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Process Improvement: Prioritize Your Email

Managing Your Inbox

On a daily basis, we all are continually overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, and decisions that need to be made. It's no wonder why emails can be lost or responses delayed when you have to read, listen, and respond to so much in a single day.

Since all mail initially enters your 'Inbox', it can be very difficult to keep up with filters and rules to sort it all out. Essentially, your 'Inbox' is a huge catch-all for any email sent to you regardless of priority. It's not uncommon for a person to get hundreds of emails per day. Add SPAM and other unsolicited email and there can easily become so much that important high-priority emails can get lost in the fray. Here's a tip to solve your Inbox dilemma.

Note: I use Microsoft Outlook email as the example, but other email applications have similar capabilities that do the same thing. If you are unfamiliar with some of the functions or terms, please see the Notes section at the end of this tip.

  1. Setup Sub-Inboxes By Priority.  Under your Inbox, set up three new folders and call them "High Priority", "Medium Priority", and "Low Priority" respectively (or anything relevant to your needs).
  2. Set Rules to Sort Incoming Emails By Priority.  Set up rules that identify emails you want to move to the high priority folder (e.g. like from your CEO, your boss, or people on your high-priority projects list, and your spouse), and medium priority (e.g. like colleagues you work with, projects you are monitoring, etc) and low priority (e.g. everything else except SPAM).
  3. Prioritize Your Rules.  Set up rules in the right order. That way the first rule is always to test for high-priority criteria, then medium, and so on (for most email systems, the next rule in succession doesn't run if the previous rule has already taken care of the email in question). Then setup a rule as the very last to move everything else from your inbox to the low priority folder. Note: most virus protection software has a capability to recognize SPAM and label it so you can set up a rule to move SPAM email right to your Junk mail folder or the trash.

That's it! Now you can quickly manage those high priority emails without having them get lost in the inbox among all the low priority stuff.

Final Word:

If you should end up finding that most of your inbox is being redirected to the high priority folder, I would suggest that you read Stephen R. Covey's short but relevant book on managing priorities (7 Habits of Highly Effective People).


  • About Folders

    Microsoft outlook allows you to add folders to your inbox. You can use folders to organize your emails into relevant categories so that finding them later is a whole lot easier. If you don't already see your inbox as a folder, click on your menu under view, and enable 'Navigation Pane'. Then right-click your mouse on the Inbox folder and select 'New Folder…' to add a folder under your inbox.

    If you are not familiar with "folders" in Microsoft Outlook, then checkout Creating Folders at the Microsoft web site, or Google for your particular email program.

  • About Rules

    Sometimes referred to as filters, rules allow you to set up criteria for incoming email to forward it, delete it, or move it to another folder. I use this extensively to move email coming into my inbox into relevant folders. You can set up rules to match against virtually anything in your incoming or outgoing email. You can use rules to move important emails to important folders.

    If you are not familiar with "rules" in Microsoft Outlook, then checkout Creating Rules at the Microsoft web site, or Google for your particular email program.

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