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 the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I turned off priority inbox in the first hour I tried it… hope +1 will survive a little longer than that

  • For me Email = Anxiety, OR, when in a good mood,
    Email is like “Space Invaders” with a “don’t shoot the good guys” feature — totally LOVE:HATE!
    Great article, Wade —

  • Sean Mc

    Wade, good article, great analysis!

    You are right. There should be an additional “Important, Requires Action” category, not just “Important & Read”. And yes, the convenience of the inbox as a “to do list” becomes almost self-defeating because of its simplicity. But your final point hits the bulls eye.

    The reason why Priority Inbox fails to live up to admirable expectations (and indeed can detract from inbox productivity as you, I and others have found) is that it fails to hit the 100% accuracy mark. It creates a situation similar to “please check your spam box in case anything important has been inadvertently drafted there”. So if you can’t rely on it with 100% accuracy and certainty – you end up having to compensate via manual intervention! This is the bit we all hate – that causes so much stress and that costs untold time and effort to overcome.

    If the benefit balance of relying on automated techniques (such as Google’s Priority Inbox and ‘conversation threading’ in Microsoft Outlook 2010) becomes outweighed by manual compensatory effort, then it is time to try something else – or revert to familiar tried and tested (manual ) techniques!

    Priority Inbox: Good attempt, needs more work.

    Sean Mc (Kilkenny, Ireland)

  • josh

    wade, try sanebox. i didn’t like priority inbox either but i tried sanebox and aftr a month I just signed up for a year. (and FYI I am not affiliated with the company) /josh @jdsboston

  • Alex Moore of Baydin tweeted to remind me about, which looks like a fun way to rip through one’s Gmail inbox…I’m going to try it out.

    @Sean – There’s actually a way to set up custom categories in Priority Inbox using filters, but I’m not sure having yet another category would help, since as you note, the problem is some messages would still go astray and would have to be tracked down manually.

    @Josh – Just checked out Sanebox briefly. At first glance it looks pretty much the same as Priority Inbox, but on more platforms. Why did you like it better?

  • No new mail! There’s always Google News if you’re looking for something to read.

    This is the message I get, even when I have lots of new emails sitting in my inbox.

    hope this bug fixed… or this feature useless