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November 25, 2009

600 to zero emails in five hours - how to empty your inbox after vacation


I'm back on-line today after taking an eight day vacation and a nearly complete break from technology.  I didn't get around to scheduling a vacation last year, and with the economic downturn I didn't want to walk away even for a week during the worst of it.  I'm seeing a nice improvement in business though, so the time was right to slip away.  The truth is, getting away for some rest and perspective is a good thing even in bad times and I should have done it sooner.  If as an entrepreneur you are "too busy" to take a vacation, you probably need to take a vacation.


Since I didn't even look at email while I was gone, I thought I would share how I went from a very full inbox this morning to an empty inbox in time for lunch.  I believe that inboxes with hundreds or thousands of read and unread emails are terrible stress inducers, and I've been much happier since I worked out how to manage my inbox.


Having an empty inbox starts with choking off some of the flow of email before it even gets to your inbox.  We use Microsoft Forefront as our spam filter at my company and it does a great job.  (With a fair amount of help from our IT folks I will quickly add!)  If you are getting more than a few spam emails a day, or you are getting any emails that you wouldn't want your kids to read, you need to reevaluate your anti-spam strategy, because it doesn't have to be like that.


Next, think about all the emails that you receive that aren't quite spam, but maybe are newsletter lists you either subscribed to or got on accidentally and now you just delete them when they arrive.  I started unsubscribing to email lists I don't care about as part of my 2008 resolution, and it's worked.  Don't keep deleting emails that you don't read, make them stop.


Even so, I had around 600 emails waiting for me when I first looked at email.  I first sorted them by the From column, which grouped all of the remaining email newsletters that I subscribe to so that I could quickly scan the subject lines and then delete each group.  I'm pretty brutal about it too - I don't get sucked into reading each one.  If something important happened, I'll hear about it without reading each and every IT News or whatever email that arrived while I was gone.  I delete them and move on.


That left a lot of individual emails, and again I quickly scanned for emails that I could read and delete, or read and file.


Next I sorted by "Subject" and that allowed me to delete quite a few more emails, keeping only the last email in the thread of conversations.  By the way, Outlook 2010 will group conversations for you, but I haven't installed it yet.  I guess I could have used OWA, which has that feature now, but I didn't have that many to deal with.


By mid-morning I had it down to about 75 or so emails that needed more attention.  If I could do a 30 second response, I responded and moved on, but if it was going to take more than that, I just drug the email onto my task list.  The point here is to get everything on the task list so that I can sort it and prioritize it, rather than just working on things in order of receipt.


Be careful though about being so focused on an empty inbox.  It's easy to fall into a "quick response" mode and not give people a truly thoughtful response.  While "Great!" maybe a perfect answer, sometimes people need more than that.  If you need to think about it, put it on the task list.


If you are an entrepreneur and you get back from vacation only to find a bunch of problem emails waiting for you, then you might consider whether you have the right team around you, or that maybe you've managed to convince them that only YOU can handle problems.  I work with a great group of people - when I'm out of town (and even when I'm not) people handle problems and they don't just sit on things until I return.  I love getting emails that say, "This happened, and I handled it like so . . ."


If you are in a position where you don't have people covering for you, and you really do have work piling up while you are gone, then I can only suggest that you keep it in perspective.  You can only do what you can do.  I'll save that thought for another post . . .


Now I have an empty inbox and a task list that I can move items around on according to how urgent and important they are, remembering at all times that the MOST IMPORTANT things are almost NEVER URGENT.  Now I have all afternoon to start knocking things off my task list . . .

November 25, 2009 | Permalink


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