If you have more than a day's worth of messages…
…in your inbox, the "deal with every message the moment it arrives"-approach is not working for you.
It's not your fault. This approach can only work for those whose only job is to answer emails as fast as possible.
Fortunately, a slightly different avenue lets you work uninterrupted by email, still reply within a reasonable time, have no emails overdue by months and get rid of the email backlog, too.
Get and Stay on Top of Your Email Easily by Dealing with It Tomorrow
To get a grip on your email:
- Take your eyes off the inbox.
- Make sure automatic mail checking and new mail announcements are turned off.
- Deal with all mail that arrived yesterday, in as many batches as you see fit.
- The fewer batches, the better. If you treat all of yesterday's mail in one go, chances are you have spent the least time and effort on it.
- Schedule time for your email processing.
- Deal with the messages in order.
- If a message requires research, schedule that research for tomorrow, and let the sender know you'll get back to them. If more work is required, schedule over a longer period.
Make sure you can find the original message when the work is done. The sender and, most importantly, date noted together with the task should be enough. In Mac OS X Mail, you could also use LinkABoo.
- You can use a smart folder that displays only the messages arrived yesterday, apply flags (label days in alternating colors, for example), or rely on sorting by date of arrival.
- You can check your inbox periodically for any emails requiring urgent action.
If your work demands it, process mail more often than daily — three times a day, for instance. Whatever period you choose, the crucial element is that the list of emails is closed to new entries while you work on it.
Why Daily Processing?
Unless you must deal with mail more frequently, I invite you to try daily processing, though. It has additional benefits:
- You do not haphazardly set the precedent of replying immediately, a commitment that cannot be met.
- A daily schedule is easy to keep and remember.
- You can choose the perfect time of day for each type of message.
Even if this is not normally your style,
- do experiment with getting the easiest messages out of the way first.
Once you get to the more challenging emails, the steady progress has tamed them a bit already. If you quickly scanned the complicated before venturing forth with the easy, you've spent some time coming up with solutions, too.
What If I Miss a Day?
If you miss a few days due to traveling or holidays, that's no big deal.
- Deal with the emails as if they had arrived yesterday.
Often, going through two days or even a week of email does not take all that more time and effort than handling one day.
If the pile of emails is so high that you cannot deal with it in one day, let another strategy help you:
How to Clear a Backlog of Email
To get rid of a backlog of emails:
- Create an new folder.
- Move all the outstanding emails from your inbox to that folder.
- Every day and before anything else, do something with at least one of the messages in the backlog folder.
- You don't have to reply to it. You don't have to file it. But do something. Search for a site that might help you answer, for example. Or look up the email address (or number) of somebody who could help you.
- On some days, you will do that minimum. Great! On many others, you will deal with a heap of messages in one go. Great!
- Handle all new mail as above.
I have learned these strategies from Mark Forster's Do It Tomorrow: And Other Secrets of Time Management (), an all-around great book if you want to get everything done and still have time to play ()—Mark Forster's first time-management installment.