How-To Geek

How to Get Notifications for Only the Emails You Care About in Gmail

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Email is a powerful tool that we all use, but it can also be exceedingly annoying to get notifications for every single message that hits your inbox. With Gmail, however, there are a variety of ways to keep things silent, yet still immediately know about the messages that are important to you.

The Two Main Types of Gmail Inboxes You Can Use

Before we get into the meat and potatoes here, we first need to talk about the different types of Gmail inboxes. Firstly, there’s the “Default” inbox—this uses Gmail’s tabbed interface, which automatically sorts through messages and puts them into the correct category: Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates, and Forums. This is how Gmail is configured out of the box (though the “Forums” option is disabled by default), and users can customize the labels, toggling them individually, save for the Primary box.

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Alternatively, you can configure Gmail to use the “Priority” inbox. This is more similar to Gmail’s older, traditional interface—there are no tabs along the top, though your messages are sorted into a few top-to-bottom categories. Priority Inbox puts messages it deems “important” up at the top (based on who sent the email, among other factors), so you always see those first. It learns over time (and with your help) which emails are important and which aren’t. From there, users are able to further customize how their inbox looks, with what’s important to them in the following sections. Many users choose to use the Default Inbox for their personal email, where Priority makes more sense for their work inbox.

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Finally, there are a handful of other options: Important First, Unread First, and Starred First. These are all pretty self-explanatory, and for the purposes of this tutorial, work just like Priority Inbox.

The way you configure notifications will vary according to which inbox you’re using. So decide which is best for you (you can use different ones for each account), and let’s get started.

The Easy Way: Set Notifications for the Default Inbox

If you use Gmail’s Default tabbed inbox, setting up notifications for the messages you want to read is pretty simple—but this also gives you the least amount of control. If fine-tuning your notifications is what you’re after, skip to the next sections. Those methods take a bit more effort to set up, but give you more control.

Step One: Turn on the Default Inbox

If you’ve never changed your inbox setting, there’s a good chance you’re already the Default Inbox. If you’re not sure, however, it never hurts to check, so let’s take a look at where to find this setting (and tweak it if you’d like). Note: this setting does not exist on iOS, but if you change it on the web, it’ll sync to the Gmail app on iOS. It will not sync to Android, so Andorid users will have to change it on the web and on the mobile app.

  • On the web: First, click the cog icon in the upper right corner, then choose “Settings.” On the next page, click the “Inbox” tab. The top option will show which type of inbox you’re currently using—to change it, just click the dropdown menu and select the one you’d like to use.

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  • On Android: Slide open the left-hand menu, then scroll down to “Settings.” From there, select your email address, then tap “Inbox type.” If it’s not already selected, choose “Default.” Done.

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Simple, right? Now it’s time to customize notifications.

Step Two: Turn on Notifications for the Primary Tab

Now that you’re using the Default Inbox, you can choose which tabs cause notifications. Since the Default inbox is very good at sorting through the fluff and putting things where they belong (according to each tab), we’re just going to turn on notifications for the “Primary” box. This consists of basically anything that isn’t some form of newsletter, social notification, or coupon/promo—basically, it’s regular emails from real people. (If you want notifications from other boxes, like Updates or Promotions, you can tweak these instructions to fit your needs.)

  • On Chrome: If you’d like to get notifications on your computer, open Gmail and click on the “Secure” link in Chrome’s omnibox. Scroll down to “Notifications” and select “Always allow on this site.”

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  • On Android: In Gmail, open the sliding menu and head to “Settings.” Select your email address, tap “Manage Labels,” then “Primary” (which should be the top option). There’s a good chance that notifications for this box will enabled by default, but if you’d like to get an audible notification for every email, tick the “Notify for every message” box.

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  • On iOS: In the Gmail app, slide open the left-hand menu, then scroll down to “Settings.” Tap your email address, then tick the “Primary Only” option under the Notifications section. It couldn’t be easier.

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From now on, you should only get notifications for messages in your primary inbox. Nice!

Step Three: Train Your Default Inbox

You’re not quite finished. Gmail isn’t perfect, which means some things may occasionally get sorted into the wrong box—and not send a notification when they should. So long-term, you’ll want to watch your other boxes. If there’s something that shows up in the “Updates” tab that you’d prefer to get notifications for, you’ll need to let Gmail know to send similar messages to Primary.

  • On the web: In the browser, simply drag and drop the email to the appropriate tab. Gmail will remember that for next time.

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  • On Android and iOS: First either tap the message’s icon (to the left of the message itself) or long-press on the message until it turns gray. Then, click the three-button overflow menu in the upper-right corner and select “Move to.” Select “Primary.” From that point forward, emails from that sender will always go to your Primary box.

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Because of the nature of Default Inbox’s tabbed interface, it can take a while to get it set up exactly like you want—since you have to watch all of your messages, it’s easy to miss one here and there. But the more you use it (and move emails to the correct tab), the smarter  it gets.

The Somewhat Customizable Way: Set Up Notifications for Priority Inbox

If you’re a Priority Inbox user (or plan on making the switch), there’s good news: settings up notifications for your inbox is pretty simple—though it may require a little more training than the Default inbox.

Step One: Turn on Priority Inbox

First things first: let’s get that new inbox set up. If you’re using Priority Inbox, skip to step two. If you’re not sure, just follow the instructions to find out which inbox you’re currently using. Note: this setting does not exist on iOS, but if you change it on the web, it’ll sync to the Gmail app on iOS. It will not sync to Android, so Andorid users will have to change it on the web and on the mobile app.

  • On the web: Jump into Gmail on the desktop, click the cog in the right corner, then select “Settings.” From there, click the “Inbox” tab, and check the Inbox Type. It’ll show which in box you’re currently using—if it’s not Priority and you’d like to make the switch, just select it from the dropdown menu.

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  • On Android: Open the left-hand menu, then scroll down to “Settings.” From there, select your email address, then tap “Inbox type.” If it’s not already selected, choose “Priority Inbox”.

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Now that you’re using Priority Inbox on all your devices, it’s time to set up notifications.

Step Two: Turn on Notifications for Important Messages

Priority Inbox and Default Inbox work pretty similarly to one another: Gmail picks out the important stuff, then sorts through the rest. It does this with categories and tabs in the Default Inbox, but Priority is a bit simpler—important stuff goes at the top, and everything else down below. This gives you a bit more customization and a simpler interface. To turn on notifications:

  • On the web: To turn on web notifications, open Gmail, click the “Secure” link in Chrome’s omnibox, scroll down to Notifications and choose “Always allow for this site.”

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  • On Android: In the Gmail app, slide in from the left side to open the menu, scroll down to “Settings,” select your email address, and make sure “Notifications” are enabled in the checkbox. If you want notifications for every “important” message, tap on “Priority inbox sound & vibrate,” then tick the “Notify for every message” box.

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  • On iOS: Open the Gmail app, slide open the left-hand menu, then choose “Settings.” Select your email address, then make sure “Important Only” is selected under the Notifications section.

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Step Three: Train Your Priority Inbox

Priority Inbox does its thing by watching what you do in your email: messages from senders that you often read will be marked as Important, because, well, they’re probably important to you. But it’s not that smart on its own—sometimes it messes up and either marks an unimportant message as important or vice-versa. You can make it a lot smarter if you correct it when it gets something wrong. A couple days or weeks later, it’ll be pretty good about getting everything right.

  • On the web: To denote a message as important (or unimportant), just click the little arrow-looking icon to the left of the message sender. Yellow means the message is important, unmarked means the message is unimportant. To find out why a message was marked important, hover over the arrow for a few seconds.

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  • On Android and iOS: First, either tap on the sender’s icon (on the left of the message) or simply long-press the message. Then, tap the three-button overflow menu in the top right and select “Mark Important” (or “Mark Not Important” if that’s what you’re trying to do).

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Like the Default Inbox, it can take a bit of time to get Priority Inbox to work exactly like you want. The good news is that the more you use it, the better it gets. So go on about your business, let Gmail know which messages are important to you, and in no time you’ll only get notifications for messages you actually want to know about.

The Granular Way: Customize Your Notifications with Filters and Labels

If all that isn’t enough, you have one more option: you can create your own custom filters that notify you only of emails with certain characteristics. To get started, you’ll actually have to first up Gmail on your computer—setting up filters isn’t possibly on the mobile Gmail app (not that you’d really want it to be).

Step One: Set Up Custom Filters

First things first: click the cog icon with the dropdown arrow in the upper-right corner, then click “Settings.”

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From here, navigate over to the “Filters and Blocked Addresses” tab.

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In the center of this section, there’s an option that reads “Create a new filter.” Click that.

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A new box will appear with several options. Depending on what you’re trying to do, you’ll fill out the appropriate info here—for example, if you want to get notifications from a specific sender, put their email address in the “To” entry. Or if you’re looking to get notified for specific keywords, use the “Subject” or “Has the words” options. This is going to be specific for your notification settings, so I can’t tell you exactly what to enter here, but check out our Gmail Filters guide for tips on all the useful stuff you can do here.

Once you have everything filled out for your filter, click the “create filter with this search” link in the bottom right.

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The next window will let you set a few more specific options, like the ability to automatically apply a label to the message. Go ahead and tick the “Apply the label” box, then hit the “Choose label” dropdown. You’re going to create a new label here, so select “New label.”

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Give your new label a name—something that applies to what it does makes the most sense, but you can do whatever you want here. Just remember it for later. Click the “Create” button when you’re finished.

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Finally, you can retroactively apply this filter to all existing conversations if you’d like—just tick the “Also apply filter to XX matching conversations” box. This will make it easier to see everything for the new filter in one place: under the new label you created. Once you’ve got all that set up, just click the “Create filter” option.

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Boom, filter done.

Step Two: Configure Notifications for Your Filter

Unfortunately, there’s no way to granularly control notifications on the web or iOS, so this one section is for Android users only. Sorry, everyone else.

First, open the Gmail app, then slide the menu open from the left side, scroll all the way down, and choose “Settings.”

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If you have multiple email addresses signed in on your phone, select the one where you just created the new filter and label.

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Scroll down to the “Manage Labels” entry, then select it. On the next screen, tap on the first options (which is generally named after the type of inbox you’re using).

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If you only want notifications for specific emails, you’ll want to disable notifications for everything else. De-select the “Label notifications” option here. Make sure to leave the “Sync” options alone here.

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Head back to the “Manage Labels” screen, then find the label you created on the computer in the above steps. It’ll likely be the last option.

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On this page, tap the “Sync messages” option—after all, you have to send the messages to your phone before it can notify you of them, right? Select “Sync: Last 30 days” to start synchronizing this label with your phone.

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Back on the label screen (which will show up immediately after you select the sync setting in the above step), tap the “Label notifications” option. It will warn you that notification are turned off and ask if you’d like to turn them on. Tap “OK.”

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This will turn on notifications, but since you want notifications for every message here, check the “Notify for every message” box, too. Otherwise, it will notify you for the first message, but only display silent notifications for all following messages.

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And that’s it! You’re finished.

If you like inbox notifications for all new emails but don’t want to receive notifications for certain unimportant emails, you could also create filter that tells those emails to “Skip the inbox” when they arrive. If you also categorize them under a label, you can review them at a later time by selecting that label. They’ll be marked unread, but you won’t receive the standard notification when they arrive because they won’t appear in your inbox.

Cameron Summerson is a self-made geek, Android enthusiast, horror movie fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys on the 'net, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, chugging away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

  • Published 01/17/17

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