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