It can be easy. It can be hard. It all depends on the tool you’re using.
Deleting multiple emails can be easy, or it can be really, really cumbersome.
Two factors determine which it’s going to be: your criteria for which emails you want to delete and the capabilities of your email program or website.
While I can’t show you what works everywhere, I’ll review a couple of common techniques to make this easier. Those techniques are useful for more than deleting email, since they work in other arenas as well.
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Deleting multiple emails
The most common approach to deleting large numbers of emails is to display as many as possible in your email program or website, sort or search by the criteria that defines what you want to delete, and then use a combination of click and shift-click to select the specific set of emails to be deleted. Once the desired messages are selected, you can then delete them. Exactly what selection capabilities are available and how to use them depends on your email program or interface.
Lengthen the display list
Several of the techniques below work best if you maximize the number of emails listed on your screen at one time. Not all email programs or services give you this control (most notably, as of this writing, Outlook.com does not), but many do (like Gmail).
In the General tab of Gmail settings is a setting called “Maximum page size”:
Many email programs have similar settings: they control how many messages they list at once before you have to click to see the next page. When you’re dealing with a lot of messages, it’s nice to have as many on the screen as possible at a time.
Check your email program or service to see if such a setting is available and consider setting it to something large — perhaps as large as possible. While it can mean slower displays of longer lists, we’ll see in a moment why that’s handy. (And you can always reset it after you’re done.)
One of Windows’ basic concepts is selection. Click on something — like a message in a list — and it’s selected (and often highlighted). Another basic concept is multiple selection: the ability to select more than one thing at a time. Let’s look at how each works.
- Click. When you click on an item, any other item in that list or set is de-selected (or un-selected, if you prefer), and the item you’ve clicked on becomes the only item selected.
- CTRL-click. Control-clicking an item adds that item to the set of currently selected items. Any items previously selected remain selected, plus what you just CTRL-clicked on. CTRL-clicking a selected item again removes it from the selection set without affecting the rest of the selection.
- SHIFT-click. Shift-clicking item selects all items from the item currently selected to the item that you click. The result is that the previously selected item — the item you shift-clicked on — and the range of all items in between are selected.
Given these selection techniques, you have three approaches to deleting multiple emails.
- Click each item and click Delete, one by one.
- CTRL-click all the items you want to delete, and press Delete to delete them all at once.
- Or, if the items are all in sequence, click the first item, SHIFT-click the last item, and click Delete to delete those two and everything in between.
One handy shortcut: typing CTRL+A means “select all”, and selects all messages visible in the list. You can then CTRL-click to unselect specific messages, leaving the remaining selected to delete.
Many web-based interfaces don’t use click, CTRL-click, and SHIFT-click the way I’ve described above. Instead, they include a checkbox in front of each item. You can check the checkbox for each item you want to act on and then click on Delete to delete the checked items.
In almost all cases, there’s also an extra checkbox as part of the list header. In Outlook.com, it looks like this:
Clicking on that selects all the messages displayed.
In most email programs, if you click on a column header, the program will sort the items by that column (unfortunately, Gmail does NOT do this):
Typically, clicking on the header sorts items in one direction, and clicking on it again sorts it in the other. In most cases, any column that can be displayed in an email (or many other) program’s list view can be used to sort the list.
Occasionally, web email interfaces use a menu or other option to indicate how their displayed list should be sorted.
Why do I focus on sorting so much? Because it makes what we’re about to do not just easy, but possible.
Combine sorting and multiple selection to delete multiple emails
Let’s say you want to delete all email from a particular person. The process combines what I’ve shown you so far.
- Sort your email list by “From” or “Sender”.
- Use click and SHIFT-click to select all the emails from that person.
If the list of email from that person is short enough to display on a single page, then you’re done. If not, you may need to repeat this a few times, depending on how many messages there are and how many can be displayed per page.
This technique works for any criteria that you can sort for:
- Deleting emails from a particular person
- Deleting emails to a particular person
- Deleting emails before, after, or between two dates
- Deleting emails that relate to a specific subject
- Deleting emails that have attachments, assuming that the “has attachment” column can be viewed and sorted on
- And probably more, depending on the capabilities of your email program
Even better, this technique works for more than just deleting. You might use it to:
- Move selected emails into a folder
- Mark selected emails as read or unread
- Flag or tag selected emails in one way or another
- And probably more, again depending on the capabilities of your email program
Advanced filtering techniques: Gmail
As one might expect from Google, Gmail has a very powerful search interface. You can use that search to automatically select and act on almost any criteria you can think of.
Let’s say you want to delete all the mails from a specific sender. First, search for that sender in Gmail’s search.
Gmail displays all the messages that meet that criteria (up to the number of messages configured to be displayed per page).
Click on the select-all checkbox:
If you have more than a page-worth of matching results, Gmail will display a line above the list of emails:
All 20 conversations on this page are selected. Select all conversations that match this search.
Click on the “Select all conversations that match” link to do exactly that. Not much will change, other than the text, which becomes:
All conversations in this search are selected. Clear selection
The key is that all conversations matching what you search for are selected, even those not displayed on your screen.
Click Delete, and they’ll all be deleted. Or click on any other action to apply that action to all selected messages.
You can use this approach for any searchable criteria in Gmail.
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