The Best Gmail Search Term to Get You to Inbox Zero

It may be hard for you to remember life before Gmail (it was born in 2004, if you’re wondering), but Google’s client has changed the way we email many times over. By making email vastly more searchable it has saved us time, and by popularizing the conversation view it saved our sanity. But there have been other advents, too.

Back in 2013, Gmail introduced Tabs. Suddenly, it could effectively sort your email into different “inboxes,” and different types of mail had their own homes. There’s Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums (any of which you can opt to hide), and it’s surprisingly effective at separating the stuff you care about from the stuff you don’t.

The Dark Side

But, of course, there’s a drawback (isn’t there always?). For those of us who really strive to deal with the emails that actually need addressing, Tabs made it a lot harder to get to the coveted “inbox zero,” i.e. the rare state in which you have no unread emails. The problem is that many of us (myself included) see emails come in that need a response, and we opt to leave the email marked as unread. “That way we’ll see it later and deal with it!” we say, fooling ourselves.

This inevitably leads to us leaving “important” emails unread, sometimes for weeks or months, until we have quite a cache of them in our Primary inbox. Then one day you decide you’re finally ready to deal with them and get yourself to inbox zero. So, you click the carrot next to Inbox, and you choose the option to display “Unread First.” Unfortunately, you find yourself with a most unpleasant surprise.

Suddenly, your inbox is full not just with your important unread emails, but with all of the unread rubbish from your Social, Promotions, and Updates Tabs! Thousands of them. Gmail worked the way it was supposed to, and so you didn’t even have to acknowledge those largely useless emails, but now, suddenly there are so many of them that you’ll never find the important unread emails from your Primary tab. You could just go back to the Default Inbox view and scroll back over and over again until you’ve found all of the unread needles in the digital haystack, but I’m happy to tell you that there’s a (much, much) better way.

The Magic Search Term

Here we can utilize Gmail’s powerful search engine to show you exactly what you want, you just need to know how to ask for it. Keep your Inbox in the default layout, and then, in the search bar, simply type this:

category:primary label:unread

That’s it! That one search tells Gmail that you want it to:
1. Display all of your unread emails
2. But only in your Primary inbox

From there, you can quickly go through the emails you dog-eared for later and finally give them the response they deserve. Or you might realize that enough time has elapsed that it no longer requires a response. Either way, you save a ton of time. Just remember category:primary label:unread, or keep this article bookmarked so you can copy/paste it any time you need it.

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