9 months later, how Google's Inbox finally won me over

After nearly a year of evolution, Inbox has become the email service I never knew I needed -- with a few important asterisks.

Google Inbox 9 Months Later
JR Raphael, IDG

I realized something exceptionally geeky about myself the other day: I take great pleasure in finding ways to make tasks more efficient.

That may be one of the dorkiest-sounding sentences I've ever said. But hang on -- it gets worse: I had this "eureka!" moment while lying in bed Sunday night. And for some reason, I decided to express said realization out loud to my lovely wife right then and there. (Quick tip, my fellow gents: The boudoir at night is not the best place to gloat about your fondness for efficiency.)

In my defense, though, while the timing was unfortunate, the realization wasn't entirely without context. I had spent some time over the weekend moving all of my accounting records into a new streamlined system. I won't bore you with the details (as if someone could possibly be bored by such things -- pshaw!), but it uses a few different Web services to make my life easier and automate a bunch of dull tasks that used to eat away at my afternoons.

Then I made the connection: It's that same rush that's led me to enjoy Android and its many opportunities for personalized streamlining over the years. And it's that same rush that made me want to give Inbox -- Google's attempt at streamlining email and making it more efficient -- another shot.

Google's Inbox, then and now

I've used Inbox before, of course; I tried it as soon as it became available last October. But after six weeks of living with it, I decided it wasn't quite right for my personal email needs -- so I bid it adieu and moved back into Gmail.

As I noted at the time, I really liked a lot of Inbox's features, not to mention its fresh and modern user interface (especially on the mobile front). But the app lacked some core email elements that I needed, and its approach just didn't seem to fit my work flow particularly well at that point.

I'm not one to write something off forever, though; that'd be silly, particularly with a service that's in a constant state of evolution. So as promised, I've been keeping my eye on Inbox over the months. And a few weeks ago, after letting the service mature in Google's belly for a full term, I decided to give it another extended go.

And you know what? With a few teensy asterisks -- and a few adjustments I've made to the service on my own (don't worry -- we'll get to all of them in a minute) -- I'm actually really happy using Inbox now. And despite my initial misgivings, I don't expect to go back to Gmail anytime soon.

Making Inbox work for me

So why the shift in perspective? I've put my finger on a few key factors. First is just a simple matter of adjustment: Inbox's system of email organization is very different from what most of us are used to, and it takes a while to wrap your head around. Even after six weeks with the service last fall, part of my brain was still trying to translate all of its elements into traditional Gmail-like parameters -- to figure out how I could make Inbox fit into the work flow I'd known up til then -- and I think that was part of the problem.

Inbox, Gmail

Coming back to the app now, I was able to jump in without the initial "figuring things out" period of befuddlement. I had already learned the terminology and taken the time to fine-tune the settings for my needs. And silly as it may sound, diving right into the deep end instead of spending time splashing around and getting my toes wet made it much easier to adapt my mindset -- to embrace Inbox's ways and stop fighting its unconventional approach.

But that's certainly not the whole story -- far from it. Google has also been slowly but surely hacking away at Inbox since I last lived with it, and many of the pain points I identified in my first go-round have been addressed. Several features I missed in Inbox at its launch are now present, like Undo Send (which is available on both Inbox's desktop and mobile apps -- something even Gmail has yet to offer), an expanded collection of keyboard shortcuts, and the ability to clear out the spam folder with a single click. Inbox's Android notifications also now play nicely with Android Wear, which is important to me as a card-carrying member of the small but mighty Smartwatch-Wearing Cool Kid Club™.

Hold the phone, though: That's still not the whole story. As I allowed Inbox to weave its way back into my life, I quickly discovered that the service's Web-based interface still lacked some elements that were essential for me in a work-oriented email client. Things like proper signature support (Google added signatures to Inbox in May but on an extremely limited level -- with no hyperlinks, only plain-text formatting, and the ability to appear only when a message is being sent from the account's default gmail.com address) along with desktop notifications and an easily glanceable new message indicator.

What's different this time, though, is that there are now third-party programs standing by to fill those remaining voids. The one that's fixed most of my desktop-oriented woes is a free Chrome extension called Gmelius for Inbox. It makes it dead-simple to import and use your Gmail signatures in Inbox and to display an unread message count in both the browser header and favicon. It has a bunch of other optional features, too, some of which are quite useful -- like the ability to have Inbox scroll back to the top of the page anytime you click the header and to have messages be highlighted as you mouse over them.

Inbox Gmelius

The other is a Chrome extension I've used on and off for years called Checker Plus for Gmail. It's been updated to work with Inbox and provides fantastic desktop notifications (I actually hide its button in the browser and use it exclusively for those pop-ups). I've customized its notifications to show the sender, subject, and a snippet of an incoming message along with a single button to mark the message as "done." During the weekdays when I'm sitting at my desk, I end up dismissing much of my incoming email as it arrives via those notifications -- without ever even seeing it in the full-fledged Inbox app.

Inbox Checker Plus

Rethinking my email philosophy

All of those factors -- both my own mental adjustments and the enhancements offered by Google and the third-party extensions -- provided the foundation I needed to give Inbox a fair shake. But with those basic obstacles now out of the way, the real question was still whether Inbox's unusual approach to email would make sense for me.

As I mentioned a minute ago, a big part of my initial problem revolved around the notion of work flow: On the desktop front, I was used to having a highly customized Gmail setup in which I saw messages in a specific order, separated into sections based on their importance (priority vs. non-priority, starred vs. unstarred) and whether they were read or unread. It made it easy for me to view what mattered most at a glance, and Inbox didn't allow any similar sort of advanced on-screen separation.

As I've adapted to the Inbox way, though, I've discovered I don't really need all of that. In fact, Inbox's approach actually makes things simpler -- and (you guessed it) more efficient.

The key for me has been to fully embrace Inbox's Snooze feature -- so much that I almost use it religiously. I don't have to worry about how things are sorted in my inbox anymore, because I don't leave things in my inbox anymore.

The vast majority of emails get swept away as soon as I see them, because they simply don't matter or don't require any action on my part. If something warrants a reply and I can knock it out in a matter of seconds, I do it right away and then mark the message as "done." And if I know I won't be able to get to an email for a while -- or if it's something I know I'm going to need to deal with another day, like details about an upcoming conference call -- I use Snooze to send the message away and have it return to the top of my inbox at an appropriate time.

Inbox Snooze

I used to rely on starring important messages or sometimes marking them as unread to make sure they grabbed my attention, but the truth is that they frequently still ended up sitting in my inbox and creating clutter for days, weeks, or sometimes even months. Snoozing gets those same messages out of my sight and then brings them back anew, either when they're going to be relevant or when I'm going to have the time to give them the attention they need.

Moving beyond the basics

As I've started treating emails like items on a daily checklist, I've also started to take full advantage of Inbox's integration with Google's reminders system (the same one that's connected to Google Now and available on all Android devices). With my inbox functioning as more of a living to-do list than a simple stack of messages -- something I struggled with amidst all the distracting issues in my first go-round -- having all of my reminders in that same place has started to make a lot of sense. Inbox has become a centralized spot for me to find and manage everything on my agenda, whether it's an email I need to respond to, a reminder I set from my phone or watch, or a list I created in Keep and instructed to appear at a certain time.

And then there are Bundles -- something I wasn't crazy about initially but have come to appreciate as I've refined them to better fit my needs. Bundles allow me to see clusters of similar messages together -- like a bunch of press releases I'm not interested in, for instance -- and then dismiss them all in one fell swoop. That's a real time-saver when I'm checking my email first thing in the morning or after ignoring it for several hours. They'll sometimes contain useful surprises, too, like an automatically generated collection of messages related to an upcoming trip with the pertinent details pulled out into a nicely formatted itinerary.

I've also grown to appreciate the ability to have certain bundles appear only on occasion -- to see all of my social-related emails together once each morning, for instance, or to have my finance-related emails and auto-pay bill confirmations (a custom bundle I created on my own) show up in a single cluster once per week. It's another way to keep non-timely noise out of my hair most of the time and then deal with it more efficiently all at once.

My only gripe is that Inbox doesn't let you select custom times for when bundles will reappear; if you want them to show up once daily, you're limited to having them appear at 7 a.m., and if you want them to appear once weekly, your only choice is Monday at 7 a.m. Those times aren't always ideal for me, and it seems odd that there's no way to change them.

Inbox has a few other lingering quirks and omissions, like the lack of drag-and-drop support for inserting attachments and images into emails, the lack of a full inbox-viewing widget for Android, and the lack of niche features like canned responses and custom label notifications. The service also doesn't have its own out-of-office auto-responder; you'll have to pop back over to Gmail if/when you ever need to set that up.

Those are all downsides I've been able to live with, though -- and for me at this point, the good of Inbox is very much outweighing the bad. And with Google regularly improving and enhancing the service (see exhibits A, B, C, and D), I'm confident things will only continue to get better.

Here's what it ultimately comes down to: Inbox is now making email less of a headache for me. It's taken it from being a never-ending treadmill-like nuisance to being part of a broader system of life organization -- one I actually almost enjoy (!) maintaining. 

In other words, Inbox is making part of my life more efficient. And as far as I'm concerned, that's cause for celebration -- not to mention fantastic fodder for tonight's pillow talk.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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