Surviving the email rabbit hole

Have you ever started your day with the idea that you would be efficient and get through email quickly before jumping into a big project? Then quickly you fall into the spiral that is email overload. Next thing you know, it’s noon, and you have not even started on the project.

Don’t worry; it happens to the best of us. So how do we prevent our days from being consumed by email? I find that it is better to use a form of triage when dealing with emails. I should disclaimer that there might be other ways to deal with email, but I have found this method works for me. It allows me to ninja my way through the flood of email that fills my Inbox daily.

Step 1: Skim through all of your emails and categorize them as one of the following:

  • The quick read and close. – move out of your inbox and into a read folder.
  • The I need more information, so need to ask for clarification.
  • The less than 10-minutes needed to reply.
  • The it will take 30 minutes or more to handle and must be dealt with today.
  • The it can be handled another day.
  • *Junk* – delete as you skim

I use Microsoft Outlook’s flag system to help categorize my email. You can drag and drop them into folders, or use labels in Gmail. There are many options, just find what works best for you.

Now you probably think that this takes a lot of time. In all actuality, once you get into the rhythm, you will see an increase in productivity. Most importantly a half-hour spent in the morning will put you in control of your day. Finally, this is the perfect time to savor a cup of coffee, your morning protein shake, or whatever suits your fancy while reading email.

Step 2:  By this time, you should have closed/moved all the quick read emails and deleted the junk. Now focus on category two emails. The ones where you need more information to complete the action. Fire off replies with your questions and set these to follow-up status so you can keep them in mind for when you receive the responses. This way while you work on other things, people can get you the info you need to handle these tasks.

Step 3: Handle all category three emails that would take you less than 10 minutes. Hopefully, you can be done within an hour (or less). If it will take you longer than an hour, then set time for later in the day to address these as you have time. Prioritize what needs to be done immediately and what can be done by the end of the day.

Step 4: Now you are left with the category four emails. These will take you some time but need to get done today. Instead of just tackling these, schedule blocks of time to work on it during the day. These will be good “breaks” from your big project when you need it.

Step 5: Work on your project! Take periodic breaks to handle the emails you scheduled in the morning.

Have I fried your brain? This process may seem like it will take a while, but with all things the more you do it, the quicker you will get. Your mind will automatically learn how to prioritize, close, or triage email to the point where it will become second nature.

Moreover, I am not so naïve to believe this works every day. We all have days where you are running from the minute you get in, to the minute you leave. So, reverse the time and take the steps above before you leave for the day or tackle it at home for 30 minutes before you get into the office. Find the time that works best for you. The important lesson is the more you control email; the less email will control your day.

So, what did we learn today:

  • Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of emails.
  • Categorize your emails and get rid of junk or quick read emails first.
  • Send off replies when you need more information to handle.
  • Tackle all of the 10 minutes or less emails next, or schedule a time to go through these emails.
  • Finally, schedule a time to work on the category four emails that will take you more time to handle.
  • Work on your project! Don’t forget that is the purpose of controlling your emails.