How to Triage Your Email


Email is the quintessential blessing & curse of the modern workplace. On one hand, it has the potential of being the most powerful tool for efficiency. On the other, it can completely destroy productivity. What is the deciding factor for which side of the fence it falls on?

Urgency & Priority

We must come to grips with the FACT that not everything has the same urgency and therefore does not have the same priority. So why do most of us sit parked at our computer, responding to emails in chronological order? Why are we checking email 50+ times per day? Why do we allow our inbox to be the organization system for everyone else's to-do list? How can we give our immediate attention to something based purely on the order in which it arrived?

To better understand my point, let's take a look at the modern day emergency room - specifically the triage. When you arrive at the emergency room, this is your first stop. It is the place where your condition is prioritized into three general categories:

  • Immediately life threatening
  • Urgent, but not immediately life threatening
  • Less urgent

The premise of this system is to prevent someone with a life threatening condition from waiting simply because they arrived a few minutes later than someone with a less urgent problem. The same approach should be given to your inbox.

When working email, your "triage" approach should be as follows:

  • Immediate - can be completed in a few minutes or less
  • Urgent - needs done today, but requires more than a few minutes to complete
  • Less Urgent - doesn't need addressed until tomorrow or later

Email should be worked in batches and you should be in full triage mode: knocking out emails that can be accomplished in a few minutes or less and marking the rest for follow-up according to priority. Once the triage is complete, you can switch to your "urgent" emails and work there until either your next batch is due to be checked or you have nothing left to work on except the less urgent category.

Incorporating a 5 minute reshuffle of your urgency levels each morning will keep you focused on the right things at the right time. At some point things that were "less urgent" will need addressed that day and should be moved onto the "urgent" list. Adding this morning ritual along with the triage approach to your inbox will ensure you are not giving your attention to a task due next week while a heart attack level item is being ignored.


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