• Dawn Henwood

How to Cope with the Post-holiday Email Flood

How many of your shiny New Year's resolutions about working smarter faded away the moment you opened your inbox? When you're drowning in unread messages, just keeping your head above water feels like a triumph. How can you possibly hold to lofty goals while you're treading water?

It saddens me to hear so many people resign themselves to a day or more of lost productivity every time they return from vacation. Catching up on e-mail shouldn't feel like a marine episode of Survivor. By using seven simple tips, you can quickly drain your inbox so you can start tackling those New Year's goals. 

1. Refresh your autoreply. If you're trying to reply to incoming messages while sorting through your backlog, you'll spend days rather than hours baling yourself out of your flooded inbox. Hang up a virtual "Do Not Disturb" sign to give yourself a couple of hours or a morning to recover your e-mail equilibrium.

Here's an autoreply message I once used on my first day back at work after vacation:

Do you need to hear from me right away? If so, please call me at 902-817-0127. Otherwise, you'll hear from me the next time I check my inbox--certainly within one working day.

2. Touch the light stuff once. Many people read through all their messages, flag priority items, and then leave lower-priority items to linger for days as post-deluge debris. But it can take less time to respond instantly to a lightweight message than to read the message, file it, retrieve it, re-read it, and then respond. 

If it would take you less than two minutes to reply, go ahead and do that without feeling false guilt about losing track of priorities. The key to making time for your priorities is a clean inbox.

3. Sort the heavy stuff into two categories. Your mission is to empty your inbox as soon as possible so you can stop reading and start acting. Two magic folders will enable you to do this: Action and Hold. 

Create these two folders at the top of your inbox filing structure. As you wade through your unread messages, take care of the lightweight messages (two-minute responses) right away. When you read a message that requires a more thoughtful reply, sort--but don't solve. 

Move into your Action folder messages that require a response within one working day.

For less urgent messages, follow three quick steps:

  • Reply with a quick note stating when you'll send a complete response. In some cases, it may be worthwhile to include a reason for your timeline. (Example: Thanks for the updated budget, Rita. I'll send you my department figures by the end of the week, in time for the division meeting on Monday afternoon.)

  • Move the message into your Hold folder.

  • Create a task on your to-do list, noting that the background information is in your Hold folder. (Some to-do list applications, including the task list in Outlook, enable you to create a hyperlink to the e-mail.) 

Remember: your aim at this point is to sort, not solve. Your e-mail inbox should never substitute for a to-do list. Clean out your inbox, and you'll create the visual and mental space you need to make progress on your real work. 

4. Process your Action items. So now you've taken care of all the lightweight e-mails, and you've turned your least-urgent e-mails into items on your task list. What about all the messages in your Action folder?

Check the clock to see how much of the time you reserved for sorting out your e-mail is left. Then, working with the time you have available, deal with each Action message in one of two ways:

  • Send a complete reply, solving the problem in full.


  • Send a partial reply, requesting any additional information you need or explaining why you need more time to send a thorough response, and stating when you expect to be able to send that response.

Here's an example of a partial reply that buys time to write a more thoughtful response:

SUBJECT: Seaview proposal


Here's an outline showing the direction I think we should take with the Seaview proposal. Before I can flesh out the details, I'll need to confer with Sue, who has the notes from our latest meeting with the client. 

Does the plan I've suggested make sense to you? If so, I should be able to meet with Sue by Wednesday and get a draft to you by early next week.


5. Schedule a meeting. Just because someone has contacted you via e-mail doesn't mean you're compelled to reply via the same medium. In some cases, the most efficient approach may be to pick up the phone or send a meeting invite. Here are some situations in which that might be the best way to respond:

  • An e-mail leaves you with questions, and it may take several e-mails to answer them.

  • An e-mail addresses a delicate situation.

  • One person has sent you several e-mails.

If you follow these five tips, you'll find there's no need to sacrifice your New Year's goals to unproductive hours spent flailing in a flood of e-mails. You can be courteous and action-oriented without letting your inbox control your day. Your colleagues and clients will appreciate your responsiveness, and you'll enjoy the clarity of mind you need to make great things happen.


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