Work Smart: How to Power Through a Mountain of Email

mountain of mail graphic

It's your first day back at work after a week-long vacation and you're staring down an email inbox stuffed with 1,600 unread messages. Or--forget vacation--you've just been busy outside the inbox and now you've got a mountain of backlog to get through. If you don't have all day to spend just dealing with email, use some cleanup shortcuts for getting to the bottom of the pile quick.

There are two types of email in your inbox:

1. Email you can delete.

2. Email you have to do something about.

First, you're going to get all the email that you can delete out of the way. Use your email program's sorting feature to help.

1. Sort your messages by the "sender" column, then Shift click to select all the newsletter subscriptions, social network notifications, chain letters from Aunt Martha and Uncle Bert, and messages from anyone who sends you useless email. Press delete.

2. Sort your messages by the "subject" column. Select all the kitten forwards, mailing list threads, and long conversations with logs of back and forth that don't matter anymore. Delete them.

3. Finally, you're going to sort your messages by "date." This might be a controversial tip, but when you're dealing with a serious backlog, I encourage you to be ruthless. Anyone who sent you an email over a month ago and hasn't gotten a response isn't sitting around holding his breath. After a month, your window of email responsiveness opportunity is over. Delete or archive any messages that are older than a month. If the message was that important, the person would have resent it.

Just trashing all that mail will cut down your pile significantly, maybe more than 505. Everything that's left is email you have to DO something about: something quick, or something not-so quick. But you're going to deal with each kind quickly.

Resort your messages by date, oldest first. Punch through each message, and make quick decisions: is this something you can reply to and file in 2 minutes or less? If so, do it on the spot. Most important email only requires a one or two line reply--and keep it that short. If the message involves a lot more work, more than two minutes worth of work, set a deadline for yourself sometime in the future, like "next Tuesday," and reply to the person: "You'll hear back from me about this by next Tuesday." Then put the task to get back to so-and-so on your calendar for next Tuesday. Done.

When you're working your way through a large email backlog, give yourself permission to reply in as few words as possible. Busy people specialize in brevity. Ask any customer who received a personal email response from Steve Jobs.

If you're worried that being short will sound impolite, do what one clever CEO does: set your email signature to "Sent from my mobile" in your desktop email client. Your one-sentence response will be much more forgivable then.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Work Smart: Brainstorming Techniques to Boost Creativity

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4 Comments

  • Marsha Egan

    These are good tips. I use the two minute rule for all of my e-mail handling, not just one coming back from being out of the office. For anything that will take me more than two minutes to handle, I drag and drop it into an action folder, and set a flag/reminder for when I will begin work on it. It works!

  • Andy Cairns

    The main thing I'd add to this is sorting by conversation so that you can see all the relevant emails together. If you sort by date and work from the oldest message, you could be wasting time on a message that has been resolved since the first email.

  • Penelope Kalico

    I really liked that last tip, about making it seem like your email is coming from your mobile. This really comes in handy when you got 1000+ emails in your inbox like I do, even though most of them are junk.