Learn how to let go of e-mails
By Julie Deardorff
By Julie Deardorff
If you sent me an e-mail while I was on vacation recently, my dependable out-of-office assistant told you to assume your note would not be read. Ever.
"Please try again when I return on Monday," I wrote in the auto-reply. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
Unfortunately, my message was a big, fat lie.
Several thousand e-mails arrived during my short absence. And though a blind and reckless purge would have done wonders for my mental health, I couldn't do it. What if I accidentally killed something good?
Currently, my in-box contains 1,169 messages; my stress level starts to rise at 500. It's no wonder vacations leave me feeling crabby, demoralized and anxious.
"Bits (of information) are heavy," wrote productivity guru Mark Hurst in "Bit Literacy" (Good Experience Press, $15), a guide to dealing with digital overload. "Just knowing that you have action items lingering in the in-box weighs you down, especially if you have a lot of e-mail, in which case you're not even sure what is in the inbox."
I've reached this level of futility primarily because I have what psychotherapists might call an irrational fear of loss: I'm terrified I'll permanently lose something important that I can't get back, even though research shows we never return to look at 90 percent of the stuff in our files, except to throw it out.
"There is really no piece of information that would be so life changing if we missed it," said Dana Korey, founder of Away With Clutter, which helps people create organization nirvana. She advises asking yourself, " 'Does this e-mail serve me now?' Not later, not someday, but right now!"
Sometimes I just don't know, so I save it. Hurst, who recommends culling the inbox to zero (!) every day, says this is OK. I don't have to do the work contained in the e-mail, as long as I put it in the right place.
"There are only three things you can do to an e-mail: delete it, file it or defer it (to a future day when you can get to it)," he said. "Most people have never heard of deferring e-mails, and they perceive that they can't spend the 10 or 20 minutes it takes to learn the skill, so their inboxes stay full of huge action items. This is demoralizing and stressful, which is a shame, because with a simple effort of a few minutes, they'd never have this problem again."
Deferring essentially means taking the e-mail out of the in-box and putting that action item on a to-do list, Hurst said.
"Not just any to-do list but one which allows you to separate today's action items from those needing action on future days."
If that sounds too complicated, you can also just set up a directory called DE-STRESS DAY, said Dale Cyphert, the e-mail protocol expert and an associate professor of management at the University of Northern Iowa.
"Just dump it all in there and start fresh," he said. "If someone really needs something, it isn't really gone, just off your desk."
But, he warns, the key is to really make a fresh start; after you've dumped the mail, you have to start actively managing the inbox.