How to tackle your inbox after a holiday

Lifesaver rule: the ‘back from holiday’ crunch

The ‘back from holiday’ crunch isn’t a rule for processing your email on a regular basis, but rather a simple method to get you through the mountains of mail that wait for you when you return to the office after being away for a few days or even weeks. The idea is to get you up to speed on everything you missed as quickly as possible without going crazy or losing an entire day to email. (You can also use this method to get through your backed-up inbox the first time you try speedmailing.)

The ‘back from holiday’ crunch first uses the same principles that we use when sorting email on a daily basis: All emails are sorted into four action folders one at a time.

These folders are time-based and not subject based; subject-based categorisation quickly gets too complex to manage efficiently, especially as content categories change over time. I recommend:

Do this week

This is your to-do list. File any email that is urgent and/or important enough to be done in the short term (as in, within a week), but cannot be done in two minutes (more on the two-minute rule in a bit). This includes emails that have to be taken care of today!

Holding for later

This is a parking spot for emails that require your attention but are less urgent. Anything that can be done a week from now or later should be parked here for later review. When in doubt, put it here. Once a week this folder should be reviewed to determine which emails need to become to-do items.

Waiting for others

This folder contains emails you need to keep an eye on, but the ball is in someone else’s court. While you are waiting for an answer or resolution, the mail should wait here. Again, review this folder once a week.


Technically this isn’t really a folder but a feature of your email client. It’s where any date-specific emails should be filed. You can save the entire email here, so that you have all the details. If you need to block time to prepare for a meeting or complete the task, create a calendar appointment for yourself to do that. By emptying your inbox a couple of times a day you will be on top of all the news without becoming a slave of your inbox.

Once empty, you will find your new and improved task list, ‘Do This Week’, to be a good spot to work from. It is a list of emails, each one represents a task related to it and as the list does not change unless you add or remove new ones yourself, it does not distract you the way your inbox does. As you complete tasks from your ‘Do This Week’ folder you can ‘tick them off’ by moving them to ‘Filed Items’

The ‘back from holiday’ crunch has two extra rules:

1 Ignore the two-minute rule. (A rule that we usually use that says if you can deal with an email in two minutes or less, do it immediately).

2 Apply the law of getting bored twice.

Simply start at the top of your emails and start sorting. However, even if an email can be done in two minutes, don’t start on it but move it to ‘Do This Week’ instead. Trim down your processing time by being more selective about which tasks you take on. For example, do you really need to catch up on every newsletter you missed while you were away? You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you delete with abandon – you’re unlikely to miss it.

As you sort, you’ll gradually notice that the emails you’re reading feel less and less relevant. We call this getting bored. Rather than getting bored we want you to be getting back to work. Speed up the speedmailing process and prevent yourself from numbing your mind, when you’ve just returned to office life, by following the ‘law of getting bored twice’. It essentially breaks down into a three-part process:

1 Once you get bored with sorting one by one from the top, switch to scanning for important emails (this only applies to the ‘back from holiday’ crunch!), and sort just those.

2 Once you get bored a second time, select all remaining emails (Ctrl+A or Cmd+A) and file or archive them. If needed, you can always find them later using your search tool.

3 Now proceed to ‘Do This Week’ and start tackling your two-minute tasks. You’re back working as usual already!

While it is possible that you will miss an older action item or two working this way, the speed of the crunch procedure more than makes up for these generally understandable slips with a drastic reduction in the time it takes to get you back to actual productivity. You’ll be back impressing your boss and colleagues on the work floor the very morning you return!

Extract taken from Speedmailing by Richard Wolfe, published by Pearson, priced £9.99. For more information about Richard Wolfe and his book see: