clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Google's Inbox turns your email into a giant to-do list


Google has a great idea: stop pretending your inbox is a mailbox. Instead, treat it like what it really is: a horrible, endless to-do list.

Google Inbox officially turns your email into a big to-do list

The new product, Inbox, is not a replacement for Gmail. Instead, it's a new, optional app for Gmail users that gives you a new way to look at your email — and powerful tools for keeping it under control.

We normally think of our inbox as the way we get messages from friends, family, and co-workers. But for many of us, it makes more sense to think of it as a to-do list. People add items to the list by sending us emails. Some emails simply demand a thoughtful response, but others ask us to make flight reservations, write memos, update spreadsheets, and so forth.

Since we can't always get to these tasks right away, we mark them unread so we'll remember to do them later. Over time, the unread messages pile up, creating a constant source of anxiety. Should you tackle the newest unread messages or the oldest ones? Are there urgent to-dos buried in the pile that you've forgotten about?

With Inbox, Google is trying to solve this problem by making the to-do list analogy explicit. And then providing you with powerful tools to help keep the list under control.

How Inbox helps you tame your email

Inbox has a number of features that help you to track, sort, and prioritize tasks you need to accomplish.

1) Reminders: A to-do list is more useful if you can put everything you need to do in one place. So in addition to helping you keep track of emails asking you to do stuff, Inbox also lets you create messages reminding yourself to do stuff in the future.

2) Pinned items: A big problem with a conventional inbox is that it's sorted in the order messages came in. But that's not necessarily the best order in which to do them. So Inbox lets you "pin" an email or reminder so you can deal with it later. Once you've pinned all the important items, you can "sweep" the rest out of your inbox so they don't bother you any more.

3) A snooze button: There are some items on your to-do list that are specific to a future time or a different place. If you're at work, you probably can't take care of the "feed the cats" item on your to-do list, for example. So Inbox lets you "snooze" items so you can deal with them later. Snoozed items can be set to pop up again in a few hours or days. Or they can be triggered when your phone reaches a specific location, such as your home or office.

4) Smart handling of auto-generated emails: A lot of stuff in our inboxes is auto-generated by various websites — flight reservations, product orders, party invitations, and so forth. Inbox knows how to scan these emails and pull out important information, which it then displays directly in your timeline, so you can see the most important information in these emails without even opening them.

Will I actually find that useful?

(Highways Agency)

The idea of combining email with a to-do list isn't a new one. Apple introduced a reminders feature to its desktop mail client years ago, various writers over the years have pointed out that inboxes have become de facto to-do lists. So far, this approach to email hasn't really taken off.

But one thing that's changed relatively recently is that smartphones have become more deeply integrated into our lives. For example, the ability to set reminders that trigger when the owner reaches a particular geographic location wouldn't have worked in a desktop email client. Because people always have their phones on them, they might find the to-do list metaphor more compelling. And, of course, the popularity of Gmail means many people will be willing to give Inbox a try.

The app is available for Android and iOS. Interestingly, Inbox is not a replacement for the traditional Gmail app. Users who like the traditional Gmail mobile experience can continue using the original app. For now, at least, the two apps will operate side by side, and users can choose which one they prefer.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.