Blood and fire are two inputs that make their priorities clear: drop everything! And call an ambulance or find a fire extinguisher, because nothing matters more.

In the course of teaching GTD, people regularly ask about effective prioritisation, and what they are often thinking about is the kind of rapid and immediate decision-making that you would expect when confronted by an injured person or a smouldering property. The truth is, that kind of priority decision is built in to our survival mechanisms. Nobody consults an A-, B-, C-coded list to know how to react after accidentally touching a hot stove.

And as much as these incredibly fast responses can be useful to survive in the wild, or to know which patient needs help first at the A&E, they won’t help you survive, let alone thrive, in relation to your own email inbox. Applying such a front-end prioritisation method on your inbox, in fact, inherently creates stress.

Many people prioritise like this: they open an email, read it, see that it seems important, and get to work for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, or possibly the better part of that day. Meanwhile, all the other emails in their inbox are piling up. They may occasionally split focus, checking on one or two other messages to try to ascertain if they might be more important, but generally they have decided – based on an incomplete set of information – that this one, by virtue of it “looking important”, and being first to catch their eye, is what they should do with their day.

Conversely, some people flit around in the inbox all day long, opening and closing messages in a painful struggle to keep up with what’s there. They spend most of their time switching from context to context, message to message, without necessarily completing what’s involved.

The GTD method, properly applied, lets you complete the thinking process about what’s really involved with each input in a systematic way, and get through everything in the inbox on a regular basis. A GTDer spends time thinking through what each thing means, gaining a breadth and overview of what’s possible, and then makes a decision to act using that clarified inventory of possibilities.

Simply put, the “hunt and pick” approach to email management amounts to an awful lot of either “hoping this is right” or “checking what’s out there” without completing the thinking about what’s involved in either case. All the while, in the background, the possibility that what you are doing may not be the right thing is creating stress. Using GTD, by contrast, lets you actually trust that what you are doing is right – because you know all your options, and have made a decision based on complete information.

Trying to constantly prioritise one’s inputs in a quick snap-judgment call (including the email inbox, phone calls, text messages, etc.) is like trying to apply emergency-room triage tactics to long-term patient care. Most of the time, you don’t actually have a bleeder, or a raging inferno – yet. However, if you are ignoring the subtle symptoms of impending crises by constantly focusing on what “seems urgent”, or by ranging around your inbox without completing the thinking process on each item, you may be setting yourself up for trouble – and are almost certainly enduring more stress than necessary along the way.

So, take a breath. Step back. Then take your inbox item-by-item, building out a “radar screen” for yourself of projects and next actions that will help you navigate more effectively and with greater confidence.

You’re going to be treating your workflow “patient” for a long time to come and, though perhaps less dramatic than the bustle of an A&E drama show, the real road to wellness is best trod steadily, one step, one email at a time.

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