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How to Prioritize the Emails You Respond To

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Read Time: 10 mins
This post is part of a series called Writing Effective Business Emails.
How to Email Important People

Clutter causes stress. 

The verdict is clear. Clutter is distracting and overwhelming. It's bad for productivity and for our health. When we're in a mess, we don't know what tasks to tackle first.

Cluttered deskCluttered deskCluttered desk
A cluttered email inbox, like a cluttered desk, can hamper productivity. (Image source: Envato Elements)

As psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter explains, clutter:

  • "Bombards" our senses with stimuli, which overloads the mind.
  • Distracts us from what we should be doing by pulling our attention elsewhere.
  • Acts as a signal that our work is never done.
  • Blocks creativity—which needs open, clear space to function properly.
  • Makes it difficult to find the tools or information we need to do our work.

As with messy desks, so to with full email inboxes. Email is stressful—especially if it's allowed to clutter your inbox. A study by Loughborough University found that 83% of workers had higher stress levels than usual while checking email. Fortunately, the same study also looked at potential solutions to email stress. In particular, they found that keeping on top of emails by organizing them into folders reduced stress. The lesson? A well-managed inbox can improve your productivity and reduce your stress levels.

One way of staying on top of email is through deciding which emails need you to take action on and which can be safely ignored.

How should you decide which emails to reply to first? Let's take a look at how you can set the right priorities when you're emptying your email inbox.

Before you dive into this tutorial, grab our email strategies eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Inbox Zero Mastery. (It's available for FREE download with the Tuts+ Business newsletter.) Learn more great email productivity techniques in this eBook.

Download the inbox zero email tips ebook nowDownload the inbox zero email tips ebook nowDownload the inbox zero email tips ebook now

Now let's take a look at these important steps to better email prioritization.

Step 1: Set Up Email Filters

Every email in your inbox puts pressure on your attention—even the emails that don't need your attention. The Loughborough University study referenced above found that irrelevant emails were a key source of email stress.

We all receive non-essential emails we can safely ignore or read at a leisurely pace during a slow day at the office. These include:

  • newsletters
  • social media updates
  • personal messages
  • notifications
  • Google Alerts

So instead of allowing these messages to clutter your inbox and cause you unnecessary stress, why not direct them elsewhere? Gmail, Google Apps, and Microsoft Outlook all allow you to set up filters or rules to redirect particular messages away from your inbox and into another email folder.

Once you've set up filters, only the emails you need to see will end up in your inbox. Your mental energy and attention will go where it's needed most—to the emails that matter.

What if your email software doesn't have a filter system? Then set up another email address that you use to sign up for email newsletters and social media sites.

Taking this single step, you will hugely reduce the amount of email clutter in your life. You'll reduce your stress levels and have more mental energy and clarity to devote to your work.

Step 2: Schedule Specific Times to Check Email

Setting priorities around email isn't only about choosing which emails you tackle first. It's also about the overall priority of email in your life.

Most of us fire up our email inboxes the moment we get into the office or even in the early morning before we start work.

Is email really that important?

Forbes writer Anthony Wing Kosner points out that many of us need retraining so we can learn "to not assume that the priorities of [our inboxes] match up with [our] own personal goals and responsibilities."

Not only do we check our emails first thing, but we continue to check them throughout the day. This isn't good for our stress levels—as each new email we read stacks up extra stress. What's more, it impedes productivity. Multi-tasking is an unproductive approach to work because it involves constant interruptions—a new email being one such interruption. 

These interruptions pull us away from what we should be doing. Studies show that following an interruption, it takes 64 seconds to recover your train of thought and an average of 25 minutes to get back to a task you were focused on before the interruption.

Again, is email really so important that we allow it to cause so much disturbance? Maybe the truth is darker. Research has found that email is highly addictive—some even say it's as addictive as slot machines.

Yes, we all need email to communicate. But it needs to be a tool that we're in control of, not that's in control of us.

Email has taken over our working lives. It's time to fight back and win control.

The solution is to schedule time to check email. For most people, twice a day is plenty.

Very few emails require an immediate response. Once your colleagues or clients know you only check email once or twice a day, they'll use another communication tool to contact you in an emergency.

So when should you schedule your email checking time?

Most productivity experts believe checking your email first thing is the worst possible approach. "Never check your email in the morning" is even the title of a productivity book. Anthony Wing Kosner writes:

[E]xperts overwhelmingly suggest that you start with your hardest work of the day and defer the distractions of email for later.

By this reckoning, you're best to use your upbeat, morning energy to tackle important project work. Leaving email until later keeps you free of distractions, so you can focus fully on the work at hand. Then when you're feeling more sluggish in the afternoons, you can check your email.

So what should you do? Check your email in the morning, or save it until later? You've got to do what works for you and your workflow. The important thing is that you limit how frequently you check your email and that you stick to the times you've committed to. It'll be tough—email is highly addictive. But you can do it!

Here are two tips to help you limit how often you check your email:

  • Email safe mode. Even when you're focused on project work, you'll sometimes have to delve into your emails. Avoid the distractions of your inbox by creating a "safe mode" folder in your email software. In this folder, store emails related to projects you're currently working on. You're allowed to check this folder at any time of day, but remember it's for reference only. No replying to emails outside of your allotted times!
  • The nuclear option. If you really can't stay away from your email inbox, then consider blocking the internet completely. 

Step 3: Power Through with Speed Responses

So far, you've cleaned up your email inbox using filters, and you've limited yourself to only logging into your emails twice a day.

What should you do when you get to your inbox?

In the seminal book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen gives a tip that's pertinent for email users. Allen says that when a new tasks comes your way, you should ask yourself, "Can I complete this in under two minutes?" If so, then do it right away. No matter how important or trivial, just get it done.

Use this same approach to your email. If an email can be tackled in under two minutes, then do it right away.

So when you go to your email inbox:

  • Read every new email that's come in.
  • If you can reply to an email in under two minutes, do so before moving on to the next email.
  • Archive all the emails you've replied to or that don't need a reply.

If you really want to get quick at this, try playing The Email Game. This gives you five seconds to decide what to do with each email. For the emails you decide to reply to, you're given three minutes to write a response.

As with filtering non-essential email, writing speed responses clears the clutter from your inbox, so you're left with what matters. Additionally, it encourages people you correspond with to write emails that can be responded to quickly and easily.

Step 4: Prioritize Your Remaining Emails

You've eliminated the emails you can reply to quickly. All that's left are the emails that require an in-depth response. In other words, they're another item on your to-do list. What should you do with these?

Process these emails as you would any other to-do item. One way of deciding how you'll tackle each email is by using the Eisenhower Matrix. Here's how you do that:

To begin with, rate each email according to urgency and importance.

  • Urgent emails are those that need to be replied to quickly. The sooner a response is required, the higher the urgency.
  • Important emails are those that relate to long-term projects but that don't necessarily require a quick response.

If an email is urgent, add it to your to-do list for the day, or if possible, delegate it to a co-worker. The more urgent the email, the higher up it should be on your to-do list.

For important emails, schedule a time in your calendar to deal with them.

Other ways of prioritizing email include:

  • The Eat that Frog! method. With this, you choose which email you least feel like tackling. Then you put it at the top of your to-do list. By getting tasks you don't want to do out of the way, you'll get an energy boost to power through the rest of your day.
  • The Final Version method. Here, you choose emails to tackle based on what you most feel like replying to. You start with an easy-win, and build momentum from there.

For more details on prioritizing, check out our articles on creating your own productivity system and on the Getting Things Done system.

Step 5: Clean Up the Emails Left Behind

By now, you've powered through your inbox. Every email is dealt with or is scheduled in your calendar to be tackled later.

But there will still be emails left behind. What should you do with these stragglers? Chances are, they fall into one of two categories:

  • You're waiting until you complete a task before you reply. If you followed Step 4 correctly, you should have scheduled this task into your calendar.
  • You're waiting for a reply from your correspondent. You can't archive these emails because they're part of an ongoing project or discussion. You also can't act on them until you receive a reply.

What should you do with these emails? Create a special folder for each type of email. Have one folder called Action Needed and another called Awaiting Reply. Then file your emails accordingly.

Check in to these folders from time to time, so you can send out follow-ups or note reminders of tasks that need doing.

Once you've completed this step, you'll have a fully clutter-free inbox. Good job!

Grab the Free Email Inbox Zero Mastery eBook

Now you need to make sure you stay on top of your inbox going forward. Don't let it get disorganized or overloaded all over again. Learn how to manage your emails better with techniques that take what you learned in this tutorial further. 

Sign up for the Tuts+ Business Newsletter and get the FREE Inbox Zero Mastery eBook. Discover additional tips on how to spend less time in your inbox, while processing your messages more effectively for the long term.

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Graphic Credit: List designed by Matt Petrowsky from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published on June 16, 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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