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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 January 21, 2020

    5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life

    In the journey of growth, there are times when we grow and excel. We are endlessly driven and hyped up, motivated to get our goals.

    Then there are times when we stagnate. We feel uninspired and unmotivated. We keep procrastinating on our plans. More often than not, we get out of a rut only to get back into another one.

    How do you know if you are stagnating? Here are some tell-tale signs:

    • If you have been experiencing chronic procrastination on your goals
    • If you don’t ever feel like doing anything
    • If you keep turning to sleep, eating, games, mindless activities and entertainment for comfort
    • If you know you should be doing something, but yet you keep avoiding it
    • If you have not achieved anything new or significant now relative to 1 month, 2 months or 3 months ago
    • If you have a deep sense of feeling that you are living under your potential

    When we face stagnation in life, it’s a sign of deeper issues. Stagnancy in life, just like procrastination, is a symptom of a problem. It’s easy to beat ourselves over it, but this approach is not going to help.

    Here, I will share 5 steps to help you move out of this stagnation. They won’t magically transform your life in 1 night (such changes are never permanent because the foundations are not built), but they will help you get the momentum going and help you get back on track.

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    1. Realize You’re Not Alone

    Everyone stagnates at some point or another. You are not alone in this and more importantly, it’s normal. In fact, it’s amazing how many of my clients actually face the same predicament, even though all of them come from different walks of life, are of different ages, and have never crossed paths.

    Realizing you are not alone in this will make it much easier to deal with this period. By trying to “fight it”, you’re only fighting yourself. Accept this situation, acknowledge it, and tell yourself it’s okay. That way, you can then focus on the constructive steps that will really help you.

    2. Find What Inspires You

    Stagnation comes because there isn’t anything that excites you enough to take action. If you don’t have a habit of setting goals, and instead just leave yourself to daily mundanes, it’s not surprising you are experiencing stagnation.

    What do you want to do if there are no limitations? If you can have whatever you want, what will it be? The answers to these questions will provide the fuel that will drive you forward.

    On the other hand, even if you are an experienced goal setter, there are times when the goals you set in the past lose their appeal now. It’s normal and it happens to me too. Sometimes we lose touch with our goals, since we are in a different emotional state compared to when we first set them. Sometimes our priorities change and we no longer want to work on those goals anymore. However, we don’t consciously realize this, and what happens is we procrastinate on our goals until it compounds into a serious problem.

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    If that’s the case for you, it’s time to relook into your goals. There’s no point in pursuing goals that no longer inspire you. Trash away your old goals (or just put them aside) and ask yourself what you really want now. Then go for them.

    3. Give Yourself a Break

    When’s the last time you took a real break for yourself? 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Never? Perhaps it’s time to take a time-out. Prolonged working can cause someone to become disillusioned as they lose sight of who they are and what they want.

    Go take some extended leave from work. A few days at bare minimum; a few weeks or months will be great. Some of my ex-colleagues have quit their jobs and took months out to do some self-reflection. Of course, some of us might not have that luxury, so we can stick to a few weeks of leave.

    Go on a trip elsewhere and get away from your work and your life. Use this chance to get a renewed perspective of life. Think about your life purpose, what you want and what you want to create for your life in the future.

    These are big questions that require deep thinking over them. It’s not about finding the answers at one go, but about taking the first step to finding the answers.

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    4. Shake up Your Routines

    Being in the same environment, doing the same things over and over again and meeting the same people can make us stagnant. This is especially if the people you spend the most time with are stagnant themselves.

    Change things around. Start with simple things, like taking a different route to work and eating something different for breakfast. Have your lunch with different colleagues, colleagues you never talked much with. Work in a different cubicle if your work has free and easy seating. Do something different than your usual for weekday evenings and weekends. Cultivate different habits, like exercising every day, listening to a new series of podcasts every morning to work, reading a book, etc (here’re 6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick). The different contexts will give you different stimulus, which will trigger off different thoughts and actions in you.

    When I’m in a state of stagnancy, I’ll get a sense of what’s making me stagnate. Sometimes it’s the environment I’m in, sometimes it’s the people I’ve been hanging out with, sometimes it’s my lifestyle. Most of the times it’s a combination of all these. Changing them up helps to stir myself out of the stagnant mode.

    5. Start with a Small Step

    Stagnation also comes from being frozen in fear. Maybe you do want this certain goal, but you aren’t taking action. Are you overwhelmed by the amount of work needed? Are you afraid you will make mistakes? Is the perfectionist in you taking over and paralyzing you?

    Let go of the belief that it has to be perfect. Such a belief is a bane, not a boon. It’s precisely from being open to mistakes and errors that you move forward.

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    Break down what’s before you into very very small steps, then take those small steps, a little step at a time. I had a client who had been stagnating for a long period because he was afraid of failing. He didn’t want to make another move where he would make a mistake. However, not wanting to make a mistake has led him to do absolutely nothing for 2-3 years.

    On the other hand, by doing just something, you would already be making progress, whether it’s a mistake or not. Even if you make a supposed “mistake”,  you get feedback to do things differently in the next step. That’s something you would never have known if you never made a move.

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    Featured photo credit: Anubhav Saxena via unsplash.com

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