Warning: Do You Keep Groundhog Day Emails In Your Inbox?

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Groundhog Day Picture

Have you ever had an email that seemed to linger like a bad smell? You may have read it a number of times. Ignored it. Kept it hidden or compulsively put it aside ‘just in case’. If so, you may be dealing with a Groundhog Day email!

Groundhog Day emails are unclarified emails that people read again and again. The name refers to the 1993 comedy with Bill Murray, whose character wakes each morning to repeat the same day again and again. These emails tend to be vaguely written, long winded or confusing to understand. They clog up the inbox and waste time through double or quadruple handling. They cause internal stress as something still needs to be done … but what exactly?

Groundhog Day email statements

Here are some Groundhog Day email statements that we hear again and again:

  1. “I don’t quite know what to do with these emails, so I leave them in my inbox until later.”
  2. “I mark my read emails as unread, to remind myself to read them again later.”
  3. “I re-email older emails to myself so they don’t get lost. If they stay near the top of my inbox I know I’m more likely to deal with them.”

In each case, a decision has been delayed until later. Unclarified emails create a cycle of reading, avoiding a decision, procrastinating and re-reading. They give the illusion of progress when no progress is actually being made. More time is spent on email but less gets done.

How to kill a Groundhog Day email

Groundhog Day emails can be killed in seconds by asking and answering two simple questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. What do I need to do with it?

When you first read an email, your brain does two things. The ‘doing’ part of your brain reads to understand the information being communicated. What is the email conveying to me? At the same time, the ‘processing’ part of your brain steps back and tries to categorise the email as a whole. What is it (what type of email) and what do I need to do with it?

Brain shutterstock_91896824

For most emails you and I effortlessly know the answer to these questions. If an email is an instruction from my boss, it’s an action. If it’s project information, it needs filing / archiving. Yet for vague, unclarified Groundhog Day emails, a sub-conscious response is often inadequate. By consciously asking the questions; “What is it?” and “What do I need to do with it?” (then not moving on until you have a clear and coherent answer), you essentially force yourself to make a decision. You keep things moving and thereby avoid procrastination.

Once you know how to clarify all emails into logical, well defined categories, you can kill those little email critters before they block up your inbox!

Change your thinking, organise your folders and learn habits to process your inbox to zero everyday, by becoming an Email Ninja!

Do you keep Groundhog Day emails in your inbox?

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  1. I’m terrible with this, I keep a stack of emails marked as unread in case they are helpful or avoid replying now and so mark it as unread.

    I’m also terrible at allowing newsletters from different groups, business etc sitting there in case I get a chance to read it later etc.

    I made a decision at the start of this year to not do that any more. If I haven’t got time/don’t prioritise the newsletter enough to read it with in a few days then I’m probably never going to so I delete it. I also have started working harder at replying the first time I deal with an email otherwise I will read t a few extra times but get no closer to make a decision or actioning anything from it.

    I’ve still got a long way to go but my inbox is currently sitting at 44 down from the 900+ I started the year with. Sure I might have deleted some great advice and helpful information in those emails but it wasn’t doing me any good sitting there clogging up my inbox unread so I’m only better for having got rid of it.

    1. Hi Scott,
      900 to 44 – well done! Sounds like you’re heading in the right direction!

      I completely agree with you about the need to delete ‘great advice and helpful information.’ In the last 25 years, more information has been created than in the last five centuries (Jonathon Spira, Information Overload Research Group). In a world of information overload, most of us simply can’t read or view everything that comes our way anymore.

      The choice is often what’s best next – out of all this good stuff coming my way, what’s likely to be valuable for what I need to do next? If you’re uncertain, you can always archive or Evernote the rest (electronic space is cheap) just in case you need it in the future!

  2. I don’t do any of the three things you mentioned… but I *do* click on the little red flag to supposedly mark them (in my mind) as important, which adds them to my to do list…. which gets longer and longer…. How many of them do I actually go back to and do something about…. not nearly enough.
    Interestingly, in a shared mailbox I am pretty manic about managing my flags and marking items as complete. I even have the mailbox sorted according to status, and get somewhat annoyed about colleagues who are less diligent (and no doubt do not sort according to status). If only I could apply the same discipline to my inbox!

    1. Great to have you join our blog! We find that flags often end up a bit chaotic… it’s not just about discipline, but a by-product of the way flags are designed. Effective lists (for people with lots of tasks) tend to work best if organised on two levels: 1) projects and 2) tasks. Flags give you priority by date or importance, but display everything at the same level (I.e. no projects function).

      If you have a large list that you wish to make do-able, you may need to jump out of Outlook and into a dedicated to-do app or paper based system. We cover this stuff in detail in List Assassin, or alternatively, read this book by David Allen to get started: – http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Things-Done-Stress-Free-Productivity/dp/0142000280.