Thursday, January 6, 2022

A method for responding to email messages you have been putting off.

When I opened my email one morning recently, staring back at me were eight messages needing responses that I had been putting off for several days. I have a pretty strong habit of emptying my inbox, and yet, I could not make myself do these.

Has this ever happened to you? Or maybe a better question, is there any one of you who has never had this happen?

The list of reasons we put off email responses is long, but among them include replies that we think will take more time than we have, that will be difficult because we plan to say something the sender may not like hearing, and messages that are not clear about what is being asked.

On that particular morning, I decided that I could not move on to upcoming holiday preparations until I had finished those messages.

I decided to use a method that was shared by a workshop participant recently.

The method:
  • On a piece of paper make a list of the senders to whom you owe a response.
  • Put a check box in front of each one.
  • After each name, add notes about the points you make in the reply
The formula: checkbox + sender name + response notes
  • Open the first message on the list and respond.  Then do the second one, and so on in order.
  • When the list is all checked off you are done!
  • Then, take a moment to feel great.
Why I think this method works.

The list is a "closed" list. That is, it is a list that cannot get longer, only shorter each time you send a reply. Closed lists (an idea from Mark Forster in his book Do It Tomorrow) are motivating because there is a concrete finish line. (If you are thinking the closed list sounds familiar, perhaps you are recalling my post on the daily MIT list - also a closed list!).

The list is outside the chaotic stressful arena of the email inbox. By creating the list outside the inbox you can focus just on those messages, rather than being distracted by the new emails pouring in.

Responding to messages in the order they appear on the list creates an assembly line approach that is both faster and less stressful than the usual way: finishing a message, then looking around to select which one to do next. In other words, you eliminate thinking time and instead just work. (BTW, I use the assembly line method when processing new email messages as well.)

Making notes about the response gets you away from the "perfect response" mode that email can bring out. We often feel as if once we have started typing, we must commit to the words we have written. The fear of doing it wrong leads to a kind of writer's block. Being able to make notes outside of the email frees you to think freely - much as a rough draft does in the case of any writing project. In fact, the mere act of writing down the person's name usually triggers, for me, ideas about how I might respond.

So that's it. Next time you find yourself with unanswered messages that you have been putting off, give this a try.

In case you are wondering if this is intended to be my New Year's message...

Yes, it is. What better way to start out the new year than cleaning out the "clutter" of emails you have been putting off!

However, for something deeper, read my favorite time management philosopher Oliver Burkeman's post "Wisdom for the end of the year."