Prioritizing your emails

In our increasingly digitized world, many of our inboxes are filled to the brim with emails. I’ve sometimes felt that I couldn’t take a break at work because of the constant stream of emails I was getting on busy days, but since then learned to prioritize emails.

The first thing to understand and quickly accept is that not every email is important. Many are simply notifications and FYI’s you were Cc’d in. By glancing at the first word in the email before even opening it, you can see if the sender is even addressing you to begin with. These are emails I tend to look at last, when I can circle back to catch up on the thread.

The second step is to understand Eisenhower’s principle. There are 4 different categories every email can go into. Skim email to figure out 1. what does the sender want, and 2. when do they need it? I assume every email you get is about work, but remember that not every email is actually important in the scope of your career and department.

Important and Urgent

As the heading suggests, these need to be answered or addressed very soon. For these emails, I flag them (in Outlook) so that they are added to my to-do list. Schedule to work on these tasks today. The problem lies if you fail to determine what is actually both important and urgent. Keep reading to see if your email falls into a different category.

Important and Not Urgent

Most of your work emails you may consider important. But to really gauge if this is something that needs your attention today, ask yourself some questions. If you start this tomorrow or in a few days, will you miss a deadline? Was that deadline set arbitrarily, or will a client be negatively impacted by you not completing it in that exact deadline? Does this matter pertain to a client, or is this an internal project?

If someone internally is asking me to test a program by Tuesday, but really they picked that date because they felt it was enough time for me, this is something I would push off and maybe shoot them a note saying I need a couple more days. Just because they set a deadline for a certain date, doesn’t mean there’s any bad consequences for not meeting it.

On the other hand, if there was an email asking me to prepare a report before our meeting next Monday, and that report will take me 15 minutes to complete, I’ll start and send it Friday afternoon.

Lastly, I may be asked to prepare a quote for our service for an important client who will come see us 4 months from now. While there are many steps in the negotiation process and this is an important client, I likely don’t need to start right away as there’s no deadline given to me. Many times when I’m not given a deadline, it’s a sign the other person does not have a timeline they need it by yet, and won’t have time to look at it any time soon.

Not Important and Urgent

These can be quick emails that might need a simple “yes” or “no” from you. I knock these out in a few minutes at the start and end of my day. The consequence for not addressing these may be delays in the other person getting it done, but overall no big problems will arise for you and your team. Just because someone’s work is put off because they’re waiting on you, doesn’t mean you should spend time helping them when other things may affect your entire group’s bottom line.

Not Important and Not Urgent

These are emails where the sender does not state any urgency, a far off (or no) deadline, and has nothing to do with your direct work. It could be fixing a typo on a training slide deck, submitting an expense report for a lunch you had, or asking for volunteers to help at a company event.

There are some things you may feel is important, but take time to really compare and think about the consequences. Will pushing this email off to next week cause an equally disastrous problem as pushing off a senior manager or client issue? If not, push it off and focus on today.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by your inbox, now you’ll be prioritizing your emails using these 4 categories.

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