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.


Need some long-term downtime? (And secretly want to say 'no' to everyone?)

You’ve heard of FOMO. (Fear Of Missing Out, if you haven’t.)

You’ve heard of JOMO. (Joy Of Missing Out, if you haven’t.)

Well, I’ve just coined MOOP. (Missing Out On Purpose.)

There’s no fear in it, there’s probably not even much joy in it, but my god, there’s a whole hell of a lot of RELIEF in it.

It’s a pause button for everything—every obligation, relationship, task, event, chore, you name it.

When you’re MOOP-ing, you can respond with a friendly, “No, thanks!” to everything simply because, “I’m not adding anything to my calendar right now.” Or, “I’m not taking on anything new at the moment.”

MOOP-ing requires no explanation.

It stands on its own.

It’s something like a calendar status.

(Seriously, imagine if your calendar just stopped accepting new events for, say, an entire month or two. Like, it isn’t even your choice so much as it’s the calendar saying, “Nuh uh, no more, I’m too full.” What would you tell people? “My calendar isn’t working right now, so I’d better decline for the time being.” Brilliant.)

If you need some downtime—far and beyond the standard out-of-office-for-a-week-or-two level of downtime—try MOOP-ing for the foreseeable future.

Sure, some folks will get their feathers ruffled over it. (Loving family members won’t. Truly good friends won’t. You most loyal clients probably won’t.) But they’ll survive. So will you. And everyone will move on eventually. Only you’ll be in better shape to do so because you MOOP-ed when you felt like MOOP-ing.

This isn’t a Dr. Seuss book, I promise.

It’s a real bid for you to see that you don’t have to do anything. Not truly.

I mean, aside from breathing, sleeping, eating, and drinking water, anything we think we have to do is actually only a thing we might want to do if we don’t like the consequences of not doing it.

An example for you: showing up to your job. You don’t have to do it. You’re not actually compelled to do it in the way you’re compelled to consume calories for survival.

However, not showing up to work comes with consequences. One of those might be losing your job and therefore losing your source of income. If you’re not keen for that to happen (and who would be?!), you’ll show up to work every day you’re expected to.

But let’s be clear: It’s not because you have to; it’s because the consequences of not doing it are undesirable to you.

Anyway, the upshot here is to experiment every once in a while with missing out on purpose. Especially if you finding yourself wincing at every request or invitation that comes down the pipeline. It’s a small shift I’ve suggested to clients who will tell you they’re the better for it.

Because after all, no one likes to hang out with someone who doesn’t actually want to be there; no one wants to hear bitter complaints from someone who said ‘yes’ when she wished she said ‘no’; no one will advocate for your time and energy like you can…

So, do it.

Self-advocate.

MOOP, and see what happens (if anything—there’s a chance no one will even notice).

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.

Prioritizing, part two

Okay, so, since last week, I've done some fine-tuning of my sticky note method, and here's what I have to share:

1. Color coding. It helps! So do mnemonics.

  • I'm using blue for commitments and agreements, and also for business-related tasks that are important to my overall mission and to developing my work.

  • Green is for anything that is, or might become, a source of income. This makes it really easy for me to spot the activities I need to focus on during whatever hours I've dedicated to work. Money is green and so are the to-do items associated with it!

  • Social correspondence and connection, essentially everything that falls in the personal realm of my life, is pink.

  • The days of the week get orange, but that's only because it was the last color left in the four-pack I had on hand. ;-)

2. Once complete, tasks are plucked from their assigned spots and stacked in the lower corner; at the end of the day, they get moved to the trash.

Currently, I'm using a glass window as my board for arranging and rearranging the sticky notes (fingerprints and smudges abound!).

I like to keep the completed tasks up on the window until the end of the day, because then I'm able to track how much I actually accomplished. Otherwise, it'd be all too easy for me to whine, "I got barely anything done today!" because #chronicoverachiever and #victimoftime. I'd much rather have hard, irrefutable data that allows me to assess how ambitious I was at the start of my day and whether or not my strategy was solid enough to achieve those ambitions (and, also, I'd rather be a #timewarrior).

So, each completed sticky gets stuck to the previously completed sticky until I have a nice little chunk of stickies in the lower corner of my office window.

Right before I sign off for the day, I review the chunk (as well as whatever I didn't get around to) before tossing it in the trash can and situating the following day's tasks.

3. A sticky note that keeps moving from one day to the next is probably a sticky note that needs breaking down into its smaller components.

I'm finding that there's two sticky notes that have covered some serious territory on my window—traveling from Monday to Friday and back again. What does this tell me? I put too big a task on the sticky note and need to determine what mini-steps I can take toward it each day (and create sticky notes for each of those mini-steps), rather than hoping the overarching task will somehow transform into something that's easier or more doable to tackle tomorrow.

And there you have it. Those are my three biggest takeaways from almost two weeks of using this particular self-devised time-chunking method.

Thoughts? Questions? Best practices? Keep 'em coming—I'm learning a lot from your emails.

Prioritizing doesn't have to be so hard!

You want to take action, you want to dive in and complete something on your list (because it's gotten really old, really fast, to keep dragging the same tasks from one day to the next on your Trello calendar or in your bullet journal or wherever you keep track of what needs doing).

You know that once you kick it into gear, very often something becomes somethings nearly effortlessly, so it's really just a matter of starting.

But you haven't got a clue how to prioritize when everything feels urgent or when the list is so long, it feels impossible to discern what's urgent and what isn't.

This cluelessness has a big impact. It means you're either 1. starting by tackling some arbitrary task that isn't necessarily important in the big picture of what you want to do with your life, or 2. not starting at all.

A few of you have reached out and posed some iteration of this concern.

And while I can't promise to know your right answer, I can certainly share what's working for me at the moment.

If you're in the clueless camp, my hope is that you'll take my method and make it your own.

First of all, I don't believe prioritizing has to be hard. I even think it can be fun (and enlightening!) to move things around until there's some resonance in the arrangement.

Yesterday on Instagram, I mentioned a new time-chunking method I'm using that involves sticky notes. Lots and lots of sticky notes. Here's what I'm doing, using the 1.5 x 2 inch size in a variety of electric colors:

1. I take my time to think of All The Things that are crowding my mind and I write them on sticky notes.

This is perfect for those days when I arrive at my desk without a plan, but with what feels like an overwhelming list of things that need my attention.

2. I assign just one task per sticky note.

'Answer emails' is not one task.

'Reply to Emily' is. 'Reply to Sarah' is another. 'Reply to group message with availability,' and so on.

One per sticky, no exceptions.

3. I arrange the sticky notes based on a hierarchy of two questions.

Once I've gotten down everything that's top of mind and my desk's surface is covered in neon tiles, I ask myself two quick questions that help me to get clear on what actually needs to get done today. I rearrange the tiles accordingly.

Now, my two questions are particular to me, as a married and self-employed woman without children. Yours might be really different based on the particulars of your life. There's no shame in whatever your guiding questions might be; the important thing is to be honest with yourself about your overarching goals for this season of your life.

  • Do I have a commitment to or an agreement with someone to do something here?

    For me, this might mean my husband and I agreed I'd call for an electrician first thing; it might mean I've a paying client who emailed me in a tizzy the night before and requires a reply; it might mean today is the first day of a self-care commitment, and I need to get outside for an early morning walk. It helps me to first consider my commitments and agreements, and then to make sure those sticky notes get moved to the top for immediate attention. Even as a particular relationship is important to me, if there are no explicit agreements in place, I set aside its associated tasks for later. (Note the difference between agreements and expectations; someone might expect you to reply to an email or might desire a returned phone call, but there's no explicit commitment on your part to do so. Here's a fantastic article on this exact distinction.)

  • Is this, or might it become, a source of income?

    Because I'm self-employed, my priority throughout the work week must be growing my business. As much as I adore being in touch with family and friends on a regular basis (and need to be in touch with them in order to have a meaningful life!), I don't allow my personal life to outrank business-generating activities when I've got myself on the clock. This means that all those sticky notes that are decidedly personal in nature get moved to the bottom.

4. I create header sticky notes (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and so on) and then I distribute the individual sticky notes that didn't make the cut as commitments/agreements or sources of income.

I only concern myself with Monday through Friday because this system is about managing my work week as someone whose personal and professional lives intersect quite a bit; your needs might be different. It's worth noting that I don't distribute these remaining tasks arbitrarily; I rank them based on nature of relationship, urgency of request, and order received.

If this sounds heartless (spelled out, it strikes me as being a bit more matter-of-fact than I've ever actually copped to being), I suspect it's because there's a distinct discomfort around not operating from a place of accommodation (at least for some of us; fellow people-pleasers, I'm looking at you).

Having a system that acknowledges the fullness of my life and doesn't have me chained me to my inbox until bedtime is crucial for me.

So, if you're clueless, start here. Tweak as necessary. Report back.

If you have a system that beats mine in spades, don't hold out on us. Share!

And finally, hit me with any questions you have about time management, taking action, prioritizing, or starting and/or completing your Big Thing. I always answer, and I may even feature our Q&A in this space (provided I have your permission, of course).