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How I Dealt with the 500 Messages in my Inbox

2011 July 26
tags: Actions, Effectiveness, Getting Things Done, Productivity, Time Management
by Andrew   

effective emailAnd so it happened:  the inevitable accumulation of several hundred messages in my inbox while I was on vacation. How many were there?  Over 500…

Now, five hundred messages hardly accumulated in the ten days I was gone, but about two hundred of them did and they required processing, another two hundred were mostly resting in my Waiting For folder as I monitor actions delegated to others or slack on filing items that are now reference-only messages, and about one hundred were mostly junk:  spam, interesting-but-useless advertisements, newsletters, and automated notifications from workflow-management and document-management systems which held little to no immediacy of need because of the series of short re-engagement meetings I had with each of the people I work with regularly.

Five hundred messages is a lot and they were all staring me in the face every time I opened my computer. Depressing. Energy-draining. Motivation-killing. So, what did I do about them?  The answer, not surprisingly, is process them. But not all at once.  Trying that is an easy way to make a critical mistake with an important message. Fortunately for me, my mail folders color-code my messages by sender, so I can quickly identify messages from my team, my manager, our senior executives, and the major stakeholders outside the organization with whom I interact regularly.

By the time I had left the office on Friday, the message list was already down over four hundred and fifty messages that had been answered, filed, or trashed depending upon the necessary action. The remaining will, over the next several days, be answered, filed for reference, deferred until I have more time because they’re low priority, or trashed. That many messages should be processed as described in this article, with the ones requiring a response longer than five minutes deferred to a scheduled time. Any messages that are clearly junk will be trashed immediately so they don’t further consume time as I continue to revisit the Pending folder at scheduled times and when I find myself with unexpected free processing time.

Am I violating my own advice on throwing out anything over the most recent two hundred messages when confronted with a backlog?  Unequivocally, yes. Why?  Because I have already been applying for years a sleek, Wargo-ized version of GTD that is built for operating speed and rapid searchability. Nearly all of my records are electronic now and the ones that aren’t are so old that they’re only useful for reference in the most unusual cases. So, except for the odd bit of spam intermingled with messages I need, there was nothing in those four hundred messages that was discardable.

Now when I look at my inbox, it serves my needs again rather than sapping my mental energy and frustrating me with a daunting task looming.

Take care, and enjoy life,


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