Messages breed while you’re out of the office.  If you weren’t compulsively checking email on vacation, and you don’t have an assistant, here are some useful tips to help you dig out from under.

1.       Make a short list of important tasks BEFORE you start checking messages.

You’re the boss; you know what tasks needed doing when you went on vacation.  So write down what you remember, either before you leave or first thing when you return – it will help you stay focused on what’s important.

2.       Sort your inbox by sender to eliminate what you don’t need to read (now).

Come in a little early and send your phone to voicemail.  Shut off your vacation message (please), sort your inbox by sender, and start clicking, challenging yourself to spend no more than 5 seconds per email on the following triage:

  • Delete without reading:  advertisements, CLE invitations, social media updates, any non-work event whose time has passed
  • Archive for later (or delete):  case summaries,  blog updates, listserv subscriptions, e-magazines
  • Mark for a second pass:  anything sent to you in particular, or from someone you know

With the non-essential stuff out of view, pause, open a blank document (or grab pen, paper, and calendar if you’re old-school like me) and make a second pass through your inbox spending no more than 20 seconds reading each email.  If the email doesn’t require action from you, unmark it, send a quick “thank you” (optional), and put it wherever you can find it again (e.g. archives).  If the email adds to your task list, take notes such as “Client X – research project”, or “Potential Client Y – set up phone consultation,” or “Contact Z – lunch”.  The notes capture impressions and set up a framework to turn the messages into tasks.

3.       Sort your inbox by date to determine what action you need to take.

Now re-sort your inbox to show the most recent messages first, and make your final pass through each group according to its priority:

  • No reply
  • Short reply
  • Long reply

Why “no reply” first?  Because it’s quick:  skim the whole thread and you may learn the issue has been resolved.  (If you can’t resist replying, confirm this, and thank your team for their excellent work.)  “Short reply” includes simple responses (“Yes”) and social courtesies (“Thanks”) as well as long answers of lower priority (“Thanks for your email, I’m on it, I’ll get back to you.”)  What remains are the long replies – the tasks and projects that you actually need to think about and respond to, today.  Add them to your task list, and you can get started.

Welcome back!

Experienced solos:  what tips do you have for managing messages after you’ve been away?

By Karin Ciano

Karin Ciano
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Karin Ciano

Attorney at Law at Karin Ciano Law
Karin Ciano is a former federal career clerk in solo practice who likes to meet good people, work on interesting cases, and get back into federal court whenever she can. She practices civil rights and employment law, and she is also a freelance attorney who assists other attorneys with putting their best foot forward in federal cases. She is also the Twin Cities director of Custom Counsel LLC, the freelance legal network, and one of the co-founders of the Minnesota Freelance Attorney Network.
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