New Gmail tool has its priorities wrong

Google has launched a new Gmail tool that claims to take the hassle out of filtering incoming messages. But it looks to be a treatment of symptoms rather than a cure for disease.

The new “Priority Inbox” is an optional feature that splits your Gmail inbox into three section. One is simply messages you have marked with a star, while another is the general inbox. The remaining section, which appears at the top of the list, is for “important and unread” messages.

Which messages end up here is decided by Gmail itself using a formula taking into account how often you open and exchange messages with a specific sender. In addition, you can also click TiVo-style buttons to mark messages as important or unimportant. Finally, you can use filters to automatically override the formula and have particular types of message labeled as important.

If you are overloaded with e-mails, this new feature may help you streamline your inbox, though it likely won’t be long till we hear complaints that a genuinely vital message was buried away in the “everything else” pile.

The problem is that these new features don’t tackle the underlying cause of the build-up of e-mails. If you’ve got too many e-mails then either you aren’t dealing with them efficiently and effectively, or you haven’t taken steps to make sure you don’t get overloaded with messages you don’t need.

The first issue is relatively simple to deal with: you just need either to be ruthless enough to cancel subscriptions to newsletters you never read, or to do a better job of filtering messages that aren’t imperative.

The second issue is the territory of Inbox Zero. That’s the simple philosophy that every time you open your inbox, you process all the messages and leave it empty. Processing does not mean you have to deal with the message or reply to it, but rather that you decide what type of message it is and file it appropriately so that you can keep track of what really needs doing.

Gina Trapani at LifeHacker has written the best explanation I’ve seen, but the concept is nothing more complex than three folders (or labels in Gmail) and a three-point checklist. The three folders are Action, Reference and Archive (the latter of which can simply be the read messages archive in Gmail.)

The checklist, which you run through for all new messages as soon as you open them is:

1) Will I ever need to read this message again? If the answer’s a definite no, delete it.

2) Do I need to take action? If so and it will take less than a minute or two, do it and then archive the message. If the action will take longer, label the message as Action.

3) Will I either need to refer to the message in the imminent future or want to save it to read later (e.g. a long newsletter)? If so, label the message as Reference.

Anything left after this can be archived. As and when you take the necessary action, read the message or no longer need it for handy reference, take off the Action or Reference label.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll empty your inbox in a few moments every time, stop wasting time processing messages over and over again, avoid missing out on an important message because it got buried away in a pile of unread e-mail, and, simply by clicking on the Action label, be able to see what’s effectively your e-mail based to-do list.

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