GMail’s latest feature, Priority Inbox, was rolled out this week to much fanfare, amidst claims from Google that it will speed email processing and reduce information overload. The fact that it produces neither result, in spite of the latest secret technology it uses, could help us all learn some important lessons about productive email management.

Google says that its internal testing revealed that the tool saves the average person some 6 minutes per day.

It’s hard to see how, when you realize that all the tool is doing is reshuffling you Inbox email. To draw a simple analogy, imagine your postman delivering your mail in two batches (assuming all the junk mail has been tossed away.) One batch is tied up with string and marked “high priority.” The other batch sits in a small box and is marked “low priority.”

While this would be a nice service, it would hardly produce any savings in time or effort. Whether you start with the high or low priority items makes hardly any difference to the end result — each piece of mail must still be opened and read, and some decision must be made about the information it contains.

He could also color-code it, alphabetize it and sort it by weight, zip code and size, but so what?

At the end of all that activity, you’d still have the same amount of time to process the entire lot. If this sounds a bit like what my Mom called “playing with your food before eating it” then it should… because that’s all it is; a mildly comforting convenience that makes no difference to the time it takes to process your email, or to the real issues of information overload.

Here’s what probably happened: a bunch of Googleheads sat around and figured out that they could apply the technology used in Spam filtering to the problem of cutting informationa overload by sorting user’s Inboxes. No-one went the next step to ask the obvious question: “What new habit or behavior change are we trying to promote?”

When you look at it from that perspective, it’s easy to see that the new tool could promote some bad habits. By now, everyone knows that the Zero Inbox is better to have than an Inbox that is filled with tens of thousands of messages. To those who aren’t careful, Priority Inbox will make it easier to process the highest priority emails, leaving the low priority ones to languish for “later.” This will lead to even further email overload, as illustrated in this example.

The average working professional gets over 140 emails per day, and let’s imagine that 20 of those are of high priority. That leaves 120 emails of low priority, which will be ignored on any given day. On the following day, if the same actions are repeated, that number of unread low priority email grows to 240, and then to 360 by the next. “Dealing with the highest priority emails only” is precisely the habit that the Zero Inbox concept was meant to fix, and encourages users to accumulate email in their Inbox.

The average user of Gmail Priority Inbox might very well make things worse for themselves and others, simply because Google hasn’t done its homework, and figured out exactly what new habits they are asking the user to adapt.

Luckily for us, there are some good lessons to learn in all this.

1. Habit First, Technology Second

There is more new technology coming at us each day, and it’s a bad idea to evaluate its value to us based on who created it, how fascinating it is or how well it works. Instead, we need to focus our attention on our habit patterns, and ask ourselves “Which beneficial habit change will this new technology facilitate?” and “Can I make the habit changes that are needed?” Only then should we look at the technology that will help us. Too often, we have it all backwards, deciding to use a new technology and leaving the habits to sort themselves out. Witness the problem on our roads of texting while driving as a perfect example of a poor technology-driven habit change.

2. Productivity First, Convenience Second

As we evaluate innovations, it’s easy to be distracted by the cool factor. Mobile TV, for example, is becoming a reality, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone will be more productive because they carry a television with them to every meeting, conversation and workshop. We need to be ruthless with our attention, and ensure that the tools we use everyday actually make us more productive, rather than adding a little convenience where it’s not needed.

3. Focused Attention First, Distractions Second

Many studies show that our best work comes from quiet focused activity, and definitely not from jumping between random pings, rings, buzzers, beeps and vibrations. We need to pick tools and devices that will help us manage our attention so that we do good work, rather than those that are designed to take us away from what’s important to other stuff that catches our attention simply because we let it.

There is no end to the innovations that are coming our way, and the rest of our lives are going to be filled with increasingly fascinating breakthroughs. There will be more “Productivity Inboxes” that get the attention of the press, as each company pushes the envelope in order to make more money.

However, these innovations must all be filtered before they ca be applied to our individual circumstances, and we must be the ones to decide how to impact our habits, productivity and attention so that we end up with the end-results we want in all areas of our lives.

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