Why Gmail stars are slowing you down (and stressing you out)

There are a few time-tested to piss off the Internet.

You can get tangled up with Beyonce’s Beyhive.

You can question if FIRE is worth it.

And you can say that starring Gmail messages can’t replace using a dedicated task manager.

I learned the last one the hard way after writing last Thursday’s email.

Starred emails – it turns out – play a big role in RadReaders’ workflows. And y’all had some searing questions for me:

  • What am I really doing here?  By moving an email into another app, aren’t I just hiding it or putting into a different style jewelry box?
  • Why can’t you just use email folders to manage your tasks?
  • What should I do if my company restricts the use of tools besides Outlook?
  • (Two readers even asked to see my travel wikis.)

Now before I answer each of these questions, I want to (re) introduce the RadOS. It’s a simple rubric that demonstrates why most productivity apps fail. And it can shed some light on #GmailStarsGate.

Whether it’s a TextExpander, Superhuman, Hey.com, Roam or Notion, one thing is for dang sure: We love our tools.

But in order for any productivity system to stick, tools are just one leg of the trifecta.

1. Self-Awareness

A robust system always starts with self-awareness and asking the right question. (One of my favorites: What’s this for?) In the case of #GmailStarsGate what are the questions one should be asking?

As you go through this list, you may realize that the star is actually a proxy for something much deeper.

Step 2: Tools

Now the fun part.

One RadReader suggested pairing Gmail labels with a la Kanban method, which is a fancy way of saying:

  • To-Do
  • Doing
  • Done

(This approach would also work for those strict IT policies that don’t let any fancy tools past your corporate firewall.)

This is an elegant and simple idea. (And it uses a trifecta, which our brains love.)

Using this approach, instead of using stars, you’d move the these tasks-masquerading-as-emails into their appropriate folders and voila. You’re on you’re merry and productive way. No fancy app required.

But you and I both know that you might as well archive those emails. Because they’ll never reappear.

Step 3: Behavior Change

Before you file a missing persons report on these emails, let’s get to the third leg of framework. Why would those emails go missing?

Because you forgot to look in your three new folders. Duh.

And here’s where the behavior change comes into play. If you were to adapt the Kanban folders approach, which – I repeat, is a very elegant solution – you’d need tweak your behavior in two ways:

  • First, you need to stop starring messages (instead moving them)
  • Next, you need to develop a habit of checking these folders

Is it worth it?

So let’s return to our first question from a RadReader who we’ll call Goldy. Goldy gave us permission to sample his email where he asked:

What am I really doing here?  By moving it over to [another location], aren’t I just hiding it or putting into a different style jewelry box?  Can I reduce the anxiety of the sheer number by just collapsing the starred emails?

The danger of starred emails is that they destroy any semblance of prioritization. You’ve relinquished prioritization – so that starred email from your mom (I love you mom!) occupies the same mind space as the one from your biggest investor.

But it gets worse. Goldy continues:

What is funny to me is that when my starred email count gets over 50, i feel overwhelmed (at least i think i am), and when its below 20 i feel like “IM THE MAN!”  ….which is totally insane.

The real #GmailStarsGate is that at any moment, Goldy has twenty to fifty emails taking up the most visible part of his screen’s real estate vigorously vying for his attention saying:

Stars are quick and serviceable fix. But with a tiny upfront investment in self-awareness and behavior change, it’ll be your completed tasks that will be seeing stars.

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