Start at the top of your Inbox, and follow these steps for triaging email:

Toss: Get Rid of Junk Mail

Get rid of junk mail using any/all of the following steps (many emails require more than one step):

  • Unsubscribe. If it is a repeat mailing that you no longer want, unsubscribe. You will see a link for this somewhere at the bottom of the email. (This IS safe if you know the sender or if they are US-based, thanks to the US CAN-SPAM act.)
  • Report as spam. If your email client (or add-on) lets you report something as spam, do so UNLESS you subscribed to it (in that case, unsubscribe, above).
    • Check your Spam or Junk Mail folder occasionally for important emails accidentally flagged as spam. Click Not Spam (or similar button) to move it out of the Spam folder and report the mistake.
  • Group similar emails and delete. Group or sort by sender, title, or conversation. This lets you delete or archive in large chunks.
  • Delete the email. Be quick to delete. You can look at your deleted emails if you change your mind.

Handle: Read/Review Items for Later

Most people subscribe to excellent email newsletters they may want to read. Few have time to read them all. Handle these using any/all of the following steps:

  • Skim it now. (30 seconds or less) Skim the headlines for valuable content (this counts as “quick communication”). Then decide if you’re done, if a task is needed, or whether more reading is needed later.
  • Set up an Inbox rule. Some newsletters are always Someday/Maybe material. If your mail client allows, make a rule (or filter) to automatically move them straight to [Read/Review]. They’ll never even hit your Inbox.
  • Move it manually to [Read/Review]. If you may want to finish reading it later, move it to [Read/Review] where you’ll read it as time allows.
  • Delete or archive it. If you’re done with it, get rid of it now. If you have almost unlimited archive space, archiving everything rather than agonizing over every delete. Make it easy to move quickly.

Reply: Quick Communication (Under 2 Min.)

Beware Email Reply Time

If a reply is longer than 2 minutes, it’s a task. If it’s more than 10 minutes, maybe email is the wrong way to handle it. See effective communication rules for options.

The main point of email is communication, so make it fast and smooth. Options are:

  • Disengage. Deleting or forward to someone who might care, then forget about it. Do not create a follow-up task.
  • Full reply. If your can give the full answer now, in under 2 minutes, do it and be done with it.
  • Fast reply. “Thanks. I’m on it. Get back with you next week.” Sending replies now maintains a good communication channel. The email will move out of the way as you follow the remaining steps (create a task, below).
  • Slow reply. Sometimes you don’t want to reply quickly. Slowing things down can help people think things through better and discourage reacting instead of acting. Since you won’t reply now, you will create a task (see below).

Even if you replied, continue following the steps below.

Add: Tasks from Emails

If the email is actionable, it’s time to get that task out of your Inbox. Follow all steps that apply:

File: Save or Archive the Email as a Resource

After you create the task (if any), file the email away for future reference. Do whatever works best for you:

  • Save the email in Deferred. If you need the email to complete a task, save the email as a resource item now.
  • Archive the email. Otherwise, dispose of the email in a way that lets you see it again if you really need to. Choices are:
    • Store all old emails in one place (Archive or a Miscellaneous folder), OR
    • Store certain emails in named folders if you need to see them together (individual clients, companies, projects), and store the rest in an Archive or Miscellaneous folder.
    • Delete it and rely on your Deleted folder as a burn box for email.

Process: “Hot” Emails Only

After triaging your Inbox, if you sent “hot” items to your task manager for later processing, return to your Unprocessed Tasks list to finish the job:

  • Skim the list from the top down.
  • Look for anything “hot”—especially emails you just triaged.
  • Fully process the “hot” ones now

The rest of the items will be processed during your regular, scheduled processing time.