Recently, a client shared with me how their inbox can feel like a weight, a constant source of stress, and how seeing 50+ (or even 500+) unopened emails can drain your energy faster than a Friday afternoon full of meetings.

So how do we remove this source of stress and make email a useful tool again?

The Problem

We rarely have unallocated hours available to dedicate solely to our inbox, so we need a way to triage our emails and identify their importance quickly. We need techniques to help us determine which items need an immediate decision, which ones need action, and which ones (likely the vast majority) are just for our situational awareness or somehow found their way into our inbox. An effective triage system will allow us to prioritize the most critical actions that require our attention between meetings as those precious few minutes become available.

Three Strategies

To accomplish this, consider these three strategies. We need to create habits around how we organize our inbox (a personal strategy) and habits around how we treat the inboxes of others (organizational strategies). Think of these organizational strategies as ways to help others manage their inboxes more efficiently (so they can do the same for you).

Organizational Strategy 1: Use the To Line and the CC Line Intentionally

First things first: we need to convey our expectations to the recipients of our emails. Without an established organizational system, the recipient must take the time to read and understand an email to know how to respond to it appropriately and, more importantly, how much energy (and time) it will take to respond appropriately.

We can convey our expectations by designating what it means to be on the To Line vs. the CC Line. Use the To Line to mean: “You are receiving this email because I need a response from you or because you need to conduct an action based upon the information in this email.” Use the CC Line to mean: “You are receiving this email for awareness of the information it contains, but no response or action is required from you.”

This is the first strategy to help you triage your inbox. Start reading emails where you are on the To Line. These require your attention. Any email that has you on the CC Line can wait and likely be deleted after a quick read.

email cleaning

email cleaning

At a glance, I can see that one of my emails requires action (I’m on the To Line), and I will have to dedicate energy and time to accomplish that action. The other email requires no action but may be useful for understanding. I will get to it as time permits (or delete it if time does not permit).

Organizational Strategy 2: Add Descriptive Designators to the Subject Line

Some emails are more important than others, even within a list where you are on the To Line. If an email presents a decision to you, until you make that decision, other people are waiting on you to conduct further action. Some emails will require you to perform an action such as providing guidance or reaching out to others that only you can influence from your position. When you help others know what their next steps are, they can better manage their energy. You can accomplish this by adding descriptive designators to the Subject Line.

email cleaning

A glance at the inbox tells me that in order of priority, I need to make a decision (because other people are waiting on me), I need to take action (provide guidance), and there is information available for my awareness. My available time will determine how far I make it down that list, but I know that I am addressing the most pressing items in priority.

Remember that these organizational strategies are focused on others. You are communicating more efficiently so that others can better triage their inboxes and better manage their own energy (and time). Establishing these habits within an organization can help everyone. A final strategy focuses on your own inbox.

Personal Strategy 1: Use Categories and Colors

The “categories” function allows you to assign a color and a label to a “category” of email. Useful categories include “Action Required,” “Awaiting Response,” or “Read When Able.” When you identify an email that requires your attention (a decision or an action to take), you can assign it to the “Action Required” category. When you send an email to someone and need their input or response to continue advancing the effort, you can assign it to the “Awaiting Response” category.

Items that may be useful but can wait until later (usually an email where you are on the CC Line) can be assigned to the “Read When Able” category. With a quick scan, you can assign categories to emails. Then, when you have a few minutes to focus on them, you have a quick visual indicator to quickly triage your inbox and identify which emails are most important.

email cleaning

As you build habits around these strategies, you can be confident that you are addressing the most pressing and most important issues first and can more confidently skim and delete the emails that do not require action on your part.

How can you implement an email triage system for your team? Who else in your organization would benefit from this? What’s stopping