Google’s Inbox by Gmail is Creepy and Cool

Inbox By Gmail 2A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give Google’s Inbox by Gmail a try. What I thought I was going to be a simple exploration of Google’s new email client; turned into an experience that alternates between creepy and cool, but somehow always manages to end up on “cool”. The company that has pledged to never do evil, has turned the focus of their technical prowess from the dark art of advertising intelligence to personal productivity. The search and AI genius that has been used to mine your email for stuff to sell you, is now being applied to helping you get stuff done.

Once I discovered that Inbox was as much a productivity tool as it is an email client I decided to go all in, and try it in place of my current GTD system that was centered around ToDoIst.

First, a little background on my needs, and why Inbox has become the perfect fit. It’s not for everyone. For the last couple of years I have been one of the denizens lurking in the Google Forums looking for any sign of input from Google regarding the lack of enhancements to their Contacts and Google Tasks.

I have been a GTD devotee for years. I have tried one solution after another searching for the perfect GTD solution. In 2008, when Evernote came out, I thought I had arrived. Then I moved to a company that was all Microsoft, so I simply moved my Evernote contents to Onenote. The problem with those two solutions, lies in the fact that it’s too easy to put every kind of content into them, (and so I do). As a result, my basic To-do list became a needle in a haystack.

Eventually, I rebelled, and got all Zen-like, striving for simplicity. First I tried solutions that lived inside of Gmail, such as ActiveInbox and Google Tasks. Because, to me, the core of any GTD system was email. Needing better task list capabilities than Google Tasks, I moved to ToodleDo, GQueues, and most recently to ToDoist. I moved my Evernote/Onenote reference notes to Google’s Keep (still recommended). But, there was still a divide between email, tasks and calendaring. One that shouldn’t exist. So, when Inbox came along, I was primed.

Setting up the application was very simple. A few clicks to authorize the app’s access to your Gmail account (in my case, Google for Work); then launch the app, and proceed to get very frustrated. The problem was attempting to use my knowledge of Gmail to navigate Inbox. Be forewarned, Inbox is NOT Gmail. Inbox is a full blown productivity application that uses Gmail as its circulatory system. If you attempt to use Inbox simply as you would Gmail, you will end up like I did – stymied. Apparently, so were many of the commenters on the Inbox G+ page (Is it just me, or are there a lot of very angry people out there who would rather spend their time venting their spleens than learning how to do something?) Don’t become one of them, watch the 1-minute video, and read the extremely brief help. If you do this, it will all come together beautifully.

Inbox is an amazing Getting Things Done (GTD) and Inbox Zero system that combines Email, Tasks, and Calendaring wrapped in a bit of organizational brilliance (cool), layered with a dose of artificial intelligence (creepy, then cool).

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I’m not going to give you a tutorial here, there are much better sources for that.  I’ll give you a few highlights. For one, it is the first time in years that I’ve successfully achieved, and maintained Inbox Zero! Most people are afraid to delete, or tag/move emails to folders because they’re afraid once out of sight, they’ll be out of mind. Inbox allows you to deal with this issue in several ways:

  1. You can pin any email to the inbox and label it. That means it stays in your inbox with a blue push-pin highlighting it. Kind of like stars in the old gmail. The item stays in your inbox until you mark it as “Done”, which removes it from your inbox and archives it. The label behaves as it always did. There’s a push-pin toggle at the top of Inbox so you can filter for pinned items. Furthermore, you can snooze any item (pinned or not) to a future date and time. There are defaults like:

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And you can set the defaults to be whatever times you prefer. In addition, If you select “Someday”, Inbox looks in the email to see if there is a date and time to suggest. For example, if the email says “register by 10/9 at 5p, the snooze dialog will suggest snoozing until 4:00 p.m. on 10/9. You can also pick a place, so if you want to drop by a particular client, you can set it to their address, and the Inbox for Android/iOS app will alert you when you’re nearby.

1. You can also create a reminder to do anything. Inbox provides some defaults.

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Asking you to select a contact, or you can just type in whatever you want. By selecting a contact, each item type grabs the relevant associated information and appends it to the reminder (e.g., email address, phone number, or setting a calendar invite along with the event location).

2. Inbox is designed to work with Google Keep. Any reminders you set in Keep, also show up in Inbox. So, if you need some of the keep features such as sharing a shopping list, you can set a proximity reminder in Keep to let you know to remember the milk when you’re at the grocery store.

3. Bundles. Inbox automatically creates default bundles. It’s kind of like the Inbox categories in Gmail. This makes it easy to batch delete, file, snooze, etc. emails of a certain type. So, if you eyeball all your “Promotions” emails, and there’re no sales you are interested in, you can just click on the trash can in the bundle’s header, and they all get deleted. You can also mark them as Done, file them to a folder or another bundle. You can also define your own bundles using rules.

When the bundles are displayed in your inbox, they are collapsed into a single header, showing how many new emails are in the bundle. The header also includes snippets. This makes it very quick to deal with. For example, if you receive two items in your “Low Priority” bundle, which automatically includes accepted invitations, the snippets will show who they’re from. You can just click on the Done checkmark icon or the trashcan icon in the header and they both disappear with one click. Nice.

Now for the creepy part. The other day, I received an email from an associate. After scanning the email, and clicking on “Done”, a dialog box displayed asking me if I wanted to set a reminder to remember to send them the link to the web site they had requested two paragraphs deep into the email. I looked at the screen feeling a little creeped out, but then, once I got over it, I clicked on “Yes” and thought – that’s cool.

Google has been soft-pedaling Inbox, because what they’ve delivered is something closer to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). There are features of Gmail, that haven’t made it into Inbox yet. For example, you can’t use Ctrl-click or Shift-click to select a batch of emails yet. You can process a whole bundle, but aside from that, you have to individually check the checkbox next to the emails to process a group other than a bundle. Some of the advanced formatting capabilities are missing (colors, highlighting, indenting, different fonts, etc.); but the basics such as bold, italic, underscore, numbered and bulleted lists are all there. There are a handful of other features missing such as the ability to email a contact group, that I expect to be migrated over in the coming months. In the meantime, there is a Gmail icon in the function/folder list on the left of the screen (see the screenshot above), which opens standard Gmail in another tab. So, you can always flip to native gmail if you need any of those features in the meantime.

I think Inbox is the best darned GTD tool and evolution of email that has come along. If you’re a devotee of GTD or Zero Inbox, or just want to be more productive, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.