Email triage: when your Inbox needs more time than you have available

Managing the quantity of incoming emails is a challenge for everyone, it seems. It’s a basic collaboration tool, but quite easily gets overwhelmed. Like most people, I’m constantly tempted by the newest item, regardless of how important it is. I’ve just started a new routine where I

  • delete the junk as fast as possible, barely reading the title
  • do quick replies to as many as possible, or accept meeting invitations. The aim is to handle the email only once, and thus be efficient.

But I struggle to deal with the rest (which need more than a quick response) in the time available

I’m interested to hear what techniques other people use for “the rest”. Quite honestly, a few of those emails that need a more considered response, but not urgently, just sink down my inbox until they disappear, assisted by a cunning rule to “archive after a month”. Some claim to have achieved Inbox Zero, but I think they must be cheating.

Plus there is the issue of double-handling. There isn’t an obvious way to make a “note to self” against an email, so you have to think all over again next time. As one person memorably put it “Look but don’t touch” is for children, so why do our email programs work that way?

Here are some strategies I’ve heard about, including

  • Triage them into folders for action
  • Post reply
  • Make it a page in OneNote
  • Custom follow-up
  • Forward an email to myself with comments
  • Outlook linker

I do the top two most. Please tell me what you do, in the comments.

Triage them into a few folders for action

Returning from a week’s leave is the worst time isn’t it? Time for triage (“a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.”).

At the beginning of this week I created a couple of new folders, which I have called Inbox – core job actions and Inbox – social and collaborative actions. The name of the second one perhaps needs some explanation: it includes notifications for social media conversations I might want to reply to, as well as a lot of those optional and interesting things that are not part of my direct job focus but really help other people in the business to get their job done.

So my new triage process goes something like this:

  • Handle items in the inbox just once. There are only a few options
    • Delete
    • Scan it and archive it (drag to the Academy folder in my case) – no need for complex folder structures because search finds everything easily
    • Deal with it immediately, but only if it can be done inside a minute
    • Drag to Inbox – core job actions (possibly posting some notes or starting a draft reply, see below. Possibly add to my main To Do list in OneNote)
    • Drag to Inbox – social and collaborative actions

The evidence from experimental psychology suggests that it is better to deal with stuff in batches rather than letting it intrude all through the day (See this entrepreneur article. Also I recommend switching off Outlook toast notifications. So my plan is to do the inbox triage occasionally during the day, then make time for Inbox – core job actions and deal with Inbox – social and collaborative as fast as possible in batches or when brain-tired.

Will it work, or will I simply ignore these folders. Will it become a case of too many inboxes? I don’t know yet, but after just a few days I feel much more in control, and spending time on the right things. Plus my Inbox has stayed at zero (which has never happened before).

FastCompany advice on email triage.

Post reply – half-formed notes

“Post reply” is a trick that I used many years ago, but is now a bit harder to find in Outlook 2013 to start with. What I’ve now noticed is that it appears in the ribbon when you restart Outlook after using it for the first few times. So to get started, double-click to open an email, and then CTRL-SHIFT-S, type something and save it.

If it doesn’t appear on the ribbon after restarting Outlook, you can add it like this: Right-click the ribbon, Customize the ribbon, Add folder, All commands, Post reply to folder, Add.

So what I’m doing is creating a “Post” which is not an email. I use the comments to remind me of what I think I should do about it, and any half-formed thoughts, when it becomes clear it is going to take longer than 2 mins. Notice I have just put a dot in the subject line: that’s because the subject line doesn’t show nicely in the normal email list view in the next picture – the dot avoids it complaining.

The post then shows up in my Inbox (or actually my Inbox – Social and collaborative action folder) grouped with my notes, as you can see

Limitation: you can’t edit the post later (although you can add more new posts).

And now for some other methods I’ve seen but don’t use. Do any of you use these?

Make it a page in OneNote

Near the bottom of the right-click menu is the command “OneNote” which creates a copy of the email as a page in OneNote (you can choose where it goes). That is neat, but it doesn’t make it easy to find the original email again, in order to respond to it later.

Custom follow-up

From the preview list it is easy to right-click the red flag and choose custom.

You then have 100 characters to type a comment

In tiny letters on the email you then see your comment. I do hope it doesn’t get forwarded to the next person!

For me the tiny letters are too small, I wouldn’t see them. And I would get irritated by items going red in my inbox – false jeopardy. So this is not one I use.

Doing this also creates an item on the To Do list in Outlook. But I don’t use Outlook for task management (I use OneNote), and I don’t want to have another To Do list to look after. Does anyone?

Forward the email to myself with comments

It’s a bit like creating draft responses this is easy but I don’t like doing it. There’s a risk of emailing my half-formed thoughts to all and sundry. Not clever.

Outlook Linker

I keep a To Do list in OneNote and the most natural thing would be to put a link to an email I need to respond to, which would open the email in Outlook when I click on it. Unfortunately, although such links are possible, creating them requires a unique ID number and is not very easy in my company (such links are blocked as a security precaution): there is a free program Teamscope Outlook Linker, which makes it possible to create links from the right-click menu in Outlook, but I haven’t tried it.

Your tips

So, coming back to the original question, how do you manage your email overload? Do you triage or use these other tips or have you got some others to share?

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