Categories | Best Practices of GTD | Getting Things Done | Implementation
Many years ago, I was coaching a senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company. He’d been there 14 years and had built up a tremendous backlog of both paper and email. Before I reveal just how large it was, let’s examine a few of the factors that contributed to his predicament.
Most of the staff at his company were given mailbox quotas, and they were encouraged to archive anything they no longer needed. Very senior members of the staff, on the other hand, were granted extra server space and freedom from quotas, so as to not “burden” them with tedious archiving rules. It also appeared that no formal training was given on how to make strategic decisions about email or even the technical basics of how to use their email program.
This smart, savvy executive had no idea how to effectively use a tool through which major business decisions were being made. He had no email pending or reference folders set up, and he had stored every saved email in his inbox. As a result, he had more than 87,000 emails, spanning over 14 years, sitting as an amorphous pile of stress in his inbox.
I asked him, “How many of those do you think are actionable?” He replied that he was sure most of them were and that “he’s been meaning to get around to them.” And now, 14 years later, the pile—and his stress—were just growing.
My first strategy with him was to handle the backlog. We sorted his inbox by date received, went to the oldest emails, and started archiving and deleting groups of whatever he knew was not actionable. First in, first out is often the easiest approach when dealing with backlog, since the opportunity has often expired, and trash, someday or reference is all that’s needed. We also sorted by subject and sender, which enabled us to take entire groups of similar emails and deal with them at once, after a quick assessment of what they were about.
After that, he was left with a chunk of about 200 emails in his inbox that required more strategic thinking and decision making. And, believe it or not, there were only a few dozen that were truly current work. Our next step was to create current Project support, pending Action and Waiting For email folders, and capture the projects and actions related to those on his list manager. This whole process only took about six hours.
One of the most remarkable things I observed in assisting him with this process was the mental and emotional weight that seemed to be lifted from him. He went from a feeling of overwhelm, thinking he needed to go through 87,000 emails one by one and take action, to having the pile whittled down to a manageable set of buckets:
The stress from backlog isn’t due to the amount of information; rather, it’s caused by what’s still undecided and being avoided within that information.
Do yourself a favor and handle your backlog. Carve out an afternoon or even a few hours. Start with the oldest first, and see how far you get. You’ll be amazed at the progress you make.