How to handle a large amount of daily email.

I always wondered how people deal with a massive amount of email. The past two years for me have seen a huge leap in the volume of email I get daily. At work, it’s not such a big deal to get 500 or so email messages in a day, because not all of them are to you specifically, and not all require a reply. Many can be reviewed as rollups every couple of days.

Personal email however is a lot different.

I now get a lot of email at my address. From people asking me about security stuff to normal geek correspondence to Xbox stuff to other stuff. I was shocked a month ago to realize in the previous six weeks since I had cleaned out my inbox I had roughly 6000 items in my personal inbox, 3100 unread. On top of me twittering like a crack addled twitch monkey on speed, blogging like someone with diarrhea of the blog…hole…and just regular email correspondence, it occurred to me I wasn’t replying to like 75% of what people were sending me. doh.

Unlike work email, the majority of these emails to my personal address deserve or expect a response. It’s been bothering the hell out of me how to deal with it so I came up with some tips that should you ever find yourself in the wonderful position of having so many people want to talk to you that you cannot answer it all sometimes, this might help.

So here are my tips for handling large amounts of email:

#1. Accept that you’ll occasionally get a level of volume that you simply cannot read/reply to it all.

As a geek this was a hard point for me to reach, and I’m thankful that this situation tends to come in waves and isn’t constant. With the email culture at Microsoft, not replying to email that needs a reply is considered actually impolite. But between work and personal, I’m hitting that volume level occasionally, and was surprised at how low the daily bar was before you realize that all that email stacking up just compounds the problem. But at some level you gotta bend like a reed in the wind when it comes down to cook dinner or wade through 60 more missives just because you would feel bad someone you have never met sent you something and you just don’t want to come off like a dick.

The lesson here is eventually you’ll come off that way unintentionally or you will die of starvation/insanity from never taking a break from email.

So if you have sent me something and I didn’t reply, I’m really really sorry. Please don’t think it was because it was uninteresting or I don’t care.

How to cope with this? I’ve begun making sure when I do occasionally hit the level where I can’t get to it all, I make the time to pick a few at random and reply to them, so at least some people can get a reply to their question or comment.

#2. Beware the tyranny of the inbox.

Part of the reason I got into the 3100 unread mess in such a short span of time was that I was basically having everything go to my inbox then I would manually sort it from there into "reply to", "records", "family" type folders. So my inbox wasn’t helping me prioritize at all, it was just a stream of incoming messages. But because it was my inbox it’s where I spent all my time.

Instead, create a series of subfolders to help prioritize and spend most of your time there using aggressive filtering.

Which reminds me:

#3. Filter aggressively.

The reality is that personal email, like work, has priority levels. Email from someone asking me particulars about how we do enforcement on Xbox LIVE is going to be a lower priority than an email from my brother helping to plan my Mom’s 60th birthday celebration. Especially since the former is already available on my blog or existing podcasts. Create groups if your email client supports it and use rules to route mail from groups automagically into sub folders. I created a folder called "Primary Senders" that has mail sorted from family and friends out of my inbox into that. I further subsort by whether I’m cc’d or on the To: line, and sort by domains and senders to filter newsletters, monthly meeting stuff, etc into their own spots. So I spend most of my "reply time" in Primary Senders or into the folder I use for when people report bad folks on Xbox to me. And I monitor Inbox for different things.

#4. Portability.

I’m very thankful I can get email on my phone. My wife, not so much. But me, yes because it means I’m not chained to a monitor. Get your email into the cloud. It makes all the difference in the world. I find I can catch up on a lot of discussion list and digest stuff waiting in line at the cafeteria or in a cab or even offline on a plane trip. You certainly have to know when to put it away, and I’m still struggling with that part. But at least I don’t dread sitting down in front of my machine because the blue number next to the folder is four digits and those four digits tick upward distilling guilt units into my brain.

To those sending me email:

I do indeed try to read every email, even if it’s just in the preview pane.

You probably sent me something very cool or very witty or otherwise awesome. Please know that I probably read it and lol’d or was otherwise appreciative and thought "wow remember to email them back" then never did for lack of time. Again I apologize.

Often times you might resend it wondering if I’m actually reading my email, and upon receipt I felt guilt and said "wow, remember to email them back" then never did for lack of time.

I’m really honestly very sorry about that. But I’ve come to grips with the reality that my daily volume sometimes hits the level that between work and personal email, 30 seconds on 1 reply each day for both would rack up to about 2.5 or 3 hours a day simply trying to reply to everything. And that’s on medium level volume days. So if you sent me something and it was something you really feel is important or cool or you worked hard on writing up for me please know that it’s not you, it’s me. And I really don’t want to get to the point where I setup some type of auto responder, especially when people are reporting miscreants to me or ask me to join a game because some people are being dicks in it, etc.

Hopefully these tips will come in handy for other people, and I certainly don’t mean to complain or have people think I don’t want them to be able to email me. It’s just the law of large numbers has collided with a finite amount of time much like goat butts up against hedge, and horns become…entangled.

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