Why Priority Inbox doesn’t work for me (or, how to use multiple inboxes like a neuroscientist)

No, this post isn’t about Google’s ability to understand which messages are important to me, nor is it about how the intricacies of having this feature will or won’t make my life easier. It’s about neuroscience.

Looking at cognition through neuroscience, there is a cognitive tax on switching tasks — an unavoidable cost of time and oh-so-precious cognition. (For you academics out there, track down these sources — for you non-neuroscientists and non-academics, try reading about this in Brain Rules.)

Even as we become more efficient at switching between tasks, the transition still is not seamless. It’s the brain’s equivalent of opening Photoshop (or any other program that loads with a splash screen. It just takes a little while to get started. This all happens so fast we barely notice, but it is nonetheless subtly tiring.

I’m halfway through Nick Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains and he uses every opportunity possible to tell the reader just how much more skilled we are becoming at shallow, cursory thinking and reading. Additionally, he focuses on to how our abilities to focus on any one topic or task — really focus on it — are diminishing, while our abilities to do many shallow tasks at once are increasing. This type of “shallow” reading and engagement is exactly what neuroscientists describe as multitasking.

OK, but back to e-mail. E-mail inherently deals with multitasking, unless you are some lucky e-mail-freak-of-nature who only receives emails about one task, and that task always requires the same action.

For me, e-mail is stressful, but it used to be much worse. Previously, when I looked in my inbox, I had a vast number of emails staring back at me. They were all the unfinished action items accumulated in an inbox. Some needed real response and these timely ones were starred and taken care of immediately, while the inbox piled up with non-urgent messages, often from myself.

When I would check my email, I would show physical signs of nervousness, procrastinate and let non-urgent e-mails fall by the, albeit (haphazardly GTD Inbox) “action-item” stamped, wayside.

Things had to change.

I decided to take this “cognitive task” thing seriously and re-work my inbox around it. I thought through the types of things I did in a day, related to my inbox. At the time it was scheduling, reading (for class), writing (papers for class) and other action items (basically anything not for a class). On a sunny winter afternoon in the Cronkhite Dorm my first draft of categories was born: Calendar, To print, Writing and Action items.

I’ve adapted it continuously since then, removing and adding new things I’m doing repeatedly, and adding new labels for new projects. This is how better, more relevant folders or “inboxes” are born. I also recommend keeping one “catch-all” action item folder in place for the things that don’t fit. Yes, this breaks the individual-cognitive-task-for-everything idea, but that stuff has got to go somewhere. Did I mention that Gmail only allows 5 multiple inboxes?

My inbox, using multiple inboxes in Gmail.

This is what my inbox looks like on a typical day.

And this is the magic that makes it happen:

You can subtract labels from inboxes, in addition to using them standalone or using many to filter.

The most useful example of how to use this tool effectively is the “calendar” section. Each day as I receive invites to and alerts about talks, parties and meetings, I put them in the calendar folder. Once a day, I open my calendar, go in that folder in my inbox and do the usual availability checking/rsvp-ing. It’s incredibly liberating to do just once a day (or twice if there is *one* urgent meeting that really needs a reply). This way I never have to schedule something when I’m in the middle of writing or reading or doing something else productive and I don’t have to spend the time and energy switching between tasks.

There are potential perks of actively *choosing* to multitask such as switching tasks when you run out of ideas, taking a break from a document to have a “fresh look” at it after a diversion elsewhere or going to Twitter for creative inspiration and comedic relief. These types of perks do not exist when a user is *not* multitasking on purpose, but is forced to through the sequential nature of an inbox.

Gmail’s Priority Inbox does not allow me to divide up the “priority” messages into 4 or 5 discrete cognitive tasks. I tried it, but found it more stressful to have all the types of tasks in one place, than it is to filter my e-mail myself with these distinctions in place. I understand that this is a bit of a super-user conundrum, but it shouldn’t have to be. Email should become less stressful not only through automatic sorting, but also research about usability from the standpoint of cognition.

Comments are closed.