How To Do An Email Triage

If your inbox is a disaster, here’s how to get it back under control when there’s not enough time to answer it all.

How To Do An Email Triage
[Photo: Flickr user Newtown grafitti]

Sometimes an overflowing inbox can feel like an emergency. Whether you’re just back from a few days of unplugging, or everyone in your life has simultaneously decided to demand your input, you can face more messages than you have time to deal with them.


When that’s the case, you could try borrowing strategies from people who deal with real disasters (please don’t take yourself seriously enough to think your inbox is one of them). A “triage,” according to Wikipedia, is “a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.” Here’s what an “email triage” might look like:

Step One: Assess The Situation

The goal is not to get to inbox zero. The goal is to be in control, and figure out what you should tackle first. So, tempting as it may be, you shouldn’t just answer what’s at the top of your inbox. Start deleting items that are obvious junk, and as you scroll down to the point where you lost control, get a sense of what’s in there.

Step Two: Prioritize Where You Can Add Value

In a real triage, rescue workers prioritize treating people whose outcomes depend on immediate treatment. So once you’ve deleted the irrelevant and assessed the mess, start reading the first few lines of the most recent message in each thread. Star (or otherwise mark) the ones that are going to require your swift input. Try not to star too many.

Step Three: Schedule The Rest

If you’d like to respond, but won’t respond immediately, designate a time for these items. You can write them on tonight or tomorrow’s to-do list, or if your email system allows it, reschedule them to arrive at a designated time.

Step Four: Respond With What’s Needed

In a real triage, first responders focus on treating immediate problems and getting patients ready so that they can get additional treatment elsewhere. They aren’t going to solve every problem. Likewise, if people are asking for meetings, schedule the meetings, and leave the responses at that. You can share the details of your unplugged time later when you’re chatting face to face.

Step Five: Stay Focused

An email triage can help you gain control of a situation, but that control may be thwarted by an onslaught of responses to your responses. Tempting as it is to get sucked into the conversation, wait until you’ve finished your flagged items. High priority items that have been in the queue for days trump people who’ve only been waiting a few minutes.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at