What to do when your email problem feels...bigger

One of you replied to me last week, letting me know that my 25-minutes-at-a-time tip for conquering unanswered emails was helpful—but it didn’t quite get to the core of your problem. You wrote: “My struggle with emails is not that I need to answer them, but there’s something in them I need to do. Follow up on, read, watch. And that takes longer than the 25 minutes.”

Gaah, of course!

I’ve been there—in fact, I’m right there with you most every day I open my inbox—but it hadn’t occurred to me until your note that that was the worthwhile thing to look at, from a strategic coaching perspective.

What’s the best way to handle those emails that require some action on your part?

If you work in an organization with others, it might be that someone’s asked you to do something, and then get back to her on it—and you know you’ll need to set aside a good chunk of time to do the task, a chunk of time that doesn’t exist on your calendar at the moment.

If it’s your personal inbox, maybe you’ve received a newsletter that references a podcast that sounds interesting—one that you’d like to give a listen to, but can’t make the time for right now because it just isn’t your priority.

If you run your own business, perhaps it’s a colleague’s email that announces an interview she gave with some big-time blogger; of course you want to read it, you even want to leave a comment on the post to show your support, but today’s to-do list doesn’t include such an activity. (Come to think of it, tomorrow’s and the next day’s don’t either. You simply don’t have a to-do list for these types of activities, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important to you.)

So, then, it’s these types of emails that tend to sit around and clog up your inbox. What’s the handy rule or trick to apply to them?

I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all approach (if only I had one!), but I can give you two sensible options based on my own experience and my work with clients on this very subject:

1. Go non-linear. From Steve Chandler’s Time Warrior, one of my favorite personal development books of all time:

Non-linear time management is a commitment to action in the present moment. It's looking at a task and choosing NOW or not now. If it's not now, it's got to be NEVER, or placed in a time capsule that has a spot on the calendar and therefore is out of the mind. The mind must remain clear and empty of all future considerations. All fear comes from picturing the future. Putting things off increases that fear. Soon we are nothing but heavy minds weighing down on weary brains. Too much future will do that. Only a warrior's approach will solve this. A warrior takes his sword to the future. A warrior also takes his sword to all circumstances that don't allow him to fully focus.

Okay, what does this mean when it comes to our inboxes?

Well, for starters, I’d say it means you have to make decisions when you’re inside your inbox. Become a ruthless decision-maker.

Will you handle this email right now?

Yes? Perfect. Do it and be done with it.

No? That’s great, too. Click over to your calendar and create a spot on the calendar for dealing with it, specifically.

You might decide to carve out an hour every week wherein you tie up the loose ends of your inbox, all at once; perhaps instead of every week, it becomes a biweekly thing (because let’s be realistic here). A recurring event on your calendar that’s titled, “LOOSE ENDS,” and in the description for the event, you make a list of the email subject lines that you’ve flagged as needing your attention at this specific later date.

Regardless, the idea here is NOW or NOT NOW. It’s an empowered vertical move instead of a horizontal one that says you have to respond to things as they come up, no matter if they derail your greater priorities for your life.

2. Catch and release. Now, this is a decidedly less organized technique than Steve’s suggestion to go non-linear, but I know for a fact that it can work for the right people. If the idea of assigning a date to everything makes your skin crawl, 1. that sounds like resistance and would probably be very interesting, and I dare say fun, to explore in a coaching conversation together, but 2. I get it, and would recommend experimenting with the following:

Start to keep a sticky note list (I use Google Keep personally, but if you want to go analog with this one, knock yourself out) of the stuff you want to scope out and will scope out when you find yourself in-between projects, needing a break from whatever’s in front of you, or at a loss as to what you ought to be doing next with your time.

This approach works best for articles to read and podcasts to listen to; it absolutely doesn’t work for tasks that have someone else waiting on you.

To give you a specific example, I’ve got a Keep list that’s titled, Books to Check Out the Next Time I’m At the Library. I add to this list whenever I see mention of a book that interests me immediately, but that I’ve no time or bandwidth to research in the moment.

As for podcasts, if it’s something new that I know I want to listen to, at least give it a try, I’ll open up the Podcast app and subscribe right away, in the moment (so, this is a little bit of Steve’s approach blended in). This way, the next time I’m out in the garden or heading out for a walk and I open up the app, I’m greeted with a visual reminder that there’s something new I want to experience.

Another Keep list you might create? Resources to Explore Instead of Scrolling Instagram. On it might be that friend’s interview with the big-time blogger or an interesting-sounding article that someone mentioned in her newsletter, but that you couldn’t stop to read in its entirety at the time. Maybe these are things you’d like to give your time to instead of the mindless scrolling while your waiting for the dental hygienist to call you back.

And if they’re not? If you find that you’d rather just have a zone-out moment with Instagram? That’s okay. Simply recognize that the enthusiasm you have for some new resource might have a natural half-life. It might be a rabbit hole that, if you don’t or can’t allow yourself to go down in the moment, won’t ever be as compelling to you as your usual apps and decompression outlets. And that’s okay! It can come off your list!

So, there you have it. Those are my two big recommendations for those of us who find ourselves with a backlog of emails that aren’t being dealt with because of something bigger than procrastination.

If you find yourself with a ton of unanswered correspondence, I’d suggest first that you separate out what’s what: Which emails can you conquer using my 25-minute egg timer method and which have an embedded action or interest that needs to be handled before they can be filed? Deal with the quick-but-delayed responses first (25 minutes is nothing! And you’ll feel better by the end of it), then crack open your calendar and pull up your Google Keep, and get to assigning a home for everything.

Have a better method, or one that’s totally unexpected and wildly helpful? I’m all ears! Share it with us in the comments below, and let’s learn something from each other.


Struggling to manage your inbox? (And need a better way?)

Do you ever feel as though you’re barely staying on top of your email correspondence, let alone your text messages, Instagram direct messages, Facebook private messages, etc.?

I know I do.

And maybe I’m a bit of an outlier, but I’m partial to having one inbox that I open only when I’ve got the bandwidth to make decisions and take action in it.

Back in college, there was a poetry professor who was known for refusing to use email. Even as Goucher announced that email was the official form of communication for the college (this was circa 2001), this particular professor just didn’t want to get on board.

Suffice it to say, I bet she’s using email now.

The thing is, we can put all kinds of boundaries in place around our time and attention, whom we allow to access it and when, but the truth of the matter is: There’s got to be a better way of coping than to just shut it down completely.

(Though, between you and me: I do have fantasies of developing an app that creates out-of-office messages for every imaginable account, so I don’t leave anyone hanging, but also don’t have to remember to check and reply within so many damn inboxes!)

Inboxes aren’t going away. Not anytime soon, at least.

And your current read-but-don’t-reply-for-a-week (-or-more) method doesn’t sound particularly empowering.

It sounds like it takes a lot of energy…with very little reward.

You read through your emails and get everyone’s bids (requests for feedback, for time to chat, for favors, for attention in the form of a simple ‘hello’) on your mind, but if you don’t have the actual time or mental bandwidth to answer them right then and there, when you opened the email in the first place, you wind up carrying the weight of those bids forward…with no designated time to set them down.

Sounds heavy.

And oddly time-consuming, even though the whole thing was that you didn’t have time to reply to the emails in the same moment in which you opened them.

It’s time for a new way.

This new way is simple as all get-out. No fancy systems for filing or categorizing emails. No alerts. No extra time needed.

What I propose is this:

An email doesn’t get opened unless it’s going to be dealt with (i.e. answered, filed, or deleted) right then, in that very moment.

If you don’t have the time or bandwidth to make decisions (i.e. to answer, file, or delete your emails), you don’t have the time or bandwidth to be in your email inbox.

Close it. Walk away. Do something (or nothing) else.

But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t do that halfway thing where you open All The Emails and allow all those requests to pile up in your mind—and then you try to move on to the next thing on your list.

It just doesn’t work. You’ve now tied up psychic energy in an unfinished thing, which is an everyday masochism that can absolutely be avoided.

Now, what this might mean is that on a given day, you’ve got 70 unread emails in your inbox, all of varying importance, and perhaps that stirs up some overwhelm or panic.

If that happens, take a deep breath.

Find yourself ten minutes of nothingness at some point today.

Climb into your inbox and scan that list of 70 unread messages. Are you pretty sure some of those messages are more important—or even actually urgent—than others? Great, start with the most important-seeming one of those.

Open it, read it, and make a decision.

If you need more time to get the sender a proper answer or to make an informed decision, type that. I mean it! Literally, type: “Hi, [insert name]. I’ve got to do a little research before I can get back to you on this. Will be back with you [insert date and/or time].”

DONE.

Now, before you even think about opening another email (DON’T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT IT), complete that necessary bit of research (or create an event on your calendar at which time you’ll absolutely do it) and get back to the person who’s now waiting on your reply.

You have every permission to answer your emails out of order; regardless of when someone sent you a message, it’s within your rights to prioritize other, received-later messages.

You get to be the master of your inbox. The conductor. The air traffic controller.

What you need to stop doing, however, is disempowering yourself by reading every single thing that comes through with no plan for when you’ll actually finish the task by answering each message. That’s a time and energy suck.

It’s either NOW or NOT NOW. And if it’s NOT NOW, make a date with yourself to do it, or decide you simply won’t do it, ever—then get it off your list.