Using Flags (or Stars) on Mail—Why You should Limit Them

Apr 23, 2011

If you’ve read my books you know that I say not to use flags on mail in your in-box except for one very limited use: put them only on mail you intend to reply to soon—use them for nothing else! This also applies to stars in Gmail, or any other similar markers.

Why limit their use like this? Because flagging lots of mail leads to a huge waste of time. Think about it. If you flag an e-mail to act on it later and let it sit in your in-box, once it sits for more than a couple days, you’ll forget what’s in the e-mail. That’s because the subject line of the e-mail usually has nothing to do with the needed action—the original reason you flagged it—so later you are forced to open and re-read each flagged item. Such rereading of mail, when done a lot, is a huge waste of time. Plus, if when you reread it you decide not to take action yet, that means days later you’ll need to reread it again; and then again days after that, all in the name of searching for the right time to act on your flagged items. So you end up reading many items four or five times each—this adds up!

Worse is when later, in a fit of guilt, you recall a specific e-mail action request and you decide to go find it to act on it. You then spend way too much time looking for it (again, because the subject line of the e-mail is usually not a clue). You have to open and read many other flagged mails looking for the particular one. What a waste!

Flagged mail also locks up your in-box and prevents you from emptying it since you keep thinking you need to do something with them. I’ve seen people with years of flagged mails in their in-box—thousands of them—afraid to throw them away.

And finally, in Outlook 2007 and 2010, old flagged mail clogs up the To-Do Bar task list (where they are displayed) and makes it unusable.

So clearly, flags can generate huge inefficiencies if wrongly used.

The Solution

What’s the solution? Use flags or stars or other markings only to mark e-mail you intend to reply to within a day or so; and then stick to that policy. When you reply to a flagged mail within a day, you can easily recall why you flagged it, and the action will be much quicker.

What do you do with things that will take longer than a day or so to get to? Convert them to a task with a subject line that matches the action needed, with an appropriate date and priority, and put it in your the MYN task system for timely action. And then immediately file that e-mail, unflagged, out of your in-box (don’t leave it there with an old flag on it where it will just clog things up).

And having such a “reply to flagged e-mail in 24 hours” policy is helpful for other business reasons too; it shows responsiveness. In fact I suggest that, if you know you cannot adequately reply to an e-mail request within 24 hours—perhaps because you are waiting for more information or you need to do something first—you reply immediately anyway with a statement like this: “got your message and I understand your request, however it will be X days before I can find that information; I’ll get back to you again then.” And then convert the original request email to a task. If you are using MYN, you’ll be prompted at the right time to act on it.

And by the way, if you use flags or stars as a way to classify important e-mails that you want to save for reference purposes, don’t do that anymore. Use Outlook Categories or Gmail Labels instead. I have an Outlook category colored red called “Key E-mail” and I just apply that to mail like that. In fact, I assigned a Quick Click to it—so I can apply it as quickly as using a flag.

So that’s the right way to use flags and the right way to limit their use so they don’t get out of control. When you use them correctly as above, you’ll kill off a huge source of inefficiency that your e-mail system is trapping you in. You’ll be happy that you did!


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