Tuesday, December 27, 2011

De-icing the Inbox (A Work-Related Email)

Every so often I get the opportunity to open the inbox wide and shine a flashlight back into the farthest corners. I would like to subscribe to zero-inbox but that's pretty much impossible.  It comes too quickly and soon I'm overwhelmed.  The closest I can get is triage - the simplest stuff gets handled first.  Urgent stuff as well, unless there's a tidal wave of responses, then I might sit on it for a little while to see what comes of it.  If I need to jump in, I will.  But if I can wait, I've found that some things resolve themselves without me (sometimes thanks to my crack team or my terrific colleagues and sometimes by the very people who started the crisis in the first place).  And sometimes, if I let people blow off steam, they forget about it.  If I jump back in to defend a position or in an attempt to extricate myself, that gives them a handhold and they clamp on and drag me down.  But if I ignore them, I can circle back later to find out if there's still an issue or if they're now cool.

But, some stuff just has a hard time rising to the surface.  Usually, they are the unknowns, the overly complex or the lower priority.  I started the day with about 175 of those and by the end had worked it down to about 80.  Of course, that means what's left is the most complex of the lot, but I've still got a few more days, mostly interrupted (love it when nearly everyone goes on vacation at the same time) to chip away at it.

The unknowns are the worst - usually it's a "review this document/powerpoint" or "check out this article" or "watch this video" - there's no indication of # of pages, slides, or article/video length.  And no pointers to suggest what I should do with said information, and nothing to suggest it's urgent.  I dealt with a lot of those today.  I read, responded, offered my thoughts, deleted and moved on.  I'm holding those emails to send at the end of the day Friday (most people are gone, but if any are here, there's no sense in giving them any reason to add more email to my inbox this week).

Next are the overly complex - the ones that ask for some thought or a million questions or multiple thoughts.  Or have a really large thread of related emails and attachments.  If they weren't urgent, they get mired down.  Call it "buffer overrun" if you want.  Worse yet when they have different subject lines or add and remove people and update information previously provided.  In times that those, I often will need to start a wiki page to start collecting the thoughts, making sure that the most up-to-date information and attachments are together and only then can I provide my response and input.  Sometimes the wiki will only be for me and may never be used again, but it allows me to read 10 or 20 emails, synthesize the point and the desired outcomes, make a single response (or a series of responses to split ideas into their own separate threads to make it easier on everyone.)

And then the lower priority - things marked "non-biz" or "this is funny!"

Of course, I'll get this cleaned up and then the cycle will start all over again.  Unless I can figure out how to delegate more and/or just reject more.
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