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Why you should delete your unread emails after a holiday

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Returning to work after a holiday always carries a few anxieties. Which password will you forget this time? Will it turn out the weather was great while you were away? And just how many emails will be waiting in your inbox when you log in? 

Thankfully, at least one of those issues is really easy to resolve – just start your first day back in work by deleting all of your unread emails. If that sounds a bit extreme, you should at least move them to a separate folder. Then you can delete them in two weeks, when you still haven’t read them.

The three types of email

That might sound a little flippant so allow me to explain. At least 90% of the email you receive while you are not in the office is waste. You could make a similar argument for the email you receive when you’re in the office but that’s another day’s work. For now, let’s look at the kinds of messages that are likely to be waiting for you when you return to work:

  1. Important new information

This is what email is supposed to be, valuable information that you can review or action to move projects forward and achieve your targets. Unfortunately, this will be the smallest category in your inbox.

  1. Irrelevant or out of date information

Instead, your inbox will be full of this stuff. A vital report that needed to be completed five days ago that your colleague did in your absence, here. A 20-email thread discussing how to resolve a complex problem that didn’t really concern you, there. The worst thing about this type of email is you generally won’t realise you’re reading them until it’s too late.

  1. Ill-thought or unimportant emails

A large proportion of work email is taken up by needless or unimportant messages, like superfluous “thank you’s” or operational messages that are important to 10% of recipients but interrupt everybody. When these messages pile up around your other emails it makes it even harder to find the useful ones. You won’t miss anything by deleting these. I’m sure you’ll cope without knowing that the air-conditioning was shut off for repairs last Saturday.

Ask yourself, how many of each email type did you have the last time you returned from a break? How much of it did you need?

The email problem

The problem with email – or one of them at least – is that it’s a static medium. Once those emails enter your inbox, they won’t change. Reading an email from a week ago can only tell you what was happening when the email was sent. In all likelihood, that situation has changed by now.

So, what should you do about it? The simple answer is don’t ever “catch up on email”’ and the most extreme solution is to delete all of your unread emails the minute you sit back at your desk.

Delete, delete, delete

If even reading that stresses you out, there is a method for making sure that you stay informed and avoid taking a page of notes on a project that was cancelled three days ago. The first step in this process needs to happen before you leave.

  1. When you’re planning your handover, take a note of where each project is when you leave and who the point of contact is while you’re away.
  2. When you return, go through that list and catch up with each point of contact to find out where each project is now. A few 10 minute conversations will get you most of the information you missed out on while you were away, and it’s much easier for someone to point out the important emails you missed than it is for you to find them.
  3. Once that’s done, look over your list again and see if there are any items you couldn’t get an update on or that still have questions. Search your emails for message related to those projects only and read whatever is important.
  4. All your remaining unread mails are irrelevant, unimportant, or out of date.
  5. *Select all*
  6. *Delete*

Congratulations, you just got half a day’s work back. Plenty of time to distribute Toblerone, explain why you need a holiday to recover from that holiday, and figure out how to turn off your ‘out of office’ voicemail.

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