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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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    Published on July 15, 2019

    10 Simple Strategies to Make Your Life Better Starting Today

    10 Simple Strategies to Make Your Life Better Starting Today

    Habits are an important part of the direction you take your life, and — as I’ll share with you shortly — there are certain daily habits you can adopt right away that are guaranteed to improve your life.

    Think back to when you were just six or seven years old…

    At that age you probably didn’t have many habits. But, as the years went by, you picked up more and more good and bad habits.

    You may not have thought about it before, but habit forming never really stops.

    That’s why it’s never too late to change your habits and transform your life.

    So, if you feel burdened by your bad habits, start kicking them into shape by replacing them with these 10 positive, life-changing strategies:

    1. Go to Bed a Little Earlier and Wake up Earlier 

    Starting tonight, get yourself to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual. And, then make sure you get up tomorrow morning 30 minutes earlier, too. This small change can have a BIG impact on your day. 

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    Instead of furiously rushing in the morning to get ready for work, the extra time will give you a golden opportunity to start your day off on the right note. You can drink a smoothie while sitting on your porch, spend 10 minutes exercising and stretching, and still have time to read a few pages of an inspiring book.

    2. Be Grateful for the Good Things in Your Life 

    Setbacks and obstacles are inevitable in life. But, with a positive mindset, you’ll be able to overcome most of these. And, when you do, you’ll boost your self-confidence. 

    This is something you can definitely be grateful for. 

    However, if worst-case scenarios are playing out in your life, then sometimes, to stay strong, you’ll need to keep your mind on the good things that are happening to you. For example, your relationship with your partner might be crumbling, but your career is continuously getting stronger. It’d be easy to feel downtrodden and miserable about your relationship problems —  but, it would be much healthier to keep your mind and gratitude on these things that are going well, such as your career.

    3. Drink Water All Day Every Day 

    I’m sure you’ve heard the advice of drinking at least eight glasses of water a day, but are you following that advice? If not, you’re robbing your body and mind of essential hydration. 

    With the right amount of water intake a day, you’ll be amazed how good you feel — and how good you look!

    4. Take 15 Minutes to Set Goals for the Day, and Then Tackle Them One by One 

    This strategy will put your life into a new stratosphere! And, it’s very simple to do. 

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    Simply spend 15 minutes in the morning (either at home or at work) planning what you need and want to achieve during the rest of the day. Once you’ve listed your tasks, the next step is to put them into order of priority. 

    For instance, you have three things to do: catch up with your emails, write a project update, and prepare a briefing for your CEO. It’s best if you put these in order of importance. In this example, your emails can probably wait until you’ve created your CEO brief and updated your project documentation.

    5. Turn Off Your Cell Phone (or Put it on Airplane Mode) When You’re Focusing 

    A 2012 study found that even looking at a cell phone or feeling it vibrate in your pocket can significantly distract focus and reduce your ability to complete complex tasks.[1]

    It’s no surprise really, as our thoughts are subconsciously drawn towards checking our phones when they’re switched on. It’s a bad habit — but one that most of us have. However, when you need 100% focus (like I do when writing my articles), then switching your phone off, or at least putting it into airplane mode, will free your mind and supercharge your focus. Try it and see!

    6. Walk as Much as You Can 

    Have you noticed that most people’s lives are sedentary? They drive to work, sit in front of a screen all day, then drive home and binge on the latest Netflix series. It’s no wonder there’s a growing epidemic of obesity and mental health issues. 

    Our bodies are made to move — so we should move them! This can be as simple as walking up the stairs to your office instead of taking the elevator, and going out for a walk around the block at lunchtime. In the evening, instead of arriving home and crashing on the sofa; spend 20 to 30 minutes walking around your block.

    When you make these things a habit, you’ll be amazed by how much better you feel. You’ll have less stress — and more energy.

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    7. Be Mindful of Your Surroundings

    How often do you stop, think and appreciate the “here and now”? I’m guessing not very often. But, I understand why. Modern life is demanding and fast-paced. There’s precious little time to appreciate the small things. 

    But, if you want to live a healthy and happy life, you must break out of this trap. You can do this by allocating 15 to 30 minutes each day for mindful meditation. This could be in a park, in your garden, or even in your lounge. The trick is to focus 100% on your surroundings. 

    For example, if you’re outside, watch how the leaves on the trees blow around in the wind. By keeping your focus on this movement, you’ll clear your mind from your usual stresses and strains. This will give you brain a much-needed break. And, as well as improving your mental health; you’ll find your creativity gets a boost, too.

    8. Ask for Help When You Need It 

    No one can know or do everything. Which is why you shouldn’t be embarrassed to delegate tasks to others when needed, ask questions when you don’t have the answers, and work with partners and colleagues to clarify intentions. 

    When I first set up Lifehack, I tried to do everything myself: blog writing, website creation, marketing, financial planning, etc. However, I quickly learned that it was much better to hire some help. Not only did this inject some fresh ideas and inspiration into Lifehack — it also made the whole operation way more enjoyable!

    9. Practice Self Care 

    Are you looking after yourself as well as you should? If not, then take steps to improve your diet, exercise more, and to speak to yourself with encouraging words and thoughts. 

    The latter suggestion is often overlooked. But how you speak to yourself determines how you feel, what you believe, and what you achieve.

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    10. Embrace Learning 

    You cannot transform your life without learning something new. That’s because the process of change forces you to adapt. But, many people stop learning as they get older, as they find the learning process boring and bothersome. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. It can be fun and rewarding. 

    Whether you decide to learn to play guitar or study the basics of accounting — embrace learning, and begin changing your world for the better.

    I’m sure you’ll agree that these 10 strategies are simple enough for you to start putting them into action in your life. (I suggest you begin today!) 

    Nevertheless, you’ll probably need to use some extra willpower for the first 30 days or so, as this is the typical length of time it takes to create a new habit. After that, these strategies will be part of your day-to-day life, and you won’t need to think about having to do them. In other words, they’ll have become habitual actions.

    If you need any further encouragement to get started with the 10 strategies, then consider this:

    Even just adopting one of the strategies can turn the tide in your favor. But, when you implement all 10, you’ll create an unstoppable trend towards success, health and happiness.

    So start making your life better — today!

    Featured photo credit: Javier Garcia via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Deborah R. Tindell and Robert W. Bohlander, Wilkes University: The Use and Abuse of Cell Phones and Text Messaging in the Classroom: A Survey of College Students

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