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I get so many emails (mostly as part of email lists) that the way I process them is to simply scan my eyes down the list of messages, looking at sender, subject, and the first few words. I only actually open a small fraction of them.

In my experience this method is unfortunately error-prone. My eyes somehow blow by messages and I only discover them when someone either asks in person why I haven't responded or, worse, some bad consequence develops (i.e. a service is interrupted because the registered credit card expired and I never responded to the warning emails).

This is not a question about how to process email in general, which is a larger issue and has been addressed before, but more narrowly, how to make 100% sure I see the very few super-urgent emails ASAP.

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How you you know they are super urgent?

Work example I set up my smartphone to vibrate/flash red only for "urgent" messages. THere are some false positives, but I don't miss any. My filter has two parts:

  1. If a message as urgent or "severity 1" in the subject, it is urgent.
  2. If the message has a high priority flag it is urgent. (Unless it is sent by a couple people/lists that send too much as high priority.) This one required training people that if there are item is truly urgent to use the urgent flag. I've gotten some pretty senior people to participate though. They know that's how to get the e-mail read quickly.

Personal example For my personal e-mail account, seeing the urgent e-mails does require some e-mail management techniques. In particular, getting the less important e-mail out of the inbox and into a folder. I know you said you didn't want to hear about e-mail management so I won't go on about this in depth. If you can identify senders that mainly send pressing things (credit card bill, credit card expiration), you can flag those. But personal e-mail tends to be easier to filter on the "less important, regular" mail end.

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It's not obvious to me how you would set up your smartphone to do this. – Superbest Apr 17 '14 at 17:38
It would depend on what phone you have. I set that up on my work BlackBerry. – Jeanne Boyarsky Apr 18 '14 at 1:07

I don't accept the premise of the question. You have a low signal-to-noise environment, with hard-to-detect, urgent, and important emails surrounded by chatter. I simply can't envision a robust system that will ensure nothing is missed.

Jeanne has a good suggestion about a system that seems like it would work if you get the right people to buy in and if you can take advantage of heuristics like high priority flags. But the downside of a solution like that is that it's only as robust as the consistency of the senders.

Furthermore, it sounds like you're missing email because you don't have these options and because your important email's don't come with flags that can be processed by a machine.

I don't think there's a tip or trick to solve this. There's no easy solution, only the hard one. You've got to clear the noise out of your inbox.

  • have the email lists sent to another account, or at least use some rules to get them out of your inbox
  • unsubscribe from as much as you can
  • if you use something like Gmail start making things as spam so the filter will take them out for you
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Having in mind how you narrowed you question, I would suggest:

  • Set up a separate mailbox for super urgent requests. Let's call it
  • Limit who can send you super-urgent emails. Provide your new email address only to the group of stakeholders allowed to send you super urgent emails.
  • Set customer expectations: communicate what is super urgent and what is not
  • Teach your stakeholders how and when they should use your new mailbox.
  • Monitor your mailbox with communicated frequency by means appropriate for you (mobile phone alerts, sms, twitter, smartphone inbox, website, etc.)
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If you have the freedom to set up a separate account I like that idea. It reminds me of the prior art of the special zip code each President gets so correspondence from people in the know can get fast-tracked to his desk (letters from family and what not). I suppose if you can't set up a separate account the same thing could be accomplished in practice by giving people a special code or string to put in the subject, which you could then set up rules and filters to process into a special inbox. – Adam Wuerl Nov 15 '11 at 12:45

I use color labels to make messages from key senders jump out in my inbox. I view messages from key senders as taking a priority over other messages in my inbox.

I use gmail so I can designate unwanted messages as spam which reduces the overall noise in my inbox since they don't return once I've labeled them as spam.

I set up a rule in Mail to automatically move emails from lists into folders for later reading.

This works well with my average incoming mail load of 100 messages a day.

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This is exactly what I use - and it scales well to far over 100 emails a day. +1 – Rory Alsop Nov 13 '11 at 11:10

Using Gmail

If you use Gmail, you can set a custom filter to forward emails to your phone as a text message. With AT&T, at any rate, emails sent to will go to your phone as a text.


If you need it to go somewhere else, or if your service provide doesn't support it, you can have route it to wherever you need it to go.


  1. Create a trigger/filter on ifttt. In this case, it's probably the email address that the urgent message will come from.
  2. Have ifttt send it to wherever you need it to go (SMS, twitter, phone call)
  3. Set a filter in gmail (not sure how this would work on other providers) to forward urgent messages to

A note, though, if you need to know instantaneously about urgent emails, ifttt only polls for triggers about every 15 minutes.

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I don't see how this answers the question. The user is having a problem noticing urgent emails because he is receiving so many. I'm not sure how getting each one as a text message or having a notification posted to their twitter feed would help. – Adam Wuerl Nov 11 '11 at 21:56
By using filters, you can forward only the critical emails. For instance, emails from certain people (clients) or containing certain keywords. I failed to emphasize that. – Brian Kung Nov 15 '11 at 2:18

The biggest questions for me is not how to handle those most important emails, but more how to identify them. For me the only was was to flag some senders email as most important (my boss, some tough customer, etc) and when I receive those I have an action on this. As we use outlook at the office this message is highlighted in red and I get a popup announcing the new message, but of course you can utilize some of the above mentioned methods like sending it to a separate account that you have on your mobile or sms as well.

This means however that all mail send by my boss is marked as important, which is of course not always the case, but something I can live with.

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My boss sends too much e-mail so I don't want them all marked as urgent :). Luckily she has bought into my high priority flag system. – Jeanne Boyarsky Nov 12 '11 at 15:22

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