This year, I did vacation differently. Instead of an action packed week of exploring a new location with the family, we rented a house with a pool and only left to grab food, or a pool floaty. It was magical. As much as I loved lazy mornings sipping coffee on the patio, and sunny afternoons watching the kids swim, vacation ended and it was time to get back into action. My normal flight routine is getting everyone settled with movies and snacks, then zone out on e-mail. It works beautifully on the flight to our vacation destination. But on the way home, I decided to watch a movie, and color with my daughter instead. It was a great way to re-enter real life.
And once I was back home, after a a day of laundry and grocery shopping, it was time to finally face the e-mail inbox. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different methods for large batch e-mail processing. Sometimes it’s just a long weekend away and I am overwhelmed on Monday morning by the amount of items that need my attention and I have just minutes between meetings to attend to them. Other times, I’ve been away a week and I can get caught up in 2 hours.
As I mentioned in Preparing for a REAL Vacation, I’ve learned that setting aside re-entry time is critical. Because of some unfortunately scheduling, my 2 hour re-entry block I had scheduled was sliced in half due to an urgent meeting, so I decided to use some weekend time to make a dent in the pile. Here’s my processes:
Grab water, a pack of sticky notes and my planner or notebook so you can make a plan for the week, and a timer. I don’t want my whole day devoted to e-mail, so I’m going to limit myself to two 30 min processing sessions, and then I’ll have my re-entry hour tomorrow for what’s left.
Process the e-mail
There’s a few steps that I cover in my Inbox Zero class for post vacation processing that are so simple, yet get skipped all the time.
1) Check for sharks. Sometimes e-mails flow in during vacation that need immediate attention upon return. Before beginning processing, I do a quick review of anything that comes from my workplace VIPs as well as look at anything marked urgent. I tend to these right away since they are my highest and most urgent priority.
2) Take it from the top. After tending to these priority e-mails, I start processing e-mail at the top of my primary inbox. You can always scroll down if you need more context, but any issue that popped up in the beginning of vacation is likely resolved to some degree by now, so you might as well learn the latest, and then dig into the details as needed. If you have a secondary inbox (in Outlook I have a “focus” and “other” inbox by default), do this AFTER you complete the processing of your primary inbox.
3) Read or delete. For each e-mail I click, I make an immediate decision – delete it or read it. For all those awful cold e-mails asking for 15 min zooms to talk about the latest software, delete it! Newsletter from the trade association? Delete. Industry news recaps that are a week old? Delete. Daily performance summaries from a week ago? Delete. You do want to get caught up on what’s been happening, but you can start with the most recent e-mails and dig into the dashboards before reconnecting with people who kept everything running during your absence.
4) Take action. For each e-mail I DID decide to read and not delete, I have just 3 actions I need to take: Do, Defer, Delegate.
Do it – Can you respond in 2 minutes or less? Then do it now and delete the e-mail (or save it). Going to take more time? Then defer it.
Defer – you’re going to intentionally capture the action you need to take and get it on your schedule or your Kanban board. Need to talk to someone about an issue that happened while you were out? Add it to your check-in agenda. Need to create a PowerPoint deck for an upcoming meeting? Schedule time right now to work on it.
OR if it’s just one of those e-mails that’s going to take some time – flag it, and move on, that’s what the reentry time is for when you’re back in the office.
Delegate – Not every e-mail needs you, it may require the help of a team member or be information that needs to be shared. This can be as simple as a forward with FYI if it’s informational or a reply with a loop in. Once you forward it, delete it or file it. If you have a situation where you need to ensure a timely reply, leave it in your inbox. Why? Because you need to invest more energy in this later on. You’re not done, and if you stick it in a file, you’ll lose it. We’re humans with a lot on our minds, and you don’t need one more thing to remember.
I used to use of “follow up file”, and when e-mail volumes were low and response times didn’t need to be as quick, this worked well when I put it into my weekly schedule. In my current role, it’s easier to leave it “on my desk” so I see it and can take action. If it’s there in your inbox, you’ll touch it again the next time you process e-mail, and you’ll follow-up if you didn’t get a reply. This shouldn’t be the norm, but the exception. If your team has a culture of e-mail trust, that means you trust your team members to get back to you when you send them something.
5) Save it. Once an e-mail is acted upon or if it’s informational only, I move it to my save file.
I abandoned a complex file folder system years ago. The search functionality has improved to the point that I can find what I need via search much faster than scrolling a folder with just a few basic search techniques. Today, I have a single folder where I keep e-mails I may need to reference again beyond the life of the e-mail trash bin. I have it positioned in my favorites so it’s a quick drag over from the main inbox, and I use it for every project, initiative, etc. The only time I keep a separate folder is if I’m prepping for a new employee and need to save e-mail for them specifically. I also keep a kudos file. I drop in notes I might get that are complementary or appreciative of my work and make me feel amazing when I read them. I don’t often revisit it, but there are those days where reading a kind word is helpful.
Is the goal Inbox Zero? Not today, it’s about plugging back in after being unplugged during vacation. More e-mails will come in, and I want to make sure I’m feeling confident and in the know as I start the week, not stressed about hitting a number.
Do you have a vacation coming up? If you’ve committed to unplugging from e-mail, have you thought about your re-entry strategy? Now’s the perfect time try this process!