My strategy for dealing with email back-log

AtSo – as I blogged about yesterday, emails have been piling up in my inbox to the tune of 200 unanswered emails, some of them – I kid you not – from way back in Februrary.

I really wanted to get down to an empty inbox, but lately when I sat down at my computer to get it done… I didn’t. I looked at that mountain of mail, many of which I really should’ve responded to long ago and felt really bad about, and kinda gave up in advance.

And this is where I could choose between two approaches. There’s the “Just get it done” approach. This means ignoring how much it sucks and just doing it anyway. Knuckling under, putting my nose to the grindstone and my shoulder to the wheel and some other body part to some other part of machinery and answer those darn emails.

Or I could ask myself the following question: How can I make it fun? How can I answer those emails in a way that feels effortless and makes me happy?

Being the Chief Happiness Officer, I couldn’t really go for the former option so I was forced to try to make it fun. I asked for advice on the blog yesterday and got some really good input.

After thinking about it I designed a strategy – and got all of my emails answered in less than a day. That also includes the 50 or so emails that came in during the day.

So without further ado, here’s the strategy that worked for me:
1: Accept myself
First of all, I stopped wasting time berating myself for getting into this situation. If there’s one thing experience has taught me it’s that I’m the kinda person who lets a mess build and then cleans it all up at once.

I know that other people ar way more organized and get stuff done as they go (the bastards!) – but I’m just not one of them and I’m not going to waste time beating myself up over it.

I’m a lazy person – and this is not a problem, it’s a huge advantage.

2: Track and publish the number of unanswered emails
I published the number of unanswered emails and kept updating it during the day. This meant that I could see progress all the time. Your inbox looks pretty much the same with 100 emails in it as with 200. Keeping track of the number meant I knew I was getting results.

Also publishing the number kept me going a few times when I felt like quitting because I reminded myself how cool it would be to end the day with 0 unanswered emails – AND brag about it here :o)

3: Move tasks to my todo-list
But possibly the single most important thing I did was use my todo-list. If answering an email required me to perform a more serious task, I’d put the task on my todo-list and answer the email saying when I would get back with the actual information.

This allowed me to stay in the flow of answering emails, without getting sidetracked by writing documents etc.

4: Get out of the house

Laundromat Café

And of course I went to my favorite café. But I always do that when I need to get work done.

5: Use snippets
I also used a tip from Michiel Trimpe who suggested using email snippets that can easily be inserted into an email. Specifically, I used the following text a lot:

I apologize for taking so long to reply to your mail – I’ve been drowning in email lately :o)

6: Don’t be afraid to say no (Updated)
I almost forgot this one: Making sure to say no, when no is the answer. I get a lot of invitations, links, ideas, proposals, etc. Most of them are very good, but some are just not suitable for me.

I’ve been training myself to “just say no”. In a polite way, of course :o)

One tactic I considered, but didn’t use
I did think about declaring email bankruptcy as George suggested but I decided that would be cheating :o)

The upshot

The result of all of this was that I spent a nice, fun, productive day doing a task that I’d been dreading. A lot. For a long time.

The key, for me at least, is that I didn’t ask myself how I could get the job done the fastest or the most efficiently – my focus was on making it fun and pleasant. If I can do that, I know I can get the job done and I think that aspect is missing from most of the productivity systems and advice out there, which is focused entirely too much on the mechanics of productivity.

Make a task fun four yourself and you will be productive.

Your take

What about you? How do you take tasks you’ve been putting of for way too long and make them fun? I’m not talking about how you get them done – but how you do it so that you enjoy yourself? Got any great ideas? Please write a comment!


15 thoughts on “My strategy for dealing with email back-log”

  1. Alex, I am a Counselor, and I also work as Product Manager for a well known smartphone manufacturer: I don’t say the name of the company for reasons that will soon became apparent…

    My advice for dealing with email back log is actually a way to drastically reduce the number of emails coming to you in the first place: respond to email only when absolutely necessary.

    Unfortunately, each response usually creates another email. Now, I understand that you want to be polite, but if you find yourself drowning in email backlog there are some tough choices that needs to be taken ;)

    Last but not least, don’t purchase a push-mail smartphone if you don’t absolutely need one. Push-mail make emails grow exponentially, because you start using email almost like IM.

  2. One thing that saved my (email) life was Inbox Zero strategy.
    – I decide what to do with an email in 10-15 seconds.
    – If it requires any follow up action that will take me more than 30 seconds it stays in my inbox,
    – if it needs quick reply then I do it (and archive it)
    – if it is smth that I had to read/learn I read it (and archive it if it worth archiving)
    – if it smth that is not that important so I should keep it, then I delete it (and ultimately I delete a lot of stuff)

    And yes, it makes me happy :) and more productive too.


    PS. There is a great video on Inbox Zero at

    PS2. I use Gmail and Google Apps for Your Domain – they are my tools to implement the strategy…and work great

  3. Alex – good article and poignant for our ever busy times. Years ago I read a little “how to” book with regard to memos which went along the lines of read, reply, file, act later, delete (or something along these lines). I adopted this approach to my inbox and use my train commute in the morning to go through mails from the previous day (I work with a laptop), adopting the above approach.

    During the day I monitor my inbox and make a snap judjement as to whether I can leave a mail for the next morning on the train, or need to reply right away.

    An important part, as you pointed out, is giving yourself space to deal with more complex mails and making them into an action that you complete at a time convenient for you.

    I also use a homemade tool that helps me track and manage my actions in a more holistic way – it even has a diagnostic tool built into it that will give you a Steve Covey Urgent / Important snapshot to help you if you are feeling burnt out.

  4. I chronically have a full inbox at work, usually at least 60 items sometimes over 100, but never empty.

    Once, a couple of years ago my laptop did not sync with my work e-mail server properly and deleted every e-mail in my inbox. Not a single person ever asked my why I hadn’t responded or followed up on an issue. It was an eye opener on how (un)important most messages are.

    I don’t practice this as a normal technique, but I certainly don’t feel too guilty if I don’t get back to someone promptly.

  5. I also plan a day to answer all those email.But before I tackle those huge tasks, I make sure that I have a reward waiting to keep me motivated during the task.

  6. Marco: I see your point – but I do feel very impolite if I simply ignore emails. It’s the same with comments on the blog – I try to respond every single one.

    At some point this will become impossible because both are growing like crazy – but for now, it still works.

    Arkadiusz: That sounds like a great policy. I would add that if it requires complex action then move it to the todo-list and delete the email – that way your don’t split your task list between your todo-list and your inbox.

    Salv: That sounds like a great daily rhythm and also serves to timebox the time you spend answering emails. Nice!

    Adam: Great point. Many emails may look critical and important – but they can’t ALL be, right?

    Jean: That’s the key question – “How can I do it AND enjoy it”.

    Charlie: I like setting aside time for it, but I’m not crazy about rewards – they don’t tend to motivate me… But maybe that’s just me?

  7. This blog is so great! This post is phenomenal and very insightful.

    You have got something powerful going here. Keep it up! It’s helping people!

    Take care,

  8. It’s a wonderful strategy.
    Whenever I face something like unanswered emails, I also use those snippets for a faster response. It’s a great way of saving time.

  9. Alexander: You are right, only I do not use to-do lists. For me to do list is like full inbox – if something is critical/important I will do it anyway and ASAP. If it was not that important why keep it on the list and stress myself that I have so many items waiting for me? :) Do you know what I mean?

    And if you want to stick to do lists there is another strategy – why not email your to do item to your inbox. Then you still will work on your Inbox Zero strategy, you will get things done and still be happy :)


  10. Hi Alex :)

    I just read an article on this topic in the Danish news-paper ‘Berlingske Tiedende’. A journalist has solved her problem with the loaded inbox, and recommends a very simple, but apparently very effective system, called ‘The 3+3 system’. The whole point is to keep your inbox empty at anytime, and all you need to do is to add 3 folders to your mailbox, and name them:
    1. Do
    2. Do-Read
    3. Hold-to-Do

    In the first one you put all the emails that you’ll have to take action on as soon as you get the time (remember: never leave in the inbox – you’ll loose control!)

    In the second one, you put all the emails that does not need any action from you except from reading. The reading can be done later – whenever you have the time, e.g. during transport.

    In the third folder, you put all the emails that you have answered or sent yourself, and to which you are expecting some kind of further response. Until you have received that response, these emails doesn’t require any action from you, and thus they should be kept out of your mind. This folder can then be checked once or just a couple of times a week – just to follow up.

    You can read more about the system at

    I’ve just started using this myself – and after only 2 days – it seems to me that the system works pretty well :)

    Maybe you should try this – it won’t answer your emails for you, but it’ll categorize them in a way that makes them less stressful to deal with!

    Btw: you can read the Danish article here:

    Anne Hodal

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