How to Organize and Categorize Messages with Labels in Gmail

Labels offer greater flexibility than a folder-tree structure

Library patron using laptop

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Unlike most email servers that rely on a series of folders to organize messages, Gmail replaces folders in favor of labels. These labels are a tagging system for emails.

The instructions in this article apply to Gmail on Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, and Mac OS X or newer.

How to Add a Label to a Gmail Message

Folder-based sorting stores emails in one location, label-based sorting can apply several labels to a single message.

To add one or more labels to Gmail messages:

  1. Log in to your Gmail account.

  2. Open a message. Or, select the check boxes in the message list to select several emails.

    Screenshot of multiple emails selected in Gmail inbox
  3. Go to the toolbar and select the Labels icon.

    Labels icon in Gmail
  4. In the Label As dialog box, select the label you want to apply.

    Work label in Gmail
  5. Choose Create New to make and apply a new label.

How to Customize Your Gmail Labels

The Label As dialog box includes a link to Manage Labels, which is a shortcut to the Labels screen of the Gmail Settings menu. Either click that link, or go to Settings > Labels, or (if you're logged in to your Gmail account) use the shortcut link:

At the bottom of the settings screen, you'll see your custom labels. Select Create New Label to add a new label to the list.

Each label supports four settings groups:

  • Show in label list: Anytime a list of messages with labels appears in the left sidebar, select show (the default) to show the label persistently, hide to suppress it persistently, or show if unread to appear only when unread messages with that label appear.
  • Show in message list: Select whether the label appears on messages in the message list.
  • Actions: Select Remove to delete the label or edit to change it.
  • Show in IMAP: Force email programs (like Microsoft Outlook) that use IMAP folders instead of Gmail labels to treat labels like IMAP folders.

Unless there's a need to hide messages, leave Show in IMAP selected by default.

How to Manage Gmail Labels

To edit or delete Gmail labels:

  1. Go to the Folders pane and select the label you want to manage.

  2. Select the More button to the right of the label name.

    More button in Gmail
  3. Choose the feature you want to change, such as the label color. Or, select Edit to change the label name or nest it under another label.

    Edit label dialog in Gmail
  4. Select Save to apply the changes.

  5. Choose Remove Label from the More menu to delete a label.