Using Gmail Priority Inbox to Help Filter Your Incoming Mail

Google Priority InboxA few days ago, Google released Priority Inbox for Gmail, which is an opt-in experimental (read: “beta”) setting that is rolling out incrementally to Gmail users—I was lucky enough to get it on Monday but your mileage may vary. If you see a link at the top right of your Gmail interface (where the settings and help links are located) alerting you to the Priority Inbox (it will say “New! Priority Inbox”), you can click that link to activate the Priority Inbox feature and begin to configure an additional method for filtering your e-mail.

In addition to the basic spam filtering, and any actual Gmail filters you have created on your own, and any labels you have created and apply manually or automatically, the Priority Inbox functionality can help you to sort through what remains. Before going further with my own discussion of it, I recommend taking the next two minutes to watch this cheerful (and accurate) video:

What follows is an example of how Priority Inbox works for me—and by “works” I mean both “this is the functionality, click click click” and “this is how the concept applies to my workflow.” As always with ProfHacker posts, I’m not saying to run off and opt-in to Priority Inbox (if it’s even available to you as an option) especially if you have a system that works really well for you. But if you lack a system, or find yourself wading through a lot of bacn to get to the important stuff, Priority Inbox might just be the missing piece to your e-mail related productivity puzzle. In just a few days, it has proven itself useful for me (and also fascinating).

Original Settings

When you opt-in to Priority Inbox, the default settings will split your inbox interface into three sections: Important and unread, Starred, and Everything else. The default number of messages shown in each section is 10. Additionally, the left column links (typically to Inbox, Sent Mail, Drafts, your labels, etc) will change to include “Priority Inbox” before just regular ol’ “Inbox,” as shown below:

Google Priority Inbox

At first glance, this might seem a bit confusing: are there 15 messages in the Priority Inbox, and 27 more in the Inbox? No, actually. In this instance there are 15 messages in the Priority Inbox and 12 messages in my “Everything Else” area; if I switched to the regular Inbox view there would be a total of 27 unread messages. More on that in a moment, but I wanted you to see the first navigational change that would occur if you opted-in to Priority Inbox.

The first thing I did after opting-in was to change the default settings, because the three sections, and ten items per section, doesn’t work for me. I already have a filtering system in place, so mail gets labeled according to its content when necessary. I also keep a lot of mail in my inbox if I haven’t dealt with it but at some point in the future will need to. I also don’t use the “star” functionality, so “Starred” as a priority filter is meaningless to me. Finally, I wanted to be able to indicate important things even after they’ve been read.

Changing Settings

I like the settings options (in Gmail. go to Settings then the Priority Inbox tab) because they allow for a great deal of flexibility while also maintaining the core functionality of the Priority Inbox addition. In other words, I can make it do a lot of new things without giving up the old things (my existing filters, for example).

Priority Inbox Settings

As you’ll see in the examples from my own interface further on in this post, I immediately changed my settings to include only two sections: Important and Everything else, because that’s how I work. You probably work differently, but in my e-mail world, it’s either stuff I need to deal with right away (or stuff I need to keep thinking about in one form or another all the time until the task has been completed) or it’s…well, “something else.” That something else could be information I know I won’t have to deal with for a month or six, but I know myself well enough to know that once I file it, I’ll never think about it again (and that’s bad). Or, it could be the aforementioned “bacn”—not “spam,” because it’s something I want…it’s a term that essentially means “email you want but not right now.” I could have just as easily called “Something else” the “BacnBox” and been perfectly happy.

How it Actually Works (and learns)

Priority Inbox works by learning who (and what) you read and reply to and determining “importance” based on that information. Additionally, and most importantly, you can train it—which includes teaching it new things and correcting its mistakes—both at the per-message level and at the level of the filter.

For instance, the following message was filtered into the “Everything else” section upon receipt:

training it

This filtering made sense because although Audrey Watters and I communicate often, it’s via Twitter and not actual e-mail. So, Gmail wouldn’t know that I would always put Audrey’s messages in the “Important” section. But with a simple click of the plus sign icon indicated in the screenshot, I trained the system to know that messages that look like this should always be “Important.”

The messages that look like this statement is important, because this is not a direct filter of “all messages from Audrey Watters should be considered Important.” Instead, just clicking the plus sign icon might teach the system something about message as well as message sender. For all I know, Priority Inbox could have just learned that any e-mail messages with “omg” in the subject should be sent to the “Important” section. I don’t know. I will keep an eye on that.

But you can edit actual Gmail filters to specifically prioritize all messages from a particular e-mail address (or any other filterable content) in some way:

working with filters

In the example above, I’m both applying a label and marking as important all e-mail from my boss. Because really, who wouldn’t?

So What Does it Look Like?

When Priority Inbox is up and running and you login to Gmail (or click “Priority Inbox” from the side navigation) you will see the sections—in my case, “Important” and “Everything else,” but again yours might be different (especially if you keep the default three-section interface). In my “Important” section, you can see it includes a mix of filtered and unfiltered mail, read and unread, and some things that might surprise you (although these images are intentionally kept a little unclear so you’d have to look really closely if you want to see specifics):

priority: important

Some surprises might include the fact that I have Twitter notifications in the “Important” section. This is true, I do, but it depends on the person; I have trained Priority Inbox to learn who I e-mail and Twitter direct-message with on a regular basis, such that Twitter notifications of messages from those people look like regular important e-mail.

In the “Everything else” view, you’ll also see Twitter notifications, but not from regular e-mail correspondents—Priority Inbox learned that. You’ll also see e-mails from people I don’t e-mail on a regular basis, but they are still e-mails that I want to receive.

priority: everything else

After working through the unread mail, a cleaned-up view of a Priority Inbox-enabled Gmail interface looks something like this:

cleaned up priority inbox

If I don’t want to see the categorized view then I can just switch to “regular Inbox” view, using the link in the sidebar. This will be the result (looks like simple Gmail):

regular inbox

Do note, though, that the “important” indicator icon is still present next to each message (as appropriate) in the “regular” view.


My conclusion is that after three days, I love Priority Inbox and it definitely has helped me feel better about the state of my e-mail, or at least to understand at a glance how the content of that e-mail truly is categorized. Others have noted that by using Priority Inbox “you basically are telling Google what and who matters to you [...] Do you trust them? I do, but you might not, and that’s ok.

Have you enabled Priority Inbox for Gmail (if you use Gmail)? If so, what are your thoughts? How might it boost your productivity? Let us know in the comments.

Return to Top