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The Great Email Burndown of 2008

I’ve been suffering under the weight of an overfilled work inbox for far too long. Although I would do my best to stay on top of things, it has been a challenge to simply keep up, let alone make any headway. Far too often, I run into someone at a conference and they will say “I sent you an email.” I then have to switch in to apology mode and tell them that I’ve been drowning in email (which is the truth).

I decided against email bankruptcy. The situation isn’t that hopeless, and these are all business contacts. It would be rude, unprofessional, and counterproductive to simply throw them out and start over.

Instead, I decided to devote more of my time to working through the backlog and (just as important) to start tracking my progress on a daily basis. Like losing weight (another project for this year) getting caught up with your email is a long process, not something that can be taken care of overnight.

So, on March 31st I recorded the number of messages in my inbox at the start of the day, did my best to get the ending point, below the starting point, and iterated day by day. I had 1,941 things in my inbox at the beginning of the day and 1,873 in the day. This is the net progress, which includes the dozens of emails which show up and are processed during the day. I’ve been making good headway day by day and am now down to 1,334 messages. In about 2 weeks I have chewed through about 31% of my inbox. Here’s my record:

It turns out that tracking my progress (or lack thereof) on a daily basis is key. I used a Google Docs Spreadsheet so that I could get to the same data from the office, my home, or on the road (cloud computing, what a great concept ;-) .

Note that processed means that I have done as much as I possibly can to move the message forward. It doesn’t mean that I turned the message into a TODO item or that I moved it into a different folder for some later time which will never come. The message has been handled or it doesn’t count.

After I get my work inbox under control, I will start on my personal inbox. There are 3500 messages and the oldest one is from November of 2005. I may try the Mail Trends tool that I found in Life Hacker.

PS – Don’t email me to congratulate me; that would wreck my statistics!