Recovering from Email Meltdowns (or Furloughs!)

Posted By on Oct 22, 2013

Good news, fans of government! The political stalemate that closed the country’s national park system, caused a dangerous shortage in adorable panda-cam footage and spawned this heartbreaking image, ended last Thursday with a temporary budget deal that funds federal agencies into January of next year.

But with an estimated 800,000 “non-essential” federal employees furloughed during the 16 day shutdown, things are still getting back up to speed as workers pick up the pieces after more than two weeks at home. Part of the process likely includes cleaning out neglected email inboxes that went untouched during the shutdown, since looking at email was illegal for these employees!

That can be a not-so-small mountain of digital correspondence to sort through.

Think about it. The average person gets 147 messages a day. Multiply that by the 16 days and a furloughed federal employee could be staring at an inbox with more than 2,300 new emails in it when they returned to work Thursday. Expand that projection to the entire population of furloughed workers and suddenly you’re looking a nearly 1.9 billion (yes billion) emails to sort through.

Analysis by Baydin reveals almost half of those 2,300 emails will probably be deleted, and that takes, on average, 3.2 seconds to do per message. Some additional back of the napkin math shows we’re suddenly looking at more than 800,000 hours — just over an hour per furloughed employee — dedicated just to deleting emails in the immediate wake of the shutdown.

Now, inter-office email communications was likely reduced significantly during the shutdown, but the point remains: slogging through a glut of emails takes time and maximizing efficiency during the process — especially when trying get the ol’ government up and running after a two week hiatus — is paramount.

Luckily, whether you’re a recently un-furloughed government employee or happen to be returning from a two week vacation (lucky you), Baydin has some tips to help you deal with an overflowing inbox after being incommunicado for extended period of time.

  1. First things first: archive or move all but the last few hundred messages in your inbox into a folder where you can get to it later. It’s email – people expect that messages will sometimes be lost. You will miss opportunities this way. But at least you’ve explicitly decided to miss opportunities that are weeks old, rather than missing opportunities that came in today because your email is a mess. If a message is of life-changing importance, the person sending it will contact you again.
  2. Stay on top of all your new email. Make sure that you don’t end a day with more email than you started with. For tips on staying up to date, check out Baydin’s Revive Your Inbox program.
  3. Divide the number of messages you have in your Inbox by the amount of time you want to spend catching up – we recommend 5 or 10 days. Commit to handling that many messages per day, in excess of the new mail you’re receiving.
  4. Go through your old messages without trying to prioritize. If you leave yourself 100 messages that require action, and have already sorted the 400 messages that don’t, you’ll need to build up willpower for days to conquer the pile. You need to be able to keep your motivation boosted as you clean up the mess by deleting easy messages in stream.
  5. Go through your messages from newest to oldest. The new ones are the most likely to still be relevant, so don’t let them expire while you’re working through messages that are a month old already.
  6. If a message is over two weeks old and requires more than two minutes of work, ask if the person still needs whatever they asked for.
  7. Don’t feel bad about replying and saying you don’t have time to do something.
  8. If something really needs to get done, but you know you can’t get to it today, Defer it for a bounded random time, so that it will come back to your attention at some point in the next week, or the next month.

Armed with this information, attacking inbox buildup seems a little more manageable, right? Maybe some government employees at the National Zoo already got word, because panda cam is already back up and running.

You’re welcome, America.

Henry Meier covers the Federal Courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, and is glad to see the court returning to business as usual.

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