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Lessons on Email Processing from GMail’s Priority Inbox

Lessons on Email Processing from GMail’s Priority Inbox

    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.

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    Last Updated on September 16, 2019

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

    You have a deadline looming. However, instead of doing your work, you are fiddling with miscellaneous things like checking email, social media, watching videos, surfing blogs and forums. You know you should be working, but you just don’t feel like doing anything.

    We are all familiar with the procrastination phenomenon. When we procrastinate, we squander away our free time and put off important tasks we should be doing them till it’s too late. And when it is indeed too late, we panic and wish we got started earlier.

    The chronic procrastinators I know have spent years of their life looped in this cycle. Delaying, putting off things, slacking, hiding from work, facing work only when it’s unavoidable, then repeating this loop all over again. It’s a bad habit that eats us away and prevents us from achieving greater results in life.

    Don’t let procrastination take over your life. Here, I will share my personal steps on how to stop procrastinating. These 11 steps will definitely apply to you too:

    1. Break Your Work into Little Steps

    Part of the reason why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Break it down into little parts, then focus on one part at the time. If you still procrastinate on the task after breaking it down, then break it down even further. Soon, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “gee, this is so simple that I might as well just do it now!”.

    For example, I’m currently writing a new book (on How to achieve anything in life). Book writing at its full scale is an enormous project and can be overwhelming. However, when I break it down into phases such as –

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    • (1) Research
    • (2) Deciding the topic
    • (3) Creating the outline
    • (4) Drafting the content
    • (5) Writing Chapters #1 to #10,
    • (6) Revision
    • (7) etc.

    Suddenly it seems very manageable. What I do then is to focus on the immediate phase and get it done to my best ability, without thinking about the other phases. When it’s done, I move on to the next.

    2. Change Your Environment

    Different environments have different impact on our productivity. Look at your work desk and your room. Do they make you want to work or do they make you want to snuggle and sleep? If it’s the latter, you should look into changing your workspace.

    One thing to note is that an environment that makes us feel inspired before may lose its effect after a period of time. If that’s the case, then it’s time to change things around. Refer to Steps #2 and #3 of 13 Strategies To Jumpstart Your Productivity, which talks about revamping your environment and workspace.

    3. Create a Detailed Timeline with Specific Deadlines

    Having just 1 deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate. That’s because we get the impression that we have time and keep pushing everything back, until it’s too late.

    Break down your project (see tip #1), then create an overall timeline with specific deadlines for each small task. This way, you know you have to finish each task by a certain date. Your timelines must be robust, too – i.e. if you don’t finish this by today, it’s going to jeopardize everything else you have planned after that. This way it creates the urgency to act.

    My goals are broken down into monthly, weekly, right down to the daily task lists, and the list is a call to action that I must accomplish this by the specified date, else my goals will be put off.

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    Here’re more tips on setting deadlines: 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    4. Eliminate Your Procrastination Pit-Stops

    If you are procrastinating a little too much, maybe that’s because you make it easy to procrastinate.

    Identify your browser bookmarks that take up a lot of your time and shift them into a separate folder that is less accessible. Disable the automatic notification option in your email client. Get rid of the distractions around you.

    I know some people will out of the way and delete or deactivate their facebook accounts. I think it’s a little drastic and extreme as addressing procrastination is more about being conscious of our actions than counteracting via self-binding methods, but if you feel that’s what’s needed, go for it.

    5. Hang out with People Who Inspire You to Take Action

    I’m pretty sure if you spend just 10 minutes talking to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you’ll be more inspired to act than if you spent the 10 minutes doing nothing. The people we are with influence our behaviors. Of course spending time with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates every day is probably not a feasible method, but the principle applies — The Hidden Power of Every Single Person Around You

    Identify the people, friends or colleagues who trigger you – most likely the go-getters and hard workers – and hang out with them more often. Soon you will inculcate their drive and spirit too.

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    As a personal development blogger, I “hang out” with inspiring personal development experts by reading their blogs and corresponding with them regularly via email and social media. It’s communication via new media and it works all the same.

    6. Get a Buddy

    Having a companion makes the whole process much more fun. Ideally, your buddy should be someone who has his/her own set of goals. Both of you will hold each other accountable to your goals and plans. While it’s not necessary for both of you to have the same goals, it’ll be even better if that’s the case, so you can learn from each other.

    I have a good friend whom I talk to regularly, and we always ask each other about our goals and progress in achieving those goals. Needless to say, it spurs us to keep taking action.

    7. Tell Others About Your Goals

    This serves the same function as #6, on a larger scale. Tell all your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family about your projects. Now whenever you see them, they are bound to ask you about your status on those projects.

    For example, sometimes I announce my projects on The Personal Excellence Blog, Twitter and Facebook, and my readers will ask me about them on an ongoing basis. It’s a great way to keep myself accountable to my plans.

    8. Seek out Someone Who Has Already Achieved the Outcome

    What is it you want to accomplish here, and who are the people who have accomplished this already? Go seek them out and connect with them. Seeing living proof that your goals are very well achievable if you take action is one of the best triggers for action.

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    9. Re-Clarify Your Goals

    If you have been procrastinating for an extended period of time, it might reflect a misalignment between what you want and what you are currently doing. Often times, we outgrow our goals as we discover more about ourselves, but we don’t change our goals to reflect that.

    Get away from your work (a short vacation will be good, else just a weekend break or staycation will do too) and take some time to regroup yourself. What exactly do you want to achieve? What should you do to get there? What are the steps to take? Does your current work align with that? If not, what can you do about it?

    10. Stop Over-Complicating Things

    Are you waiting for a perfect time to do this? That maybe now is not the best time because of X, Y, Z reasons? Ditch that thought because there’s never a perfect time. If you keep waiting for one, you are never going to accomplish anything.

    Perfectionism is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination. Read more about why perfectionist tendencies can be a bane than a boon: Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect.

    11. Get a Grip and Just Do It

    At the end, it boils down to taking action. You can do all the strategizing, planning and hypothesizing, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen. Occasionally, I get readers and clients who keep complaining about their situations but they still refuse to take action at the end of the day.

    Reality check:

    I have never heard anyone procrastinate their way to success before and I doubt it’s going to change in the near future.  Whatever it is you are procrastinating on, if you want to get it done, you need to get a grip on yourself and do it.

    More About Procrastination

    Featured photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via unsplash.com

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