Back to work? Follow these hacks to get your emails under control

by Larissa Ham

Nothing says “welcome back to work” like hundreds – or even thousands – of emails demanding your attention.

But there’s no need to let that mountain of email crush your holiday vibes on the first day back.

Curb the horror of the post-leave work email inbox.

We asked two productivity experts to share their secrets on keeping the email beast under control – not only after a break, but all year-round.

  1. Keep your auto-responder on

Sure, you may no longer be out of the office (or away from your dining table desk), but that doesn’t mean you can’t use an automated message to help you get on top of things, says Lauren Stratford, of Seriously Sorted.

“Sometimes I will put an auto responder on to say ‘thanks for your email, this is my first week back and I’m endeavouring to get through my emails within ‘X’ amount of hours’,” Stratford says.

An automated response throughout the year – perhaps detailing email turnaround times or providing a link to a frequently asked questions page – may also help lighten the load, she says.

  1. Give yourself time

Wendy Cole, of iMastery, says the first day back will ideally be free of commitments or deadlines so you can tackle your inbox, write to-do lists and catch up informally with your colleagues and others.

Cole recommends the Pomodoro Technique of working in 25-minute sprints, interspersed with short breaks.

“Assuming there are more than 100 emails in the inbox, I would do four 25-minute sprints – but it might take longer, depending on how long you’ve been away for.”

To help battle the post-holiday blues, she suggests setting yourself rewards for completing tasks and think to yourself: “how good will it feel to have that sense of outer order?”

  1. Switch your email to offline

Working offline will help you focus on clearing that inbox, says Cole.

“You don’t want new emails coming in because that’s going to be distracting and potentially deflating,” she says.

You can still respond to emails as part of the clean-up process – they’ll just be parked in your outbox until you switch your email back to online.

  1. How to sift through the heap

The natural inclination might be to read emails chronologically, says Stratford.

“Whereas when I come back from leave the thing I do first usually is either view by sender, so that I can find my boss’ emails and my important colleagues first and triage them that way,” she says.

 “Or filter by conversation or subject line, so that if you’ve been away for a while and there’s emails flying back and forth on one subject, you can see the nice compact string of emails in one go.”

Delete, delete, delete

Cole says when dealing with a large backlog, the aim should be to delete what you can as swiftly as possible.

“So if there’s things there older than a month, I wouldn’t even process them,” says Cole, who might instead quickly flick them to a folder titled ‘old emails’ or ‘filing cabinet’.

Viewing emails by sender will also allow you to delete any newsletters, articles or advertising you don’t need.

Actioning your emails

Cole recommends sorting the remaining emails into three ‘buckets’: things that need actioning, those that need reading, and personal emails.

“Some managers receive a lot of cc’d emails, so you could also add a fourth bucket,” she says.

Then it’s time to apply a system she calls the ‘Four Ds’: delete, do the work, delegate, or defer it to the to-do list.

 Other tips for a well-organised inbox, from Seriously Sorted

  1. Unsubscribe to newsletters in bulk with me
  2. Use Calendlyor Acuity Scheduling to organise meetings with people outside your organisation (rather than emailing back and forth)
  3. Create a template for replies, which can be easily personalised
  4. Set expectations by only sending emails within business hours (you can always write them out of hours, and schedule)
  5. Employ a virtual assistant to help.