How to find and organize gmail lost archived items.

Since we started the 21st century, I use the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to clean house digitally. A synchronization of clocks, time servers, updates, firmware, and yearly maintenance with all things containing zeros and ones. The deleting of old emails, spam, and the archival of a picture folder entitled “2011.”

This year I stumbled on an interesting thing that gmail doesn’t do. It won’t show you mail that doesn’t have a label. Any mail that you “archived” to get off your in-box, without any categorization, dropped into this pit mixed with thousands of other labeled emails. Looking for these orphaned emails would involve looking through hundreds of pages of “All Mail.” I archived them for a reason (to go through them one day) otherwise I would have deleted them. Little did I know that finding these orphans would prove to be a challenge.

“Why do I need to see those old archived emails? If I ever need anything I’ll search for it and find it. “ – you might say.
The answer is the same as why you need a photo album and still like pawing through SkyMall. We are nostalgic creatures and sometimes (at least once a year) like to reflect on the past. Plus, a full catalog of information can result in more discovery. I’ll give two examples: 1. After rescuing my archived items I found a webcam picture of my dad with a cast on his arm. I barely remembered he broke it and seeing this picture gave me the memories back. 2. Listing out every sub-domain for UCI one day resulted in passport.uci.edu – weird way to find out that the University had its own passport office 1/4 mile from your house and you didn’t need to trek all over Orange County for mini-pictures and wait in a Post Office queue. I never thought either of these things existed and certainly wouldn’t have searched for them.

Gmail ninjas know about the Gmail advanced search options, but even here it specifically states: “There isn’t a search operator for unlabeled messages” Further searches looking for a fix resulted in a cobbled-together list of all your labels with a minus sign in front to indicate “anything not labeled this or that or etc.” Example: -(label:Subscriptions OR label:Ebay OR label:Rally OR label:Receipts) For some of you that never adopted labels, or only use 3 of them, this is great and might just work! For the rest of us, I noticed that after typing 6 or so of them into the search box and tried lables that had “Two Words” or “funky-ch@ract3rs/” search started to break. I think that nested labels makes this worse, but I stopped the experiment as I currently use 20+ labels.

In order to find your (labeled items archived in-box stuff orphaned never) you’re going to have to make the LIAISON pledge:

I {insert name here} promise to never blindly press the gmail archive button. I promise to make sure that 1 or 2 labels have been attached by filter or by my own key-press AND furthermore I promise to guard the secrets and ways of the Gmail ninja, never using my powers for evil.

Alright ninjas…
Add the ZZZ label

  • Start by making a new label. Something that you can search for in the future like “ZZZ”.
  • You will repeat the next steps many times as you go through all your labeled email.
  • START: View all of the mail in one label and click on the check-box in the upper left to select all mail.
  • At the top of the mail items a message will appear:
  • All 100 conversations on this page are selected. Select all ### conversations in “{your label}”
  • Click the link and now all the mail in that label is selected (be careful here)
  • Choose to add the ZZZ label to you messages:

  • Google with respond with a message. Feel free to click OK.
  • Find the rest of your  labels and tag them with ZZZ. It took me 5 minutes and you’ll never have to do it again.
  • If you still have labeled email to tag with ZZZ goto START
  • See that wasn’t so bad. 😀 Unless you have like 500 labels. 😐
  • If you do have more than 100 labels, I suggest 43 Folders.
  • Done!

Now you can use this magical search string:

-label:zzz -from:me -is:chat -in:inbox

Go ahead and paste that into your email search box. This means: Show me everything that IS NOT labeled ZZZ, that IS NOT from me, IS NOT a chat, and IS NOT already in the inbox. Since you tagged all the email you know about with ZZZ, items orphaned with no labels were not tagged. Your long lost archived items will appear! I had about 150 items that I selected and placed back into the inbox for me to go through in the next couple days.

What’s next?

  • Delete the ZZZ label now that you have no further use for it.
  • Never blindly hit the archive button again. You promised! 🙂
  • Get Google to make a search parameter for “label = null”
  • Enjoy your discovered conversations from the last few years!

Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

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