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Productivity Tip

Sorting Email: Simplest Steps to Beat Back the Volume

By Paul H. Burton

Sorting email: The simplest steps to beat back email.

Email use continues its upward climb. The Radicati Group recently reported that email use is growing at 5 percent per year and will do so through 2020. Though growth is slowing, the existing volume makes any increase problematic.

Sorting email takes a lot of time each day and keeping track of what needs our attention is overwhelming. What if there was a quick and easy way to decide what to do with every message?

A Simple Question Creates a Simple Solution

Email exists in one of two states: open or closed. Something either needs to be done regarding an email or not. It’s that simple. So, sorting the inbox is accomplished by asking:

Does anything need to be done by anyone regarding this email at any time?

  • If the answer is yes, the email is open.
  • If the answer is no, the email is closed.

Action-Based Sorting Email

  • An open email can be left in the inbox, even starred or flagged if it’s very important. That’s fine. The inbox becomes a de facto to-do list, which is good because it’s checked often.
  • Closed email is either trash or filing. Trash can be deleted.
  • Filing for Outlook users can be done via drag-and-drop or by right-clicking on the email, selecting Move, and navigating to the correct folder. Filing for Gmailers can be done by selecting Move To at the top of the screen and navigating to the correct folder.
  • Deleting and filing closed email removes all unnecessary distraction from the inbox. Only the open — actionable — ones are left, allowing us to focus on what needs doing.
  • Open Email Becomes Closed and Additional Resources

Eventually, all open email becomes closed. This occurs when the action associated with an email is taken, changing the answer to our question above from yes to no. So, in addition to periodically sorting new and unread email, now-closed emails also need to be deleted or filed. That’s how the inbox remains an action-oriented repository.

For those who want to prioritize their actionable emails, the book “Triage: Rescuing Your Inbox” demonstrates a prioritization system for open email.

Go ahead, navigate back to your inbox, and give the triaging system a try!

Illustration ©

Categories: Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Productivity, You At Work
Originally published August 13, 2015
Last updated August 21, 2020
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Paul H. Burton

Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney and General Counsel who helps lawyers and legal professionals make the best use of their time. The author of eight guides on individual and leadership productivity, he delivers seminars and coaching services to busy professionals across the United States. You can learn more about Paul and his practice at

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