Catching Up

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You’re been busy for a couple of days or a week, perhaps head down on an important project or away at a conference. During that time, you check in on email when you can, mostly to make sure that nothing crucial came in, but it’s definitely not a priority. Once the dust settles and things are back to what passes for normal around here, you open the mailbox and … the avalanche breaks over your head1.

I had that experience recently after attending a three-day professional development workshop. While I had kept up with critical items, there was a lot left to deal with, ranging from trivial to annoying to fairly important. From that experience, I’ve identified a couple of tips to help you clean out the Augean stables your inbox:

Schedule Time To Tackle the Backlog

Maybe you have a system or at least a routine for dealing with email on a regular basis. If it works under normal circumstances, awesome: however, coming back from a time away would likely tax even the most disciplined approaches. I’ve found it useful to schedule some time after an absence to clear the decks, which includes sorting email as well as reviewing my calendar and priorities, filing anything from the conference, and so on. Even just an hour can help me feel more grounded and alleviate any fears that I’m missing something important.

Sort and Save Content

There are many different systems and frameworks out there for how to approach email. I’ll leave a full description of my email workflow2 for another time, but in a nutshell my approach is to get information out of email into apps and services where it’s more useful. To put it another way, email makes for a poor task manager, calendar, read-it later service, and so on: use the right tools for the job!

As a short list for now, here’s some apps that I use when cleaning out the inbox:

  • Instapaper: a read-it later service that allows me to save the content of web links. If an email newsletter doesn’t have a “read it in browser” option or it’s a post from a listserv, I can forward the email to my Instapaper account and it will automatically add it to my reading list.
  • OmniFocus: my current task management app of choice. If the email represents a task that will take more than a minute to do right then and there, it should3 go in here.
  • DEVONthink / Evernote: storage and filing of rich content, including links, articles, PDFs and so on that may be useful in the future. Right now I’m awkwardly in-between the two, having used Evernote for a long time but starting to explore DEVONthink for work purposes over this past year.

Get Smart with your Mailboxes

Automation is an unsung hero when it comes to dealing with information, and one of the easiest places to start is your mailbox. The simplest form is one that comes with pretty much every email account these days: spam filtering. Going a step or two further, services like Gmail have mailboxes or tabs for specific types of messages, such as notifications from social media networks or promotional emails and newsletters from companies.

Many desktop and mobile email clients allow you to set up rules or “smart” mailboxes, where messages that come from a certain sender or that contain specific words in the subject line can be automatically sent out of your inbox and into a specific folder. At some point you’ll want to deal with those messages, but shunting them into their own folders can make the initial sort easier and highlight those messages that actually require your time and attention.

Don’t Be Afraid to Hit “Unsubscribe”

The above tips focus on how to deal with email once it hits your inbox, but it’s also important to think about how much is coming in. As you’re clearing out the backlog, think about what’s arriving and whether it’s actually useful. A daily email may not seem like a big deal when you’re checking email regularly, but when you see five of them in the course of clearing your inbox after an absence, you might come to realize that the value it provides isn’t as great as you thought. Hitting unsubscribe now will pay dividends when you’re next away as well as on a daily basis, as that’s one less email to process.

(As a side note, when I’m away and don’t log into Facebook at all, it starts sending emails to try and entice me to log in, like “See what so and so posted!” Social media use is another post all together, but these kind of emails demonstrate how needy that network in particular really is!)

Try Alternative Contact Methods

How your coworkers and clients reach you is a big topic to tackle, and there will likely always be that one person who refuses to use anything except email. That being said, there are alternate methods out there that can help divert traffic from the inbox.

As an example, last summer I was out of town for three consecutive weeks to attend a conference and visit some friends. Because of work commitments, I couldn’t take those weeks completely off, plus I had a placement student working with me at that time. Rather than clog up our inboxes, we set up a Slack group (basically a private online forum) for my business. Each project we were working on had its own “channel”: that way, we could post comments, questions, and resources in the appropriate group. We committed to checking into Slack every 72 hours at minimum: in case a more urgent response was needed, there’s a notification feature that would ping me on my phone. Combined with some Skype calls, the system worked like a charm: we could keep abreast of developments and ideas by checking in when it made sense and thus avoided being buried by notifications or missing important updates.

How do you shovel out from a deluge of email after being away? Share in the comments below!

  1. Consider yourself lucky in one sense, at least it’s not a literal pile of envelopes and messages!
  2. Though calling it such makes it sound much more systematic than it really is!
  3. Well, that’s the ideal I’m working towards, but I don’t always succeed … which suggests that I need to revisit this aspect of my workflow. 

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