Aug 20

Managing post-vacation email without ruining a Monday

I returned to work this morning to face 448 emails, most of them unopened.

That’s the price you pay after unplugging for a few days of much-needed R&R. My team was, as always, wonderful about triaging issues and running with projects in my absence, blocking and tackling so I could truly enjoy a few work-free days of this glorious summer.

Wednesday found my husband and I sharing the splendor of Sleeping Bear Dunes with out-of-state friends, bookended by lunch al fresco in Beulah and a whitefish dinner at one of Hemingway’s Petoskey haunts. My nightcap? No email – not even a peek.

Such a glorious Pure Michigan day!

I’ll pay for it today as I plunge into reading, responding, deleting and forwarding. Over the years, I’ve developed a system for managing email, whether it’s a post-vacation glut or a run-of-the-mill Tuesday afternoon:

Low-hanging fruit: Contrarian to the advice in “Eat That Frog,” which exhorted us to tackle the worst task on our to-do lists first each day, I like to pick off low-hanging email fruit first. Those are client alerts via Google, blasts from NextDoor and other social media sites, headlines and breaking news from the various news outlets I monitor and the always-tempting emails from Sur la Table. I can typically scan these quickly (unless SLT is having a great sale) and either delete or forward with a brief cover note. This measurably slims down my in-box – and gives me the will for a second cup of coffee and the tougher stuff.

Touch it once: In my first professional job after college, my employer hired an efficiency expert to monitor how we worked and suggest ways we could improve. One piece of advice has stuck more than three decades later: Touch it once. If you open an email, don’t close it and set it aside, stew on it, reopen later, close it – no, deal with whatever is being asked once so you won’t have to touch it again (theoretically). This works for phone calls, memos, letters, meetings and email in about 95 percent of the cases and really streamlines your day.

Follow up: Of course, not everything can be dealt with in a few keystrokes. Develop a system that works for you to manage emails that need follow up. Mine is two-fold: I leave opened messages needing additional attention in my in-box. I also jot down larger items on my physical to-do list, which sits at the left of my keyboard. This wouldn’t work for my husband, who has more than 3,796 messages in his in-box and fumes when his IT team gently encourage him to pare down.

Read in reverse: I have a good friend and client who plunges into his in-box haphazardly, reading whatever catches his eye first. If he just started with the most recent first, he’d be a lot better off – and so would his recipients. I love Outlook’s accordion feature, which lets me see all the emails in a string. That way I can often see the solution to the issue before I actually get to the problem.

Reply all – or don’t: I’m consistently perplexed by people who don’t understand when to hit reply all – or when not to. Sometimes the function can be a cudgel, wielded to shame the recipient and wag a tsk-tsking finger. Avoid those – and avoid the temptation of those. In our case, though, Reply all ensures the entire client team is aware of what’s being said. We often have clients who drop off one or more of the team needlessly. It simply requires us to add folks back on and get them up to speed. Perhaps reply all is a fine art, but it shouldn’t be difficult: Assess who needs to know, keep them on the string, doublecheck before you hit send and you’re done.

Delete-delete-delete: Don’t feel you need to reply to everything. If an issue was hashed out, settled and finished days ago, feel free to hit the delete key without responding.

A special thanks to those who knew I was out of the office or saw my message and refrained from loading me up on email. I particularly appreciate it when I don’t come back to dozens of “I knew you were out but wanted to add these 10 things to your to-do list. Welcome back! I need them tomorrow.”

Only 447 emails left to go.


3 thoughts on “Managing post-vacation email without ruining a Monday”

  1. Robin Keith says:

    So happy you were actually able to unplug for a few days! Love this post…

    1. Mary Ann says:

      Thanks, Robin. It’s so great to have such a fabulous team to keep all the plates spinning.

  2. Mary Helmic says:

    Enjoyed both your humor and the sage advice! Thank you Mary Ann.

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