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How to Clear Your Gmail Inbox in 8 Simple Steps

by Carol Ann Tan on April 15, 2016

How to clear your Gmail inbox in 8 simple steps

Remember the good old days when Gmail’s inbox space seemed practically limitless? Even today, Gmail offers its users a whopping free 15 GB of storage space. For the average user, this is more than they’d ever need. Part of Gmail’s appeal lies in its implicit promise that you’ll never have to delete another email or clear your inbox ever again.

Pile of Envelopes, Letters. Image with Selective Focus..jpegI, for one, am one of those people who has not deleted anything other than blatant spam since I first created my Gmail account. Admittedly I had bought into the technological myth where increasingly affordable virtual space must surely equate to informational permanence. Unfortunately, and in fact rather obviously, this is not always true.

Sometimes, 15 GB is not enough. After all, the Internet is essentially now a ubiquitous part of our daily life, and an increasing amount of our information-sharing now takes place online.

So, what happens when 15 GB is not enough, and you’re suddenly running out of space in your Gmail inbox?

Well, many similar guides online would recommend that you sort your emails by size using either an IMAP client or FindBigMail. You are certainly welcome to use either, as they are both relatively convenient methods in their own right—in particular, an IMAP client would allow you to download and remove attachments from an email without deleting the original email itself.

But if there’s one thing about Gmail that is deeply underrated, it would have to be Gmail’s astounding array of useful search shortcuts.

So let’s sort and clear our email inboxes without using an external program, because Gmail already contains the tools we’ll need to do so.

1. Identify what’s taking up all that space

First off, your Gmail space usage isn’t solely calculated from your mail usage anymore. It’s become a composite of 3 different sources: Gmail, Google Drive, and Google+ photos. As such, you’re going to want to check which of these 3 sources is causing you to max out your 15GB of space.

To do this, simply go to your Gmail inbox and scroll to the bottom of the page. Near the bottom left hand corner of the last mail entry, you’ll see some tiny white font that says exactly how much of your 15GB you’ve used up. Underneath that, it says “Manage”. Click on “Manage”.

Manage your Gmail inbox space usage

That will bring you to a page that looks like this:

Google Drive storage use

Now, if you’re so inclined, you could always simply buy more space for your Google Drive. Otherwise (or if you are already maxing out your paid plan!), let’s find out what’s eating up all this space by hovering our cursor over the big yellow pie chart on the right side of the page. That will bring up this statistics box:

Google Drive storage use sorted by application

As you can see, in my case, most of my space usage comes from Gmail.

If, in your case, you happen to see that most of your space usage comes from Drive or Google+ Photos, you’ll want to back up the files you’ve stored there to a different place, and then you can delete the files and clear up some space. That’s fairly straightforward, so your job here is essentially done. Hooray!

The rest of us will soldier on…

2. Configure your account for easier mass viewing

You may skip this step if you know you’ll want to delete all the emails that you’ll be searching for. Otherwise, I find that this step helps reduce hassle later on, when I need to review a lot of emails in a short amount of time.

You can do this through Settings. If you don’t know how to get to Settings, return to the main page of your Gmail inbox, and click the big gear box button at the top right of the page, directly underneath the bar containing your name, profile picture, and so forth. Then select “Settings”.

Gmail settings

In Settings > General, change your maximum page size to show 100 emails per page.

Gmail settings: Changing number of emails displayed

Scroll all the way down and hit “Save changes”.

3. Sort your emails using Gmail’s search function: The simple version

Now let’s return to your inbox again. Our next step is to filter your emails such that only the emails you’re thinking of deleting will show up.

You may have noticed that the search bar at the top of the page contains a small gray arrow at the right side of the box. If you hover your cursor over the arrow, it will say “Show search options”.

Show Gmail inbox search options

Clicking the arrow will show you the following drop-down list:

Gmail inbox search options

Simply fill in the drop-down list with your desired search terms, which you’ll ideally create based on the type of documents you want to delete.

For example, let’s say I am interested in deleting documents which (i) contain attachments, (ii) are larger than 6 MB in size, and (iii) are older than 6 months old.

Consequently, I would (i) check the box that says “has attachments”, (ii) under “size”, select “greater than” from the first drop-down list, key in “6”, and select “MB” from the second drop-down list, and (iii) under “date”, select “6 months” from the drop-down list, and select today’s date from the second box (which will display a calendar when you click on it). As such, my completed search box will look like this:

Completed Gmail inbox search form

Then all I have to do is click the big blue button depicting a magnifying glass on the bottom left, and Gmail will pull up all the emails that fit my search parameters.

4. Sort your emails using Gmail’s search function: The slightly more complicated version

Let’s say, though, that you don’t like the restrictions imposed on your search by Gmail’s form. For example, let’s say you want to search for emails that are older than 4 months old—which is not an option available to you on the drop-down list in the “date” category.

Well, Gmail’s search box functions by interpreting specific search operators. If you use Gmail’s search options form, you’ll notice that after you hit the big blue button, a string of search operators will appear in the search bar. This really means that you can bypass using Gmail’s form and enter more specific search terms if you know how to manually key in those operators.

Let’s cover the three most important categories of search operators that will help you search for emails to clear.

a) Sort by attachment

has:attachment will show you all emails containing an attachment. This is useful to the extent that large attachments likely constitute the bulk of your inbox size.

b) Sort by size

size: or larger: will show you emails that are at least the specified size. If you type only numbers and do not use units, Gmail will automatically interpret the label using bytes. 1000 bytes (3 zeros) = 1 KB; 1000000 bytes (that’s 6 zeros!) = 1 MB. So, for instance, if I type size:1000000 or larger:1000000, this means that Gmail will display all emails sized 1 MB and above.

Of course, counting your zeros as you type is hardly convenient. To that end, Gmail also accepts abbreviations. “K” stands for KB, and “M” for MB. As such, if I type size:1M or larger:1M, Gmail will display all emails sized 1 MB and above.

The converse operator is smaller:, which will—quite predictably—filter your search to show all emails smaller than whatever size you’ve specified. For example, smaller:20K will show me all emails sized below 20 KB.

c) Sort by date

To search for messages sent during a certain period of time, use the search operators after: or before:. These operators read dates using the yyyy/mm/dd format. For example, searching before:2014/05/16 shows me all of my emails dated before May 16th, 2014.

To search for messages sent during a relative period of time, use the search operators older_than: or newer_than:. These operators use the abbreviations “y” for year, “m” for month, and “d” for day. So if I searched newer_than:2y, I would see only emails that were dated from earlier than 2 years ago; if I searched newer_than:10m, I would see only emails that were dated from earlier than 10 months ago; and so forth.

For the relative time filters, it’s worth noting that the abbreviations cannot be combined effectively. So typing older_than:3y10m does not successfully show me emails that were dated from earlier than 3 years, 10 months ago. In other words then, only one abbreviation (whether it be y, m, or d) may be used at any one time.

d) Sorting using a combination of all of the above

Finally, you can combine different search operators. For example, if I typed has:attachment larger:1M before:2014/05/16, Gmail would bring up only emails that contain an attachment, are larger than 1 MB in size, and are dated from before May 16th, 2014.

5. Sort by sender

Let’s say, however, that you want to sort by sender. This is pretty easy if you have the sender’s name or email address memorized, because then you can just type it into the appropriate box (or use the from: search operator).

But most of us don’t actually memorize email addresses, even if it’s a friend’s—let alone one for a promotional email or the like. Let’s say I would like to delete promotional emails from Amazon.com. But I don’t know their email address offhand, and searching broadly for “Amazon.com” would also call up a lot of emails I don’t actually want deleted (eg. shipping information for a recent order). What then?

You’ll need to find and open just one email from the sender you want to filter messages from. In this case, I’ll open an Amazon.com promotional email. Then, click on the little arrow next to the “reply” button at the top of the email. This will bring up a drop-down menu. Select “Filter messages like this”:

Filtering messages from one sender in Gmail inbox

And you’re all set!

6. Deleting messages

Now that you’ve made the perfect filter for the messages you want to delete, and those messages are all that you see on the screen, it’s time to actually delete those messages!

a) Deleting all messages

If you’re sure that you want to delete all messages, simply check the box at the top right hand corner of the page that will select all messages on a given page.

Once you’ve done this, you’ll notice that a message will appear at the top of the page: “All 50 conversations on this page are selected. Select all conversations that match this search.” (The number in bold may vary depending on how many emails you’ve set to display per page—see step 2.)

Click the hyperlink for “Select all conversations that match this search”.

Then, click the big trash can icon.

Deleting all conversations matching search in Gmail inbox

b) Deleting specific messages

If your search parameters still bring up messages you might like to keep, you’ll have to either refine your search further, or else review the messages manually and keep any important messages unchecked while you delete the rest.

7. Clear your spam and trash folders

Gmail will automatically delete spam messages older than 30 days, but if you typically receive a lot of spam in a short amount of time, it’s imperative that you manually clear the folder because large spam messages can take up a lot of valuable space.

And if you’ve already completed steps 1-6 (or even if you haven’t), don’t forget to clear your bin as well! Messages left in the trash will also be automatically deleted after 30 days, but you won’t see the results of your most recent inbox purge until those messages have been permanently deleted.

8. Creating a reusable filter

Let’s say you are absolutely certain that you never ever want to receive another email that fulfills the particular search criteria you’ve specified. However, it seems like too much of a hassle to remember to fill in the search form again or type in your string of carefully defined terms again every time your inbox starts filling up. In that case, you can create and save a filter that will perform the same action every time you receive a particular type of email.

To create a filter, you’ll want to click the little gray arrow and fill out the form accordingly. Next, click the text on the bottom right hand corner of the form that says “Create filter with this search”:

Creating filter in Gmail inbox using search

This will lead you to a new form, where you get to decide what action you’ll like Gmail to take with all future emails that match those search terms:

Determining action to take with search filter

Note that you will currently not be able to save any searches made that do not cover the parameters defined by the search form. For example, I cannot save a search for before:2014/05/16. Similarly, if I want to save the search string has:attachment larger:1M before:2014/05/16, the resultant filter will only save the search for emails containing attachments and totaling more than 1 MB in size—but not the date.

This makes sense if you consider that a filter is only useful when applied to incoming messages, and it’s quite unlikely you will ever receive a message from 2014/05/16 today. (But if that happens to you, please call me! I’d love to feature in your scifi-type life adventure!)

WARNING ABOUT FILTERS: If you select “Delete it” on the second menu, all future incoming messages that match the filter’s terms will always be deleted until you manually delete the filter yourself (which you can do in Settings > Filters and Blocked Addresses). That is to say, you will likely never even know that someone tried to send you that email.

As it is very easy to forget you ever created certain filters, I do not recommend creating filters for certain types of emails, like promotional emails, as you never know if the sender might someday have something important to send you! To unsubscribe from promotional emails, I recommend instead using the “Unsubscribe” feature, which you should be able to find at the bottom of those types of email.


And there you have it! The steps above may be repeated as many times as needed for you to clear all types of emails from your inbox. Now, you should have opened up more space in your Gmail inbox to use for future correspondence.

What steps do you use to clear your own inboxes? Do you have any nifty tips and tricks that will help make the process more convenient? Share with us in the comments below—we’d love to hear from you!

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