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Set email priorities and sort messages

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When you send a letter or a parcel you can post it using the standard mail facilities or you can pay a little bit more and send it using a priority method that gets it there faster. It is possible to set the priority for emails too, but while it may appear to work in the same way it doesn't. It is confusing and you might not realise that a high priority email doesn't get to the recipient any faster than a standard or low priority one. It will not remove or overwrite and lower priority email messages and it is added to the recipient's inbox in the same way as all the other messages, whether they are low or high priority. If the recipient's inbox is full a high priority won't be delivered, even if there are low priority emails taking up space in the inbox. So the question is, what is the priority setting for?

An email can be set to low, standard or high priority and it is simply an extra bit of information that is included with the text (it's actually in the message header). It has no effect on how an email is sent, how it is delivered, the speed at which it is transported around the internet and so on. It's just an extra bit of text in the header.

When the email arrives and the recipient looks at his/her inbox, the message looks just like any other message. This doesn't mean that it is useless. Web-based email and email client software running on the computer is able to sort messages by various criteria. For example, you can sort by date so the most recent messages are displayed first. You can sort by size, or alphabetically by sender or subject. The priority is simply one more thing you can sort on. If you sort on the message priority you'll see the high priority ones at the top of the list, the standard priority ones in the middle and the low priority ones at the bottom. It can be a useful way of looking at a long list of email messages. You don't want to wast time looking at unimportant ones and the priority setting shows you the ones that need your attention first.

That is the theory anyway. It doesn't quite work like this in practice. The reason is that few people set the priority. Either they aren't aware that it exists or they can't be bothered using it. However, it can be very useful so it is a good habit to get into.

Some people abuse the priority facilities though and they may use it all the time. Spammers may use it too. You need to build up trust with the people that you email so they know that a high priority message from you really should be read straight away. If you use the priority feature properly then people will then use it and take notice of important messages when they are flagged.

Windows Live Mail

Email priority in Windows Live MailIn Windows Live Mail you will see a section in the ribbon toolbar when writing a new email called Delivery.

If you click this or expand the New Message window and you will see that it has low and high priority options. (No priority is the standard setting.) Just click the one you want before you send the message.

When you are viewing your inbox there is a column header that says ! and this is the priority. If you don't see this column then right click the column headers (From, Subject, Date and so on) and select Columns. You can then tick the Priority option.

Mac OS X Mail

Email priority in Windows Live MailYou can set the priority of an email message in Mail on the Mac, although it is a bit less obvious how to do this. When you are writing a new email, go to the Message menu and select Mark. The you can select the message priority. Once you have done this you'll see a little gadget at the right of the From line just above the message body. Click this and you can change the message priority.

If you can't see the a priority column in the inbox view in Mail you must right click the header row and tick the option to show flags. It works just like Windows Live Mail, but the menus are a bit less obvious.

Yahoo! Mail, Google Mail, MobileMe, Hotmail

If you create a new message in any of the first three of these webmail services there isn't an option to set the priority. Google Mail does have a Priority Inbox, but it isn't anything to do with the priority setting in the email message. This is a shame because it can be quite useful. Hotmail is the only one of these four webmail services that supports email message priority. When you create a new message there is a red exclamation symbol in the toolbar to set a high priority and a blue down arrow to set a low priority. It displays these symbols alongside the emails in the inbox.