View Only Unread Messages in a Gmail Inbox with 2 Simple Tricks

Jun 30, 2013 - 7 Comments

Gmail logo Gmail is an excellent mail client, but one feature that has always felt missing was a simple sorting ability to view only the unread email messages residing in an inbox. It turns out you can show only the unread messages with Gmail though, you just have to use either a simple search operator to reveal only unread messages, or use a different Inbox sorting method that displays unread emails first regardless of the message age. Using either method is very simple, so pick whichever is best for your situation.

Show Only Unread Messages in the Gmail Inbox with Search

This uses a search function, making it temporary, and it does not change how the inbox functions or sorts messages beyond this task:

  • Click into the Gmail Search box and type the following exactly:
  • is:unread
    Show only unread email messages in Gmail inbox

  • Hit Return to sort the inbox by unread messages

If you have multiple boxes and want to see unread messages in the inbox, a slight variation of the above trick would be this Gmail search operator:

label: inbox, label: unread

The Gmail inbox will be sorted to only display messages that haven’t been read yet, this search operator is practically instantaneous regardless of how giant (or small) your unread mail count is.

View unread email only in Gmail

Yes, this search tricks works on the web in addition to the common mobile Gmail apps for iPhone and Android.

This is another significant advantage to webmail, since the task of sorting giant inboxes is handled by a remote server, it relieves the local machine of the disk and CPU intensive activity of sorting through potentially hundreds of thousands of past messages to find the 9000+ unread emails residing in the inbox. This screen shot example may be a bit extreme, but even my personal email has over 200+ unread messages at any given moment.

To reveal the normal inbox again with all read and unread messages together, either remove the search operator from the search box and hit return again, or just click the “Inbox” item from the left side menu.

Despite being such a simple feature, it doesn’t seem like common knowledge. I’ve been using Gmail for many years and didn’t know about this trick, and its as only in a passing conversation with a friend that I learned about it.

Change Gmail Inbox to Display Unread Email First

Another option goes beyond sorting and searching the inbox and actually prioritizes your Gmail inbox by message type, in this case, unread emails. With this enabled, all unread messages will appear on top of read messages, regardless of when either was sent. For example, an unread message from two weeks ago would appear above a read message from 10 minutes ago. Enabling this is really easy:

  • Go to Gmail Settings (Gear icon > Settings)
  • Choose the “Inbox” tab, then pull down the “Inbox type” menu and select “Unread First”

Show unread email first in Gmail

Unread messages will instantly sort to the top of the inbox, and the search operator will no longer be necessary unless you don’t want to see the read messages at all.

Either of these tricks are incredibly helpful for those of us who manage large inboxes, where new unread messages routinely get pushed off the front pages of the inbox, and inevitably end up buried several screens back with a bunch of already read mail. As we all know, once an email message ends up off the primary inbox screen, it’s pretty easy to forget about them, which only adds to the feeling of inbox overload when the unread count is reaching into the high numbers.

If Gmail is your primary email service too, don’t forget to set Gmail as the default web mail client for your web browser too.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Tips & Tricks

7 Comments

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  1. Steph says:

    Brilliant tip – thank you!

  2. John says:

    Thank you VERY much. Google ought to employ you, if only for your persistence and capacity to give simple instructions.

  3. Michelle says:

    Thanks so much for this quick tip – nothing could be simpler than is:unread!

  4. Tom says:

    Great Article. One question would be how to show unread emails at the top but still stay in the “Default” Category Labels mode?

    Thanks!

  5. Bill says:

    That just shows all unread messages. I send many unread to different boxes (Orders/Orders Generated/Payment Received etc) What I need is unread in the Inbox. Any tips?

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