I’ve been reading the many articles on the new Gmail Priority Inbox with great interest. People are praising this “innovative” Gmail feature all over the place. And it is pretty cool. But as Alan Lepofsky pointed out, Lotus Notes has had similar inbox categorization features for over a decade. But apparently, few people know that. Or maybe, few people care…
The Lotus Notes categorized inbox provides many of the features that everyone is raving about in Gmail’s release. In Notes, your inbox can sort emails according to high priority marks, calendar invites, and the unwashed masses of regular emails. It’s helpful. If you’re a person who receives critical calendar invites interspersed with stacks of regular emails, it can be a life-saving feature.
The one feature that the Gmail Priority Inbox provides that’s unique is the learning algorithm that trains itself to know what emails are most important to you. But I can see the value of this feature swinging all over the place. The jury is still out on whether Gmail can accurately predict what's important to me.
Using the Lotus Notes categorized inbox, the only emails in the Important category are one’s that people have sent to you with a high importance mark. So you know that email is there because someone else felt it was important for you to see it. (As a side note, I know people who really dislike how high importance marks let the sender dictate your email processing prioritization. I don’t have a problem with it.)
But with Gmail, what’s considered “Important” is a little more mysterious. There are lots of factors such as who the sender is, the frequency that you open emails from this person, what keywords are in the emails you open the most, and more. You can also click buttons to help train the Gmail importance algorithm.
So I think the value of this feature depends entirely on how accurate it will become over time. If you can trust it to display ALL "important" emails, great. Otherwise, you won’t trust it and you’ll still have to look through your other emails. In that case, it wouldn’t offer anything over what Lotus Notes currently offers.
A GTD Perspective
I also come at this story with a GTD perspective. GTD espouses the principle of making decisions about your email on the front-end. It’s most efficient to process each email once and move it out of our inbox onto its final home in the trash bin, your task list, or a storage location if it’s reference. Reading an email and then leaving it in the inbox is highly inefficient, because then you have to reprocess it each time you look at your inbox.
To use an analogy that I’ve heard along the way and really connect with: “Your email inbox is a highway. It’s not a rest stop”.
Now David Allen, the creator of GTD, wrote a short article addressing if Gmail’s new Priority Inbox was “anti-GTD”:
Having email sorting/filtering would be anti-GTD if you use it to avoid decision-making, but not if it’s just for evaluating what kind of attention to put on something. Using colors for certain people’s emails in Lotus Notes (as I do) would also be “anti-GTD” if you never dealt with the non-colored ones. We’re not officially endorsing or recommending this. Just saying it’s something that you can make work. – David Allen
I understand what David’s saying. It can be great to have a tool to help you direct focus on what’s most important, first. But it’s really easy to let your use of that tool morph into only addressing what’s “important” and leaving the rest to languish.
Maybe you don’t consider those unwashed masses of emails to be important, but consider the productive – and stress-relieving – benefits of having an empty inbox. It’s huge.
The human tendency to morph a tool like this from “help me focus” to “help me avoid all that stuff” is why I don’t think the Gmail Priority Inbox will be the email panacea that people seem to think it is. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s helpful just the same that I think the Lotus Notes categorized inbox is helpful. It’s just a feature that needs to be used with eyes wide-open.
How to implement a Categorized Inbox in Lotus Notes
The first step to implementing a categorized inbox in Lotus Notes requires that the 'Pick Inbox Style' agent that Lotus provides be revealed so that users can select their preferred inbox style. This is quick and easy to do, but unfortunately IT has to get involved if it’s not yet implemented for your company. So that’s a drawback. Lotus provides a single categorized inbox folder design, however, it's possible to add additional designs to the list of options.
At eProductivity where I work, I use the eProductivity for Lotus Notes application rather than a regular Lotus Notes mail template. That's because eProductivity allows me to process my email quickly and effectively.
We’ve made the categorized inbox available inside of eProductivity and we’ve built upon it to offer a number of additional styles. It’s been a popular feature.
Whichever way you choose to go, just know that Lotus Notes provides powerful tools for managing your email.