How to: Streamline your email

We show you merge accounts, move to Gmail, and clean up your inbox.

Despite the emergence of Slack, Basecamp and other so-called email killers, most people still spend an inordinate amount of their day dealing with multiple, overloaded inboxes. Here we’re going to show merge your various legacy inboxes into a single mailbox and minimise the unnecessary clutter that accumulates. 

STEP 1: Merge your accounts

Perhaps the easiest way to deal with email overload is to merge all your mailboxes into a single account. Many of us will have accumulated Hotmail, Yahoo and other email accounts over the years, or even several different accounts with the same provider. Managing all that mail from a single, unified inbox is normally preferable to logging in to several different accounts, even if you only check the stragglers occasionally. 

Before you do that, however, it’s worth asking yourself whether those legacy accounts are of any use in the first place. Most people only maintain old inboxes because it’s linked to another account (your Amazon account, say) or because old acquaintances have that address. Instead of diverting all that mail to another inbox, with all the cruft that comes with it, it’s often simpler to change the email address of the Amazon account, say, or ping old friends with a new address, and leave the old account to gently wilt.

Sometimes, however, this is made tricky by the actions of the big providers. For example, you may still have a Hotmail account active to log in to Windows 10, or maintain your Xbox Live account. You can switch these credentials to, say, a Gmail account, but it can get messy. Here, then, is collect all your email from a single inbox.

STEP 2: Move everything to Gmail

We’re going to show you migrate all of your different email accounts to a single Gmail inbox. Other services, such as Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail, offer similar features, but Gmail surpassed its rivals several years ago as the most popular webmail service, so we’ll stick to what most people want to use.

First, you have to decide whether you want to import all the emails that are already in your old account. If you do, click the cog icon in the top-right-hand corner of the inbox and choose Settings. Now select the Accounts And Import tab and you’ll see an option to Import Mail and Contacts. Click on the link and enter the address of the account you wish to import. Note that the import is handled by a service called ShuttleCloud, which warns that “during import, the connection to the service provider may be unencrypted”. That’s worryingly vague, but we suspect it depends on whether the mail at your old provider is set to be encrypted by default in the first place. 

You’ll then need to enter the login credentials of your old account and give ShuttleCloud permission to access certain types of data. You’ll be given the option to import contacts, old mail and new mail for the next 30 days. Untick the New Mail option, because we’re going to set Gmail to collect from our old account from now on. It can take up to two days for all your mail to be imported, and you can check the current status of the import from Gmail’s Accounts And Import tab. Note: emails imported to Gmail from other accounts will be sent to the deleted folder of the old account, so make sure you’re certain you want to collect everything from Gmail before starting this process. 

Now we need to set Gmail to collect all new mail that arrives in the old account. Go back to Gmail’s settings and the Accounts and Import Tab and this time click the “Check email from other accounts (using POP3)” link. Enter your email address and password again. At this point, you might need to check that you have POP3 access enabled in your old account, or else your credentials may be rejected – as they were with our test Hotmail account. Note the other options to leave a copy of retrieved messages on the server, add Gmail labels to incoming messages, and bypass the inbox with email collected from this old account and send it straight to Gmail’s archive. 

Once that’s completed, you should be able to receive and send messages from your old account via Gmail. You can repeat the process for up to five accounts. You may notice that if you send a test mail to yourself from the old account’s address, it arrives from your Gmail address “on behalf of youremailaddress@youremaildomain.com”. That can look a bit odd to recipients, but they can reply without any problem. 

STEP 3: Unify your inbox

An alternative to merging all your email inboxes into one account is to use an email client that offers a unified inbox. This means that messages from multiple accounts appear in the same inbox, rather than you having to check each separately. 

Despite being Microsoft’s flagship product, Outlook for Windows didn’t include a unified mailbox option until an Office update in July. It’s therefore a little surprising that the free Windows 10 Mail client (go to Settings | Manage Accounts and choose Linked Inboxes) includes this .

If you’re glued to Outlook, and are using an older version that doesn’t have the unified inbox update, there is a partial workaround. Add your various email accounts using the Account Settings wizard under the File Menu and then add the inbox for each account to your Favorites, by right-clicking on the Inbox label and choosing the relevant option. In the top left of the Outlook screen, you’ll now get a listing of every inbox with the number of unread messages in each. Imperfect, certainly, but better than trying to navigate each inbox from the menu pane down the left. 

If you’re looking for a Windows client that offers a unified inbox, Mailbird is worthy of consideration. Its interface is very webmail-like and the search is a little underpowered for our liking, but it’s highly customisable and integration for third-party apps such as Slack and WhatsApp makes it even better for your digital diet, allowing you to juggle several comms accounts from one window. Mozilla’s Thunderbird also offers a unified inbox via its Smart Folders . 

On mobile, the free Outlook app for  iOS and Android handles multiple accounts with aplomb (you know, unlike that desktop software you pay hundreds of dollars for) and can also juggle multiple calendars. 

STEP 4: Clean up your mailbox

Now that you have your various mailboxes in order, it’s time to clean them up so that you’re only exposed to the messages you might genuinely want to read. If, like most people, you use a webmail account such as Gmail or Outlook.com for web registrations, newsletters and the like, then you should pay a visit to unroll.me.

Once you’ve granted this service access to your webmail account, it will scan your inbox for any email subscriptions you’ve been signed up for, inadvertently or otherwise. You can then go down the list (which ran into the hundreds in our test Gmail account) and choose to either unsubscribe from that email list, leave it in your inbox, or roll it into a daily email roundup that contains all of these email circulars in one hit.

We’ve used Unroll.Me for months, and it’s definitely reduced the volume of email in our inbox. It’s pretty flexible, too. You can choose to receive your email “Rollup” first thing in the morning, at lunchtime or on the way back from work of an evening (although a precise delivery time would be more beneficial). You can also change the layout of the email from list to grid view, if you prefer. The downside is Unroll.Me employs some ad tracking as the quid pro quo for providing this service. You can, however, opt out of this in the settings on the Unroll.Me website.  

Another tool that’s excellent for clearing up webmail accounts is Mailstrom. This service again scans your inbox, but then neatly categorises your mail by sender, subject, size, or by the type of message (say social or shopping). So if you want to bulk-delete all those pointless Twitter alerts you’ve accumulated over the years, you can do so in one fell swoop. It also includes an Unsubscribe tool for noisy newsletters and has filters that can deal with incoming junk in the future. It’s free to try out, but costs US$50 annually after the trial expires.


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