It was just another afternoon at the office: I had finished lunch, wrapped up a meeting with our PR team, and was looking forward to having a productive, distraction-free rest of day. And then, out of nowhere, it happened – sharp pain in my chest and right arm, shortness of breath, lightheadedness. It seemed like I was having a heart attack, so I immediately asked for a coworker to take me to the hospital.
Within 5 minutes of arriving at the ER, they had me hooked up to electrodes and had started running tests. As soon as they diagnosed that I was not suffering a heart attack, they shuttled me back to the waiting room, and from there, it took me over an hour to get a hospital bed, and another two to actually see a doctor. Thankfully everything turned out okay – the root cause of the symptoms was identified as a benign heart condition (it only took $3,000 in overpriced medical exams to figure that out, but hey, you win some, you lose some).
An interesting phenomenon I had read about and was able to observe firsthand at the ER was the triage system. At the ER, hospitals deliberately categorize each patient case by medical urgency BEFORE moving forward with treatment. After patients have been triaged, doctors address those who most urgently need care, regardless of when they entered the hospital. This helps hospitals more efficiently ration scarce physician resources. It explains why, when I was at risk of having a heart attack, I was able to “cut the line” and immediately receive testing, but as soon as that was ruled out, I was forced to wait for a couple of hours before seeing a doctor.
Triage isn’t just for hospitals. The same underlying principles can be applied to how we approach our day to day, and in particular, our inbox. While I was working at Google, I developed an “inbox triage” technique to help me deal with the hundreds of emails a day from colleagues and customers. Drowning in email, I needed to create a system that would minimize the amount of time spent on email, while guaranteeing that nothing important slipped through the cracks. After months of experimentation and iteration, I had gotten my system down, saving myself at least an hour a day that would be otherwise spent on email, and guaranteeing that nothing would ever slip through the cracks.
Here’s how you can apply it to similar effect at your job.
Applying the “inbox triage” technique
For every email starting from oldest to newest, use the below framework to respond, postpone, file, or trash/archive.
- Determine if the email requires a personal response. If not, file it for reference (if needed), or trash/archive it.
- If it does require a response, decide how urgent a response is needed, and how long it would take to respond. Here’s where the triage comes in:
- If the email urgent, respond immediately.
- If it’s not, postpone by using the star/flag function in your email client to mark the email for future review.
- Carve out time at least once a day to respond to postponed emails.
Why “inbox triage” works
Email triage is deceivingly simple, but incredibly powerful when applied consistently. Just like with triage in the hospital, “inbox triage” helps you ensure that you’re spending the majority of your time on the most important and urgent items on your plate, and that nothing truly important slips through the cracks. It also makes going through your inbox much less emotionally and mentally taxing. Separating the work of deciding what to respond to (applying the triage) from the actual responding offloads the cognitive burden of deciding what to work on, and the anxiety that can result from staring at an inbox of 100+ emails without a concrete plan for how to address them. Furthermore, addressing your emails systematically and sequentially instead of sporadically ensures that you address each email once and only once – instead of reading and re-reading an email, putting off when to answer it, and wasting time and energy on each successive review.
Changing old email habits isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t take a field trip to the ER to see how transformative triage can be to tackling your inbox. So give email triage a try, and let me know how it works for you.
Questions? Shoot me an email at email@example.com, or leave a comment below.