Priority Inbox is one of Gmail's best unsung features. It's amazing at curing email overload, but if you don't give it a chance to learn, all it will do is muck up your inbox. Here's how to get it working properly.
Why Priority Inbox Is Great
If you're anything like me, you get a lot of emails a day, and sifting through them -- let alone getting notifications for them -- is a nightmare. Forget your previous experience with Priority Inbox for a second and assume it can actually read your mind. Your inbox is split up into multiple categories, so you see the important stuff right up top, out of the way of the junk. You don't have to scan your inbox at all to find it; it's just there.
Furthermore, with Priority Inbox turned on, Gmail will only notify you when you have an important message. If you keep Gmail open in a tab, that unread count only goes up if you get an important email, so you aren't constantly tempted by an overflowing inbox. And, if you use Gmail for Android, you only get push notifications when something important comes through, so your phone isn't buzzing all day. Some would argue you should turn off email notifications entirely, but if you're only getting a few notifications a day from the people you want to hear from, notifications get a lot more enticing.
OK, so you think that sounds good, but priority inbox has done nothing but let you down in the past. Chances are you just need to help it learn a little bit more before it starts working. Here are a few ways to speed that process along.
Go About Your Email Routine As Normal
Priority Inbox learns, first and foremost, just by watching you. If you frequently read messages from a specific sender, it learns to mark those as important, and if you frequently reply to emails from them, it knows even better. If you delete stuff without reading it, it will learn that those aren't important. So, the last thing you should do is just go about your email routine as normal. Give Priority Inbox a bit of time to learn from your actions, and give it a little push when it needs it using the above tips. If you have just a little bit of patience, you should soon find that it's amazing at filtering your email for you, without a lot of extra work.
Use Filters and Labels
Filters are an amazing tool, and they help Priority Inbox learn really fast. Say you want to mark emails from your coworkers as important. Just create a Gmail filter that matches
from:yourcompany.com.au and check the box that says "Always Mark As Important". Similarly, you can use any filter to never mark messages as important.
Labels work well for this too. For example, I have a filter that applies a label called "Internal" to emails coming from any of my coworkers. Gmail now recognises that many Internal emails are important, though it doesn't always mark them as important. Depending on the sender and the context of the message, it will use the Internal label as one more deciding factor, which is really handy.
Actively Mark Messages As Important (or Not Important)
Before it has time to watch your behaviour, Gmail does a lot of guesswork when marking messages as important. Just like with its Spam button, it only takes a click to change a message's importance. If Gmail gets it wrong, just click the little yellow tag to toggle that message's importance. You can also use the + and - keys on your keyboard if you're a keyboard shortcut fanatic!
Don't get discouraged at the beginning. Again, the more you read your email, the more it will learn -- after a little bit of time, you'll rarely have to manually mark messages as important or unimportant again. You'll only need this at the beginning. Gmail actually updated Priority Inbox back in 2010 to give this more weight, so it should work better than it did at launch.
See Why Emails Are Marked as Important
Finally, if you're ever confused as to why Gmail's marked a message as important, just hover your mouse over that little yellow tag and it will tell you! Usually it's because of "the people in the conversation", because you "often read messages with this label" or something like that. It can give you a little insight into what's going on inside Gmail's head, and what things you might need to do to correct it (for example, if you read emails with the "newsletter" tag but don't want to mark them as important, you'll need to create a filter that never marks newsletters as important).
Priority Inbox is my favourite Gmail feature, hands down. Without it, I'd spend a lot more time sifting through emails and checking my phone to see if anything important has happened at work. All it takes is a little patience to get working, but once you train it, it will know important emails better than you do. Of course, if you decide you don't like it, it's easy to turn off too.