Google polarised the Gmail crowd when it released Inbox. For some, it was confusing and unhelpful. For others like myself, however, Inbox is a breath of fresh air. Here’s how it’s changed my workflow, and why I think it’s worth giving it a shot.
Before Inbox came out, I was a pretty avid Gmail user. I used filters, labels and stars to meticulously organise my emails based on my needs at the time. Of course, this system resulted in a lot of tweaking as my needs changed. I quickly accumulated too many labels, and most of my “email management” ended up occurring outside of Gmail. Once I used Unroll.me to clear out the junk I was getting, half of my filters weren’t even necessary anymore.
That’s not to say Gmail was never useful. I liked it, but what I needed was something that let me prioritise certain emails the way starring did, but still let me organise and quickly deal with emails that were important but not urgent.
Bundles Combine Tabs, Filters and Labels Into One Brilliant Package
One of the biggest differences between Gmail and Inbox is that your email gets grouped into things called “bundles.” You can think of bundles like Gmail’s filters on steroids. You can create complex rules that govern what goes into a bundle, and even when a bundle appears in your inbox. You can also clear out an entire bundle with one click. This is Inbox’s greatest superpower.
Here’s an example of how this works in my workflow: I routinely get emails from my colleagues Whitson Gordon and Alan Henry. They review my features, give me edit notes and occasionally give me comic-reading suggestions. I added both of them to a bundle so that all of their emails appear together (as seen above). This has a few advantages:
- I can focus on one task at a time: When a bundle is open, it pushes all other email aside. The only thing I’ll see in the Lifehacker Management bundle is emails from my editors. This performs the same function as the Gmail tabs, but with much more direct control and customisation.
- I can clear out a bunch of emails at once: Inbox comes with several pre-made bundles, including several that mirror Gmail’s tabs. Bundles like Promotions and Trips put a bunch of related emails together, which makes it super easy to deal with. When I need to travel, my flight, hotel, and rental car emails are all in one place.
- I can delay unimportant tasks: I get a few promotional emails from sites like NewEgg or Amazon that I do want to receive. However, I don’t need to check with them multiple times throughout the day. I can set the Promos bundle to only show up once a day, at 7AM, browse through them real quickly, and then close it. I won’t hear from that bundle again until the next day.
Bundles are a very different way of dealing with email than labels, filters or Gmail’s tab system. It takes the best features of each of them and combines them into one, mega-smart organisational system. All the emails from my boss are grouped into one place, my promos are in another, and my purchase history is in another. Instead of seeing a list of messages, I see a list of tasks. Respond to my boss, track my packages, and browse through what’s new on Amazon. It’s much simpler.
Now That My Inbox is a To-Do List, Reminders and Snooze Fit In Perfectly
The task-oriented approach to bundles changed how I thought about email. Instead of just seeing it as a list of messages to get through, I see everything as a job to get done. Inbox encourages this by putting your reminders directly in line with your messages. Google Now already has some sweet reminder features. You can say “Remind me to check out Lifehacker every morning” and your phone will give you a notification. Since you’re likely to ignore that, Inbox will show you the same reminder until you mark it done.
This fits in elegantly with the task-oriented approach to email Inbox already takes. The email from my boss is its own reminder to respond to him, so I don’t need to create a to-do to handle that, but I do need a reminder to research that idea I had in the middle of the night last night. Inbox isn’t just where I get outside messages, it’s where I see what needs to be done today. Best of all, I don’t need to waste time organising carefully curated sets of to-do lists. Just speak it to my phone and trust that it will show up later.
“But Eric, isn’t that going to get overwhelming? Everything you ever need to do in one place?” I hear you cry. It’s true! If everything you ever needed to do was in one giant list, you wouldn’t be able to read it. Fortunately, that’s where snooze comes in handy. You can already set specific times for reminders. When you receive an email, you can similarly “snooze” it until a specific time.
Let’s use another example. Say I set a reservation at my local bar for Wednesday at 7pm. I don’t need a constant reminder about that in my inbox for forever, but I also don’t want to forget it. I can snooze the confirmation email I received until the day of my reservation. It will be gone from my inbox until I need it. Once it returns, it’s another item on my to-do list for the evening.
It takes a little while to get used to this mindset. However, once you get in the swing of it, it feels totally natural. Get a shipping notification? Snooze it until the day it’s set to arrive. Need to remember to do something next month? Speak it to your phone. Don’t want to forget an email from your boss? Pin it to the top.
Now That I’m Used to Inbox, My Work Email Sucks
Google has made it possible for companies that use Google Apps to allow Inbox. Unfortunately, due to technical reasons beyond my own control, it’s not available for my work email yet. So I have Inbox on my personal email and the old Gmail method for my work email. This contrast, for me, highlights how much harder email was the old way.
In no particular order, here are the problems I have with my current work email that I could solve with Inbox:
- Sorting through email pitches is a chore. Having one clear-all button for bundles is sort of like a touchscreen phone. You don’t realise how essential it is until you have it and then you can’t live without it. When I get a bunch of junk email in Inbox, I can scan through the subject lines, click one button, and they’re gone. With Gmail, I need to either create elaborate filters, or make sure that I’m not accidentally including an important email from someone at the company.
- I can label important email, but it still gets pushed down. The biggest reason bundles help is they put a bunch of email into one line. I use labels to highlight messages from certain key people in the company, but in the morning, I may have twenty emails from people I don’t care about and I don’t see the important message from my boss until I reach the next page. With bundles properly set up, all those messages are just one line, and my boss’s emails get highlighted.
- I can forget important emails. Gmail has no built-in way to remind you of an email later. While some clients like Boomerang can fill this particular hole, it’s still annoying that I have to use entirely separate apps just to remind myself that I need to reply to something next week.
Of course, all of this is my personal experience. Email means different things to different people. Several years ago, I didn’t even receive enough email to lose track of it, so Inbox would have been overkill. What works for me may not work for you.
However, I’ve found that for where I’m at right now, Inbox offers a much more useful approach. It’s not a nicer interface for the ways you’ve always used email. If you try to use Inbox the same way you’ve always used Gmail, you’ll hate it. Inbox isn’t Gmail. It’s a completely different way to get things done. If you can see your messages (and reminders) as a set of tasks to work through during the day, and learn to schedule or snooze the ones you don’t need during the moment, you’ll likely find that Inbox is highly adept at giving you exactly the messages you need right when you need to deal with them, and quickly removing the rest.