Nothing can undo the relaxed, happy glow of a nice long holiday like coming back to an email inbox overflowing with hundreds (thousands?) of unread messages. Now comes the time when you must disable that guardian angel, your out-of-office message, and get down to it. But processing a big email inbox post-holiday need not be stressful. Here’s what I do when faced with a mountain of unread messages.
First things first, pull up the weeds. When coaching people on GTD, we find that 50-60% (sometimes more!) of most people’s inbound email is simply reference or rubbish. Furthermore, you can identify the stuff that doesn’t belong in your inbox pretty quickly using a few simple tricks.
“Unsubscribe” isn’t a word my colleagues or clients are likely to use in the normal course of corresponding with me, but nearly all bulk emails contain the word. You can search on the word “unsubscribe” and move all of the results over to a “bulk” area for later skimming. Much of it you will likely unsubscribe from and delete; the rest you need to scan just long enough to determine whether it is actionable, and what action you want to take.
But not now. Right now, you need wins. You need to see that inbox count going down. So for now, just get it out of the inbox and into your “bulk” folder for later review. Going forward, you might also want to make an email rule to relegate bulk messages to your “bulk” folder automatically as well.
Another way to prune is to sort by the subject thread. Typically, you only need the last message in a long thread where everyone is using “reply to all” and keeping all the message history below. If you’ve been gone awhile, the message count may seem huge–but the actual number of threads based on subject lines may not be nearly so daunting. Quite a number of them may have self-resolved without you as well (how dare they?!). So, while you’ll want to keep the last message in each thread to check up on the state of play, as well as perhaps any messages with attachments on them, most people can file away all the other, older messages from a thread for future reference. More wins.
Your email should be cut down considerably at this point to a fraction of the previous total inbox count. Phew. Still, there remains a firmer core of messages that might require some action or response.
When things are really out of control, I tell my clients there is no shame in going into an “emergency scan” mode with their email inboxes. This is what most people do most of the time–picking along, trying to find the most important or most timely messages to deal with using gut and guesswork. A true GTDer knows better than to live in this mode, since it is ultimately inefficient over the long term. But fresh back from a holiday, or slammed with extensive travel or back-to-back meeting schedule, it sometimes makes sense to pick away at the timely stuff for a bit. The key is just to be honest with yourself that you are consciously and temporarily entering into this mode, and then to move back to proper GTD processing–one at a time, completing the thinking on your projects and outcomes–as soon as possible.
So what might an emergency scan look like post-holiday? I have a sort of informal hierarchy in terms of response times in my mind that goes: boss, direct reports, colleagues, external. At some points in my life I have even set up rules to colour code messages into these groups based on the sender’s address. For now, the simplest way to start to identify these groups is just to sort by sender. Scan messages from your boss first, looking for anything that might be critical to handle straight away based on the subject or a quick glance at the body. Then proceed to direct reports, colleagues, and everyone else.
You may also want to set up shared standards such as the use of the word “TIMELY” in the subject line for anything requiring quick turnaround. If you have set this up beforehand, a quick search can let you know what you need to deal with straight away.
After this, you do really need to start processing messages one at a time using the fundamental thought process of GTD. However, you can opt to process in whatever order works best for you–starting with your boss first, starting with newest messages first–however you need to do it to start racking up some further “wins” and feel like you’re getting a handle on paying the “holiday tax” for having been away.
Be decisive, and keep going. As David Allen, creator of GTD has often said, it takes as much energy to keep an inbox at 4,000 as it does to keep it at zero. You’ll get back to that state of incrementally processing new messages in your inbox, and it will again be manageable. By taking a few clever steps straight away, you can get there faster and hopefully keep a bit of that relaxed, happy holiday feeling going while you do so.
You might even hit inbox zero before all of that beach sand has finally shaken out of your hair.