I’ve had a very busy couple of months. I was directing the musical “Legally Blonde” for my community theatre group, and it was the most complicated show I’ve ever helmed. It turned out great, and I’m very proud of it, but it meant that a lot of the rest of my life got put on hold.
One of the areas that suffered was managing my e-mail. It’s important to me to keep my inbox under control, which means I read every e-mail the day it arrives and respond the same day if a response is warranted. (Sometimes the response is, “I’m too busy to give a full response right now but I want you to know I got your e-mail and will respond more fully soon.”) Just like with paper, I put into folders the e-mails that I want to save, and delete the ones I don’t need. Anything left in my inbox is something that still needs action on my part.
I like my inbox to be empty enough that I can see all the messages without having to scroll. That usually means fewer than 30 e-mails.
A week after the show ended, I had gotten my inbox down to 44 messages, too many to see at a glance what I still needed to handle. That caused me anxiety, so I decided to go through the e-mails and make a list of what actions they represented. I called it “Outstanding Projects” because all of them required more than just a quick response. They all required time and thought. The list ended up being 10 projects long.
Even though I know had 10 projects staring at me, I felt instantly better. Just seeing them listed helped me to get a handle on what needed to be done. And a list of 10 projects was less scary than 44 messages!
That was three days ago, and I have done nearly all of them. I’ve gotten my inbox down to 10 messages, as you can see in this screenshot. It makes me happy to see so much white space in my inbox! I’m back on track now, and I know that nobody is waiting for me to take action on something. I’ve lobbed the ball back into other people’s courts.
This experience underscored for me the importance of distilling an overflowing bucket into a definable list. When I work with clients on time management, some of them are reluctant to make to-do lists. They are afraid that the list will be so long that it will make them feel even more out of control. But it’s hard to manage your time and responsibilities if you don’t know exactly what they are.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try making a list of everything you have to do. If the list is too long, select which actions need to be done this week and which can wait until next week. And don’t forget to breathe!