The thought of an overflowing email inbox can make the first day back to the office after vacation something to dread.
"Depending on your industry and connections, it's not unusual to return from a vacation to find several hundred emails waiting for you," says David Troy, CEO of 410Labs, a Baltimore, Md.-based tech firm that designs software to increase productivity.
But handling the backup doesn't have to destroy your productivity. Troy says entrepreneurs can use a few easy strategies before, during and after vacation to reduce their email stress. Here are his tips for taming your post-vacation inbox:
Before you leave:
A week before you leave let your important business contacts know when you'll be gone, says Troy. No need to notify everyone in your address book; instead, alert clients and team members with whom you interact on a daily or weekly basis. Include the dates you'll be away as well as your availability by email or phone. If you will be out of reach and someone else will be handling projects for you, let your contacts know and pass along his or her direct contact information.
This proactive step will not only help reduce the amount of emails you will have waiting for you when you get back, but it will reassure your clients that their business is important to you and is being handled in your absence.
While you're gone:
Reconsider using an auto respond vacation message. "It makes it harder for your customers to get to what they need," says Troy. "You're asking them to take an extra step and email someone else who may or may not be familiar with their situation."
Instead, have your email automatically forwarded to a person who will be handling your work while you're away. If you prefer to not forward all of your emails, consider periodically checking your email on a mobile device while you're gone, forwarding or responding to only urgent emails. Let the rest wait, says Troy -- response within a week is acceptable.
When you get back
Upon your return, decide how much time you can devote to email and break it up over a few days. "Many people have the impression that email is work, but real tasks are more important," says Troy.
You'll get through your emails quicker if you sort by sender instead of by date. This will help you find and tackle important client emails first. Troy says to also prioritize one-off messages over conversation threads because it might indicate a fresh inquiry from a potential client. And if you subscribe to daily mailing lists such as deal-of-the-day or news sites, quickly batch and delete old emails that are no longer relevant.
Another tip is to scan your emails by subject line to look for time-sensitive clues -- such as "quote request" or "media inquiry."
If you have a high volume of email, consider using a program that will do the sorting and bundling for you. Mailstrom is a free program created by Troy’s company that helps users process large volumes of email by automatically grouping emails by sender and type. You can quickly delete or archive large blocks of emails. SaneBox, which costs between $6 and $50 a month, is another program that helps you manage your email, with features such as filtering, follow-up reminders and deferred sending.
Related: Email Game-Changer: How to Cut Your Inbox by 60 Percent