Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Running Diary: 259 post-vacation emails

We've all been there: you take some time off and you come back to an avalanche of email. As you may know, I recently went on my annual vacation (last time I mention it, I promise 8)) and when I came back I had 259 emails to read. This Running Diary tells gives a rundown of how I reduced it to zero in about three hours.

The Goal

Every time I do this, the goal is the same: figure out what's important.

My biggest and constant fear in my work life is that somebody can't get their job done because they are waiting on me for some decision or crucial piece of information. Be a roadblock too often and it'll show on your performance evaluation in a bad, bad way. So, the key is to get down to what those things might be as quickly as possible.

When you have a lot of messages to go through, you can't really tell just at a glance what the most important thing is to look at. It's all just noise to you since you were just away overeating at the lunch buffet while steel drums echoed in the background and not at all thinking about your project load. As you'll see, my early efforts were just to try to reduce the list as much as possible. Then I moved on to sorting them using my usual system. Finally, I could get some real work done and began to take action on things. This post ends at that point, before I got into "take action" mode.

Receiving the swell

As I connected to my VPN and launched Outlook, I asked some friends over IM how many it would add up to. It is a hard thing to predict, really. I'd only missed 4 US work days because I was gone the week of Thanksgiving, but those pesky Europeans insist on working when we're fattening up on pumpkin pie and watching the Detroit Lions and/or Dallas Cowboys (or, if you are my cousin Bill, switching to the Twilight Zone marathon on KTLA when nobody's looking). My friend Sam had the highest guess at 500, but it came in at 259.

I expected it to be more, a lot more actually. A number so large that it would impress you all at how important I am, but I guess nobody is as important as they think they are. I feel kinda wimpy it was that few, but I'll get over it.

At any rate, I started with 259 and, as a devoted Getting Things Done convert I had 3 existing items on my Actions list with another 13 in Waiting when I began my journey.

From 259 to 154 in 30 minutes

This trip was unusual because I was coming back on a Monday morning instead of an evening, so it was possible that I had meetings that afternoon to attend. That skewed my usual vacation return email reading process, which this time started by sorting the messages in Outlook so that meeting invitations were grouped together.

After accepting/declining/tentative each of those, I sorted by sender which is usually my first step. Although most of my junk email goes to my gmail account now from the likes of Ballard Designs or The Gap, I still get some of those and wasn't interested in any of them. Those all get deleted and I'll be missing my 20% off coupon.

Finally, I left two days before a rather important project milestone, so I next sorted by importance (gotta love that little red ! that Outlook uses to denote important messages). I asked those working on the project in my absence to flag things as urgent if they wanted me to see something first off when I returned.

What I realized is that you can't mark an email as urgent for a specific person on the distribution list (To or CC). Everybody gets it as urgent or everybody doesn't, there's no in between. It turned out that I had about a dozen urgent emails, but only one of them was urgent for me specifically.

And with that, I was about 1/3 done already. I invoked my inner Homer Simpson with a "Woo Hoo!"

Getting below 100 in the second half hour

Next, I made sure to recognize where my paycheck comes from. I sorted by sender again and looked for the messages from my boss. Most of those were FYI's and dutifully archived in the right subject folder, one went in Actions, and others were broadcasts that didn't pertain to me so I deleted them. Then, I sent her an email that summarized what I just saw from her and asked her if there was anything in particular she wanted me to look at first.

Since I pointed people to her in my out of office reply message, I figured she'd know if there was anything urgent that wasn't marked as such. Plus, I wanted her to know I was back and plowing through my inbox. Brownie points, definitely.

While I was waiting for a reply, I used my next trick of sorting by subject. At this point, I was pretty much trying to eliminate all the noise I could so I scanned the lists looking for the longest threads. The trick there is to read the last one in the thread first. Most of the time, it'll include all the parts of the other messages in it and that's what I was looking for at this stage.

I didn't actually read the emails I discovered this way looking for content. Instead, I read them to make sure all the information was captured in the last message. When I confirmed that, I deleted the other messages and reduced the number of messages I had to worry about and left the top one in the inbox to be processed later. It might have been important, it might not have been, but I just wanted to reduce the volume for now. This got me down to 89 messages by the time I got the reply from my boss.

The Long Tail of vacation email processing

Now, I was depressed. I'd exhausted all my dirty tricks for reducing the volume of messages I had to actually read and comprehend. The good news was that I'd received guidance from my boss for what topics to scan for first in subject lines. The bad news was there were still 89 things to read and people had begun to realize I was back and were sending me more messages. I totally felt like that juggler whose helpful assistant keeps throwing him more bowling pins before tossing in a chainsaw.

While I eliminated 170 messages in the first 60 minutes of this exercise (almost 3 per minute), I got through only 33 in the next half hour. This trend would continue as what I had left I had to spend a lot more time on than what I was able to more easily dismiss earlier.

I was in full GTD mode now. If a message was garbage (a rarity at this point) it got deleted. If it was an FYI, it got archived. If I could do something about a message in less than 2 minutes, I did it, otherwise it went in my growing Actions folder. I finish my second hour of this with 56 messages to go, a number that taunted me into consuming multiple Diet Pepsi Caramel Cream Jazz' in an attempt to maintain my sanity.

Finishing out and the final toll

My favorite line from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (the first book I read in high school that had swear words I wouldn't say in front of my mother) comes from the Chief where he swears that some days the second hand on the clock moves more slowly than on other days. That's what the next hour was like for those last 56 messages. I found I had to invent little games for myself to keep me going seeing as 48 hours earlier I was on Disney's private Caribbean beach with a snorkel in my mouth.

Sort by date and read the oldest one. Sort by sender and read the first one. Scan the list looking for a "z" or a "q" in the subject line. Clearly, by the end, the caffeine was beginning to wear off.

Eventually, I reached pay dirt. Zero messages in my inbox! Somewhere, David Allen was smiling.

When I started, I had 3 existing items on my Actions list with another 13 in Waiting. When I was done three hours later, I still had 13 in Waiting (some got done by folks when I was gone, but I had others come up during the email processing) but 20 in Actions, which made me wince. That would grow to a horrifying 26 by mid day on Tuesday before I got a handle on it, bringing it below 5 by the time the sun went down on Wednesday. I'm back into the flow now, but would still rather be on that beach thinking about the lunch buffet on the cruise ship.

Sigh, there's always next year.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 8:16 AM   1 comments


At 10:05 AM, Blogger Liz said...

coming home from vacation is always rough! It took me at least a week to get back into the swing of things after our vacation in Mexico in October. At least you and your family had a fabulous time!



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