How not to check email

I use Gmail for my personal email, and recently installed a new feature called “Priority Inbox”, which automatically sorts out your important email and puts it at the top of your screen, while leaving the less important stuff lower down. Great! I always seem to be drowning in email, so this seemed like a good way to sort out the problem.

Trouble is, after I installed it, my inbox was upside-down. All the important stuff was stuck down at the bottom, while the forwarded jokes and cat photos were all up at the top marked as “Priority”.

At first I thought that Google had messed up, and the feature didn’t work. But then I realised it was actually working perfectly – it was just telling me something about how I check email. You see, I realised that when I look at an inbox full of messages, I immediately open the least important ones first. Forwarded joke about cats? Yes, I can open that and deal with it quickly enough. Important email from my publisher? Ergh, maybe I’ll leave that until I have more time/energy to come up with a good reply. So Google was diligently marking all the meaningless emails as important – I open those ones first, so of course they must be important! And it was assuming that all the important ones I procrastinate over replying to can’t be that important really.

With some training, Gmail’s prioritising has improved – you can mark each message as priority or non-priority, and it remembers and applies the same rule to similar messages in future. It’s actually turned out to be a good feature after all, and is helping me to keep control of my inbox. But perhaps more important is the wake-up call it gave me about my bad email habits. I’m now making more effort to get to important messages first and actually reply to them, rather than leaving them for some imaginary better time in the future. Not sure how long this will last, but it’s going well so far…

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