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Photo by Shawn P Thomas

“Conventional Wisdom” when it comes to vacations has two big problems:

  • People skip vacation altogether with the rationalization that it would just mean working twice as hard before and after, so it’s not worth it. (43% of Americans don’t take all of their vacation time, and Americans get less paid vacation than workers in any other industrialized nation.)
  • When people do take a vacation, they continue to check their email and/or other communication channels, so they don’t really “get away.”

Below are some tips for quickly and efficiently catching up on the messages you got while you were away, which will hopefully help eliminate both of the problems above.  If you need more evidence of why you should not only take a vacation, but also why you should completely unplug while you’re gone, check out this post and this post.

Drowning in Email

If you have thousands, or tens of thousands of messages in your inbox, here’s the first step I suggest you take:

  • Create a new email folder. Call it “Old Email to Process.”
  • Move everything from before your vacation (or everything before this week if you haven’t left yet) into this folder.

The idea is to get to zero (yes, zero.) Having an empty inbox is very freeing. Hundreds or thousands of messages in your email inbox is like an overflowing pile of unopened mail on your desk. You may think you aren’t worried about it, but there is part of your brain thinking “Anything important in there?” The bigger the “pile” gets, the more worry there is, even if that worry is tucked away in some part of your subconscious. So the goal here is to get to zero. You can address that folder later, as necessary.

Delete with Confidence

Next, make sure your Email Settings are programmed to send any items you delete into your Deleted Items folder, and that “Empty Deleted Items” (“Trash” if you’re using a Mac) is set to “Manually” or “Never.” (“Never” allows you to manually empty your trash whenever you feel it’s necessary, or permanently delete only what you want – like anything older than 6 months, for example.) These settings will allow you to feel comfortable to quickly hit the “delete” key, knowing it won’t really be gone, but they won’t be piled up in your inbox, subconsciously nagging at you, either.

Process Quickly

Here’s how to get through the remainder of your messages as quickly and efficiently as possible:

  • First pass: Sort by Subject. Because often there will be an entire conversation containing several or more messages about the same subject. For multiple messages with the same subject line, delete everything but the most recent one, and then (after taking all your “passes”) read that one from the bottom up. This will likely eliminate dozens of messages in just a minute or two.
  • Second pass: Sort by From. This will allow you to quickly delete (or file to read later) the newsletters, coupons, advertising, and any other junk or “robomail.” (Mail that isn’t from an actual person.)
  • Next: Sort by Date Received, and work from the oldest to the newest. This may be contrary to how you usually view your messages (newest to oldest) but when you’ve been out, think about who’s been waiting the longest for a reply. After the first two passes, odds are good that you cut the number of messages in half or better.
  • Lastly: When processing, resist the urge to “skim and skip.” Actually deal with each message, because it won’t get any easier if you leave it there to read again later. Most messages aren’t as big a deal as you initially think they will be, and it’s inefficient to view the same message over and over because of some psychological “I don’t feel like dealing with that right now” emotion.

Remember: you really need to unplug sometimes. These tips will get you caught up in no time when you do.

Thanks for reading! Have other ideas? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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