Blog post

Extreme Email Triage

By Craig Roth | April 08, 2011 | 0 Comments


I’m back in the office after a few weeks off.  This is going to require some <cue dramatic brass music>Extreme Email Triage</music>.  This is a more extreme situation than daily email triage.  When you’re gone for a week or two there are whole threads that weave themselves into your inbox, fires that flared and then burned out, and assembly line techniques that wouldn’t be useful on a day-to-day basis.

First I benchmarked and did basic de-cluttering.  I had 411 new emails in my inbox to get through.  55 of them (13%) were quickly moved to folders since they were non-urgent and non-personal discussion threads for later reference.  97 of them (24%) were spam, including such totally inappropriate topics as “Weather Proof your Meeting In Aruba”, “Amazing whale-watching in South Africa”, and “San Francisco 49’ers to Support Hedge Funds Care Benefit.”  I’m not sure what these people think I do for a living.

I’m now working my way through the remainder using a variety of techniques.  I’m not a proponent of a specific organizational technique such as GTD or zero inbox.  What I do is probably a combination of them.  Here’s my approach and I’d be happy to hear any tips you have for Extreme Email Triage.

1. Time management

  • Set aside uninterrupted time
  • Scan calendar invites to make sure you’re not missing any meetings
  • If possible, work in stealth mode.  Don’t turn off your "out of office" message yet. Let your calendar show you as blocked.  Set presence to "busy".  Barricade your door or cube entrance.
  • Plan for “echo effect” – if you send many more messages than normal on your first day back, maybe a third of them will result in responses in a day or two, and a third of those you’ll need to respond to, etc.  It takes a while for the echoes to die out.

2. Firefighting – look for smoke, put out currently burning fires

  • Scan for high-priority items (red exclamation marks or chili peppers, seemingly personal important headings like "CRAIG: PLS READ", sender names that ring as very important to you)

3. Benchmarking

  • Note number of emails to be handled so you can measure your progress.  Let your gaming, competitive nature, or need to be productive get juiced up.
  • Plan for 1 minute per email and verify you’ve set aside enough time

4. De-clutter

  • Move non-inbox threads out of inbox en masse (discussions)
  • De-spam

5. Winnow down pile (using GTD, 60 second manager, zero inbox, roll the dice, or whatever methodology you like)

  • Cut through low hanging fruit quickly – do a pass of emails you can scan and delete/file/respond within 60 seconds to quickly winnow pile and flag the tougher ones for followup in the next step
  • Conversation view to find final decisions and help get up to speed quickly on threads you missed
  • Sort by sender to take care of, for example, all messages from your boss or all automated messages from a system (like expense account payments)

6. Handle tougher issues flagged in the step above. 

  • Be more likely to pick up the phone than usual – after the time out some contact would be good, and you may have missed meetings or decisions not represented in the emails.

7. What did you miss that isn’t in email?

  • The real point is to get back up to speed and in the loop at work, not to get your inbox down to a certain size or cross off a given number in an hour. 
  • Reconnect with peers and stakeholders, look through your tracking systems, reports, and repositories for  important stuff that happened that didn’t show up in email.They may have kept you out of the loop knowing you were out, or just didn’t think to email.

A few points of etiquette

  • Don’t feel the need to provide simplistic “OK”-type responses to emails that are "old" in your culture (more than 2 days for me)
  • Don’t apologize for being out for planned time off (with proper out of office notification and procedures for people to manage your work for you in your absence).  It’s not your "fault" and you’re not going to fix it in the future.  We’re all entitled to a break.

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