Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox

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there’s just enough synchronization between Mail and Gmail to make it dangerous to try to use both when Priority Inbox is activated.

The issue that bedeviled me most was that if I opened a message even once on my iPad or iPhone, Mail would inform Gmail of that fact via the IMAP connection between the two programs. Then, the next time I opened Gmail, the message I had opened would be in the “Important” section, way down the page where I might never see it again, rather than the “Important and Unread” section. In the Priority Inbox system, the “Important and Unread” section is your first line of defense against the e-mail barrage—it’s the area you attend to first. So when messages fall out of it, the chances that you’ll ever get to them go down drastically.

That meant I fell into a ridiculous pattern of avoiding opening certain messages in Mail if it appeared from the subject line that they might be so important that I’d want them to stay in the “Important and Unread” section of Gmail. In other words, I had to make lots of little decisions every day to compensate for the fact that my mail clients didn’t behave the same way on different machines. Who needs that kind of hassle?

The second big reason Priority Inbox didn’t work for me is that it encouraged a very bad habit, i.e. treating my e-mail inbox as if it were a to-do list. Like many other people, I often leave messages in my inbox as reminders that I’m supposed to do something about them. This is an understandable tactic, given that it’s impossible to deal with every request the moment it pops into your inbox. But one cost of this habit is that your inbox never really empties out—in fact, it just gets bigger. Which means there’s always a huge pile of messages sitting there, fueling your guilt over being so inefficient at reading and managing them, and making the prospect of checking your e-mail even more unpleasant.

Priority Inbox encourages this habit by using artificial categories to make the job of handling your e-mail seem easier than it really is. When the feature is on, Gmail dumps hundreds of messages into the “Everything Else” bin, which is just putting off the inevitable, since you’re going to have to deal with them at some point. And as I noted above, messages that you’ve opened at least once (even in another e-mail client) move automatically from the “Important and Unread” section down to the “Important” section. All this shuffling around makes it harder to find your messages later. And it fosters the delusion that by merely reading a message, you’ve actually done something about it. You haven’t—Gmail has merely shoved it into another pile, where you’re more likely to lose track of it.

There are a dozen good time-management for e-mail philosophies out there, such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system, and every single one of them has the same bedrock precept: don’t touch an incoming item more than once. Respond to it, file it, delete it—but whatever you do, don’t just … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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