Google Offers Respite From Inbox Overload


Priority Inbox

If you hate your inbox, if the very thought of it makes you fretful and nauseous, you’re not alone. Plenty of people who use e-mail on a daily basis feel the same.

Now Google is trying to come to the rescue with a new Gmail feature announced Tuesday called Priority Inbox, which monitors your messages and tries to organize your inbox based on a number of criteria, like how often you correspond with a particular sender.

Google explains that the first thing Priority Inbox does is split your inbox into three sections: “important and unread,” “starred” and “everything else.”

“Important” messages are judged to be the most significant, and sit at the top of your Gmail window. Next is the “starred” area, the messages you say are important. Finally, “everything else” includes those messages that can probably be dealt with later, or completely ignored — the ones that aren’t quite spam, but don’t need to clutter up your screen or your brain right now.

Keith Coleman, Google’s product management director, told me in an interview that Google has been working to solve the e-mail overload problem for the better part of a decade.

“Features like Priority Inbox were in the prerelease version of Gmail but were not ready for the public,” Mr. Coleman said. “We finally figured out how to organize and categorize e-mail in a simple and intuitive way using three different criteria.”

Surprisingly, Mr. Coleman said that one of the tools put to use in the new inbox organization is taken from the programming and algorithms used to categorize mail as spam. He said Gmail looks for terms and people that you categorize as important, or not, and decides whether those messages make it into your priority inbox accordingly.


Priority Inbox

The system also looks for the people you interact with on a daily basis, pushing their messages higher up the ladder. Finally the new inbox looks to see if a new e-mail was sent “directly to you, or if it is sent to other people too.”

Although Mr. Coleman said the Priority Inbox doesn’t work on mobile devices, he said people can expect it at some point in the future.

The new feature will begin appearing in beta mode on Tuesday and will be available as an option for Gmail users as it rolls out across the service. Users will begin seeing an alert allowing them to switch to Priority Inbox.

There are other services with similar approaches to the inbox problem, including Sanebox, which prioritizes Gmail’s inbox with new folders, and Xobni, which works with Microsoft’s Outlook software.

I’ve written several times before about the frustrations and anxiety my inbox causes me as messages drop into place uncontrollably.

For the past week I’ve been using Priority Inbox in test mode, and although it doesn’t solve the problem of e-mail overload completely, it definitely eases the pain.

Users definitely need to keep an eye out for messages that slip into the unwanted netherworld of “everything else.” There were times that I felt like I was training my inbox, as if I was trying to teach a puppy to sit still for a few minutes.

But who knows? As Priority Inbox starts to learn more about my e-mail reading habits and who I interact with regularly, maybe my inbox will feel a little less terrifying.

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