Sorting and Prioritizing Email in 10 Minutes on a Shoestring Budget

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on September 23, 2010 in: Email Efficiency, Tips in 10

I know what you are thinking: “Yeah right, you have not seen my email load. I can hardly handle 1 email in 10 minutes, much less all of it”.

Note the title. The title is “Sorting and Prioritizing Email in 10 Minutes on a Shoestring Budget”. That means two things:

  • I am not telling you how to respond to all of your emails in 10 minutes. Rather I am telling you how to separate the ones that are the “must get to now” from the “I don’t even need to read this one” or from the “this can be handled later”


  • There is a more efficient way to do this (in the next newsletter) but it costs a bit of money.

First thing you need to do is organize your email box. If you are using GMail it means setting up the right labels, if you are using Outlook (or a similar email client) it means setting up the right folders. By default, folders/labels are supposed to organize your email box but I have sometimes found that the more you organize the worse it gets. So try using the following Labels and Folders:

  1. To Do Immediately
  2. To Do Later
  3. To Be Reviewed
  4. Waiting on Follow Up
  5. Business
  6. Personal

That’s right: Only 6! Now if you are in Outlook or another system that allows folders, this is easy because you can set up sub folders, but in GMail and other various label systems you can’t. So… since they are in order of importance, I would suggest that you name those labels or folders exactly as I have them above including the numbers. (1-To Do Immediately, 2-To Do Later… and so on. The reason is that almost all email programs sort them in alphabetical order and numbers come first. So even if you have a bunch or multiple labels, you will see these 6 first). Same thing goes if you don’t want to re-do all of your existing folders — that is fine. Just get these 6 up there first.

Once you have those done, the goal is to tackle your inbox. The key is to keep your inbox at 0 and empty. Trust me, the fact that you just have everything ‘out’ of your inbox on most occasions is an accomplishment and will let you proceed with your day.

So for each and every email you have to ask yourself the following questions:

1. Is this even something I need to see? If it is not, you have 3 options: Delete it, spam it, or file it under Business/Personal. If you want to be more specific on filing, create sub folders under Business or Personal and/or create additional labels; but if you don’t need to see it (if this was one of the million cc’s that your employees send you in a day and you really don’t need to read the whole thing), skim it and file it away.

2. Is this something that I want to read but don’t need to read it right now? Put it in “To Be Reviewed”. This is great for those newsletters and ezines you have subscribed to, you are going to want to review it, but it is not time sensitive and it is something you can handle later – whenever you have a free moment.

3. Is this something that someone else in your organization can handle? If so, forward it to them, tell them to handle it, let you know once it’s done and file it under Waiting on Follow Up. That’s it (Delegation is the key to ruling your empire!).

4. Is this something that needs to be done right now? Do I have to respond to this immediately? If not, put it in To Do Later, if so, put it in To Do Immediately

In a nutshell, going through your email is the biggest challenge. Handling it and prioritizing it is half the goal to actually mastering it.

Now that you have everything sorted and prioritized, you can sit down and handle the things that need to be done in Folder 1 and know that in Folder 2 are things that have to be done when you have a moment.

What most people do is let their email build up all day, because quite frankly it looks very overwhelming to tackle. Truth be told, it takes less than 30 seconds to scan an email and file it. So sort it, triage it, and then tackle your email.

Disclaimer: This Tip in 10 Minutes obviously will take much longer if you have hundreds or thousands of emails a day.

Bonus Tips:

  1. If you use a blackberry or other mobile device to stay connected when not in the office, create a private or special email address like or and get those sent to your blackberry. Don’t get your main email box sent. Then direct any company members to email you there if it is an emergency or something you need to see immediately.
  2. If you are on your own, think of hiring a virtual assistant (more about virtual assistants and how they can help you handle your email in the next newsletter) to scan your emails for you and only send you ones that are considered emergencies and leave the rest in your email box for you to handle when you get to a computer.

Heather Recommends:

If you are a coach, freelancer, or entrepreneur who wants to succeed like a pro, I can help.

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