Welcome back to work. While you catch up on all the emails you didn’t handle while you were gone, new emails will start coming in. Depending on your job, this emails might be your actual job responsibility or a distraction that you’re annoyingly obligated to deal with anyway. Here’s how to avoid that “Lucy in the chocolate factory” feeling as you dig through your inbox.
Keep your auto-responder on
First you need to set expectations. Whether or not you take an extra day off work to recover, you should spend your first day back pretending you’re still away.
Keep an auto-responder on, and imply (or flatly lie) that you’re unreachable on your first day back. When you actually do reply to some emails today, no one is going to get mad that you were surprisingly responsive.
Clear out all the newsletters first
Newsletters tend to pile up during time off. Most of them don’t need any action from you; they are at some level optional. Select all the newsletters in your inbox. Move them all to a separate folder, or snooze them.
Don’t select all non-urgent emails right now, only the newsletters. This avoids the risk of clicking on juuuust one email, getting bogged down in it, and losing all your momentum as you go through your whole inbox one email at a time. No! Just select all the newsletters and set them aside.
Longterm, every time you get a newsletter, you should create a filter that moves all future issues of that newsletter to a designated “newsletters” folder. Or turn on the “Forums” category and teach Gmail by dragging and dropping the relevant emails into that tab in your inbox. But you don’t have to do that today. Today is for triage.
If you move all your newsletters out of your primary inbox, you might never get to them. That is OK! Newsletters are just blogs that tricked their way into a party. You can’t read every newsletter all the time.
Send a quick reply to buy more time
Some emails require a long reply, or significant work before you can archive them. Those are the ones that fester in your inbox while you deal with the easier ones.
To lower your stress, and the stress of the people waiting for you, send a quick “Working on this!” email. Just one line to let them know that you’re still paying attention. This also helps you avoid stupid follow-up emails that are “just checking in!”
If you’re sending a lot of similar check-ins, Gmail can help you automate that. Follow these instructions to save an email as a template. Next time you can ask Gmail to paste it in, and only change the parts that need changing. This will help you burn through dozens of emails in one sitting.
You can save a ton of specific canned responses, or you can save one all-encompassing response, paste it in every time, and delete the parts that don’t apply to any particular email. Again, Gmail can save this message for you, so you don’t have to dig through your sent emails to copy it again.
Snooze all non-urgent email
Now that you’ve made some quick replies, use the “snooze” function on Gmail or Boomerang to hide those emails until a specified date. You can stagger them out, so just a few emails resurface each day, giving you some time to catch up.
Avoid actually opening any email that’s not potentially urgent. Use keyboard shortcuts and right-clicking to manage email from your inbox.
Now you should only have the most important and urgent emails in your inbox. Everything you can’t solve with a canned reply, or ignore for a few days. These are the emails that actually take some work. Take a quick break, or do your actual job, then come back.
Now go through the important emails. Start top-down; this will go faster than if you cherry-pick. You can’t move to the next email without replying, snoozing, or archiving the current email.
You’ll find that some of these “heavy lift” emails can still be tackled in one or two minutes each. Some can be taken offline: If an email seems intimidating to handle, ask yourself if you could better tackle it over the phone, or turn it into a note for an upcoming meeting. And some will actually take work.
As much as you can, convert emails into to-do items or calendar events, anything actionable, rather than keeping them in your inbox, where every time you come across a message, you have to ask yourself again, “What do I need to do with this message?”
But once you’ve worked back to the date you left, stop. Now go to the very bottom of your inbox, and work up from there.
As Fast Company points out, coming back from time off is the perfect time to find and archive a lot of email that’s no longer relevant. It’s also a good time to look at old dropped threads, and decide to abandon them. You’re feeling busier than usual, so you’ll have more willpower to say no to things you wanted to say yes to.
Now that you’ve compressed your email, you can get back to actual work, and dream about the day you leave this job, cut this inbox loose forever, and pick up another one at your new gig.