Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

500 Email Messages in 24 hours

By on June 7, 2008

If I spend a week off email, how do I handle returning to 500 email messages (and it is fortunate it is summer vacation!)? My goal is to get through most of the email messages in 24-48 hours so more mail does not accumulate and bring my InBox to less than 20 messages.

My email falls into five categories: personal messages, work messages, committee/volunteer-associated messages, news alerts, and mailing lists. I have all my email delivered to Gmail, with some message automatically assigned a label upon arrival (such as mailing lists and work messages). My first step is to quickly scan through the all messages in my InBox for anything that appears urgent. This means looking for personal messages and quickly scanning the first line as it appears in gMail – occasionally opening the message to verify the urgency. If it can be handled in less than a minute or two, I respond immediately otherwise I mark the message to unread and continue to scan.

Next: the mailing list messages – most can be deleted immediately. The bulk of these are great to read but, when a deadline looms (my 24-hours), the easiest thing to do is simply delete. I had the wisdom to turn off one of the heaviest lists (20-30 messages/day) to “vacation mode” before leaving. Using the automatic filtering to assign Labels in Gmail helps to facilitate management of mailing lists. Selecting the mailing list label, I mark the new messages and delete. For those messages that don’t have labels automatically assigned, I search for common senders or subjects and then assign an appropriate label to return to the message later. The purpose here is to eliminate messages out of my primary InBox and alleviate any possible stress. In normal situations, I keep my InBox as empty as possible and almost never more than 20-30 messages.

At this point my InBox still has about 120 messages, but I have eliminated (or sorted) 75% of the messages and can now address them as groups based on my time availability. (Unfortunately, I am writing this blog entry now instead of handling my email in my 24-hour window.) By scanning, deleting, and sorting I can have the appearance of managing the email and my InBox is not showing over 500 messages (a potential stressful experience). It is these remaining 120 messages that are going to take the bulk of my time to review more systematically and respond where necessary. What I might do at this point is skip around. Read a few messages in my InBox; skip to WorkBox; scan and delete some other labeled email; etc.

So, for those of you who like lists, here is a summary:

  1. Scan all messages for anything that appears urgent and respond immediately
  2. Use the Labels function in Gmail to archive messages out of InBox
  3. Delete all (or most) mailing list messages.
  4. Search for common senders or subjects to assign Labels and archive out of InBox.
  5. Allocate time to review remaining InBox messages with the goal of bringing InBox to less than 20 messages as soon as possible.
  6. Allocate time to review the sorted/labeled messages based on priority.

Bottom line: don’t stress and use the delete key liberally – be realistic about what is important.