The fastest way to triage email

It goes without saying that your inbox needs regular management, or it’ll be full to overflowing. Either way, every day more stuff comes in for you to remember to do. Some of it is urgent and gets handled by you immediately; some of it is temporarily or permanently ignorable, and will work its way off the bottom of the list as you handle more important things.

Years ago, after too many forgotten tasks and missed deadlines,  I read a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I followed its excellent prescription for getting your life’s tasks under control. I keep spare copies of this wonderful book in my office at all times, to give to people that I think might need or want to read it. I pick them up in used bookstores whenever I find a reasonably priced copy.

I won’t go over the GTD approach to inbox triage here, as there’s so much written about it everywhere else on the internet; but I used it for years. It’s a rather zen-like process for making sure nothing slips through the cracks. But over time, as I progressed from my small company to larger ones, and from individual work to management, I began receiving more emails every day. Email-wrangling began to be something I spent a significant amount of my day doing, which stunk.

Eventually, I started experimenting with cutting corners to reduce my email time. What follows is the method for email triage that I eventually settled on. It’s a variant of the GTD method — it has the same output (i.e. things in to-do lists, and an empty inbox), but for some reason I can do it in much less time.

First step: Create two folders named __ARCHIVE__ and __HOLD__. In Outlook you can create ‘action buttons’ that, when clicked, will move the selected email to each folder — I recommend creating them if you’re in Outlook. Not sure what the equivalent thing is in gmail.

Second step: Start at the top of your Inbox list and ask of each item: Is there anything in here that I have to do? If the answer is yes, move the email to __HOLD__. If no, move it to __ARCHIVE__. Continue until the email Inbox is empty.  That’s the end of “Phase 1”.


Third step: Now move over to the __HOLD__ folder and start at the top. Each email that’s now in __HOLD__ had some action item or task associated with it; as you read each email, put the associated ‘next action’ into a separate list (I like using Workflowy for this purpose). If you’ll need to read the email later for reference, when doing the associated task, also flag (Outlook) or star (gmail) the email. Then move the (flagged or unflagged) email to __ARCHIVE__. Continue until the __HOLD__ folder is empty.  That’s the end of “Phase 2”.


That’s all; your to-do list is populated, and both Inbox and __HOLD__ box are empty.

You’ll notice that with this system, everything ends up in the __ARCHIVE__ folder; I rarely if ever delete emails, because I never can guess which ones I’ll need again. Anyway, the time I spend dithering about whether it’s too important to delete is time I’d rather save.

I used to keep emails in separate folders (such as DEFERRED, DELEGATED, etc), thinking this helped to keep me organized; but I gave this up. The search function in the single __ARCHIVE__ folder does a better job. I flag the emails I know I’ll need to find again, but only because the flags help to make them ‘pop’ visually in the midst of all the other emails.

About carolynpjohnston

I am an applied mathematician and developer, with 20 years of R&D experience in the mapping and remote sensing industry. I develop algorithms and systems for extracting information from imagery, producing map data, and improving the accuracy of maps produced with the aid of remote sensing imagery.
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