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.
While I can’t show you what works in every email program or interface, I’ll review a couple of common techniques that will make this easier. Those techniques are useful for more than just deleting email, and they work in arenas other than email as well.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Lengthen the display list
Several of the techniques we’ll look at 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 Outlook.com as of this writing), 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 are listed 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 be able to have as many on the screen as possible at a time.
Check your email program or service to see if that setting is available, and consider setting it to something large. We’ll see in a moment why that’s handy.
One of Windows’ basic concepts is selection. Click on something — like a message in a list — and it’s selected (and often highlighted). Also basic is the concept of 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, and the item you’ve clicked on becomes the only item selected.
- CTRL-Click. When you control-click an item, that item is added to the set of currently-selected items. In other words, any item or items previously selected remain selected in addition to what you just CTRL-clicked on. (If you CTRL-click on an item that is already selected, it is removed from the selection set without affecting the rest of the selection. So if you CTRL-click on an item mistakenly, you don’t have to start all over; just CTRL-click on it again, and it’s deselected.)
- SHIFT-Click. When you shift-click an item, all items from the item currently selected to the item that you click on will be selected. The result is that the first item you click on, and 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 next to each other, 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 all messages visible in the list would be selected. You can then CTRL-click to unselect specific messages, leaving the remaining selected.
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:
Click on that, and all the messages displayed will be selected. Note that, again in Outlook.com, the individual message icons have been converted into individual selection checkboxes.
In most email programs, if you click on a column header, the program will sort the items by that column:
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 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. That search can be used to automatically select and then 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:
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 that match 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 the selected messages.
This approach can be used for any searchable criteria in Gmail.