Nothing slams me out of vacation mode and back into the grind faster than an overflowing email inbox. Fortunately, I found a way to make peace with the inevitable deluge of messages.
I create a series of temporary folders and rules within my email program to sort messages while I’m away. Then I triage those folders and my inbox when I return. Earth shattering advice? No. But in its simplicity and ease of implementation -which means I'll actually do it- it truly changed my life. (ymmv)
Create temporary folders
I find I typically need folders for emails coming from each of the following: my boss, my peers on the leadership team, my staff, the communications team, and one for each active project on my plate. I’ll start by creating a temporary folder for each, using the @ symbol so my email program sorts these folders to the top of my folder list. I also create folders called @toreadlater and @toschedule.
When it comes to setting the rules for these folders, some will have emails coming from only one source (e.g. my boss) while other folders will have emails coming from multiple sources (e.g. my staff members or a projects folder). If you know email from an individual will fit into multiple folders, you might consider creating a separate folder for that person (e.g. @Valerie) and then manually sort it after vacation. You can also use keywords, but I personally prefer to set rules by sender.
Ignore the rules for the @toreadlater and @toschedule folders for now. Just create them.
While you are gone, much of your email will skip the inbox and go into your triage folders. What lands in your inbox will be miscellaneous business and assorted other messages like announcements.
Step 1: Triage your folders This means scan/skim the messages in each to look for anything that is “on fire” so to speak. During triage, I do a lot of sorting but not a lot of responding. I’m mostly getting the lay of the land and starting to plan out what will need my attention the rest of the day.
I like to start with my inbox since my boss, staff, and project teams all know I’ve been out and will be digging out of my email - they aren’t expecting a response from me first thing. My inbox has the random and unexpected in it that might be pressing but it also has a lot of “noise” in it in terms of announcements and solicitations.
As you come across announcements or unexpected items that aren’t pressing or aren’t related to any active projects, move them into the @toreadlater folder. As you come across calendar requests, move them to @toschedule instead of accepting or rejecting them as you go – you might have conflicting requests so you’ll want to see them all before deciding.
After my inbox, I like to move on in the following order: @boss >> @staff >> @ leadership >> @projects >> @communications.
As a general rule, every 10 minutes and when I finish triaging a folder, I stop and take a stretch and a deep breath. Otherwise it is easy to get frantic and tense I speed through my email.
Step 2: Deal with the short replies and unexpected Resist the urge to do this during triage. You want to have the whole picture of what’s on your plate before you do this step.
Step 3: Respond to calendar requests Process your @toschedule folder. Then delete it.
Step 4: Work through each folder as priority dictates Since you’ve already triaged your folders, you know what is more pressing and what is less pressing. As you work your way through your business, delete a triage folder when it becomes empty.
Step 5: Read through your @toreadlater folder After you are finished, delete it.
By following this process, I feel like I am taking control over my inbox, instead of it having control over me. It doesn't lessen the amount of work I have to do on email but certainly makes me more efficient at getting a handle on it.