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How I use Gmail Multiple Inboxes

In Email on August 4, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Looking for better email productivity? The Gmail Multiple Inboxes lab feature has the appearance of a modest customization, but when you “get it” it can really rock. This 20% project is something Google should grab on and develop for its productivity enhancing power and and its graceful learning curve. It also gives me a platform to try out my thoughts on email-as-tasks.

Three months into using it, I am noticing how it helps me organize my  life. I find myself becoming a devotee, compelled to testify – I mean, to contribute to the support group. I recently posted to that group a note about how I use the lab feature.

How I use Multiple Inboxes

Here is how one user (myself) uses Multiple Inboxes to increase productivity. I am not sure to what extent mine is the intended use. However, if you wonder about the relation between main and multiple  inboxes, archiving, and using search queries, this may help. It would be interesting if other MI users share their setups.

I receive a high volume of email. I use one Gmail account to read email from work, friends, subscriptions – even email originally sent to different accounts. Notifiers are not very useful in my situation.

I like to first process email from close contacts or relating to important projects, then quickly scan everything else just to make sure I didn’t miss something important.

Multiple Inboxes is a godsend. I use filters to decide what gets into inboxes, which are placed on top of the main one and are read first. The main inbox is “everything else” and mostly I just glance at it as one would glance at RL junkmail. For extra power, I also use the “superstars” Gmail lab feature.

Goals:

1) Important messages should appear in one of the “multiple inboxes”
2) The main inbox should show only non-important messages
3) READ messages should not be displayed in any inbox
4) Except if they are parked, waiting further action

Setup:

1) Whenever I notice an important message in the MAIN inbox, I “filter messages like this” and make sure it gets labeled as “family”, “career”, “x project”, “financial” etc. Over the years, I developed a system of efficient, meaningful labels, but it’s a separate article… use whatever taxonomy works for you, and check “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)”.

Note that multiple filters may apply the same label. It is 100% OK. Filters are my preferred way to dictate what gets shown in a specific inbox. I want to keep the actual Multiple Inboxes queries very simple.

2) Next time that kind of email arrives, it will get trapped by the filter and NOT show in my inbox. That’s why *as soon as I set the filter* I set up a “multiple inbox” to capture the same kind of messages and verify it.

My typical multiple inbox rule looks like this:

 label:family (is:unread OR is:starred) after:2009/06/01

This means:
a) The email was labeled as “family” – probably by a filter;
b) I didn’t read it yet; or I read it and marked it with a star for further action
c) Don’t show messages labeled “family” from before I started using this system

Now, here’s the sweet part: when a message from a family member arrives, it does not go into the main inbox but instead will show in one of the multiple inboxes (probably titled “Family”). It will be noticeable because it will appear under an appropriate title, on top of the page. It’s one click to read it, and no further action to make it  disappear from view. To keep it displayed for further processing, ONE CLICK to star it.

I can also mark it as “unread” but I dislike that idea – first, IT IS NOT TRUE, as I have just read it; It creates “cognitive friction”. Second, to mark-as-read you need to select-drag-release and this counts as at least two clicks in my book, too many clicks for an essential and repeating processing action.

I think of email processing as a multi-stage process. Some emails require immediate attention and completion (what some would call “Quadrant 1” emails), while others would be processed in stages: e.g., an associate emails a request for a report – I read it, “park it” by starring it, and it stays on my “Work” Inbox for later action. When I have a minute – I look for the report, then answer and un-star it (again – one click).

One benefit of my setup is that emails – and the associated tasks – tend to be processed not based on date of arrival but on importance (or relation to goals). In this setup, the Multiple Inbox panes look like a reasonably sized, meaningfully sorted task list. During my workday, I continuosly mark things off as I complete them,while important “parked” tasks stay there to remind me they await completion.

Now, the “superstars” extension adds more granulation to the “parked” state. I like to use “blue star” to indicate that I read the email but further work is still needed before I can move it out of sight. So in reality, a typical rule would look like:

label:family (is:unread OR has:blue-star) after:2009/06/01

But you could use more superstar types to indicate what action a specific email is waiting for.

My setup takes an untraditional approach to email productivity, but it works like a charm for me. It is relatively easy to modify and maintain.

This is also the context to my previous suggestion of collapse-able inboxes (http://groups.google.com/group/gmail-labs-help-multiple-inboxes/browse_thread/thread/40ca74559f14eb7f/dba7a8a17293027a?hl=en&lnk=gst&q=#dba7a8a17293027a).

Hope this helps, and curious about other uses of Multiple Inboxes.

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