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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 July 8, 2020

    What Everyone Is Wrong About Achieving Inbox Zero

    What Everyone Is Wrong About Achieving Inbox Zero

    Ah, Inbox Zero. An achievement that so many of us long for. It’s elusive. It’s a productivity benchmark. It’s an ongoing battle.

    It’s also unnecessary.

    Don’t get me wrong, the way Inbox Zero was initially termed is incredibly valuable. Merlin Mann coined the phrase years ago and what he has defined it as goes well beyond the term itself.[1]

    Yet people have created their own definition of Inbox Zero. They’re not using it with the intent that Mann suggested. Instead, it’s become about having nothing left in immediate view. It’s become about getting your email inbox to zero messages or having an empty inbox on your desk that was once filled with papers. It’s become about removing visual clutter.

    But it’s not about that. Not at all.

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    Here’s what inbox zero actually is, as defined by Mann:

    “It’s about how to reclaim your email, your atten­tion, and your life. That “zero?” It’s not how many mes­sages are in your inbox–it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.” – Merlin Mann

    The Fake Inbox Zero

    The sense of fulfillment one gets from clearing out everything in your inbox is temporary at best, disappointing at worst. Often we find that we’re shooting for Inbox Zero just so that we can say that we’ve got “everything done that needed to be done”. That’s simply not the case.

    Certainly, by removing all of your things that sit in your inbox means that they are either taken care of or are well on their way to being taken care of. The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is often applied to clearing out your inbox. But unless you’ve actually done something with the stuff, it’s either not worth having in your inbox in the first place or is still sitting in your “mental inbox”.

    You have to do something with the stuff, and for many people, that is a hard thing to do. That’s why Inbox Zero – as defined by Mann – is not achieved as often as many people would like to believe. It’s this “watered down” concept of Inbox Zero that is completed instead. You’ve got no email in your inbox and you’ve got no paper on your desk’s inbox. So that must mean you’re at Inbox Zero.

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    Until the next email arrives or the next document comes your way. Then you work to get rid of those as quickly as possible so that you can get back to Inbox Zero: The Lesser again. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, then you get there. But if they require more time, then soon you’ve got more stuff in your inboxes. So you switch up tasks to get to the things that don’t require as much time or attention so that you can get closer to this stripped down variation of Inbox Zero.

    However, until you deal with the bigger items, you don’t quite get there. Some people feel as if they’ve let themselves (or others) down if they don’t get there. And that, quite frankly, is silly. That’s why this particular version of Inbox Zero doesn’t work.

    The Ultimate Way to Get to Inbox Zero

    So what’s the ultimate way to get to Inbox Zero?

    Have zero inboxes.

    The inbox is meant to be a stop along the way to your final destination. It’s the place where stuff sits until you’re ready to put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it.

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    So why not skip the inbox altogether? Why not put it in the place where it sits until you’re ready to deal with it? Because that requires immediate action. It means you need to give the item some thought and attention.

    You need to step back and look at it rather than file it. That’s why we have a catch-all inbox, both for email and for analog items. It allows us to only look at these things when we’re ready to do so.

    The funny thing is that we can decide when we’re ready to without actually looking at the inbox beforehand. We can look at things on our own watch rather than when we are alerted to or feel the need to.

    There is no reason why you need an inbox at all to store things for longer than it sits there before you see it. None. It’s a choice. And the choice you should be making is how to deal with things when you first see them, rather than when to deal with things you haven’t looked at yet.

    Stop Faking It

    Seeing things in your inboxes is simply using your sight. Looking at things in your inbox when you first see them is using insight.

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    Stop checking email more than twice per day. Turn off your alerts. Put your desk’s inbox somewhere that it can be accessed by others and only accessed by you when you’re ready to deal with what’s in it. Don’t put it on your desk – that’s productivity poison.

    If you want to get to Inbox Zero — the real Inbox Zero — then get rid of those stops along the way. You’ll find that by doing that, you’ll be getting more of the stuff you really want done finished much faster, rather than see them moving along at the speed of not much more than zero.

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    Featured photo credit: Web Hosting via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Merlin Mann: Inbox Zero

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