Deleting 290,589 emails

18th Mar, 2021

As part of my drive to reduce my use of Google services, I’m planning to get rid of my personal Gmail account.

Earlier this month, I received a renewal notice about the additional Google space I was paying for. It seemed as good a time as any to get to work.

I set about deleting all 290,589 emails from my Gmail account.

Backing up

Before deleting the emails, I wanted to take a backup of emails. If I don’t open this backup in the next year or so, I’ll probably wipe it completely.

Google’s Takeout service lets you export emails to an mbox file. There are clear instructions on the HEY website.

That produced a 20GB export. It seems Google ignores requests to chunk the export into smaller files.

As we all know: a backup is only useful if it works. The file should have readable to Apple Mail but each attempt to import crashed due to the size of the export.

I ended up importing to Thunderbird with the ImportExportTools add-on. It took a while, but it worked.


As it turns out, Gmail isn’t great at deleting nearly 300,000 emails in one shot.

In theory, it’s possible to highlight all emails in an inbox and move them to trash. In practice, Gmail deletes 5–10k emails at a time, occasionally removing as many as 20–30k in one shot.

There’s a clever date-based filter trick that might help with deletion it’s detailed as Solution 2 in this support thread. This technique didn’t work for me, but it might work for small inboxes.

Ultimately, I ended deleting emails from each folder/label in batches. This made it easier to see the progress and left a much-reduced Inbox by the time I reached it.

The whole process took an hour. Worth every second.

The next step is deleting my Gmail account. I plan to leave it dormant for a while to make sure I’ve caught all the email changes I need to make before completely deleting the account.