Gmail released a new snooze feature in late April hoping to make it easier for its users to manage the ~120 emails they receive each day. This is one step among others by the big tech giants to make their irresistible products easier for us to use without them overtaking our lives (See Apple’s release of do not disturb feature).
Gmail’s snooze feature enables users to make emails disappear until a time of their choosing either from the inbox or conversation view with presets of tomorrow, this weekend, or next week.
On the surface, this seems like a great idea: remove emails from our line of sight until we need to act on them. However, when we look deeper, we can see that it actually encourages 4 behaviors that will hurt, not help our productivity:
It encourages us to use our inbox as a to-do list:
By having our inbox resurface emails when we think we need to act on them, we are putting our inbox in the role of managing our tasks. In that scenario, our inbox houses what we have to do and tells us when to do it. Shouldn’t getting an application we already use to do more for us be a good thing?
Unfortunately, using our inbox as a to-do list is bad for our productivity because it is not designed to manage tasks as a to-do list app would. Here are the ways our inbox falls short as a to-do list: it contains emails that aren’t tasks, it doesn’t contain all of our tasks, and it makes sorting tasks in priority order challenging.
Once we have read an email the first time, any follow-up action related to that email is now a task that we need to complete, even if that task is responding to the email. Tasks should be collected in a centralized to-do list and organized by priority so that we can make good prioritization decisions. With today’s integration capabilities between Gmail and most to-do list apps, it’s easier than ever to add tasks from your inbox to your to-do list, a far better option than using your inbox to manage tasks.
It encourages double-touching of emails:
In my first job out of college, I managed the packing department at an industrial supply distributor (think Amazon for nuts and bullets). One of the guiding principles of the warehouse was to minimize “touches” of packages on their way from the shelves to the trucks because it was well understood that every touch added time. The same is true for email. Every time we re-read even the preview snippet of an email, we’re adding another touch and as a result, more time.
Now, in one way, the snooze feature can help limit touches for those who are in the habit of leaving emails in their inbox and re-reading them every time they check their email. But the best way to handle emails is to move them out of our inbox when we read them the first time. Snoozing ensures we at a minimum, double-touch emails.
It encourages procrastination:
The snooze button is the perfect trap for anyone with a tendency to procrastinate. It gives the feeling of having gotten something done when all it has done is push processing the email to another day. In a snooze-less world, we had to really do work in order to decrease the emotional unpleasantness of an overflowing inbox, but now we can get the same psychological reward by simply clicking the snooze button. This will inevitably lead us to use the Gmail snooze button like we do our alarm clocks: keep hitting snooze until we have no choice but to deal with the email.
It limits our ability to flexibly prioritize:
An effective use of snoozing requires us to make sound judgments about when to make emails reappear. Yet, most of us are not very good at making this kind of judgments because we don’t know the future and our plans for the future change frequently. Many factors affect when we should process an email: our estimation of how long a task takes, how much our calendar changes, and how we are feeling when the email reappears. We need our prioritization tools to be flexible enough to adjust to delays, early finishes, and unexpected priority shifts.
When we snooze an email, it disappears until the time we thought we wanted it to come back, making us somewhat beholden to the decision we likely made in just a few seconds. Yes, we can still get to our snoozed emails, but that requires managing yet another list, something productivity expert David Allen would cringe at. To make strong prioritization decisions, we need a single list of tasks sorted by priority. Then, we simply engage the highest priority item on the list rather than relying on our ability to predict when we’ll get to a task.
More productive email:
Rather than encourage the use of the snooze feature, Google could help us manage our email more productively by helping us make quicker decisions about what we should get out of each email, as it has begun to do with the primary, social, and promotion tabs. For example, what if Gmail included an estimate how long it would take to read each email in the preview snippet? Might it be possible for Gmail to predict when an email requires follow-up action or concerns a meeting or appointment? Could Gmail make a suggestion of which folder we should put an email in based on the sender and content? These innovations would help us move every email out of our inbox the first time we read it, the true path to productive email management.