E-mail is now so popular that many people feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of messages they receive each day. In fact, it’s easy for an inbox to become a “disaster area” filled with a mixture of everything from urgent e-mail messages to meaningless junk. Given these crowded inbox conditions, how can you increase the odds that an important e-mail you send to someone will actually get noticed? And how can you avoid forgetting to read or respond to an important e-mail you receive? The answer to both questions is simple. Use a system of e-mail triage — assign priority status to both the incoming and outgoing messages requiring the greatest attention.
Marking Messages You Send
Most e-mail programs offer tools to help you communicate the priority status of your outgoing messages. For example, Outlook Express has a toolbar button that says “Priority.” Click on it once to mark an e-mail as High Priority (with a red exclamation point) or click on it twice to mark an e-mail as Low Priority (with a blue down arrow). Then just compose the e-mail like you normally would and send it off. (See a detailed tutorial on the next page.) When your receiver gets the e-mail, they will see either the exclamation point or the arrow beside their message, telling them whether or not it’s necessary to read the e-mail right away.
Keep in mind that if you overuse the High Priority status — marking practically all of your messages with the symbol — it will start to lose its effectiveness. (Remember what happened to the boy who cried wolf?) Use this tool only when an outgoing message is urgent and requires an immediate reply.
Another way to communicate the relative importance of an outgoing message is by writing an attention-getting subject line. The typical window only has room for 30-40 characters including spaces, so make every word count. Include “Important” or “Reply Immediately” where appropriate and give the specific topic of the e-mail.
Flagging Messages You Receive
If you’re deluged with e-mail, you run the risk of important messages getting lost in the shuffle, particularly on hectic days. A good way to prevent this is to get in the habit of flagging messages you still need to review.
When you flag incoming messages, you gain a couple of advantages. First, the flag acts as a visual reminder that separates this e-mail from the others. Second, you can ask your e-mail program to remind you when you need to take action — in 5 minutes, in a week, or whenever. You can leave flagged e-mail in your inbox, of course, but a better idea might be to place them in a “Follow Up” folder in order to reserve your inbox for new messages only.