Corporate Governance

‌Hints and tips for managing email using Google


Despite the seemingly limitless mailbox capacity of Google Apps Mail, staff still have a legal responsibility to manage their emails as efficiently and effectively as any other University records.  Some emails will need to be retained for a specific length of time, whilst others containing personal data must be kept only so long as they are necessary.

However, we all receive vast numbers of email messages every day.  Finding time to sort through and manage these emails is often difficult and, left untackled, the problem only grows. 

This page aims to give staff hints and tips on how they might harness the functionality of Google Apps Mail to help manage their mailboxes and save themselves time in doing so. Ultimately the management of a staff member’s mailbox is the responsibility of the individual.

This page is designed to be read in conjunction with the Staff Email Policy (available in the Document Warehouse), Records Management Factsheet 4: Managing Email and Google’s own user guides (

Training in the use of Google Apps Mail is stongly recommended and available from the University’s IT Training team.

If you have a personal Gmail account, all these hints and tips can be used to manage your personal email as well.

1         Start Again…

If your email has been unmanaged for some time, the task of sorting all your existing mail may seem too much to contemplate. Sometimes it is simply easier to start again.  Create a Label called ZZ and then nest your old email structure underneath this new Label.  You now have an archived structure, sitting neatly under just one Label, and accessible to you whenever you need it. You can now begin setting up a new Label structure which is better suited to the way Google works, without it getting lost and confused amongst your old structure.  

As and when you have time, you can slowly sort through your ZZ archive, keeping only what you need to keep.  Alternatively, you can use the 6yr rule, whereby you periodically run a search for label:ZZ older_than:6y and delete the results.  This latter is a risk based approach and not suitable if you are in a role where it is critical that you retain records for more than 6 years.  That said, any email that consitutes a record requiring 6yr+ retention, should not be held in a personal email account.  It should be exported as a PDF (in Google choose Print, then change the printer to Save as PDF) and stored with the file to which it relates, be that on EDM, the K:drive, or printed out in hard copy.

2         Labels

By default, Google puts all emails into its “All Mail” archive.  Whilst this may seem like a good solution, such a vast pot of emails will be almost impossible to manage effectively in the long term.  If you apply Labels to your messages and group them logically it will make it easier to locate your emails and to apply retention rules in the future.  Logical groupings include:

  • by topic
  • by student
  • by case
  • by project
  • by name
  • by course
  • by year

This list is not exhaustive and any combination can be used to suit your personal needs.  You can apply more than one Label to a single message.

2.1       Nest Labels

Any Labels you create will display on the left-hand-side of your Google mailbox.  If you nest them, you can effectively create the appearance of a folder structure (similar to Groupwise or Outlook). 

2.2       Label upon Sending

Most people are aware of the messages in their Inbox (those received from others), but it is equally important to manage the emails in your Sent Items (the ones you write).  Within the Compose function of Google, it is possible to apply a Label to an email before you send it.

If you are using Conversation View, this will have the added benefit that any responses arriving in your inbox will automatically be tagged with the same Label, saving you effort.

2.3       Add Retention Periods to your Labels

Where all the email you place under a given Label will have the same retention period, include that retention period in the Label title.  This will act as a prompt for clearing them out on a regular basis.

If you manage you emails by student, you might want to edit your Label once the student graduates/withdraws (at which point you can specify a review/disposal date).  This also works well for closed case or project Labels.

2.4       Create Retention Labels

Where the emails under a given Label will need different retention periods depending on the content of the email, each message will need to be reviewed in turn.  This is a labour intensive process, but one which should only need to be done once for each message.

Create a series of Labels with relevant retention periods (e.g. 2yrs) and once you have reviewed you message, apply the appropriate retention Label to it.  You can later perform advanced searches (see section 3) to identify emails which can then be deleted in bulk (e.g. any mail with a 2yrs Label, which is over 2 years old) without the need for further review.

2.5       Hide Labels

Complex, nested hierarchies of Labels are great for grouping your email, but can look messy on the screen.  Keep the left of your screen clear by hiding Labels.  The full structure will still be immediately displayed if you click the More button.

You can also chose to show hidden Labels if they contain unread email (show if unread).  This function is particularly useful if you set up filters to automatically Label some of your incoming emails, as it will flag up the arrival of new mail meeting that filter’s requirements.

3         Advanced Search

As well as the free-text search and basic search criteria in the drop-down box, Google Apps Mail also gives users the ability to build advanced searches using key phrases, known as operators.  For example:

label:2yrs older_than:2y – This search will find any emails with the label 2yrs, which are over 2 years old.

You can use this advanced searching to look for emails that can be confidently be deleted in bulk. 

Full details of the advanced search operators can be found on the Google help pages:

4         Filters

Filters are a good way of automating the application of Labels to some email.  If you are managing your emails by student, you could set up filters that automatically tag emails from a specific student with the corresponding Label.

If your inbox is prone to clutter, set filters up make some emails skip your inbox and archive themselves directly under the appropriate Label.  This should be always be used in conjunction with the show if unread facility (see section 2.5), or you risk missing incoming mail.  This is great for managing regular emails such as JISCmail digests or Staff Essentials.

5         Stars

Google stars can be applied very quickly to emails and used to denote all sorts of things.  If you don’t currently use stars, consider applying a star to emails that contain important information that will need to be retained for longer than usual (see RM Factsheet 4: Managing Email, section 4).  That way, when you come to apply retention Labels later, you won’t have to re-read all of your email first, just the starred ones.  Remove the star once the retention label is applied.

Alternatively use stars to denote emails that don't need review and can be deleted quickly.  There are up to 12 star symbols to choose from in Google, so you can be quite prescriptive in their application... just remember to make a note of what you have decided each one will mean for your inbox.

6         Make Time!

All of the above can help minimise the time and effort you spend managing your emails, but the system still requires your input.  Aim to clear your inbox weekly or fortnightly by labelling and archiving your emails. 

Searching for archived email to delete in bulk should be done 2-3 times a year.  Choose times that will give you the best returns on your efforts (e.g. just after the end of the academic year, calendar year or financial year).

7         Putting it all together… a real world example

Staff Essentials, discussion board digests (e.g. JISCmail) and subscription alerts are all very useful, but they generate lots of email which will have little value a month or so down the line.  If we can minimise the effort required to manage these emails, we should have more time to devote to more important emails.  Let’s take the example of Staff Essentials emails.

Step 1 – Set up a Label called Staff Essentials

Step 2 – Decide how long you need to keep these emails and edit your Label to include that information.  For example: Staff Essentials 1mth

Step 3 – Set the Label to hide itself unless there is unread content (show if unread)

Step 4 – Set up a filter to automatically make any new emails from the Staff Essentials email address skip the Inbox and apply the Label Staff Essentials 1mth

Google will automatically label and archive all of your Staff Essential emails from now on.  Google will also alert you when new Staff Essential emails arrive by displaying the Label on the left of your mailbox screen.

Step 5 – Periodically run an advanced search to identify any Staff Essentials emails that are over your chosen retention period and then bulk delete the search results.

For example: label:Staff Essentials older_than:1m