E-mail Backlogs

When you come back from vacation, should you try to answer the backlog of non-urgent mail?

Stever Robbins
3-minute read
Episode #2


A reader writes:

When you come back from vacation, should you try to answer the backlog of non-urgent mail?

Welcome to the future. E-mail was going to make our lives heaven on earth and provide easy communication that would bring us closer to our loved ones. It did. Mom now sends us “funny” jokes daily. Ha ha. And she forwards chain letters from little boys dying of cancer who just need one more postcard to break the world record(*). Then the business world got e-mail. Spam was a problem for a while, but now it's our well-intentioned colleagues, clients, and customers filling our inbox, quietly selling us into e-mail slavery.

Email Overload

First, recognize that e-mail overload isn't your fault and doesn't mean you're a bad person. You don't control how much arrives each day. The more people know and respect you, the more you'll be flooded with e-mail. So be flattered, and then face the truth: it's just too much to deal with.

Save yourself by declaring a mini-e-mail bankruptcy for the week. Based on an idea by Lawrence Lessing of Wired Magazine, you delete it all. Then send a form letter to everyone who wrote saying, “My backlog was too big to manage. To cope, I've deleted everything. Please resend anything important.” If you're afraid you would seem less manly-man by admitting weakness, you can skip the reason and use flattery instead. “Your e-mails are so very important to me, would you be a dear and resend any important e-mail?” Of course, that has its own manly-man problems...

Delete Unread Email

You don't need your inbox to know what's important. Trust me, you'll already be thinking about your own hot issues. You can follow those up on your own. If someone else needs you badly, they'll call back when they don't hear from you. If you're like me, you have nightmares thinking of deleting unread e-mail. Shadowy e-mail headers dance through your dreams wailing, “How could you abandon me?” Get over it. Most of your e-mail just isn't that important. I'm a one-man shop, so I know what's important: about 5% of my e-mail brings in cash or helps me get work done. Everything else is free to be nuked.

What about non-work friends who e-mail? Simple. I read their messages but actually catch up by phone after work. You might be scared you'll insult people by not responding. Maybe, but maybe not. Everyone's inbox is overflowing and they'll often cut you slack. Everyone, that is, but your high-strung friend Bernice. Bernice will take your silence as a personal attack on her integrity, her choice in clothes, and her worth as a human being. If you spot a Bernice in your inbox, just reply. It's easier. Sometimes you don't know which of your friends is a neurotic time bomb, waiting to blow. If someone loses it because you ignored them, just apologize profusely, and be as gracious as possible. If this were a podcast on life balance (which it isn't), I'd suggest you drop them from your circle of friends, burn all photographs with their picture in it, and remove every record of their existence. Life is too short to deal with drama queen nonsense. Fortunately, this is a podcast on personal productivity, so I won't suggest that.

Mastering Email Overload Before it Happens

You can take steps before traveling so you won't have a backlog when you return. Some e-mail providers let you set a vacation message that gets sent to anyone who writes when you're away. Have your message say you're away, you're deleting everything when you return, and people should resend important messages when you return. Don't promise to read your backlog or get back to them later! You can't control whether your backlog will be manageable.

You can send e-mail and questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com. I try to respond, but it depends on my workload. Don't take it personally. ... Bernice, this means you.

*Craig Shergold, the little boy, is now fully cured at 27. He has received 350 million postcards, has his own zip code, and really wants people to stop with the postcards.


Lawrence Lessig on e-mail bankruptcy: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.08/howtodesk.html

E-mail overload test and article: http://www.steverrobbins.com/e-mailoverload

Mark Forster article in which he mentions autoresponder and re-sending e-mail: http://www.markforster.net/blog/2007/8/2/back-from-holiday.html

Craig Shergold story: http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/errata/a/craig_shergold.htm

Too Much Email image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.