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A guide to using the VIP Inbox on your iPhone or iPad

Let's say, just for argument's sake, that you suffer from email overload. You're in the weeds in your inbox. Important messages frequently get lost among the tangle of listserv digests, summary updates from social networks, and threads from friends regarding next week's social plans. One of the quickest and simplest solutions for iOS users is to use the VIP feature in the Mail app.

Now, I'm not saying it's the best solution, or that it will work for everyone — quite the contrary. The VIP inbox will only alleviate your email problems if you meet a certain criteria (outlined a little later in this article).

Generally speaking, I think the way to truly solve email overload is to develop good habits that help you stay on top of your messages day after day after day (which is a topic I'll be addressing in a future article). But an app or feature can sometimes help you get your head above the water again, which is something you need to do before you can start developing better daily habits.

What is the VIP Inbox?

The VIP Inbox is a feature inside the Mail app on the iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, and iPod touch. It sorts all inbox messages from people you mark as being "very important" to a special area. It does not move any of your emails, rather, it highlights only important emails in a separate inbox so that they are easier to see and don't get lost among less important stuff.

The VIP Inbox also includes notification settings, so you can hear a custom sound and receive visual alerts when new messages from very important people hit your inbox.

How does the VIP Inbox work?

The VIP Inbox simply highlights messages from important people by putting them into a separate view. As we've just mentioned, it doesn't move any messages. It doesn't create duplicates of messages. Think of it as automatically adding a "VIP" tag to any email from a very important person that's in your inbox, and then showing only those tagged messages in the VIP Inbox.

How to set up a VIP Inbox

On iPhones and iPads, the Mail app already comes with a VIP Inbox, and to turn it on all you have to do is start marking people as "very important persons."

1. From the Mail app, hit the icon of the blue circle with a white right-facing arrow.

2. Tap "Add VIP," and you'll be taken to your Contacts list. You can select any contact whose name appears in black text. Grey text indicates you don't have an email address for that person (or the person is already marked as a VIP).

3. When you finish adding VIPs, you can customise the settings with the "VIP Alerts" button. This button is a shortcut to your VIP notification settings. You can also get there this way:

Settings > Notifications > Mail > VIP.

Here, you can turn on audio and visual alerts that let you know when new VIP mail arrives.

How to best leverage the VIP Inbox

I think there are two ways to best make use of the VIP Inbox.

Firstly, mark no more than about six people as VIPs. If you have too many VIPs, it totally defeats the purpose of the feature.

Secondly, use it to separate the wheat from the chaff on your current messy inboxes. When you enable the VIP Inbox, it looks through existing messages in your inboxes, as well as new incoming mail. If you have hundreds of messages in your various inboxes but only want to see mail from your mum, your boss, and your significant other, all you'd have to do is mark only those three people as VIPs, and your iPhone or iPad will surface only their messages in seconds.

It's important to note that the VIP Inbox only looks through your inbox messages, but it does so across all email accounts set up in the Mail app. It does not, however, look at mail stored in archives or other folders. That's crucial to know. It's not a straight search function.

Is the VIP Inbox for you?

Using the VIP Inbox could be useful to you if you meet the following criteria:

  • The number of messages in your inbox — but not necessarily in your email accounts at large — is overwhelming
  • You frequently miss important emails from a handful of select people
  • Right now, you need to check whether you've missed any important emails from a handful of select people
  • You do not file messages into other folders
  • You need a quick way to improve your inbox experience because it's currently such a disaster that it's impossible to take other steps toward creating an organised system for managing your mail

Compartmentalisation is at the heart of the VIP Inbox. My organisational habits largely revolve around different ways of compartmentalising information so that I can focus on only what I need to see. That's a huge reason I think the VIP feature can be valuable to the right kind of user.

Additional resources

If the above bullet points don't really describe you or what you need, an alternate solution that can help you reclaim a messy inbox quickly through a different kind of sorting and compartmentalisation is SaneBox, which costs from $6 (£4) per month (although there is a free 14 day trial). SaneBox basically cleans out your inbox so that it only contains messages from people with whom you've corresponded previously. All other messages get pushed into a new folder, which you really must check on a regular basis for the service to be effective.