Triage Your Action Items with Skill (Day 13 of 30 Days of Getting Results)


Day 13 - Triage Your Action Items with Skill

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Your Outcome:  Learn how to deal with a barrage of incoming action items and demands on your time.

Welcome to day 13 of 30 Days of Getting Results.  In day 12, we learned how to use Productivity Personas to analyze and improve our results in any situation.  Today, we learn how to “triage” an overflowing plate of action items and tasks.
Triage is a Healthy Process of Sorting, Sifting, and Selecting

“Triage” is a process of sorting, sifting and selecting what to work on.   You might have heard about doctors “triaging” their incoming patients in emergency settings. 

When I first joined Microsoft, “Triage” was a common practice our team used to deal with our incoming issues. 

It helped us sort our backlogs and queues of issues into more meaningful buckets. 

We couldn’t just do everything at once and we couldn’t keep up with our flow of incoming requests.  Triaging helped us more effectively make the most of our time, energy, and resources we had on hand at the moment against our incoming actions.

Triage in Practice

I’ve used triage successfully to deal with everything from dealing with email, to dealing with a flood of incoming tasks, to dealing with aging backlogs of action items, both at the personal, and the team level.  

When I lead a distributed team, I use email triage as an ad hoc and lightweight way to get the team’s eyeballs quickly focused on an issue. 

I’ve also used triage to clear my email inbox and to keep my email at zero inbox for years, and I’ve shown many others, including teams around Microsoft, to do the same (and we have a lot of email at Microsoft.) 

I affectionately call this approach, The Zen of Zero Mail.

For things that you need to act on, prioritize, or get off your plate, “triage” is a healthy process of sorting and selecting in a mindful way.

Email Triage: Do It, Queue It, Schedule It, or Delegate It

You can triage an incoming action item to either do it, queue it, schedule it, or delegate it:

  • Do It – Do it if now is the time: it’s the next best thing for you to do; now is the most opportunistic time; or it will cost you more pain, time or effort to do it later.
  • Queue It – Queue it, by adding it to your queue if it’s something you need to get done, but now is not the right time.   A queue is simply a list of action items.
  • Schedule It – Schedule it by adding it to your calendar if you need a block of time to get the work done.  Only add things to your calendar if you truly need a reminder or if you really need to block off a chunk of time to work on it.  Remember that if you schedule it, it will happen, but if you don’t, it won’t.  If it’s really important, then make time for it.  If it’s just something to do “later,” and it won’t really happen, then just let it go with skill.
  • Delegate It – Delegate it if it’s something that should be done by somebody else and it makes sense to do so, and you have that option.  When you delegate, try to match it to another person’s learning opportunity or passion.  (There’s a difference between delegating and dumping.)

3 Steps to Triaging Your Action Items

Here are three steps for triaging your stack of action items:

  1. Consolidate your action items.  Dealing with them in a batch really shows the benefit of this approach, because you can quickly whack your stack down to size.
  2. Triage each item.  For each item, determine what the best plan of attack is: Do It, Queue It, Schedule It, or Delegate It.
  3. Repeat the process.  Repeat the process until you have a manageable set of actions and you feel that things are appropriately in the right places, either in your list of actions, your queue, or your schedule, or off your plate.  If you end up spending too much time triaging, and not enough time doing, then establish a timebox or time limit to pace yourself and to know when to stop.

Really what you’re doing is setting the stage for your success.  By having a time for things, and having them on your calendar or in your queue, you can focus on what you have in front of you with more confidence, clarity, and conviction, knowing that you’re making the most of what you’ve got.  You can also more effectively prioritize with MUST, SHOULD, and COULD.

Questions to Help Guide You

Here are some questions I find useful as a checkpoint:

  1. What do you want to accomplish?
  2. Does it matter?
  3. How important is it?
  4. What’s the impact?
  5. What’s the next best thing to do?

You can always check your actions against the bigger picture and what you want to accomplish:  This is just a starting point and you’ll want to create and test your own questions to see what works for you.

Putting It All Together

Let’s take a quick step back and do a rundown of what you’ve learned so far during 30 Days of Getting Results and how this fits in:

  1. You can use The Rule of 3 to avoid getting overwhelmed.
  2. You’re the author of your life and you can write your story forward, one moment or one day at a time
  3. You can use three stories to drive your day and and light up your day by connecting to your values (Daily Outcomes).
  4. On Mondays, you can use three stories to drive your week (Monday Vision).
  5. On Fridays, you can use Friday Reflection to celebrate your wins and find your personal success patterns.
  6. You can map out what’s important in your life using Hot Spots to create a meaningful map.
  7. You can let things slough off with skill … no more straws breaking the camel’s back .
  8. You can create space in your life to renew and recharge by setting up boundaries and buffers.
  9. You can dump your brain to free up your mind.
  10. You can prioritize more effectively by using MUST, SHOULD, and COULD.
  11. You can feel strong all week long by spending more time in your strengths and less time in your weaknesses.
  12. You can establish glide-paths to simplify your day and make your routines friction free.
  13. You can analyze and be more productive in any scenario using productivity personas.

By adding triaging to your belt, you now have a simple mental model for dealing with incoming action items more effectively.

Agile Results is a simple system for meaningful results that you can use to support you for the rest of your life, no matter what you do.  The beauty is not just that it’s simple or that it’s proven …  it’s that each day you get a new chance at bat – a fresh start.  Each day you wake up is another chance to ask the question, “What are three things you want for today?” … and so you write your story forward, one day at a time.

Today’s Assignment

  1. When an incoming action item comes your way, triage it and decide whether to Do It, Queue It, Schedule It, or Delegate It.
  2. Triage one of your stacks of things to do to whack it down to size.


You Might Also Like

30 Days of Getting Results

Day 1 – Take a Tour of Getting Results the Agile Way

Day 2 – Monday Vision – Use Three Stories to Drive Your Week

Day 3 – Daily Outcomes – Use Three Stories to Drive Your Day

Day 4 – Let Things Slough Off

Day 5 – Hot Spots – Map Out What’s Important

Day 6 – Friday Reflection – Identify Three Things Going Well and Three Things to Improve

Day 7 – Setup Boundaries and Buffers

Day 8 – Dump Your Brain to Free Your Mind

Day 9 – Prioritize Your Day with MUST, SHOULD, and COULD

Day 10 – Feel Strong All Week Long

Day 11 – Reduce Friction and Create Glide Paths for Your Day

Day 12 – Productivity Personas – Are You are a Starter or a Finisher?

Photo by terren in Virginia.


  1. I love the methodology to your Triage practice, J.D. Successful achievers do not spend expend energy bouncing around like ping pong balls. Your Triage method is empowering because there are no emotions attached to the decisions. It is a scientific path to success.

  2. This sentence is really empowering:

    You’re the author of your life and you can write your story forward, one moment or one day at a time

  3. @ Rob — Thank you. You actually picked up on a a really important element … by disconnecting the emotion and focusing on effectiveness, emotions then become a useful input versus a randomizing factor.

    @ Vered — Thank you. I’m really a fan of empowering in simple, pragmatic ways.

  4. J.D., I like what you shared here today, and I found myself saying aha! yes, I am actually doing that now,.. for example:

    *Triage is a Healthy Process of Sorting, Sifting, and Selecting

    *You’re the author of your life and you can write your story forward, one moment or one day at a time

    I love it when I bounce over here as you are going through this and it is either a reminder that I am on track, or it is the challenge that I need in this process of ‘breaking-it-down’ into bite size chunks and avoiding overwhelm.

    Today I really began to set some clear intentions and focused on my passions. I am learning the power of this statement you shared, through practicing into where I want to be, and pretending that I already have the role I want to have.

    I am sorting, sifting, and selecting first the thoughts I have about where I want to go, and adjusting accordingly. To me it makes more sense to redefine as I am being refined, and keep zooming in on what I love, so that I am sharing from my well of deep passion.

    for me my list is becoming:
    *honoring my strengths zone
    *sharing from my passions –quality content
    *helping those specifically in that niche, and then the welcome is felt through natural travelers also.
    *simplifying, and compacting resources no longer needed for the new adventures.
    *inviting in more calm space for more creative ideas.

    So, thank you for these wise tidbits today, and I am excited to make some more changes soon! It all seems to have a healthy rhythm, and less intimidation the more I keep aligning with inner truth. I can see now what you mean about finding this process, and using it to your advantage!

    thank you and sorry this is lengthy, I am just so excited!!!
    I can feel confidence finally being gained because of the growth; which is actually willingness to change, and push some more waves. We all can do this! 😉

    have a wonderful weekend! Thank you for adding so much value to us!


  5. Hey J.D.!

    Wow, this is a great series. Excellent advice about how to GET THINGS DONE here. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the posts.

    Hope you’re having a great day!


  6. Hi JD .. the metaphor of triage – certainly gets on with things – make a decision and keep with it.

    I love Jen’s enthusiasm for your 30 days of getting results .. it’s great to see .. and when I move and settle again – I shall be doing the same in a thoroughly triage way.

    Thanks – Hilary

  7. Just reading this post reminds me I was a little overwhelmed last week, oy!

    But keeping these in mind…

    Does it matter?
    How important is it?

    are questions I am bringing more and more into my vocabulary these day.

    Luckily BB is great at helping me delegate — so great to have good help!


  8. @ Jenn — I like your framing — reminder or challenge. That’s a great way to make the most of each of the posts in this series. The beauty of bite-sized chunks is that you can overwhelm your problems.

    It sounds like you are truly sorting, sifting, and selecting with skill.

    @ Dena — Thank you — Back at you!

    @ Hilary — Extreme scenarios really are reminders that we can’t do it all, so we simply have to make the most of what we’ve got.

    Yes, Jen’s enthusiasm is great to see — it’s contagious.

    @ Jannie — It’s funny how the right questions really do change our results. Great help is hard to find and you really struck gold.

  9. J. D. I’ve seen batching work really well. I’ve seen really effective people relax for hours and then accomplish their whole to do list in a short time. It’s amazing. I like that idea and want to apply it more.

    I’m definitely going to have to read the Zen of Email though…

  10. I don’t bundle enough of my tasks together. I work a little scattered throughout my day. There are some days this is good for my creativity and other days I flounder. I need to work on finding a balance, using more of my hot spots when I need to be productive.

  11. I shifted through random ideas from my brain dump file and divided action items into MUST/SHOULD/COULD. I am going to “triage” the action items to prioritize them. Perfect. I want to schedule those items as much as possible because I tend to have a long list of queues…

    I hope you will enjoy your new book, Mindset. I put this book in the queue. I will read it after I work through my strength exercises with Marcus Buckingham and also Strengths Finder 2.0.

    Thank you for the tip on the reminder. I added it on my “Must” list. I will get to it definitely before I come back to Day 13 exercise for the third time…in April sometime 😉 I am glad you like Ganesha. He is not only the remover of obstacles and the symbol of the second chance, he is also the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom. Good stuff. I love Indian concepts from limitless & sacred imagination.

  12. One of the toughest things do to is really get clear on MUSTs (which really become your most important CHOOSE TOs).

    I was listening to Zig Ziglar where he talked about how incredibly productive people are, the day before vacation. They obviously get clear on what they really, really MUST do before they are out on break.

    They focus, they make a tight list, and they execute it.

    It sounds simple, but sometimes we need little reminders of what true prioritization “feels” like, to do it well. We all have those scenarios where suddenly a life-changing event happens, and we suddenly re-prioritize, or find our real priorities for the first time.

    It’s all too easy to let the little rocks get in the way of the big rocks, and lose that perspective or balcony view.

    But the beauty is that we get to practice every day.

    The more we exercise our opportunities to improve, and learn from our choices, the better we get.

    And over time, that helps us to become highly effective, productive artists.

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