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Drowning - The 4 D's Of Swimming Through Emails

Updated on June 10, 2013

Drowning - The 4 D’s Of Swimming Through Emails

June 10, 2013

Winston Wayne Wilson


If you are like me, then you are probably waking up to an ocean of emails. Emails can be a familiar friend or a virulent foe. They can wisen up our minds or drown us from head to toe. Oftentimes, this love-hate relationship leaves us befuddled – we kind of want to see them gone but we wind up leaving them there because we just don’t have the time to figure out which ones should stay and which ones should go. Email is one case where “the more the merrier” does not apply. The sight of uncountable emails does not only demoralize us but they can harm our computers. Non-web based emails are stored on your hard drive; accordingly, the weight of the excess emails will slow your computer down.

I love information and, in the past, there was rarely an email in my inbox that I did not think contained information that was worth keeping, be it a good article, joke, quote, or piece of work-related data. I was the quintessential email hoarder. By 2005, I had become ineffective and unproductive because I was constantly wading through over five years of emails, wasting precious time and not getting enough work done. I was forced to take action – I had to learn to swim proficiently through the ever swelling ocean of emails or drown. It took me a full week to sort my emails and clear my inbox. Never wanting to get back to that point of overwhelm, I began to set aside uninterrupted time to address emails. For me, I now set aside about half an hour to check emails in the morning, sometime around lunch time and towards the end of the day. After work, I try to live an iPhone free life and I check emails only just a few times before I go to sleep. Irrespective of when you decide to tackle your emails, having a good filtering process is the key to keeping your inbox clear. Here are the four actions I now take with respect to filtering my emails:

  1. Delete immediately, do not respond. When it comes to handling emails, I pretend that I am a fireman who fights fires and rescues cats. When I look at an email, I ask myself, “Is this a fire or a cat”. If it’s neither, then the email does not warrant my immediate attention and it becomes eligible for immediate deletion. I refer to this process as “deleting daily diatribe”. This separation of the email wheat from the chaff helps me to quickly get a sense of how many emails I need to address. Emails that fall into the category of daily diatribe are ones on which I am included as part of a distribution and no response is required on my part or ones that are plain junk. I try to be diligent at immediately deleting unimportant emails. As I go through my emails, I tell myself that I am not a library or a repository, which helps me to not romanticize them. My goal is to have no emails left in my inbox by the end of each day. Most times I succeed. I sometimes use rules and other features in Outlook to automatically identify junk emails and put them in different folders. This also helps to keep my inbox visually less cluttered. Friends I know in HR, who feel that their roles require them to save more emails than the rest of us, have asked me what happens when I delete an email that I later realize was important. Well, for me that rarely happens. Nevertheless, when that occurs, I own up to my inadvertent deletion and politely ask the person to resend the email. I have been diligently deleting emails now for almost eight years and, so far, there have been no adverse repercussions. In the end, I would conclude that the rare risk of deleting an important email does not outweigh the benefit of staring at an empty inbox
  2. Deliver an immediate response. After scanning through my inbox and deleting the daily diatribe, I then focus my attention on the emails that specifically require me to respond with alacrity (i.e. fight a fire or rescue a cat). Since these are the most important emails I receive – my job, reputation, and raise depend on how I respond to them – they become my priority for the day. During the quiet time that I allocate for emails, I attempt to deliver an immediate response to as many of them as possible. After I deliver a response to an important email, I delete it. I understand that people save emails as a form of evidence in case a boss or a colleague accuses them of not responding. That’s fine on occasion. However, we have to be careful to not think that every email is important evidence; otherwise, we will be drowning in no time. If there is an important piece of information included in an email, I use the calendar feature of Outlook to create an event labeled “Important emails for the day”, and save important emails there. That way, I can do a key word search in my calendar if I need to get to them. You can use Outlook folders to store important emails but people tend to get overzealous with folders and that also becomes unmanageable. So I personally have no outlook folders to house emails. I empty everything. Before I go home each day, I at least ensure that there were no fires that I did not fight or cats that I did not rescue. As a fireman, if I don’t do that then I am not doing my job. You have to decide what are the critical deal breakers lurking in your inbox and make sure that you address them, or at least initiate some form of communication, especially if the sender is your boss or your client. We do not always have to respond to an email with an email. Making a quick phone call can sometimes eliminate the back and forth email chains that clutter our inboxes. I know emails are easy to fire off but sometimes we resolve more by making a quick phone call.
  3. Delay the response. When an email is important but I just cannot get to it immediately, or I need to do some more research, I will delay my response. Delaying a response can be risky because one has to remember to follow through. Since I actively use a to-do list, when I read an important email that requires me to do something before responding, I immediately add it to my to-do list. Sometimes, I will also pick a day in the future that I will respond to the email and put it in my Outlook calendar. I then send a quick email or make a quick phone call to acknowledge the person’s email and to let him or her know when I might respond. The key is to ensure that you do respond. Delayed responses become unfought fires and unrescued cats if we never get to them.
  4. Delegate the response to someone else. When I receive emails that are questions that someone else can more easily respond to, I immediately forward the emails to that person. These types of emails are tricky because many of us want to be the “go-to person” at work. Hence, the temptation is to sit at our desks and respond to every single question. The reality is that, even if we were Dear Abby, our job would not be to sit and respond to questions all day. Let someone else shoulder some of the responsibility. Who knows, it might also give the person an opportunity to shine. If the email requests tend to come from the same sources, I either create a rule in Outlook to forward the emails to my delegatee or I simply ask the senders to add my delegatee to the distribution list.

I hope these filtering tips will help you to at least start the process of keeping your inbox clear. The initial process of clearing your inbox requires an investment of time. However, it will be well worth the investment the first time you see a completely empty inbox. Enjoy your day.


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