Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox

I was not one the pundits who heaped immediate praise on Priority Inbox, an e-mail management feature that Google added as an option in Gmail last August. TechCrunch instantly labeled it “fantastic,” TheNextWeb called it “outstanding,” and Venturebeat said it “lives up to the hype.” I was hopeful about it, but cautious. Having been burned in the past by other systems that promised to help me manage e-mail overload, I wanted to give this one a good long look before saying what I thought.

Seven months is probably long enough. I deactivated the feature a couple of weeks ago, having concluded that it ultimately raised, rather than lowered, my stress levels surrounding e-mail.

Mind you, I’m not blaming Google. I think Priority Inbox is a credible attempt to go beyond simple spam filtering and help people identify the truly important e-mail amidst the mountains of not-so-important messages. But for me, it just wasn’t effective; it caused more problems than it solved. I figure that sharing my experience might help others decide whether to try the feature or turn it off, and might even help Google refine it. I’d also love to hear about other people’s experiences with Priority Inbox—so please share your thoughts in the comments section. (By the way—although today is the seventh anniversary of Gmail and the occasion for yet another Gmail April Fool’s Day prank, my post is sadly non-humorous.)

If you’re not a Gmail user or you haven’t tried Priority Inbox, here’s the quick scoop. When you turn on this feature, Gmail creates a new inbox, parallel to your regular inbox, that’s divided into sections. The software begins screening your e-mail for signals like whom you correspond with most regularly and what keywords have been turning up in the messages you’ve opened recently. It puts new messages with those signals into a section called “Important and Unread.” It also creates a section for starred messages, another for important messages that you’ve already opened at least once, and another for “Everything Else”—stuff that Google presumes it’s safe to ignore, or check later.

That’s about it. Over time, Gmail gets better at deciding what’s important and what belongs in the “Everything Else” bin, and you can help train it by marking specific messages as important or unimportant. You can also customize the names of the sections, turn off certain sections, and set each section to show more items or fewer. But the basic idea is to “help you focus on what really matters,” as Google puts it.

The truth is that I detest e-mail. It’s obviously a huge improvement over phone calls, faxes, and snail mail, but its very ease means that it gets used indiscriminately, to the point that most of us are overwhelmed with messages—I get at least 200 every day, not counting spam. So to me, what really matters is spending as little time as possible in my inbox. Priority Inbox wasn’t helping me do that—in fact, just the opposite. I think there are three big reasons why.

The first reason: platform conflicts. Simply put, Gmail isn’t e-mail. For me, it’s just one of the clients I use to I manage my e-mail, the other main one being the native Mail app on my iPhone and my iPad. Because I’m away from my computer a lot, my iOS devices are often the only way I can get at my e-mail. And the Mail app has no Priority Inbox feature—it just shows you everything. Which would be okay, except that 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 leave it in your inbox, where it adds to your stressful load of unaccomplished tasks. Priority Inbox makes this kind of discipline much more difficult. If you let a message move from “Important and Unread” to “Important,” after all, then by definition you’re going to touch it at least twice.

I’m getting help battling my habit from a new Gmail plugin called Taskforce, which, as I explained last week, quickly converts e-mails into tasks on a list and helps teams track shared to-do items. Once I’ve created a to-do item, I can archive the original e-mail and be that much closer to emptying out my inbox. Taskforce does share one of the same pitfalls as Priority Inbox: it only works in Gmail, so I can’t create to-do items directly from the Mail app on my mobile devices. But that’s okay—now that I’ve turned off Priority Inbox, I know that messages that I’ve screened in Mail will still be where I left them when I get back to Gmail, and I can make them into tasks from there.

There’s a third reason Priority Inbox failed for me, and it’s the simplest of all: it’s not 100 percent accurate in its guesses about what’s important. Specifically, messages from people you’ve never corresponded with before often go straight into the “Everything Else” bin. I missed a handful of important e-mails this way—they were typically story pitches from sources who were contacting me for the first time. Eventually I got fed up with the embarrassment of having to write to people to say, “Hey, I just found your message from four months ago in my inbox…”

So, my hopes that Priority Inbox would be the cure for my e-mail ills proved unfounded. In Google’s defense, I think it’s a problem that can’t be solved by software alone. Help is available from tools like Taskforce, but getting your inbox under control is mainly a matter of persistence, discipline, and creativity. (And don’t forget that salve for the truly desperate—the e-mail bankruptcy option.)

It would also help if we all just scaled back on e-mail a bit. The next time you’re tempted to send someone a link to the latest babbling-baby YouTube video or cc: them on a minor office memo, think twice. Their inbox will thank you for it.

Here’s Google’s original video introducing Priority Inbox.

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

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