The Paper Pile Problem: One Small Thing That Led To Mastering My Email

By Michael Roderick  -  On 09 Apr, 2014 -  0 comments

I am on top of email correspondence.

That’s right.

For the most part, I get back to people in a timely manner, I keep my inbox pretty clear, and, even when I leave a meeting and have 35- 50 emails sitting in my inbox, I clear it down in usually about 15 minutes. I don’t have a new productivity tool, I don’t use any software, and I’m not faster at typing (I’m probably slower than most when it comes to typing). So what is it that I’m doing that keeps things so in order?

For the answer, we have to go back to when I was teaching….

When I used to teach, I had five classes a day. Sometimes I had six. Every Tuesday my students got a vocabulary quiz and every Friday, they got a test. My average class was 30-33 students, so if you do the math, that means there were a lot of papers to correct when all was said and done. For the first few years, I ended up with a pile of papers on my desk at the end of the day and basically struggled to get them all corrected. I was always behind on my grading and constantly playing catch up. It even got to the point where I was late entering final grades.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that there was something very powerful happening to me psychologically with those paper piles. You see, as I saw the papers pile up, the perceived work to complete them became bigger and bigger. Ultimately, just looking at the massive pile on my desk depressed me and I would say the most dreaded words anyone can utter:

“I’ll take care of those tomorrow.”

This ultimately led to me having numerous instances in which I would have to spend my entire Sunday from 9:00am to 9:00pm in the faculty room correcting papers. I was frustrated and annoyed and wasn’t sure how to solve the problem.

Then one day, I had an idea. I took the papers from each class period and put each in its own separate pile. Suddenly the mountain disappeared and all I could see was a series of small hills. Each looked very easy to correct and I found myself thinking that I could get the papers graded in between class periods or during an off period. I didn’t commit to getting all of them done, just a class’s worth at a time. From that point on, I was not spending my Sundays at the school anymore. I was able to get the papers corrected.

So what does this have to do with email?

Your inbox is the pile. If you allow it to pile up then when you see a massive number of emails it’s just like a mountain of papers. You become less motivated to answer them.

What I do now is, when in email comes in, file each email in one of a series of folders. (To learn how to get your email down to a few essential folders, check out the book The Hamster Revolution. You won’t be sorry.)

I make a choice when each email comes in: Is this something I can answer right away? If so, I answer it and get rid of it or file it under teams. If not, I file it in a folder labeled “Incomplete Tasks” and then come back to it later in the day.

I then determine if the email needs and additional label as an introduction, coming from someone on my team, having to do with admin duties, or something I would like to review later and then re-file accordingly.

All I have to do, then, is go to each file or label in turn and respond to the small group of emails the file contains. Now the email “piles” are much smaller and my inbox – what I see – is clear. So, psychologically, I am not feeling overwhelmed.

So, the next time you are cursing your inbox, take a second to ask if you are looking at a pile of papers and, if so, think of some ways to separate them. You’ll find you have more cognitive ability and that you’ll be able to get more done.

And who doesn’t want to pass an email test with flying colors?