Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox

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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.

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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