Does Gmail Priority Inbox Actually Work?

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Q: What's all the fuss about Gmail Priority Inbox? Does it actually work? Should I switch to it?

A: Yes.

If you haven't heard, Priority Inbox is a new tool from Google that algorithmically (i.e. automatically based on a few factors) separates your incoming email into two categories: Important and Everything Else.

And it's awesome.

Now, Priority Inbox works best for heavy volume emailers. It works doubly best if you get CC'd on a lot of things or have news alerts, random newsletters, etc coming into your inbox. For me, the emails marked Important actually reflect my own evaluation of them. After three weeks of heavy usage, only two emails have been mislabeled.

Over the six years I've had Gmail, I've signed up for a number of things that are no longer essential, but not so bothersome that I don't want to receive them. All my Google alerts for "history + solar," NASA press releases, or emails from my athletic club all fall into that category. Having a place to store them without cluttering up my main inbox is brilliant.

Could I have accomplished much the same thing by setting up a bunch of filters? Sure. But the extra work required always seemed to outweigh the minor hassle of not reading or deleting a bunch of semi-precious emails. Now, Google's done all the work for me in one simple stroke.

I did make one important tweak to the default Priority Inbox settings. The default setting is that your priority inbox only shows things that are Important and Unread. That made me feel uncomfortable. I like seeing the important things even after I've read them.

Priority Inbox might not be for everyone. If you're tidier about how you run your email already, maybe you don't need it. If you don't manage a huge volume of email, again maybe you don't need it. But if your email inflow is variegated and heavy, it will be a useful tool for you.

Tools mentioned in this entry:

More questions? View the complete Toolkit archive.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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