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I'm in a situation where I'm away from my corporate mailbox for a few weeks. I have an autoresponder set up that says when I'll return and who to contact in urgent cases. Nevertheless, you can imagine the mountain of unread emails that will be waiting for me anyway when I return.

Some mails will naturally have become irrelevant. Some will be long-term reference. Some will be tasks to be done -- or for me to check if someone might have done it on my behalf. One way or another, I will have to check every single message to be sure I didn't miss anything important.

What's a good approach for handling all those mails? How soon after my return should I be "done" with them?

Note: I'll post my thoughts on this below but I am very interested in better ways!

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Ctrl-A, Shift-Del. :) –  pdr Nov 4 '12 at 15:24
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Just mark them all as read and move them out your inbox. If it's still important you'll be contacted about it again. –  ChrisF Nov 4 '12 at 17:48
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@ChrisF: Isn't that a very reactive way of dealing with things? I prefer to be somewhat more proactive. (Dare I say responsible?) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 20:35
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@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun - Possibly, but I've found it to be the most effective way. Anything that was really urgent and/or important would have been dealt with by someone else. You have no way of knowing this unless you were copied in on any replies and read all of your e-mails. –  ChrisF Nov 4 '12 at 20:54
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I prefer to be somewhat more proactive. (Dare I say responsible?) - A proactive way would have been to monitor (you or someone else) your email while on leave. You are already in reactive mode. –  Chad Nov 6 '12 at 21:39
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9 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

My plan would be to move all unread mail to a new subfolder so that my inbox is clean and I have a reasonable chance to handle the actual new correspondence. People know I'm back; they won't likely expect me to have read all my old mail but they probably expect me to be up-to-date on current mails.

The next step would be to simply ask my coworkers if anything is on fire, and what big events I might have missed.

Then, I would skim through the most recent mails in reverse to see whether anything is "on fire" and needs immediate attention. Skim first, react later: move any such mails back to the inbox and then deal with them once I feel I've got an overview.

Later, as best as time permits, I would sift through the rest in several passes. The first pass would be very coarse; just get rid of everything that's obviously irrelevant. Focus on speed, not accuracy. If I spot anything that needs attention, I just move it to the inbox and finish this pass first.

Depending on the amount of mail, I would then try to either sort the remainder into rough topic buckets (so I can deal with a single topic at a time, and work on the higher-priority topics first), or just deal with the whole thing in a reverse chronological order.
- If a message needs action that takes less than 2 minutes, I do it right away.
- If it takes longer, I move it to a topic bucket.
- No action? Delete!

Finally, I would act on the "action" emails I didn't resolve immediately. Depending on the matter, I would either contact the affected persons, or just take the requested action.

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I like this. Another technique you can try is to create "buckets" based on their priority, if you can discern that based on the subject line and the sender. So, you can divide them between "High", "Medium" and "Low" to the best of your ability. –  Keoma Nov 4 '12 at 13:48
    
Pretty much what I was going to suggest. Gmail has multiple methods of doing this; I would suggest placing them all in a label and "archiving" them to achieve this effect, then either staring important ones and/or moving them to the inbox to mark what needs attention. –  Rarity Nov 4 '12 at 20:33
    
@Rarity♦: Oh the lucky souls who have corporate Gmail. I'm stuck with Lotus Notes at work, though I do enjoy Gmail on my personal domain. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 20:36
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@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun - We were confused when you said you had email... it turns out you have lotus notes :p –  Chad Nov 6 '12 at 20:54
    
@Chad: ROFLMAO! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 6 '12 at 21:30
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How to handle them?

Before you begin, make sure to give yourself uninterrupted time to batch process. Don't let yourself get continuously distracted - download the email and disconnect from the internet if necessary, but let yourself go through this without seeing new email come in, IMs appear, etc.

First, I think it is important to understand you will have difficulties with managing email missed for several weeks. I would also recommend moving all the built up email to a separate folder and set aside dedicated time to go through email. Depending on your role at a company you probably have a decent feel for how long this might take. Either way, I would put some time on your calendar and focus on email cleanup, otherwise, this task will likely get relegated to "always tomorrow." Perhaps even block time on your first day back prior to leaving.

Second, if you are in the position where projects may be waiting for an email response - consider whether you should talk with others or call and ask, "hi, I am back from vacation, and am working through my missed email - are there any time sensitive emails you need me to deal with?" I do NOT recommend doing this over email. Doing this via phone or IM or in-person will likely get you a much better filtered list of what is really critical or holding projects. This is considerably more relevant if you are in a senior/management position or do not expect to get to process your email for a while (due to a conference or other obligations during your first week back).

Third, and perhaps most critical, find a way to sort your email by topic. The last thing you want to do is respond to an action-required type email only to find out someone had followed-up and completed it! Organize your email by conversation topic (in Outlook) or otherwise sort by title, so you can process threads of emails at once instead of only going through sequentially. This will save tons of time, each time you deal with an email thread, you only have to "load it into your memory" once, and once you determine the thread is dealt with, all prior emails on the matter can be archived, deleted, or otherwise saved.

Fourth, take an initial pass through your email. Do not spend too much time reading, but get a feel for any issues which may require huge attention. This does not have to take long at all.

Fifth, when you begin going through your email conversations, you are going to find many emails or conversations can be quickly dealt with. Many will be no longer relevant. Don't spend a lot of time pondering such emails. An email conversation about lunch last Friday might be several emails which are all now irrelevant, etc. Deal with these quickly and move on.

Sixth, in general, there will be a few types of emails you have which are not easily disposed of. Reference emails are easily disposed of (if you don't have a good email archive system for reference emails, go to Step 1 and add a Step 0 - "Setup good email archive management" before you begin this process..

  • Your action required - if you do not have an email conversation documenting followup, consider clarifying what you need to do. If you are going to spend 30 min or more on a task and you do not have confidence it is still required, I would consider asking, "hi, I just received this as I was out of the office and am getting caught back up, what is the date you would like this done by?" as this serves two purposes.
    • First, it gives the sender the feeling you are alive and eventually going to do the task.
    • Second, it gives you a confirmation the task is still required and avoids you wasting your time
  • Your response required - these can often be dealt with quickly. Because your emails are sorted by conversation topic (see above) you can know if others have responded and the level of your response still required

For both types here, because you are sorting by topic, you should only have to take one email from each conversation as the "to-do" if you cannot deal with it quickly. This leads into the last step which is..

Seventh, set-up some sort of "to-do" system or folder where you take emails which will be some amount of time and organize them. Ideally, you have several folders, based on urgency as well as your confidence the task is required, but nearly everyone has a unique workflow. Fit your system to match your workflow. If your workflow is "work out of your inbox..." I'd suggest getting a better workflow.


I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to view emails in conversation view. It will save you so much time and often allow you to deal with 5-10 emails nearly simultaneously simply by reading them in sequential order rather than the order in which you received them. Also make sure to have some undivided time to focus on going through email, don't let yourself get continuously distracted.

How soon after my return should I be "done" with them?

This really depends on a lot of factors, including but not limited to:

  • your position/responsibilities in the company
  • if you are managing projects
  • how urgent your emails normally are
  • how long you have been absent
  • what critical projects are underway
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Great input!! Unfortunately, Lotus Notes is lousy at managing mail so the "conversation" sorting is not an option. I'm still working on how to get a good workflow in Notes :-/ –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 16:29
    
@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun can you at least sort by subject? It has been many years since I used Lotus Notes but I think many programs will still sort decently well if you arrange email by subject. –  enderland Nov 5 '12 at 13:11
    
Yes I can sort by subject. But unfortunately Notes is particularly bad at that when some users have the English client (RE: FW:) and others use the German client (Antwort: WG:). I loathe German translations... As Chad commented above, Notes is not email. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 6 '12 at 21:32
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You should consult with your peers about what has happened in your absence. Based on their suggestion you could start with:

1) Creating new filters in outlook/email client for the vacation period.
2) Create filters based on priority and once you read them sort them based on the response required/information needed/action item required/
3) Once you have your priority based filters ready, run the filters and go thorough the emails based on priorities. All the emails you feel are junk should be moved to a seperate folder.

Sometimes you may find everything important. Use Urgent Importal technique to sort your confusion. Urgent Importance technique

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+1 - the most important point here is the first sentence -- to just talk to people. If there's something important, they can tell you, and then that can further help in determining what to prioritize. –  jmort253 Nov 5 '12 at 0:21
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There are other suggestions about moving from inbox to a separate folder, but then I'd sort by sender.

Supervisor(s) - go through all of these and don't assume anything was sent to someone else in your absence. He/she should have known you were out and sent these so you could have them when you returned.

Coworkers - they got the autoresponder and should check with you when you return.

Clients - you may have to see if anyone else was on the To list or were you just part of a support group email address. If not, follow-up with something. Even if it was a "I've been out, do you still need help with this?" type of response. Assume nothing.

Vendors/suppliers - if it's something you've been waiting on, I'd call. For something they're trying to sell you, they'll call back.

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Inbox zero and 5 sentences will completely change the way you approach email. With practice you can easily get through 200-400 messages a day without it being a big deal (i.e. while still getting work done).

The exact question (what to do about a pile of email) is addressed at 43 minutes into the video (note, the audio/video don't sync up very well, so I would recommend mostly listening).

It took me some months of trusting, practicing, and eventually conquering my inbox with this method, and it's been working for me every since. I don't fear or feel overwhelmed by my inbox anymore, and by all objective performance and goal-accomplishing measures I'm actually getting more done in the day. I originally adopted this when working as an IT professional where notifications, alerts, and general requests for help (on top of requests from internal managers and co-workers) amounted to about 250 emails each and every weekday, and it basically saved my sanity.

The key things I took from this were:

  • Your inbox isn't a to-do list. If you're using it this way, you will always be overwhelmed by it because none of our to-do lists are every actually "empty"
  • Every email should have one of only a few possible responses. Setting up what your responses will be is half the battle, and makes
  • Email, while convenient, isn't really the place for long conversations. If the email you're writing is going to be more than a few sentences, it's probably better to call or meet with the person face-to-face to discuss.
  • Putting a mountain of email in a "to read" folder (or some equivalent) has accomplished nothing. All you're doing is moving it your "I'll get to this later" pile. This doesn't get anything done or shorten the list - it just defers that amount of time and work to a later date. If you repeat this after every single trip, you'll always feel overwhelmed. Also, the first time you have several trips in a row, back-to-back, you'll end up with a pile of email that's over 1,000 deep, and you risk declaring "email bankruptcy," where you basically give up and hit the reset button. This isn't an effective method for addressing all of your email.

You should also make attempts to reduce your total incoming email volume.

  • If you're subscribed to things you don't need to be subscribed to (a newsletter, a committee email group that you don't participate in, etc.) unsubscribe as soon as you're sure there's no value to be gained.
  • If you find patterns in your email, such as people coming to you for a decision or feedback where they could be making those decisions on their own, coach them and encourage them to do so. This will not only decrease your email volume, it will make your business more efficient.
  • If your company is using email to store and share documents, and you see a lot of back-and-forth of updated versions of a document, push to stop doing this. Email is for communication, and not document storage. Look into possible shared storage solutions for getting this kind of stuff out of your email entirely.

Why NOT to use filters:

Filters are really a kind of half-way solution. They divert, remove, and delete things that you don't think are important. However, if you're creating filters you're missing the point - why are you getting those emails in the first place. If you're using filters to hide emails you don't plan on reading, then find a way to stop them from coming to you in the first place. If you're using filters to put things in a box to read later, that the same as deferring the work later, which doesn't accomplish anything - it's just a postponement of work (dealing with the email) that will still need to be done. Every time you defer an email instead of dealing with it, you've added just a little bit of work to the total work that it will take to deal with that, because you're doing to look at that email again later, and decide again what to do with it. Every time you do this you're just adding to the total amount of time you've spent on that email, and that's a waste of your time.

Why "email bankruptcy", while a popular choice, doesn't work

If your company is communicating using email, then presumably there are important things going on in email. Whenever you declare email bankruptcy (basically saying, "There are too many emails, I give up and will archive/delete them without dealing with them") then you're basically taking all the possible value and benefit of the communication in those emails and throwing it in the trash. Perhaps the only thing worse than deferring email to later over and over again is taking potentially useful communication and just throwing it away. Now you've take the time and energy that other people have put into email, as well as the time you've taken to see it and delete it, and just directly thrown it away. That's a complete loss of time, productivity, and value. This is the worst kind of email system - the kind that both acknowledges that email is some kind of "necessary evil" while continuing to participate in the email communication without helping to reduce the waste. Again, if this is happening from time to time, it's time to figure out where your email is coming from, and to help reduce the amount of email that people just plain don't read. You'll never get the "signal to noise" ratio to a perfect state where all email is useful and valuable communication, but not addressing this is surely wasting a lot of time for everyone. I'll bet if you ask other people what they think, they're experiencing similar things.

Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't delete a lot of the email you get. Much of the email isn't actually useful or needs to be read beyond the subject line. I'm simply saying that deleting email en masse is often a bad idea.

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Awesome list of hints. I particularly like how you explain the problem with email bankruptcy. Also +100 for "email is not a way to share documents". IMHO, the best way for sharing and collaborating on documents is a wiki (there are many to choose from). –  sleske Nov 9 '12 at 7:54
    
+1: For Your inbox isn't a to-do list. [I skimmed the rest of your answer because it was a bit lengthy.] –  Jim G. Nov 23 '12 at 14:57
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Before you leave it is best to set up some email filtering rules that will help you sort out the wheat from the chaff. Fisrt if you get alot of system automted emails, make sure they go to separate folder. Likely you can ignore any of these except ones sent in the last 24 hours.

If you get emails from HR, admin or other people who rarely send you anything that requires your specific action, send them to another folder called Routine. This you can probably look at last.

If you get client emails, send them to folders for those specific clients. These are likely to be the ones you need to look at first as keeping the client happy is always a good thing.

If you know of some particular projects that are likely to be hot when you get back, set up folders for them and have the emails go directly there. These will also be a priority when you get back.

I have a folder also where any email with a variant of the word fail is sent. These are almost always the first ones I check on any day as any process or project where someone is talking about something failing is usually something I need to know about.

So when you get back, take a quick pass through fail, client folders, project folders and inbox. Read from newest to oldest. That way if there has been a long chanin on a subject you and read the whole thing in one go and not have to read the others in the chain as you get to them.

Ask your usual contacts and the people who were covering for you to tell you what might need urgent action (or what they didn't get to while you were gone) and have them send you the email again so that you can easily see it rather than search through hundreds of emails.

I never come back from a vacation the day before I return to work. That means I can usually login from home to check my emails when I get back without anybody being aware that I am working, This gives me a chance to triage the emails before returning. You can get through a surprising number of emails in a couple of hours when no one is bothering you.

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Good ideas here, too. Thanks! I've got some filters permanently running. As for remote access, that sounds efficient but it also means you're doing it off the clock. (I work at a bank and can't remote in, so it's moot for me but still a nice idea for others.) –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 20:48
    
@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun, you could consider coming in a bit earlier than usual so you can get through alot of them before everyone else comes in. –  HLGEM Nov 4 '12 at 21:04
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Wow, there's a lot of good answers. Admittedly, my process is a bit different, so I figured I'd post it here.

1. Get ready for the work at hand

No matter how you slice it, you don't want to fall behind while you're catching up. Either move all unread mail to a catch-up folder or religiously stay on top of incoming mail and make stuff that's arrived since you returned your highest priority.

You may also want to consider a new auto-note if you are in a really high frequency mail situation - the note will say "thanks for your patience, I've returned to the office and am catching up on my correspondence, I expect to get back to you within X days, but if you have an urgent need, please call (or IM, or other immediate out of band option)" - you may only want to set that to a certain subset of your medium-priority collegues. It may not fly with the big boss, and the minor people may take it as an invitation to bother you... but I've seen it be effective in a situation where communication isn't life or death, but it's frustrating not to hear back.

2 - Triage

LOW - if you get automated mail, siphon it off again into either a subfolder or the trash. It's likely that for anything automated, you can just delete it if it's older than X days. A big reason to do this first is that I've seen mail clients get bogged down by this stuff and you want to eliminate anything slowing you down.

HIGH - sort for very important people on the sender list and go through items priority by priority. I recommend working in a threaded mode for most of this process, as you can whack out entire chains of mail.

HIGH - next, search for any critical work names or project names that may be on fire due to your absense. Since subject lines are rarely helpful, I recommend a broad search.

HIGH - things marked high importance

MEDIUM - sort by the "size" feature - that'll pull up any big files including docs, presentations, etc. It'll force you to go biggest to smallest, but at least you'll highlight by size. Many times my email gets overfilled with mail, so I need to reduce the size, and quickly upon returning home. Again, you may want to flip between "size" and "threaded" presentaton style, so you can tell what's a big deliverable that has since been published.

3 - Delay

Realize that until you know where all your high items are, you may not want to dig into anything medium or low priority. You don't want to spawn a thread of a low priority conversation when you need to embrace the urgent thing. Quick "thank you" mails here and there are no big deal, but avoid spending time writing big content until you have a sense of your scope.

4 - Cross Check

Release that the opportunity exists to reduce several mails to 1. If you have key relationships, or key projects, you may end up with a "Catching up while I was out mail" that lets you high all the stuff you missed, even if it was over several threads. I often stockpile several drafts like this, combining and copying as I refine what I want to say to whom.

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I know one person who sets up the out of office agent to say that they are out of contact, and will delete their whole inbox on their return. They provide alternate contacts for key issues, as well as the date they are coming back for anything urgent.

It is a bit extreme, but it works.

In house, I ran a strong "anti-email" campaign in my team about three years ago, where pushed other tools (forum, wiki, JIRA, instant messaging, helpdesk, CRM) for written communications over the generic use of e-mail; we cut internal traffic by about 80%, and basically got out of the "information e-mail" habit.

One key rule is to avoid replying to e-mails as much as you can, by using other tools...

The upshot of this is that I can generally bulk delete about 90% of my e-mail build-up after a period away. Filing is simplified by having one level only, with about 20 broad (and numbered) categories.

I also make heavy use of the mobile and internet clients; these can (and in LN's case do) have more streamlined interfaces for flagging, filing and deletion - you can hack down the e-mail mountain in odd minutes when you are waiting for stuff, which helps too.

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Declare email bankruptcy.

From a review of Gina Trapani's book 'Hack Your Life':

Trapani from Lifehacker talks about e-mail overload in her book by offering a few interesting examples. My favorite is the story of Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, who in 2004 declared “e-mail bankruptcy”. Apparently he had accumulated two years-worth of thousands of unread messages in his Inbox. Instead of attempting the impossible task of opening them all, he sent an apology to his contacts and asked them to resend their unanswered messages only if they were still very important.

EDIT: Here's is arguably the best email bankruptcy video ever, from wine expert Gary Vaynerchuk.

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I'm torn on this, because on the one hand I really want this to be a viable option for both the asker and myself, but at the same time, there is a lot of risk associated with it. So +1/-1 for a +0 - I would really recommend clarifying and perhaps adding a disclaimer about how this may not work in certain industries or environments. –  enderland Nov 5 '12 at 13:13
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I do not think it is ever the professional decision to completely abdicate your responsibilities. –  Chad Nov 6 '12 at 20:56
    
@Chad: Declaring email bankruptcy isn't about abdicating your responsibilities. It's about telling people that when you sift through hundreds of emails, you're drinking from the proverbial firehose. // In some situations, many tardy responses could be equivalent to an "abdication of responsibilities". Declaring email bankruptcy tells everyone, "Hey, I have hundreds of unread emails. At a glance, I'm not sure which ones are super-urgent and which ones aren't, so if you need me, please send me another message." –  Jim G. Nov 6 '12 at 21:22
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@JimG actually that video is a demonstration of avoiding having to declare email bankruptcy. –  Chad Nov 6 '12 at 21:37
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I think it's just like with real-life bankruptcy: It's an option in desperate situations, but if you need it, a lot has gone wrong already, and you should really think about how to prevent this reocurring. –  sleske Nov 9 '12 at 7:58
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