steps and opt to apply the same filter to the old matching conversations, you can quickly round up a lot of messages into the to-delete label and dispose of them as you please!


@ethanwaldman Having several accounts actually keeps me more organized, I think. My junk account gets all the commercial mailing list stuff (coupons and sale ads and the like), and I've turned off almost all my social media email notifications. I also let everything come into my inbox, even if it gets pre-labeled, so some stuff I just read and delete right away. You've got me thinking, though. I love hearing about new ways to use filters!

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