The Overflowing Inbox

This week I wanted to look at a different type of e-mail best practice: managing your own inbox while you’re away.

I’m writing this three days into vacation. I had worked like crazy the entire week before vacation (as most of us do), trying to clean up everything that needed to be done while I was gone so I could enjoy my time off. This meant cleaning out my e-mail box, rescheduling meetings, and getting deliverables turned in, in advance. By the time I was on the road, I was pretty darn happy with myself and expected a smooth ride.

Three days later, I’m pleasantly surprised. Nothing major has blown up, meetings are taking place as needed, and the people covering for me are doing a fantastic job. I wish I could say the same for my poor e-mail inbox.

Just 72 hours into a break, I have 747 unread e-mail messages. This volume makes it almost impossible to scroll through to look for urgent messages to read. I took the time to sort them by sender to see who was spamming me. What I found was pretty interesting:

  • 217 of the messages (29 percent) were news-related: Google blog alerts, forum e-mail, industry daily e-mail, weekly recaps, and so on. These are things I usually delete upon receipt or scan for gossip (nope, I don’t read them all, but I don’t unsubscribe either). Since I work on a global basis, I need to scan all countries’ trade magazines, a big part of the reason this number is so high.
  • 187 of the messages (25 percent) are “reply to all” garbage messages we all wish we could stop. Do I really need to be cced on the e-mail that simply says “OK” that one person sent to 20 of us on the list? Better yet, do I really need to see the “np” reply back?
  • 63 of the messages (8 percent) are what I call intelligent ccs from my team or other team members. They’re keeping me in the loop about things I need to know when I return. This type of e-mail I enjoy reading.
  • The rest of the messages are too few to list but cover things such as vendor introductions, follow-up messages to last week’s meetings, internal company communications, new projects on the horizon, e-mail from family and friends, and a few other categories.
  • Unfortunately, in these small buckets of messages lie some of the most critical communications: “Your benefits program is changing,” “The RFP response date was changed,” “There’s a call tomorrow with the CEO.”

    So how can you control your own inbox when you’re not looming over it 24 hours a day? Here are some of the best tips I’ve found to be effective:

  • Use the rules system in your e-mail client. Most e-mail clients offer the ability to turn messages a different color if they’re from a certain name. This doesn’t help much on a BlackBerry, but it does help when you get to the desk.
  • Temporarily set up filters to send e-mail to different folders. This can be a bit tedious to set up the first time, but it does wonders in the future. Most e-mail clients allow you to set up rules that send messages from certain people to other folders. Take the time to send your trade and industry news to an “industry news” folder you can review later. That way, it’s out of the inbox.
  • Turn on your out-of-office message the day before you leave. I’ve done this in the past, and it works. People send e-mail at a normal pace the day your turn it on, but usually they take you off lists after that.
  • I don’t think these recommendations would permanently solve my incoming e-mail volume, but I bet they would have enabled me to have a less stressful scroll through the inbox upon return. One question still remains, though: how do you deal with the senseless “reply-to-alls”? If anyone has a good idea on this, I’d love to hear it.

    Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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