Whether you’re coming back from a long weekend or two full weeks away, your email inbox is going to be really full. The last thing you want to do is waste your entire first day sorting through email. That’s no way to get real work done.
This morning, I came back from a short two-week paternity break to more than 2,000 unread emails. An hour later I was down to 12 emails in my inbox.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a ton to do. But my inbox is not my to-do list. To quickly get caught up and stay focused on what’s most important the rest of the day and week, here are my best practices for sorting through an overwhelming inbox.
(By the way, these tips work whether you’re coming back from a long period away or if you’ve just let your inbox get out of control.)
Write down the time and # of unopened emails. The job at hand may intimidate you, but it’s going to be really cool to look back at where you started from. Trust me.
Delete everything that’s not important or urgent. This means status notifications, spam, newsletters, Twitter alerts, etc. You don’t really need to be caught up on each and every one of these, especially since new ones will start flowing later the same day. To quickly get through the backlog of email and focus on what’s important moving forward, it’s critical that you declare “information bankruptcy” on the vast majority of information you otherwise may have consumed in the time you were away.
Sort email by conversations and delete all but the most recent mail. Gmail does a great job of this for you automatically, but Outlook makes it easy to do as well. Don’t worry about attachments you may have missed. Worst case you can go find them in your Deleted Items folders, but chances are you won’t need them (or they’ve been made irrelevant by someone else’s response or a more updated version anyway).
Separate all emails where you’re only on the CC line and put them in a separate folder to read later. Most of these you will scan and delete quickly, eventually, but these emails don’t need your attention right away. If you were a priority participant or contributor, you wouldn’t have been on the CC line. And if someone does really need your attention on one of these, they’ll find you directly now that they know you’re back.
Write down the time & # of unopened emails again. You will be amazed at how may emails you’ve already eliminated from your inbox, and how quickly it happened. The next few steps will take a little more time, but this quick update will help motivate you.
Complete, respond to and delete any email that takes a minute or less. These might not be the more important and urgent tasks on your list today, but you can bang through these quickly, get them off your plate, and it’ll not only make you feel good to get stuff done but will take advantage of the “fog” you’ll still have getting back into work mode. None of us are 100% ready to tackle our most important work the morning after being away. Getting through the quick, fast and easy stuff makes you immediately productive but in a way that helps get your brain and creative juices back in gear.
With what’s left, make project and to-do lists for the next 3-4 days. The rest of the content of your inbox is going to take you longer to complete, but it doesn’t all have to get done right now, or even today. Start making lists of projects and tasks to complete in the coming days, and separate those lists by deadline or context. If it doesn’t have to get done today, put it on tomorrow’s to-do list. You’ll likely tackle some of those things later today anyway, but put only the critical items on today’s list. Whether you use Outlook Tasks, pen and paper, or something in between, get the list organized in a way that isn’t intimidating and isn’t in your inbox.
Congratulations! You just sorted hundreds of emails in record time. Before you take a victory lap, or get lost in your RSS reader, dig immediately into your priority tasks for today. Get at least one done before moving on. All the work above has helped you ease back into work, gradually start getting things of substance off your plate. Now your plate is clear, the backlog is gone, and you can focus on what’s most urgent and most important.