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Everyday I get hundreds of emails. I use mail.app on OS X. I feel the need to classify them according to their importance or urgency. I was thinking about creating three folders called "urgent", "important" and "unimportant". So at the beginning of the day I should first answer the first folder, then the second, and if I still have time, the last one. Do you think this method is optimal? How can I improve it?

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6 Answers

There may be 3rd party tools that can help. For example, if your mail provider is Gmail, you can use activeinboxhq to prioritize your emails. You can also further prioritize within Gmail with other techniques, like using different colored stars for various actionable priorities.

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The other answers to this question are a terrific compendium of best practices that are well known to people who have already explored the topic of handling email efficiently:

  • unsubscribe from mailing lists you're not reading
  • filter incoming mail automatically as much as possible
  • handle mail only one time and get it out of the inbox
  • timebox your email processing to only a few times a day, and not at all otherwise

The only additional practice I would add is to use a single archive folder and tag messages you want to save for future retrieval. Attempting to build a folder hierarchy for archives tends to fail under the weight of maintenance, compounded with the problems of messages that might be archived in more than one place and remembering how you archived it when you need it in future. Search features in email have gotten good enough that combined with tagging you can get to anything you need very quickly, and by multiple paths.

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The urgency/importance concept comes from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and not really suited to this particular context. I think going to something from Getting Things Done will probably work out better under the circumstances (I also use Mail and have a similar setup I've been using for a few years now).

The concept is processing the inbox - in this case, literally. First, look at each e-mail once to process it. The first part of the GTD workflow is to determine if the item is actionable or not. If it's not actionable, you have three choices: trash it, put in a someday maybe pile, or put it somewhere for future reference (for me, I work on a lot of projects with different clients - each has his/her own mailbox in Mail).

If there is an action to take on it, GTD recommends a couple of concepts - revolving around the question, "Will it take two minutes or less?" If so, just do it.

If it's an e-mail you need to reply to - will it take less than two minutes? Just reply. If it will take longer, put it in a @Reply mailbox. Is it a confirmation e-mail from something you purchased and are now waiting to receive in the mail (or, someone telling you they are going to work on something you asked them to)? Put it in a @Waiting For mailbox. Is it a really long e-mail you don't have time to actually read (2 minutes)? Put it in a @Review mailbox. Is it an e-mail someone sent asking you to work on something? Add something to your to-do list (takes less than 2 minutes); or, put it in an @Action mailbox.

By processing your mail this way, you should be able to quickly filter out those things which are unimportant (most likely trash). You will still maintain an archive of correspondence you may wish to reference later. You also have a tickler for things you are waiting for. You also know all the e-mails you need to reply to at some point. You also have all the requests for action. And so on.

The point is, when you receive a lot of e-mail you need to be able to quickly filter the signal from the noise. For example, I do software development and receive a lot of e-mail notifications related to tickets I am working on. Rarely do I need to read these e-mails, because I am already in the system that does the tracking - in fact, most of these are received after I update a ticket - they usually just go straight into the project mailbox. Then there are other e-mails I receive with attachments - it takes no time to download the file and put the e-mail into the @Actions mailbox if I need to do something. Last, bust certainly not least, the '@' symbol is kind of a throwback to when we couldn't sort the mailboxes anyway we wanted to, but I still find it useful as it separates intermediary buckets from the archives. Empty the inbox regularly. Only look at each e-mail once for processing.

Edit: Also, if you do find yourself deleting e-mails which are newsletters or promotion items from vendors you rarely frequent, you may want to consider removing yourself from their mailing list.

Hope that helps.

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One of the canonical sources for the advice in the other answers is Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero video and articles. The key theme through all of the answers, and with Inbox Zero, is that if you're looking for a way to prioritize your email you're asking the wrong question.

The right question is how do I process my email effectively to harvest all of the information and actions out of it that I need such that I free myself from the cognitive debt of an overflowing inbox and ensure no actions get dropped.

A good step zero is getting rid of all the email that's not useful enough to you to be worth the time it takes to process, but after that you're going to need a system that is more than figuring out what order to re-read your mail. The most time-efficient means of dealing with a high volume of email is to only deal with each message once.

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I think you are asking the wrong question. As Jeanne says, you should ask yourself: "How can I receive less emails?"

  1. Try to unsubscribe to as many newsletters as possible, you probably don't read them all. I do it as i receive a new email, I click on the "Unsubscribe" link in the email.

  2. Delete all the unread emails that you are not interested in reading (there are always a good portion of your emails that you won't read. This helps reduce the email count to a more comfortable level.

  3. Add filters to auto-read and archive the emails you might want to read or refer to in the future (like error logging if you are a developer)

  4. Batch your email processing: set two times in the whole day where you will be processing your emails, and just do that. You will be much more efficient.

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The biggest way I can think of to improve it is to get less emails. If emails are unimportant, why do you need to receive them?

Personally, I prefer to classify emails more granularly. "newsletter", "production alerts", etc. That way I can deal with one topic at a time.

Also, are you automating classifying or manually doing it? If manually, consider an approach where you deal with emails as you classify if they don't take long. Then you waste less time processing twice.

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Amazing how the best way to do something is not to. –  JeffO Apr 11 '13 at 17:49
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