What Are Email Message Priorities?

Some email programs automatically mark messages as "Important"

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Most of our emails are probably considered important, but definitely not all of them. Being able to distinguish important messages from others like spam or messages that don't need our attention right away, can drastically affect the time spent sifting through emails.

Most email services and programs use what's called message priorities to designate what's important and what's not important. There are two primary ways that message priorities can be used—manually and automatically, and although it might seem odd to do, you can even mark a message as low priority, or unimportant.

How It Works

Depending on the email service and program you use, you might be able to manually mark a message as important or unimportant. When you're ready to send the email, if it's an included feature, you can say that the email is important and should be flagged as such to the recipient, or you can lower the importance so that they don't feel obligated to address the email right away.

Emails carrying highest importance may be bolded in the Inbox, or marked red, while less important messages might be grayed out or moved down the list. The specifics depend on the receiver's email program.

Some email providers set an email's priority automatically even if the importance level wasn't specified by the sender. It assumes priority level and filters it into an "Important" section of your Inbox. This feature is based on predicted behavior and is ever-changing by the service based on who you email and whether a message is auto-generated or from a real person.

Other email clients might even let you change the importance status of emails. This is often what's needed if a recipient always uses a high/important priority flag when they shouldn't, but it's equally useful if you like to have all emails from one sender be marked as important so that you never lose track of them.

Why It Matters

Which would you rather have: an email program that alerts you each time you get a message—even spam—or one that automatically filters out what it thinks is unimportant and leaves you with the most critical emails in a separate folder or, better yet, at the very top of your Inbox?

When you spend less time looking through unimportant emails, you can spend more time working or replying to emails that need your focus and attention right now. It's one of the best ways to not only communicate better and be heard more quickly but to easily see what's important when you get dozens or more new messages every day.

Depending on the app you use, the email client might deliver a notification of a new email only if it deems the message important. You can easily see how helpful this is to weed out all the non-critical emails from your notifications without actually deleting them.

Communicating the importance of a message is as important with email as it is in face-to-face contact, and it's not much more difficult. All it takes is deciding between a high or low priority when you send the email.

How to Do It

Most email clients let you set the message priority when composing the email. It's normally located in the compose box since you can set the important level on a per-email basis.

You can change a message's priority, or allow for a special, filtered Important view, in all sorts of email clients and webmail services. Some examples include Mail, MS Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail, Outlook.com, and Yahoo Mail.