Staying on Top of E-Mail, Part 1

Do you feel like you’re ever “caught up” with your e-mail? Most people don’t. And it often stresses them out big time.

I had a VP who worked for me at a previous employer who was incredibly dedicated, working 12-14 hours each day and putting in time on the weekends as well. Even with all these hours, though, she was always behind on her e-mail. She would try to catch up at night, get through some e-mails, then give up and go to bed. The same cycle happened every day. Large blocks of e-mail went unread, even e-mails from me where I sought her input or assigned her a task. I learned that if I really needed information from her, I often had to interrupt a meeting she was having, or call her cell phone late in the evening.

She told me how frustrated she was, feeling unreliable because important things cropped through the cracks.

I shared a strategy with her that I’ve employed for almost 20 years: setting aside an Integration Day each month. On my Integration Day, I grab my laptop, and take it to a place with an Internet connection and few distractions. Study rooms at the local library are great for this.

I pull up my e-mail Inbox, and go back a month to the day after my previous Integration Day. Next, I take all the Inbox e-mails that are older than that, and drag them to a I’ll read this If I have the time folder. Naturally, I’ll have some e-mails that ARE older than this that I retain, but generally they wil have been filed in a subject folder long ago. Then I go into the I’ll read this…. folder and delete any e-mails that are more than three months old. I figure, if I haven’t read them by that time, the news is so old it won’t matter.

Then it’s back to the Inbox. I systematically go through my e-mails of the last month. Many I find I can just delete because they’ve been overtaken by events. If I find an e-mail that requires thought or action, I just mark it as “Unread” and immediately move on to the next e-mail. Even thought I often receive an average of 50-100 e-mails a day, I find I can complete this monthly triage process in about 3 hours.

So what do I do with those 30-days-or-less emails left in my Inbox? In my next post, I’ll tell you.


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