Sunday, February 10, 2013

My Super Simple Tally Trick to Zap the Backlog and Find the Joy (Yes, Joy) in Email

Star Wars notebook
Available from Paper Source
Really! I am not kidding!

Back in 2009, and especially in 2010, I started to fall seriously behind, as in gasping under a Niagara, with my email. Now I know just about everybody who uses email is behind-- it's the phenomenon of our time, as Jenna Wortham's piece in Sunday's New York Times points out, but in my case it was caused by a perfect storm (and, I later realized, my neglecting to keep track of net flows-- more about that in a moment).

In 2009, my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was out and being heavily promoted (including coast to coast book tour-- it's especially tough to keep up on the road) and then, in 2010, when it came out in Spanish, same story, and all at the same time that my dad fell ill. So not only was that couple of years crammed with traveling and distraction (massive) but my dad managed a high-traffic website about POW research and he had a gargantuan number of correspondents himself, so when he passed away in late 2010, and left a book ready to be edited (by Linda Goetz Holmes, bless her heart) and published (by Naval Institute Press), there fell upon me yet another avalanche of email. All of this is to say that, ayyy, my backlog grew into something beyond gnarly. And it got to the point where I dreaded looking at my inbox and, in coping with the daily inflows, I let slide notes to not only people who wrote kind notes about my dad and/or my books, but even notes from family, and even from some of my most cherished friends.

In 2010, I thought I'd made some progress, and maybe I had, by categorizing the email, e.g., FAMILY; FRIENDS; BUSINESS; etc., etc., but that was akin piling too much furniture into the garage--  it kept me from hyperventilating, but it didn't solve the problem; I still had this huge backlog, I still felt horribly overwhelmed. All through 2010 and 2011, I would sit down and attempt to tackle my email but after an hour or four, I'd just be facing a new deluge-- and an awful a sense of sinking in quicksand. Had email taken over my life? (Heck, was this modern life?) Spam I could delete, no problem, but not the others. No, I did not want to be the kind of person who does not respond to an invitation, a kind word, or news from a friend.

But what to do? I tried focussing on time limits, cramming it all into a certain period, but that did not work. I tried ignoring it. I tried making new categories. I reread David Allen's Getting Things Done. I considered Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" (for about 2 seconds-- though, that said, Mann does offer some good tips).  I read what Tim Ferriss had to say about email detox (and considered hiring a virtual assistant for my email -- for about 10 seconds). Meanwhile, the backlog loomed, ever larger...

The solution, which just wafted into my mind one day, turned out to be a blazingly simple two steps-- and it has brought me back the joy, yes joy, of email.

Step 1. Set a specific goal
Mine is, "Inbox 10," that is, to close my email at night with no more than 10 unanswered emails. (I don't think inbox zero is realistic, given that many of my emails require further information or some other good reason for a brief delay.)

Step 2. Tally daily net flows in a notebook-- in other works, track daily progress towards that goal
Because I realized the backlog could not be solved in a day, nor a week, nor even a month, and the inflow of emails-- not just spam, but emails I want to receive and answer-- wasn't going to stop, what I needed was an easy and concrete measure of my daily progress. So I bought a little notebook in which I tally the following:

DW (for dealt with) = number of messages that have been answered, simply read and filed, printed out, whatever, but they have been dealt with. I can either delete them or file them under "ARCHIVE" and adios!! 

DL (for downloaded) = after deleting all obvious spam, this is the number of messages to deal with in some way. In other words, anything I am going to lay my eyes on gets tallied. So as not to lose my place, I note the time of the last message downloaded.

N = New messages generated, not in response to any currently in the inbox.


When the daily net number is positive, it means I'm getting ahead; negative, I'm falling behind.

(I don't count the Ns, or new messages generated, by the way-- that's just for me to see, a sort of a ballpark snapshot of how much time I'm spending on email.)

So let's say, on a typical day I deal with 52 DW and download 50 DL, my net number for the day would be +2

52 DW - 50 DL = +2

Of the 50 emails received on a given day, I might answer 49,  plus 2 from 2012 and 1 from (ayyyyy) 2011. The point is, this net number is the way for me to see clearly whether I am falling behind or getting ahead. And at the end of the day, when I'm about the close the laptop but the number is negative, I might take 5 minutes-- just 5-- to make sure I get that number up to something positive. Maybe I'd answer another email from that same day, or maybe it would an email from yore, it doesn't matter. As I tell myself, just as with writing a book, a little bit every day, that's what gets you where you want to go.

I started keeping my email notebook back in January of 2012, and immediately I could see that yes, I could handle the daily inflow plus tackle from 2 - 5 emails from the backlog every day. On same days, especially when traveling, I slid behind, say, -14 or -5 or even -27, and I had a few all-star days of +15, but I could soon see that this was not quicksand, nor was it an overpowering Niagara, this was... yes... something I could handle. Soon I was up to +50, then +75, and so on until, now in February 2013, I have hit... drumroll...  +845. My backlog is still there, but it's now whittled down to a number I can actually count: 34. Yes, thirty-four not-yet-dealt-with emails of which... b-b-b-bongo drums... one (yes, one!) is from 2013.

So though I haven't yet made my goal of inbox 10, I'm at inbox 34. Now 34 is a big number, but it's a far sight from that totally gnarly nearly 900. (So gnarly, indeed, that I didn't even attempt to count them at the beginning.)

It feels great to have gotten it down this far and better yet, in recognizing that behind each email is a person, a relationship, I'm getting along better with friends and family and finding some more ease in my writing career as well. Should I ever get the deluge of mail of, say, Margaret Atwood, OK, maybe my legions of fans will have to get a form letter from my assistant. But that day hasn't come, and right now, I sincerely appreciate it when people write to me about my books or related subjects, and I really believe that anyone who writes to me personally (not spam), and sanely and politely, should receive an answer with my thanks. I also appreciate my friends and family, and always delight to hear from them. And I am truly touched when anyone writes to me because they remember my dad and/or his work.

And so, at long last, though I still have those 34 emails to tackle, I can say that I genuinely appreciate email. Let me repeat that, to gamelan bells & snare drum:


The notebook with the daily tally. That's all there was to it. Really. OMG.

P.S. When I switched my email to yahoo last year I did not realize their spam filter was so strong, so I may have missed your email. (I now monitor my spam file every day to make sure I don't lose legitimate email). So if you haven't heard from me, please resend. And if you owe me an email, no worries, I totally understand how overwhelming it is. (But try the notebook trick!)