Three Inbox tips to Save You After a Break

We’ll be back having vacations soon; then these email tips will come in really helpful

Paolo Cuomo
Apr 2 · 5 min read
Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Whether you’re focused on inbox zero or simply want your mails ‘under control’ we all know that too many emails are a source of stress. This is all the more so after time away from work — whether for a day or week.

The problem in fact is not massively different if you’ve been off for three days, five, or ten. That’s actually because for most people in management roles over 50% of the emails they receive are in response to ones they send. If you’re not sending them you’re not receiving them. (That by the way feeds into the fallacy of ‘processing emails while away to keep them under control ’, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

When you do get back you’ll have an inbox with 50,100, 500, 1000 emails depending on your company, your role, the time of year, etc. You need a strategy before you panic.

1. Give yourself some time

Avoid people knowing that you’re back or ensure those who do are not immediately expecting a reply. How you do this will depend on your company culture and whether you’re in the same office as them. Ideas I’ve used include:

  • Having you OOO going a day longer than your vacation
  • Putting a new OOO “I’m back today and working through the backlog. I’ll revert asap”
  • Put a block in your calendar that sounds like an important meeting

2. Don’t reply yet

“That looks like a quick reply,” you think as the inbox pops open. “I deal with that one first”. STOP! No.

Your aim is to get your inbox under control.

Even if only 20 of the emails required a 15-30 minutes response that’s over a day’s work.

If you start responding then and there you will rapidly close out a few actions but you won’t have achieved your aim of getting the inbox under control. It will still be a source of stress at the end of the day and the relaxation of the vacation will already be evaporating.

Even worse, the moment you start to send replies then people will begin responding and new emails will start rushing in.

The trick, therefore — unless something is clearly time-critical — is:

Don’t respond to any of them until the clear up is done

So, with those two ground rules established, it’s time to get clearing.

3. Rapidly triage through sorting and searching

Your aim is to quickly get to a view of only those emails that are still important.

The efficiency is achieved by ensuring your mind is not leaping from Sandwich order to CEO update to Please review this strategy document to Last quarter’s sales figures.

Here are some steps. I do them this way, you may want to try a different order.

Sort by Subject

  • This does two things. It groups together similar emails — let’s say there is a daily “Status update” mail. You can see all in one go — and then simply delete/archive or if you must read them rapidly read them one after the other and then fail or hold on for action.
  • You can also e.g., see a daily newsletter that you do want to read but which can wait a few days. This can be pulled into the appropriate folder and out of the Inbox
  • The Subject view also groups together all the replies to a topic. You can quickly see which Subjects have multiple responses. A read of the first and the last lets you decide if there is any action for you, or if the whole lot can be archived

Sort by sender

  • Then re-sort. This time by Sender
  • As most emails from the same sender will be about similar things it lets you stay on-theme when reviewing.
  • (Some people do this step first to see the emails from their boss or their team.)

The above steps should already have significantly reduced emails by allowing you to rapidly, intuitively delete or achieve or move to relevant folders,

You’ll have your first sense of calm as you realize you have a chance of winning this battle!

Search by theme (optional step)

If you work on different projects and some of them have distinctive words you can use that as a search term. I once had a totally separate responsibility to my main role; I was put in charge of Sustainability. Only emails with Sustainability, Climate Change, or ESG would relate to that initiative. A search using those terms would offer up just those emails on that topic. I could then do a mini-version of both the above cleansing and the below 4Ds on that “focused inbox”.

Apply the Four Ds

  • With the inbox far more under control, I apply my variant of the 4Ds approach.
  • The original 4Ds are Do, Delegate, Delete or Defer. This is fine except the “Do” needs to be split into “Do immediately” or “Do straight after”. For the avoidance of doubt, “Do straight after” is different from “Defer”. Defer is things that can wait a day or two (or longer); “Do Straight After” is things that need to be done now but you know they’ll take more than a few minutes so you want to get the “Do immediately” first

So, apply the modified 4Ds

  • Delete. This is obvious, though I, and many others, actually archive instead of deleting in case it is needed at a future date
  • Defer. Follow how you do this normally with non-urgent emails, whether a different folder or the excellent but under-utilized Snooze option.
  • Delegate. You’ll be used to this but bear in mind Point 2 above. You don’t want people remembering you are back! I personally put any non-urgent delegation emails into the Drafts folder (once fully written) and send them later in the day.
  • Do Immediately. Do these, but where possible use the same Draft folder trick to avoid falling foul of Point 2.
  • Do Later. Once the other 4Ds are done you hopefully have time to move on to these.

Wham, bam! The Inbox is under control and you’ve still got some sense of relaxation left over from the break.

Now, time to start planning the next vacation….

Oh, and if you’re feeling *really brave* then you might actually switch off incoming mail for the first few hours to avoid new emails confusing you as you running through the sorting steps above.

Do let me know which aspects of this work for you once you have the opportunity to get away from the office for a bit!


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Paolo Cuomo

Written by

I write on two themes: 1. Working-from-home, achievable improvements & realistic productivity lifehacks. 2. Tech for sustainability and digital transformation


Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

Paolo Cuomo

Written by

I write on two themes: 1. Working-from-home, achievable improvements & realistic productivity lifehacks. 2. Tech for sustainability and digital transformation


Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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