how do I manage an unmanageable workload?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I work in Big 4 Accounting, in tax. This industry is notorious for long hours during busy season and lack of work/life balance. My firm has flexibility, good benefits, and nice people; so, despite the hours, I’m reasonably happy. While I dream of taking a normal job, this is currently what I have to do to pay my bills.

During busy season, I usually can’t keep up with emails. I focus on my main deliverables and triage, but the mounting total in my inbox gives me underlying anxiety. The slow season is somehow worse. I check emails all day long, trying to catch up and keep up, and have trouble finding time to work on back-burner projects and plan for busy season.

I’ve made a real go at implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done for probably 4 years now. I’ll get into a flow where I’m on top of my workload and projects, doing my weekly and daily reviews, and then Something Happens (work gets busy, I have vacation or a couple sick days…) and I’m just drowning in backlog for weeks or months.

My question isn’t really how to push back, delegate, or set boundaries. The workload is the workload and I’m at a level where I can delegate a lot. Just… how do I keep up with something that can’t be kept up with? My workplace is reasonably understanding when backburner things fall behind because everyone is in the same boat (obviously, there’s no room for error in filing tax returns on time) but I want to be as efficient and effective as I can.

How do I know I’m working on the right projects when I don’t have time to organize? How do I organize without spending all my time organizing? How do I ignore my inbox and get work done? How do I not miss the vital emails in my inbox that I’m ignoring?

I feel like I missed a class. Any advice you can offer would be much appreciated.

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 330 comments… read them below }

  1. Joielle*

    Oh boy, I’ll be watching these comments with great interest. My spouse is in a similar situation and it really stresses him out, to the point where it sometimes affects his health. His boss is nice but either doesn’t understand the extent of the problem or is content to let him keep working himself into the ground over and over again.

    I expect the solution is “get a new job somewhere else where they have adequate staffing” but I’ll be interested to see if people have other tips!

    1. Janie*

      ““get a new job somewhere else where they have adequate staffing””

      I’ve tried that. Apparently those places do not exist

      1. DJ Abbott*

        So much easier for companies to keep piling on the stuff they have instead of hiring new people! And cheaper too!
        And they either don’t care or don’t understand the long-term consequences of high turnover, low morale, etc.
        I’m seeing this in the grocery store I’m working out now. They’re constantly short staffed with very high turnover. They keep piling more work on not enough people, which makes the people who are there leave, which makes them even more shorthanded…

        1. De Minimis*

          I used to work Big 4 tax as well [was let go after my first year.] The system is working as designed. They make their money by overworking employees and plan on 70-80% of them leaving during the first few years. I think the LW is probably doing the best they can, but there’s not any winning. As long as they aren’t dinging you for it on reviews, I’d try not to worry too much about it. Though if they do decided to “counsel you out,” all of a sudden the things they didn’t ding you for will become major performance issues….

          1. Lanie*

            “As long as they aren’t dinging you for it on reviews, I’d try not to worry too much about it.”

            I think this is a really important point. It sounds like at least some of this workload management pressure that the LW feels might be self-inflicted. I completely understand the instinct to have everything covered down to the very last period on everything single email, but the LW shouldn’t put expectations on themself that their managers don’t even have. A conversation with management about reasonable expectations and priorities might be in order.

            1. PayRaven*

              These environments are set up to encourage this type of self-inflicted pressure, too. It’s a vicious cycle.

              But yeah, my advice boils down to: start letting things slide until someone tells you it’s a problem.

              1. OP*

                That’s true. It’s a really competitive environment with a lot of pressure to Do Something to change the business or the world, or bring in revenue. I always feel like I’m not doing enough compared to my colleagues.

                1. PayRaven*

                  <3 I know where those feelings come from, but from the bottom of my heart: start letting things slide. The answer to "how do I do the impossible" is "don't." Do your best, clock out, and go home.

                2. PayRaven*

                  One of the worst lies to ever grace the earth is that you have to love and be fulfilled by your job.

                  We need to sell our labor to survive. That’s it.

                3. DJ Abbott*

                  I see this at the deli too. My colleague gets upset that things weren’t done and feels like she has to do them herself.
                  I explained the company chooses to be this way. They choose to run short staffed. Getting the things done is not sufficiently important for them to hire enough staff and manage the store properly. It’s not my colleague’s responsibility to make up for that. It’s not any of the staff’s responsibility, it’s management’s.
                  I do what I’m supposed to do and if I have time, a little extra to help my colleagues. I’ve also learned to manage my work so I finish on time and don’t have to stay past my schedule to finish the project.
                  They overload the deli manager just like they do the rest of us. It rolls downhill!

                4. Kal*

                  My way of dealing with that sort of pressure is to make “take care of myself” one of my major to-dos. I could spend time on clearing out some of the emails that have been sitting in my inbox for months, or I could decide that since they’ve sat there that long that they clearly aren’t that urgent so I’ll take those 15 minutes instead to relax and do something more fulfilling, even if that’s just enjoying a nice tea. Beyond the benefits to your health and well-being, that time spent taking care of yourself will more than make up for itself by making you better able to be productive the rest of the time anyway.

          2. Medusa*

            Apologies if this is unrelated, but working at a Big 4, do you know if all departments are as overworked as you (the accountants, I’m assuming) are, or if admin, marketing, PR, etc. have more manageable workloads?

        2. Anju*

          I used to work in Big 5 in tax as well, I only made it one year (as a College Hire staff). Unfortunately, I don’t know but I felt the same as I like the firm reasonably well, the people were nice, and the work was interesting – but there was just too much of it. I would also be interested to see any suggestions. I tried implementing task lists, but the energy required to maintain these kind of things made them not very sustainable. Also, tracking time for projects was kind of learning curve, and not something I’m sure I ever got very good at. It was all too easy to work a full week – but then only be able to account for 25/26 hours. I learned a lot, but I don’t know how I would have been able to sustain the pace. My health suffered greatly from the lack of time to take care of myself properly (which was my own fault as well) but also the situation

        1. Recovering tax accountant*

          I hate to say it, but that problem is endemic in public accounting. I love public accounting (20+ years), but after my last stint in it, I realized that every firm I have worked for has the same staffing. No matter what you do, or how hard you work, there will always be unmet expectations. To retain my sanity (and family!) I had to take a job in industry. I make about 80% of what I previously earned, but I have excellent insurance, and PTO. Plus, I get to leave at 5!

          1. Decima Dewey*

            When I worked as a glorified file clerk at a second tier accounting firm (back then the Big 4 were the Big 8), my theory was that the problem was the firms assuming that the overworked CPA would still have stay at home wife who’d keep things running at home and who’d show the kids a picture of the other parent from time to time during busy season.

            Work life balance? Adjusting the workload so that actual human beings could do it? Not gonna happen, precious.

            1. Decima Dewey*

              The “precious” in the previous post is meant to be the public accounting firms’ attitude toward professionals asking for help.

              Not calling any poster here “precious” in a sarcastic manner.

            2. Hyacinth Bucket (Pronounced Bouquet!)*

              I left a Big 4 tax firm after only a few months because I realized that all the perks and benefits that were afforded to higher level employees were not worth 3-5 years of backbreaking work.

              Decima, I totally agree with your assessment. When I worked in law firms, there was definitely more of an effort to make our home lives a little easier when working horrendous hours. They had dry cleaning and wash-and-fold services at the office (although it felt weird to bring my dirty laundry to work), regular meals, subsidized public transit cards, etc. The tax firm had way fewer perks and more requirements to earn them.

              1. OP*

                I’ve been at it for 10+ years and I don’t have those perks! But now at least I work from home.

                Decima, you are right, a stay at home wife would help a lot. Too bad I only have a working husband.

        2. Tony T*

          “I check emails all day long, trying to catch up and keep up,” Hows about an example of what there emails consist of. Orders from the Chief)? Answerable questions? Complaints? Issues that NEED your attention … or cute kitten clips?

          1. TechWorker*

            I get a lot of email throughout the day, not all of it needs response and fairly small proportion needs a response quickly (vs say within a day or two). Zero percent of it is cat videos though… bit of an odd assumption…

          2. OP*

            Definitely no kitten videos

            Mostly I’m cc’d on email about client issues. I have to think, what do I need to do with this? And I go through the little email flow chart, and I either need to set a reminder, or put it in my notes, or assign someone to deal with it, or call the client, or ask someone how I should deal with it, or do nothing. That’s what my whole day is.

            1. KatieP*

              You could set a rule in your email application to flag an email where you’re in the To: field one way, and an email where you’re in the CC: field a different way.

              If most of the emails are coming from other staff at the firm, you could possibly start using code words in the subject line, like FYI for informational only emails, or DOC REQUEST if someone needs a scan of a document, etc.

            2. TM*

              Ignore CCs unless you’re being asked something specifically, or you’re the manager of one of the correspondents and they are basically asking you to keep an eye on the matter with the CC.
              I work in IT – I can guarantee you/your position will be mentioned by name if they really want your input. Sure, skim țhe CCs to stay up to date if you must, but don’t go chasing after other people on that basis unless you’re specifically asked to

      2. No SoCal*

        Public accounting is savage. The intense work compression is almost like a badge of honor. Too many in upper management perceive the model as have been working before, so why break it now.

        Hearing this from the COO of the firm I was at was the final item in realization that it’s not going to change.

    2. too many too soon*

      My workplace lost about a third of our staff over the pandemic. Many are being replaced, but by people who are in no way close to being replacements, if that makes sense. My new supervisor seems to think we’re all as new as she is, which is very annoying.
      We’re reopening today and it feels like the same old shitshow is on tap, only with new faces who can’t really pick up much of the burden and in some cases are already becoming a burden on veteran employees.
      I would love to leave this job, but I am not going to move to find work, so I’m sheltering in place while I keep searching and gaming various scenarios that let me quit/retire early.

    3. Koala dreams*

      Actually, I think that’s quite good advice for an accountant. The experience the letter writer has gained will be interesting for many employers. If the stress is too much, there’s nothing wrong with looking at other companies.

    4. GS*

      Same except it is me that is drowning. I accidentally cried during a Zoom 1:1 this week but I am exhausted, sick and it is impossible to get on top of my workload.

    5. Starbuck*

      Yeah, it sounds like a systemic problem. So another possible solution of course is ‘unionize,’ which unfortunately isn’t individually actionable by OP.

  2. Colette*

    I’ve set up Outlook to not automatically mark messages as read – so I go through each email and, if it’s something I don’t need to act on, I mark it as unread. If I need to come back to it and do something, it stays unread until I do it. That way my inbox becomes my to-do list to some degree. (Obviously, I don’t have an unread email for my core job, but any questions someone has asked or IT updates I need to do are there, since they’re not a normal task for me.)

    1. Colette*

      I would also say that since you’re struggling with checking email too much, the answer might be to check it in the morning and then close your email program, re-open after lunch and check again, then close it again so that you’re being more deliberate about checking it and not checking it every time something comes in.

      1. ophelia*

        I was going to say this. I have a similar issue (rewarding work, excellent benefits, good things in general, but times when the workload just…can’t get smaller), and setting aside specific times of the day to check email, and actively blocking my calendar for these like it’s a meeting (and also blocking off quiet work time as meetings) does help me focus on those chunks more easily. It doesn’t *solve* the problem, but it mitigates it.

      2. LizM*

        During our busy season, I literally get hundreds of emails a day. This really helps.

        My morning triage is sorting emails into “Can be dealt with in under 5 min,” which I deal with in the moment, “Can be delegated” which gets forwarded, “Not urgent” which gets put in a folder that will get checked and triaged at the end of the week (I may reply and acknowledge receipt and let them know that it’s going to take a couple weeks), “Can be ignored” which gets deleted, and “Urgent but will take some time” which gets worked into my daily to do list. Once this is done, I close my email until mid-afternoon, when I look through it to catch anything that’s urgent. Anything non-urgent gets ignored until my next morning triage.

        1. LizM*

          I’ll add that this works because our office’s culture is that anything that is truly urgent (can’t wait a few hours) is a text, Teams chat, or phone call. We don’t use email for things that need to be taken care of ASAP.

        2. TechWorker*

          I do similar except I also usually have 3-4 emails a day that are in the category of ‘requires a bit of thought and maybe some things looking up to respond’ but still response only takes 10-15 minutes. For those I click ‘reply’ and keep the window open. Means at the end of my morning inbox trawl I have a short to do list of stuff to get through based on a small number of windows open in outlook.

          1. German Girl*

            Yeah, I do this, too. If I’m lucky, I’ll get all the replies to the 10-15 minute things out before the breakfast break and then I have the rest of the day free to do actual project work.

      3. CoffeePlease*

        I’m an academic, and much of higher ed has terrible and totally unreasonable workload expectations. Batch emailing is essential for me. I have found that it helps a lot to manage expectations surrounding my email availability. Obviously the details are different for OP, but essentially, during my busy seasons, I only check email twice a day, and I do not give it my highest energy times of day.

        1. KatieP*

          Higher Ed, here, too. I check email first thing in the morning, and my triage looks a lot like Colette’s. Then I ignore it or close it altogether until about 2 PM.

          If you need me immediately, use Teams chat.

    2. AGD*

      I’m a slightly overworked academic and do the same thing. Mark as read if it doesn’t require action, leave unread if it does. For a while I was trying to check email less continuously, but I find I get overwhelmed too easily that way.

      I schedule the most time-intensive (and/or focus-intensive) tasks for reliably quiet times during the week, especially Friday afternoons. That way, the ones that take multiple hours and more attention are less easily derailed by emergencies showing up in my inbox.

      And I put in 7-8 hours on Sundays, which is getting pretty close to unhealthy but takes the pressure off the rest of the week.

      1. BigTenProfessor*

        I go one step further — is it a “big” action? If so, I open a card on my trello board. If not, I just…get it done. Before this, I found myself looking at a small thing (responding to a student question about a grade for example), leaving it for later, then looking at it a second time, leaving it for later, etc. With my new system, if I can’t justify it as important enough to go on Trello, then it’s unimportant enough to do in the moment.

          1. Drizzle Cake*

            This works if you only have a few 5-minute things. If you have 50, not so much.

            I put all the a-few-minutes tasks in a folder and block off time to go through a bunch.

        1. Indigo a la mode*

          These days, Outlook very helpfully asks if I want to reopen everything I had open in my last session! A life saver.

        2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          If you’re using Outlook, you could hit Reply, then Save And Close, and it’ll end up in your Drafts. Helpfully, the Drafts folder shows how many are sitting there, so it says eg Drafts [4], and you know you have four short emails to deal with.

    3. Matthias*

      Yes, I do that too! I check messages and email once in the morning, then again at noon. Made a calendar-event specifially for that. I also disabled all notifications and popups regarding arriving emails and messages. Sometimes I see those constantly appearing on other people’s screen, and I wonder how they can manage _anything_ when being constantly barraged by distractions

    4. Snark No More!*

      My inbox is also my to-do list. I guess I never thought about marking them as unread until they’re done. Great idea, thanks!

    5. TaxLady*

      Me too! And I work in tax as well! Of course, then if someone gets impatient and emails again to check in, they get moved to the top of my email and thus the bottom of my list.

    6. learnedthehardway*

      I do this as well. I have multiple email addresses – for every client I work with. I could be checking email all day long. So, I check everything in the morning. Anything very important/time sensitive gets flagged and pinned (so it stands out at the top of my list), anything important but not time sensitive gets marked “unread”, anything I need to keep but that is not important gets put into a folder, the rest hangs out in the inbox in case it is needed. Anything unimportant or trivial gets deleted immediately.

      I check all my emails again at midday and again at end of day. Same process.

      (This is the ideal and what happens when I’m being very efficient. I am not always this efficient or organized).

      1. Storm in a teacup*

        I could have written this letter – currently on 400+ unread emails in my inbox.
        I do something very similar to learnedthehardway – but anything I need to keep gets filed in the appropriate subfolder and bumpf gets deleted.
        OP if you use Outlook it’s worth switching off notifications as they’re distracting. If there a specific addresses that are always urgent you can set them up to notify separately so you know if it’s important. I also use filters so certain emails go direct to the bin eg when out of office the daily office ops emails get automatically redirected to the bin. Helps cut down the number a bit!
        Re: lists and organisation. I’ve tried so many and the simplest for me is to have a master list broken down by topic (3-4 key topic areas) and this I update every 3-5 weeks. Then daily I try and KanBan. Review list first thing and pick 3 things to do. Once they’re done look at 3 next things. This makes it all so much more manageable and I can flex with my time. It’s still a work in progress though and like you I’ve just accepted it’s a busy job
        ~\(‘_’)/~

        1. Storm in a teacup*

          The other 2 things to add that help me a lot:
          1. Set your outlook so when you open it, it’s calendar view not email view. It stops you being sucked into the email Pandora’s box
          2. My previous job where I managed a large team I made it really clear (and was very repetitive) on training them not to cc me into every damn email. Eventually it helped
          I also find by checking my email periodically throughout the day people have often sorted stuff out

    7. Marion Cotesworth-Haye*

      BigLaw associate here — that is my method as well, coupled with a constant effort to accept that there simply is not enough time in the day to do all the items on the to do list and that is okay.

      1. GreenDoor*

        My inbox also functions as my to-do list. If you use Outlook, there is a categorizing option where you can mark emails with specific colors (you create the key for what each color means). For periods where my workload is overburdened, I just know that some days will be Red and Blue days. Others will be an all-Orange day. Green stuff will only be handled on Fridays when I have no afternon meetings. And so on. I’m an accountant and the color-coding speaks to my need for order. It’s a nice visual way to hone in on what my priority is for today.

        Also: take your lunch break. If you’re working after-hours, take a dinner break. Like a meaningful break where you do 100% not-work things. Truly, walking away from my chaos completely, even for just 20 minutes, can jumpstart my drive and help me mentally re-configure how the rest of my day will need to go.

      2. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        I do this as well, and also have had Outlook set up rules so that the all-staff emails, anything that fall under news and updates, or other categories to into their own folders. I can then check those once a day– or once a week, or whatever makes sense. That means my inbox stays more focused on things I need to respond to.

        Also, I’ve set up a folder for electronic signature routing, since I know I need to do those quickly and they take little time.

        And then, yes, I also try to practice acceptance, and honestly, it really helps when I can. My job is very dependent on legislative whims, so it can be super busy, and super weird, at times that are less predictable than they should be, and we end up in triage mode. It helps to remind myself and really accept that that’s just a part of the job, and it’s not personal (mostly) and the overdue state of my inbox at those times is a reflection of that reality far more than it is me.

        1. Indigo a la mode*

          I read your comment and a light shone from the heavens. Outlook rules to keep the inbox focused! It made me wonder…is there a way to have my inbox filter out ALL external email to another folder? No more updates from Miro and Asana and Slack and Vimeo and Rev and the 5000 companies who’ve somehow acquired my email address, unless I want to see them? Friends, THERE IS A WAY.

          My inbox is now a haven of internal email only. This is going to save me so much hunting for emails that actually matter.

          Thank you for the inspiration!

    8. Can't Think of a Name*

      I do something similar to this as well! I have my Outlook organized into different folders, and every morning when I log on I go through all my unread messages (somehow between logging off at 5pm and logging in at 8am, I can amass 40 emails on average…). Using the preview pane, I sort the emails into their respective folders, and keep anything that needs to be done marked as unread until it’s complete. This allows me to identify small, quick things I can do in the moment easily, while having anything more complex/important filed away for a closer look/more thought. It’s like the testing strategy of going through and answering all the questions you definitely know first, and then going back to tackle the harder stuff.

      Going through my inbox in the morning like this usually takes no more than 30 min (sorting emails and knocking off the low-hanging fruit).

      1. Sarah*

        I do the same thing! I love my folders and subfolders. I also use Outlook’s task list as my to-do list – if you flag an email, you can set the deadline for the task. You can also manually add tasks. I use the color coding as well. So, I might flag an email that I need to do some follow-up on, set the deadline for Tuesday, and color code it green so I know it’s an item I need to check with my boss about. Then when I review my to-do list for the day, the email is right there if I need to reference it.

    9. Amethystmoon*

      I use color coding categories in my inbox. Certain things are always higher priority, and other things are average. The average ones, I process by due date.

  3. AVP*

    Do you have a sense of whether your colleagues or people who’ve had this job in the past are/were able to keep up with this workload? There are some jobs that are just incorrectly calibrated and you honestly can’t keep up with them!

    If emails are coming in faster than you can read them, and you’re supposed to read and digest them all, AND this happens even in your “slow” season, there’s not really a system or management software in the world that can keep up with that outside of an AI robot. Sometimes it helps to just realize that it’s not possible, but it would be useful to know if it IS possible for others on your team.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I came hoping to add to something like this. OP, the first thing to confirm is that you are not alone. I don’t know the dynamics of your office, but you seem to be in a functional place. Can you bring up some general questions about staying on top of emails with coworkers? You may find that everyone feels the same way, that there’s no way. Or you may find that others have discovered that certain emails are FYI and they send them to a folder to keep, but not read because they have all the information.
      I think that you are seeing yourself as the only one with this issue and the only one who can find a solution. You are probably not the only one. And it may not be solvable! (It is, but give yourself a break. You are doing a fine job.) and if it does take something you haven’t thought of, your colleagues may have found it.

      1. OP*

        My coworkers definitely can’t keep up. During busy season, we always tell our teams to @ us on emails or else we’re not reading them. It’s not so much that I’m not meeting expectations, it’s just that I have aspirations. I want to use the slower season to work towards something. But maybe that in of itself is not possible in this environment. You’ve given me something to think about.

        1. LilyP*

          What in particular do you feel like you need to be working towards in the slow season? Is it stuff like improving processes or mentoring? Would it help to pick 1 or 2 specific projects or goals at the beginning of the slow season and focus only on those, so you feel like you can let all the other “shoulds” go? Dedicating a couple hours a month to planning out steps and reflecting on progress so you have a clear todo list day to day is a good use of time, and not spending too much time on organizing

    2. KHB*

      Yeah, this. I don’t have any specific wisdom for this particular situation, but I’ve had moments of realizing that my bosses – people I’d been trained to trust to be reasonable – were asking me to do the impossible or know the unknowable, and making it sound like there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t figure out how to implement their very reasonable-sounding requests. It’s really disorienting, kind of like a “the emperor has no clothes” moment. But sometimes the answer really is “it’s impossible,” and sometimes the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes.

      1. Employee of the Bearimy*

        Unfortunately, I came to the same realization after I wound up in the ER with dangerously high blood pressure. I then dialed back the amount of work I was doing, and when my boss started to get on my case about it, I just stayed calm and responded, “I’m doing my best all the time. I can’t do any more.” He knew I was right and so that tended to stop him in his tracks.

    3. memyselfandi*

      I came here with the same ideas, When I took my state job one of the first things I was told was to let go of the need to get it all done. After a while I realized that many senior managers had internalized this to such a degree that they has no expectation that anything would get done. Even if federally funded programs had an expectation that the things they paid us to do would get done. Obviously it was totally dysfunctional, I could not perform to the expectations of my federal funders, so I left. But, going back to the first statement about letting go of the need to get everything done, which was an accurate statement given the nature of the work we did. Ultimately I realized that I was a person who needed a sense of completion in my work, so I took that into consideration in looking for my next position. My advice would be to think about how great your need is to get things done, and if it can’t be met in your current position, then leave.

      1. too many too soon*

        At my state agency we’re often told that not everything can be done, don’t work off the clock, etc but if we act on this direction we’re bombarded with freaked out faculty who demand their particular things get done no matter what it takes (and these are self-created ’emergencies’).
        Faculty have been trained to close every email to staff with some pat on the head and ‘we appreciate you’ smiley, but the caste system remains as does the expectation that the servant class will bow, scrape and hustle.

    4. Nicotena*

      I suspect this is in part due to the loss of secretarial support staff. It used to be that there were secretary pools to assist with correspondence and administration, but nowadays only the most senior roles seem to get an assistant, and most white-collar workers are expected to manage their own travel and administration.

      1. Joy*

        I think you are onto something here. Ironically I think email lead the way to get rid of secretarial staff, since the perception is managing your own mail is less labour intensive, but as it also lowered the barrier to sending emails, people get SO much more written communication and can’t keep up with it!

        Honestly when I read this I thought OP needs an admin assistant who is in charge of their inbox and triaged, files, schedules, follows up, and manages deadlines for them. I bet OP would have a reasonable chunk more time then, especially as they describe themselves as senior enough to delegate actually accounting tasks.

        1. OP*

          Omg you are both so smart. I’m one level below where I could get an admin (but I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to that level because this is where people either make it or get asked to leave) but that would help a lot. But I wonder if there are other admin things that I can get some support on.

      2. AVP*

        Totally agree! After I hit “send” on that I realized that the AI Robot is not the only solution, an actual live EA is usually the answer.

    5. Jen*

      Hey OP! Tax Director at a large regional in SF :) There are a variety of ways to manage your inbox!

      One is – to not! There are a lot of people who don’t, because the thing is, especially as you get more senior, a lot of the emails are nothing you need to spend any time on. You can choose to have everything come in as ‘read’ so there’s not a million unread messages waiting. A quick skim three times a day – first thing, noon, and last thing, to handle things that actually need a response from you and that can be forwarded to staff or admin to handle. Give yourself permission to not sweat the small stuff – you can only do so much and that means you have to prioritize. Some emails that request something from you might just not get done! If it’s actually important, they’ll reach out again, but odds are.. its not.

      Personally that gives me anxiety but it is a common solution.

      I keep my inbox clean. My mornings are dedicated to inbox management, sometimes it takes over an hour. The key is to still adopt the ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ mentality (and make sure to bill the time)! I have a folder for every client. Lots of emails can just be straight filed. If there’s a question in there I miss it will come up again or the staff will let me know I didn’t answer when they’re pulling the detailed info. Emails from clients requesting things – one minute to forward to delegate. Emails I’m cc’d on for no reason – file or delete. Emails about internal firm stuff – skim/delete or skim/save in an admin folder.

      Really, the only difference in the above two methods (which are the extreme ends of the spectrum) is whether you have a lot or a few messages in your inbox. For me, out of sight is out of mind. But really what is needed is a shift in perspective about what email is and how important it is. It’s a communications tool, and that’s it! You use it. It doesn’t require anything from you.

      To answer your other questions specifically:
      How do I know I’m working on the right projects when I don’t have time to organize/how do I organize without spending all your time organizing – don’t use email for this! You’ll have some sort of project/workflow management software, where you can look at a list of the projects you are on. Pick one time a week to review this list and touch base on all your projects, where they’re at, and what to focus on getting out the door because of FIFO or urgency.

      How do I ignore my inbox and get work done – you’ve been doing this for a few years, try and think about when you are able to focus in and just plow through return prep/review. Is it first thing? last thing? after lunch? Don’t schedule your inbox management then! Non-busy season, give yourself four hours every day to close outlook, not accept meetings (block the time on your calendar!) and just get stuff done. Busy season, rather than 50/50 focused work vs. inbox management and all the rest think more like 75/25 focused work vs. the rest.

      How do I not miss vital emails – check/file at least 2x a day.

      You’ve got this! From your question you are obviously conscientious and hardworking. Don’t be so hard on yourself!

      1. OP*

        Thank you, Jen. You get it. A lot of good stuff here. Especially the part about closing Outlook- the decadence!

    6. Erin from Accounting*

      Public accounting is absolutely one of the “incorrectly calibrated” jobs (at least for the employee). Accounting grads go in planning to only work a few years in public at most to get their CPA and make some connections and then leave for “industry” jobs at corporations. Turnover is high, understaffing is constant, and the public accounting firms rely heavily on recruiting from universities… often locking in candidates from junior or even sophomore year.

      1. OP*

        Correct. But I’m still here, like a sucker. I like the pay and the benefits, and I accidentally became too niche so there aren’t that many industry jobs that fit my needs. But it helps to be reminded that this is just a crazy industry.

    7. joanium*

      OP — this is a state of mind. You just need to find a way of coping with not being on top of it. I now treat email like Twitter. I dip in and dip out. I deal with the things that are important, sometimes I forget something but then I’ll remember again later or someone will remind me. My goal is not to be 100% on top of it, or make the right choices 100% of the time. Getting 90% there is good enough. In fact, my 90% is better than other people’s whatever%.

      I was in same place as you two years ago. I ended up going to our EAP, as well as asking all the senior people around me how they did it. One option is to get a personal assistant to triage for you. But even then, you’ll max out at some point so you need to get into the same state of mind as the above.

      EAP psychologist helped me the most. She said: ‘How do you know things are going well, if no one tells you they are?’ So you miss an email, you ask a dumb question, you forget to pass on a file. Does the world fall apart? Hey, it doesn’t! Oh well, guess I can just keep going like that.

  4. Paloma Pigeon*

    Would smart inboxes in your email help here? You can at least sort emails by sender so if you know who’s in charge of the most important projects that could be a quick culling method. I know this doesn’t work when the same 5 people are in charge of dozens of projects, but worth a shot?

    1. Np*

      I do this. OP, you could be basically describing me — especially when I’m running a trial or prepping for one, chaos ensues. I do the following:
      1. Firstly, I always keep Outlook open but switched off notifications. So I pop back periodically to see what has landed, but without those stressful notifications popping up on the bottom right corner.
      2. If something takes 5 minutes or less, I do it then and there. If it doesn’t, I quickly see if it has a hard and fast deadline (legally or court mandated). If it is a client based deadline and I can see that I won’t be able to meet it, I write back asap and counterpropose a deadline that’s more feasible. As soon as approval comes through (one hopes), I “flag” it accordingly.
      3. Each morning I try to start the day at 7am and go through the flags for the day before new emails start coming through. Obviously emails outside your time zone will still come through, but mine aren’t as frequent as the ones in my time zone. So it’s a bit of a quieter time where I can get stuff done.
      4. If I’m not meeting a deadline, I email the client asap and ask for an extension. Normally they are very accommodating and it does wonders for my stress levels.

      As to whether you’re doing things correctly…for me the main thing is to not miss court/legislative deadlines, which would be catastrophic. Client deadlines are also very important, but not as deadly (in my view); if clients aren’t having words with me, I figure I’m doing something right. I think this is what prioritisation means, after all.

      Best of luck, OP. I really do know how it feels.

      1. Shrinking Violet*

        Yes! Switch off the email notifications. I found that this one thing, all by itself, decreased my stress tremendously. When I’m in between tasks, I check the email. But I’m not being interrupted in the middle of things by notifications of half-a-dozen (minimum) emails that are nothing close to urgent.

      2. ChzPlz*

        One big caveat – pay attention to what is actually your responsibility and what isn’t.

        When you’re in triage mode, it is very easy to spend many five minute chunks answering emails that someone else on the thread would eventually take care of. I see this frequently with people who have been promoted up to team lead or their first managerial position.

        As soon as you’re engaged, you’re involved until the issue is resolved, or you’ve extracted yourself, so that five minute jump-in ends up eating hours.

        Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

      3. OP*

        This is so smart. I never really think to push back on client deadlines. I just agree to most things and then hate myself later.

        1. Little Pig*

          “My question isn’t really how to push back, delegate, or set boundaries.”

          Might not have been your question, but it sounds like it’s part of your answer

  5. Charlotte Lucas*

    Triage is great. I live & die by my Outlook calendar & To-Do list. Recurring to-dos are really useful.

      1. Lurker*

        The last two places I’ve worked for use Gmail and I miss the Outlook task list so much. I feel more disorganized without it. I’ve tried to use Gmail’s task list but it’s not user friendly at all. (I actually find Gmail awful for work emails, period.) I miss Outlook.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I’m at my first job that uses Outlook and I can’t imagine going back. I never realized how much extra work gmail was creating for me.

        2. LizbethsGarden*

          I had a job once years ago with Outlook and I still miss the task list. I’m currently using KanBan Flow — it’s the best substitute I’ve found. The free version is great and the Pro version has lots of great add-ons and is only $5 per month.

        3. Lenora Rose*

          I was only just shown the Outlook task list on this latest position, and I haven’t worked a lot of jobs yet where it would have made a huge difference (either the work was ongoing and predictable, though constant, or the work was unpredictable but intermittent enough that jobs weren’t butting up against one another in a way I couldn’t handle.

          1. Lenora Rose*

            Ack. Posted without getting to the key point. Which is that having just been showing this, and now anticipating a likely move to a position where I will need it, I have gone through a bit of what it could do specifically because I foresee it WILL be useful.

            My only previous workplace organizing tool I used was Habitica, and that was because I had household, kid, spouse and workplace stuff to track so I needed one place.

        4. raintree*

          Can’t you funnel your gmail through the outlook app? It’s something I wasn’t to do as well, gmail is the worst, but I keep pushing the research off to the next week.

          1. Lurker*

            Yes, you can. At my old job, the external IT company set up a way that my Gmail was coming through the Outlook interface, but then we switched to a different IT company and they wouldn’t support it. Also I remember there were some syncing issues – like things not showing up on my calendar. But the task list / reminders were there!

      2. Cat Tree*

        I love it that I can add an email to the task list by clicking a box, OR create a new task that didn’t come through email. I also like that I can set reminders.

        1. Lurker*

          Yes, I lived by the reminders. A lot of what I do is very cyclical so I would set up reminders for weekly, monthly, quarterly annual tasks. I also loved that you could set up reminders for specific emails. I would use that if someone asked for a report by a certain date — I would set up a reminder for a week or so before it was due to make sure I didn’t forget about it.

          With Gmail, I end up adding every task as a calendar appointment…much more annoying.

    1. SnapCrackleStop*

      I love that now, MS Planner is integrated with To Do in addition to the Outlook flagged emails! Now I can see the team tasks assigned to me in Planner together with my email follow ups.

    2. WonkyStitch*

      Yep! I am a huge fan of the To-Do/Task list and everyone I’ve ever told about it acts like it’s a revelation from heaven. You can drag emails over to the task bar to be looked at later, you can add your own tasks, you can set the follow-up date, etc. I love it.

      1. OP*

        I can’t believe I’ve missed the memo on the usefulness of the Outlook task list. Definitely going to try it.

  6. CR*

    Other than practicing Inbox Zero (which is my personal method and I find it amazing), maybe you need filters so emails from certain people or with certain keywords go to a specific folder?

    1. quill*

      I get a lot of emails that are “for your reference only” and they get dumped in folders that I clean out every once in a while. Fortunately most of them are auto-generated, so they’re easy to filter.

    2. ophelia*

      Interestingly, I practice whatever the opposite of inbox zero is. I aim for *unread zero* but I leave everything apart from spam or stuff I’ve actively deleted in my in-box. I can easily run one search later for what I need, etc. I will note that I rarely need emails from more than 12 months prior, and our IT dept has things set up so that things older than a year automatically archive on a rolling basis. I realize that this might be total chaos for some people, but it oddly works for me.

      1. Esmeralda*

        Yep, me too. Takes too dang long to clean up the mailbox. I’m a big fan of filters/folders and scanning the subject headers and senders.

        For instance, email from the dean or the provost or chancellor is actually not a priority unless the subject line indicates otherwise. Such messages are rarely actionable and if they are, my supervisor lets us know.

        “interesting article” type messages — I don’t even open them unless I have time and/or I trust the sender to send out articles that are actually interesting and useful. (I don’t even delete them…)

        List serve messages for one of my key functions: filter them, read them once or twice a week. Almost never something I need to deal with immediately. Lots of those are reminders (for stuff I’ve already done); I can usually tell from the subject header.

        Email from students: I open those pretty promptly (student service is one of my core functions) although I will triage them based on subject line.

        Email from coworkers, various constituents: open and read right away depending on who it is, what it’s about, whether it’s something I know I likely need to know.

        There’s a lot of stuff I scan the subject lines and never open. I am not stressed by seeing a big number of unopened messages, personally. Haha, some of my colleagues hyperventilate when I’ve shared screens and they see it. One even reported to my supervisor that I was neglecting important communications — insert eyeroll emoji, despite all the stuff I flat out ignore, I have an excellent reputation for responsiveness. Or maybe because of all the stuff I ignore, I can be prompt and responsive where it’s genuinely needed.

        Point being: figure out what you really really have to even open, what you have to read thoroughly, what you have to respond to, how quickly you have to respond. Filters and folders are your friends… You will need to spend a little time organizing what works for you, it is time well spent because it will save you so much time later.

        1. Nicotena*

          Yeah I was wasting a lot of time deleting or moving emails that weren’t worth the effort when I was trying to live inbox zero. I don’t find that google inbox is as easy to drag emails into files, which doesn’t help.

        2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

          My housemate has his spam catcher email on his phone app, and it has like 18,000 unread emails in it and seeing a red notification dot with a five digit number in it positively gives me the vapors, haha.

          1. Esmeralda*

            Haha I’m actually at about 2700 unread. Periodically (when I need something that’s “work” but is mindless) I do a search for my vacay/OOO responders and calendar confirmations and delete hundreds of useless messages at once: a tiny burst of feeling I’ve accomplished something.

      2. Bamcheeks*

        This is how I run my personal Gmail, but I’ve always found Outlook’s search tool isn’t good enough to do it. I think I’ve done a perfect search with “[colleague name] [project name] [unique term that I’m SURE will bring up the email I want]”, but it brings back 50-odd emails and none of them seems to be the one I’m looking for.

      3. nona*

        +1 – I’ll also sometimes use Outlooks Category color codes to help scroll thru recent emails. But I rarely sort anything into seperate folders. I’ve also got the Focused/Other view on, so most of the external/ad stuff that isn’t quite Spam, but would other just clutter up my inbox gets shifted out of view and lets me focus on the more pertinent stuff. I am also better about remember the people sending/on the email, so I search my inbox by person as much as I do by subject.

        I say go for the minimum amount of organizing it takes for you to find what you need, and don’t do any more than that.

        1. OP*

          This is good advice. I love the idea of the GTD system but I was turning organizing emails/ lists into another project I had to do.

      4. Wakeen Teapots, LTD*

        Team this. I have 55K items in my inbox right now and 164K in my sent. everything is as of this second read and acted upon. It’s just….how I do it. How it works for me. No time spent on folders or organizing, search and sorting when I need something. Time efficient.

      5. J*

        I dump all of my “done” or “FYI” messages into the archive folder as the searchable folder to bring things back up that I need later. I often need to reference these things again, but it is so helpful for me mentally to have an empty inbox to know when I don’t have anything actively needing my attention at that moment.

        Unfortunately my organization’s Outlook doesn’t allow the Boomerang add-on, but this is an amazing function for follow-up reminders and tracking messages that you’ve sent.

      6. H.C.*

        County government worker and ditto on anti-Inbox Zero (as I type this there are 5300+ unread ones in my inbox); I’ll quickly scan the sender, subject & first line to determine if it’s something that I need to read/act on, but def. not opening (let alone sorting) everyone of them.

    3. Xenia*

      I think filters might be a good solution too. I had a problem this last winter at an internship where a couple of colleagues were working on a shared Dropbox-like folder and generating a TON of automated messages to tell me what was changing in the folder. I had to see when some things were uploaded so I wrote my very first email rule to automatically send the automated messages from only those sources straight into the trash. Instantly cut down my email inbox by 15%z

      1. Kes*

        Yeah especially in a situation like this, any filters OP can set up to clear types of emails they know they’ll receive that don’t need action or aren’t urgent would probably be helpful to cut down the amount that they need to get through in order to stay on top of what does need action from them. Combined with some way of marking what needs action if you can’t get to it immediately (personally I use categories for this, with different colours for levels of priority; you can also mark things for follow up)

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Email rules are a life saver. I get copied on a bunch of stuff that I don’t need to act on, but having the information occasionally comes in handy down the line, so my inbox sends them to a folder where I can just go in and mark them as read a few times per day.

      3. Zephy*

        I love Outlook filters. I have one set up (that I think I need to revise, since it hasn’t been working lately) to push Sharepoint “someone did a thing” notifications into a particular folder. I have another one set up for DocuSign requests – one of my tasks involves processing DocuSign forms, they come through at irregular and unpredictable intervals and having them all in one place makes it easy to keep track.

        Depending on how OP’s specific company utilizes their email client, it may or may not be easy for her to implement a sophisticated system of inbox filters, though.

        1. ophelia*

          Oh, I should note that apart from my otherwise chaotic in-box, all microsoft notifications (sharepoint, teams, etc) ABSOLUTELY get filtered into the trash, because it’s absurd to receive an email any time someone mentions you in a document you *already have open for editing* or updates a teams channel that also gives you a notification, aaaaugh.

      4. Serin*

        I work on, like, steps 12-14 of a 20-step process, and all the alerts on all the steps are sent to a mailing list that I’m on. So I have a folder in Outlook called Probably Trash, and a rule that sends anything with certain keywords in the subject line right into that folder.

        This spares me the anxiety of worrying that I’ll miss something that matters to my steps because someone kept using “Re: Re: Re: Re: Step 3” instead of changing the subject line, but it also gets them the heck out of my inbox.

        I’m also experimenting with using conditional formatting to make certain senders more visible, but I can’t yet report on whether it works well for me. Worth a try, though.

    4. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I inbox zero as well, make heavy use of filters, and also in Outlook you can color-code certain emails, so any email from my boss shows up in my inbox list as purple bold font as opposed to anything from the hoi polloi that shows in the system default. (Not the whole email is purple and bold, just the line for it in the inbox list view.) This is done via conditional formatting, so you can do it based on sender, subject line etc, and it’s found under View > View Settings > Conditional Formatting. It’s not an automated categorization, the email doesn’t go anywhere else, but it’s a visual for in your inbox only.

      1. Chipotle*

        I just did this for my boss! I assigned her lime because… it’s not my favorite color. :) Thank you!

  7. Eldritch Office Worker*

    “How do I know I’m working on the right projects when I don’t have time to organize? How do I organize without spending all my time organizing? How do I ignore my inbox and get work done? How do I not miss the vital emails in my inbox that I’m ignoring?

    I feel like I missed a class. ”

    I feel this so hard, OP. I’m not sure I have advice – I usually get to the point I need to organize, set aside time I don’t have to do so (that time may be on an evening or weekend depending on how piled-on I feel), and then it lasts…a week? Because organization requires upkeep and..yeah.

    So solidarity, and interested in seeing the responses.

    1. Presea*

      I find that automating as much of my organization as physically possible helps a lot. The system can’t fall apart in a week if me doing nothing to maintain it is the expected behavior! (But of course, this is possible because I have a tech-heavy job where I largely do one singular task all day and I have free reign to install whatever software I need… your mileage may vary)

    2. Snark No More!*

      I agree, but it’s not really an “organize all or organize nothing” proposition. You can start today and leave the backlog. So your current stuff will be organized in folders, then you’ll be surprised how quickly the rest go in when you do 5 old ones per day (or a number of your choosing).

    3. Anon academic*

      My favorite large-scale organizational strategy is to mark off “do not schedule” days (or half days if finding an entire day is impossible). Schedule one for just after the busy season and use it to strategize for the slow season AND actually start one back burner project. Then schedule a few more to work on that big project. On those days, set your email to away if at all possible. If not, just check for absolutely crucial emails once or twice at most. I’m an academic with a lot of teaching and day-to-day work but also really important big projects that I have to get to in order to keep my job, and absolutely no external structure to support the scheduling of them. I think I would have burnt out without this strategy.

  8. Janie*

    Oh man, this is me, 12 months a year. And I can’t figure out how to solve it. I’ve delegated everything I can, but the fact is that I am doing the equivalent of three full time jobs and I can’t make the days longer. And I don’t always have control of deadlines–they are often imposed and I have to drop everything to meet them.
    I’m never ever going to be caught up. And the worst thing is that I hate that I am inconveniencing so many people by not being able to respond in a timely manner. And I always know that there are likely several bombs in my inbox waiting to go off because I haven’t had time to get to them.
    I don’t recommend this, but the only way I can sometimes even get to the important email and requests is to work Sundays: There are fewer new messages coming in and so I can try to get through some of the backlog. I get up, make coffee, and sort my emails by oldest first. Last Sunday I was able to get through July and some August emails.
    I hate that I have to do this and I am totally burned out, but I can’t solve this either. I love what I do, but the workload is unbearable.

      1. misspiggy*

        Yes. I think we would all benefit from being clear in our own minds which bombs we’re willing to let go off, and brave enough to let it happen.

        1. PayRaven*

          This right here. My organization is endemically populated by superheroes who will quietly try to make things work, and the result is that a lot of the people in charge /genuinely don’t realize there was a problem/.

          Things can go wrong. It will ultimately be fine.

      2. SansaStark*

        That’s been my mantra for the past 18 months. The bombs have gone off, senior staff is definitely aware due to member complaints to them, and…..we’re still understaffed to a painful degree. I’ve decided to just match their energy on this. If they’re not concerned that we’re over a year behind on a time-sensitive project, why should I be?

        1. Aggretsuko*

          Yeah, pretty much. Some people and their problems are just….gonna fall off the plate, not get their help, and bombs will go off.

          1. SansaStark*

            Exactly. It’s disappointing, but I can’t let it affect my mental health. We’re not surgeons; no one is dying.

    1. Mina*

      Hi, thanks for writing this out. I am sorry you are in this boat too but it felt like a relief to see my exact experience described. I don’t think there are real solutions for any of us as long as employers think it’s ok to give employees impossible jobs.

  9. Xenia*

    I would suggest that, at least during the slow season, you turn off your email alerts. If you’re anything like me, I don’t have to get a lot of email for it to be a major disruption; reading any email can break my flow because I have to stop thinking about what I was working on, go to the email, answer the email, and then try to remember what I was working on in the first place. Rarely do I find that i have to respond within 8 hours to prevent screaming disaster. So maybe do some preventative triage. If you know that you’ll be getting a lot of non-crucial email from a specific source, maybe set up an outlook email rule that funnels it all into a specific folder that you just don’t look at more than once a day.

  10. Forrest Gumption*

    No advice, just a comment…It seems clear that your department is understaffed, since you are constantly behind and working such long hours. Framing it this way can make your chronic overload feel more like the systemic issue it is, and not a personal failure. (On a side note, I know it’s probably not in your power to change, but surely your company can afford to hire more people so that staff are not constantly overworked, considering how much $$ Big 4 firms rake in???)

    1. Xenia*

      The biggest problem with that for Big 4 accounting is that the long hours are cyclical. You get a boom in early spring and late summer and then the workload dies down again. Trying to convince the firm to hire more people who would be sitting idle for half a year might be a bit ineffective.

      1. Forrest Gumption*

        She says she’s very busy in the off-season too. It is an industry issue, but this industry needs to change, because it’s famous for burning people out. (Spoken as someone who used to work in one of the Big 5 firms, back when there were actually 5)

        1. Aquawoman*

          I’m so old, I remember it being the Big 8.

          But, yeah, it’s ridiculous and abusive and just so the equity partners can afford a third beach house.

      2. Nicotena*

        They could still have temporary admin staff come on, it seems to me – to take everything but the core work tasks off the plate of people doing taxes. It seems to me that an admin could handle someone’s inbox for them and quickly learn which emails are essential, and group those essential matters into one check-in, which is partly what it sounds like OP is struggling with.

          1. Lenora Rose*

            It doesn’t now… but COULD it?

            “We do it this way because we always did” is not a viable reason something isn’t a decent solution. Especially when the way “we always did” is known to burn people out.

      3. Rara Avis*

        The accountant we use for taxes (a small local place) DOES hire extra staff for tax season. They seem to have no trouble finding part timers, otherwise retired accountants, etc.

    2. KingKatzen*

      This is how it is. Purposely understaffed and everyone squeezed to the last dollar. Big 4 are known to work young people to the bone right out of school until they either drink the Kool-Aid or jump to industry. That’s the model.

    3. TechWorker*

      Thinking of it as not a personal failure really helps. My workload does not sound as unmanageable as OPs, but at the same time I am never ‘done’, my todo list is always weeks long and there’s always about a million things I could/should be doing better. And yet. I still get decent performance reviews and my manager does understand that it is not possible to do EVERYTHING. Giving your permission to drop the balls that don’t matter definitely helps stress wise. (Ofc, if all the balls matter you can’t do that, and that’s probably industry and context dependent.)

    4. OP*

      General commentary on the industry: yeah, basically their business model depends on overworking people. I do think that they’re finally trying to change things but it’s slow moving. I think the future is automation but our technology is not there yet. On my team, it’s leadership’s dream to smooth out the work so that it’s not so many peaks and valleys, but that’s just not the reality. We have hired seasonal help in the past, and borrowed from other groups at the firm, but it’s hard to find enough qualified people to feel a difference. Trust me, I was in charge of working with our recruiting team on hiring seasonals. We hired 11 one year, which was the most we could find, and it was still just a drop in the bucket. This year was especially rough, with information coming from clients much later than we need it. That’s an area where they partners could really help us by cracking down on clients.

  11. JP*

    I’m not sure there is really an answer for this. I’ve been struggling with this at my workplace for years, and it’s getting to the point where it’s pushing me out the door. I’m really overwhelmed and stressed, and my work isn’t the kind of quality that I want it to be at, and it wears down on you.

    I will say, though, that it would be better if you can maybe ignore your inbox for a chunk of time and set aside times to check on it throughout the day, instead of constantly monitoring it. I treat my inbox almost as a to do list. I have a few folders set up where I’ll save emails that I think I may need at some point in the future. Once I’ve finished dealing with an email, it either gets moved into one of these folders or deleted. I save deleted emails for up to a year before clearing them. My deleted folder is like a short term searchable repository, the folders are the long term stuff to be kept.

    I used to feel like I was doing well if I had less than thirty emails in my inbox. Nowadays, I struggle to keep it below 100.

  12. Bamcheeks*

    > How do I organize without spending all my time organizing?

    A big thing that has made a difference for me is spending some time organising– making sure there is a couple of hours scheduled every week (or four hours every two weeks) for organising and going through email deleting everything that’s no longer relevant, converting emails into To Dos, and treating that time as relatively non-compressible. The danger is that that’s the bit of the week that you schedule over when things start to get busy, but treating it as non-optional as far as possible means you don’t get to the stage where you’re sure there’s several IMPORTANT things lurking in your email inbox but there’s no way of finding them that doesn’t involve dealing with all the back and forths about room bookings and collections for birthdays and newsletters from your professional organisation and reminders from HR about the DSE training and so on.

    This is probably World of Bad Practice, but it actually works quite well for me to do this whilst watching TV, or during the kind of bigger committee meeting where you have to be there for two and a half hours but only agenda item 1 and 8 are relevant to your area. It doesn’t require much concentration or deep thought, but it does require non-compressible time, and I actually don’t mind doing it of an evening whilst watching something relatively mindless on TV.

    1. Hillary*

      This. I do this on Fridays, usually an hour in the afternoon when I’m out of thought cycles for anything complicated. I use a combination of calendar, email, and kanban to manage my tasks. In general if it’s in my inbox it requires action or I skimmed and didn’t file/delete. Recurring tasks get a calendar entry. i should use outlook tasks but haven’t gotten around to it.

      I re-sort my inbox by subject line and start at the top, bottom, or middle (I try to alternate) and start filing. Most of them will be things that just didn’t get filed/deleted. If it’s a task, is it still valid? If it’s valid is it on my kanban?

      1. Sunflowers*

        Agree. A good thing to do on Friday afternoons. My goal is to spend “just enough” time organizing so that I feel “in control”, and forget about the rest, or accept that you can’t control everything. Like the triage OP does for busy season. Define what your “triage” will look like during the off season so you don’t spend all your time organizing, and can get some big projects done.

    2. Crazy Young Cat Lady*

      I think that another to bear in mind is that some organization is better than none. When you are rushed, you can do things like dump all emails related to project X into one folder, and then sort it out more concisely when things are slow. This can save you some time especially when you are trying to go back and find important emails.
      In conjunction with outlook filters and color categories, I also occasionally use sticky notes for backburner type things. If there is something I need to follow up on that isn’t time sensitive, but it’s waiting on input from others, it goes on a sticky note. I have a designated place for these by my computer. When things are finally a little bit slower, I briefly look through my sticky notes and quickly follow up on them. Once they are done, the sticky note is thrown away, but if it’s not ready yet, it just stays in its spot.

    3. Drizzle Cake*

      Yes, this! I sit down with myself for 15 minutes in the morning, organise and plan my day. It makes a huge difference.

    4. LilyP*

      Yeah, I think organizing time can feel really frustrating in the moment, like you’re just spinning your wheels and not getting anything *done*, but it really often does pay dividends in making the rest of your time efficient and making sure you’re working on the highest priorities.

  13. Anonya*

    I feel this so much. I can do great keeping up with a system when my work stays at a medium pace. If it picks up too much, I fall behind and can’t maintain it. If it’s too slow (super rare), I don’t have enough momentum to keep up my system. I feel a lot of work-related anxiety because it simply is not possible to do it all, at least not with my energy levels. When I’m working at peak levels, I crash hard at the end and become practically immobile and unable to accomplish anything. This is the job. Some of it’s predictable, but a lot of it just isn’t. My predecessor struggled with it, too. In higher ed and considering a career change.

    1. Np*

      Sorry, this is wrongly nested. I don’t have a smart inbox (and don’t know what it is!!). I meant to post under Abogado Avocado…

  14. Abogado Avocado*

    First, I sympathize. As a lawyer, I experience this, too, albeit in different contexts. Second, I recommend making your email program do more to alert you as to what’s important and what’s not. I use Outlook and, while it’s not my favorite program in the world, it’s what my employer prefers, so I have learned to be a power user of it. That means I create files and sub-files, and use rules and set alerts so when things get crazy, I can be sure I’m dealing with the important stuff and leaving the unimportant stuff for later, when I can take a breather.

    In your case, you might consider creating subfiles for each client, for emails from certain of your managers, and/or for topics important to your work. This will at least allow you to see, when looking at the program, where the incoming has landed and whether you need to check things now or later.

    The other task you might want to set for yourself is to check your email for important work-related incoming at various times per day (I’d say no more than 3 times). Set the timers, then check the email when they go off, deal with the important stuff, and go back to your regularly scheduled work.

    I hope this helps. I’ll be interested to see what others recommend.

    1. Nicotena*

      During true periods of emergency, I only skim my email once a day, in the mornings. My field has few emergencies though. At one point I had an out-of-office going continually so people would know I was only able to respond with that turnaround. This wouldn’t work if it’s out of step with company norms though.

  15. Jay*

    I’m curious why they write, “My question isn’t really how to push back, delegate, or set boundaries.” It sounds like that is exactly what is needed! This person sounds hard-working and generally on top of things. If they have more work than there’s time for, they have more work than there’s time for. There’s no hack or productivity method that makes a person superhuman. Plus, taking a vacation or a couple sick days shouldn’t negatively affect someone at all, much less for months!

    I vote for delegating more if possible and if that doesn’t work, arguing for the need of a new hire and if that doesn’t work, finding a better company. Now is the perfect time to negotiate since there’s a worker “shortage.”

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Because they’re already doing that to the extent they can and they work in an industry where this is the rule not the exception. A new company will have the same issues.

    2. Ashley*

      To me some of this is wondering if the right support staff is in place. A good support person can help keep a boss on top of things and get the emails while they are out sick or on vacation so the return pile is more manageable. A good person probably isn’t an entry level cheap position, but you can really maximize the work output with the right person.

  16. ABBBBK*

    Email is terrible. If you have some authority over people, can you train them to contact you other ways? Look into what people are emailing you about and see if there are other avenues. If it’s questions about work product, can they hold them all until a scheduled meeting? If it’s stuff you need to do, is there a way for them to directly put them on a to-do list or work plan? If you have slack channels or IM, is that a better avenue for quick questions, or worse? The idea is to make your inbox a box of communications from people you don’t have much control over or non-urgent memos.

    As for prioritization….that’s super hard.

    In general, I think you could help yourself out by just accepting that you’re in a rough role and there will be a lot of lose ends and flying by the seat of your pants.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I see your point but I disagree, at least for my personal workflow. Teams messages are way more disruptive than email, as are phone calls and I’m already up to my ears in agenda-heavy meetings. Something like Jo says below makes more sense to me – emails are not the correct venue for *urgent* communications, and teach people to expect __ turnaround time for email questions. Also teach people what “urgent” actually looks like. And then work through the inbox as time allows.

      1. Aquawoman*

        Agree. If all my emails were calls, I would have no ability to block my time and thus could get nothing that requires sustained thought done. And I don’t have an abusive schedule, just a really good mix of tasks ranging from the 5-minute mundane to things that require enough focus that they aren’t worth doing if I have less than an hour at a time.

      2. Nicotena*

        It’s true that if the whole firm is like this, they could establish a culture where truly urgent emails (with everyone agreeing what that means) are marked URGENT or it’s in the subject line – so OP could create a filter to just see those, and get to the rest when she gets to them. That requires everyone to be on board though.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Yes but you can train people how to interact with you without revamping a whole firm culture. I definitely know which of my coworkers are better with IM or email, which are going to call me the second I send them an email, who is looking at things outside of work hours, etc. “I won’t respond to email with the urgency you might be expecting” is an easy thing for people to learn about your work style.

        2. OP*

          One thing that has helped is people tagging me in emails when I specifically have to do something. When I’m busy, I’m archiving most emails except for those.

  17. Jo in OKC*

    I try to get people to send me anything urgent via Teams.
    So, email can (and is) ignored through the day unless I happen to have spare time to look.
    “There is no such thing as an emergency e-mail.”

    1. L in DC*

      I just got to a new job and I’m training my folks to text me on Teams when it’s urgent because it cuts down on emails. Slowly but surely, they’ll get there. I also tell my folks that if they email me something important, they need to follow up w a text or phone call.

  18. Michelle Smith*

    Let go. Seriously, let it go. You cannot change the workload, the rate of the emails, etc. What you CAN change is your perspective on it. You are organized and doing your best. The sky is not falling.

    Let go of the self-imposed responsibility to respond to every email immediately. Let go of the idea that because Something Happens and you handle it, that everything else is a disaster and you’re so behind. It isn’t and you’re not. You just prioritized appropriately, like you’re supposed to, and handled the emergency situation first. Everything else can and did wait, like it’s supposed to.

    Remind yourself that your job is, at the end of the day, just a job. You may care about the work, be passionate about it, and think it matters, but at the end of the day it is still work. Not life. Control what you can and let go of the rest. Make time for yourself to relax and unwind. Plan a reward for yourself after the end of the busy season for getting through another grueling cycle. Use your nights and weekends for the things that make you happy and that matter to you, whether that’s hobbies, family, etc. Don’t fall into the trap of self-medicating with substances like alcohol that can spiral into larger problems.

    If you’re struggling with how to let go, get a therapist or even a career coach. I ended up hiring a coach to help me with my job transition (which I still have not accomplished by the way). She ended up helping me change my entire perspective on my current job so I’m not nearly as anxious and stressed out on the day-to-day. I let go. I stopped allowing myself to get upset that my coworkers don’t provide me the information I ask for and don’t promptly respond to my emails. I stopped spending hours trying to track them down and beg for the information, documents, etc. that I need to do my own tasks. I control what I can control and I let go of the emotional responsibility and time investment that was sucking away my own energy and happiness. And the sky didn’t fall. No one blames me when there are delays out of my control. In fact, I got an unsolicited email to my boss from someone with power over my career and reputation heaping on praise…weeks after I started letting go and taking my time back.

    I promise you, there is so much power in preserving your energy and protecting yourself. If you cannot change your job, change how you relate to it and the energy you show up with. It will make all the difference.

    1. OP*

      Smart advice. I’m not that emotionally invested but I am invested in an achievement-oriented sense. I want to use my down time to implement *something* that will make a difference, but I’m starting to wonder if I should even be focused on advancing or if I should just enjoy my family. The problem is that it’s an up-or-out culture so I kind of have to keep grinding or else get pushed out.

  19. The Rural Juror*

    This worked well for me, but I realize it might seem antiquated to a lot of folks. I retain more information by writing it down – physically writing. It sticks in my brain easier somehow if it’s written by my own hand and computed in my brain. I don’t get the same level of retention from typed notes or lists in my iPad.

    Back when I had a job where there was just too much to do and not enough hours, I had a notebook on my desk where I would write down all the things that needed to be done. Sometimes it was just one long-running list, sometimes it was columns with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priority items. I would keep it to one-page as much as possible and tear off an old page and transfer undone items onto the new list the next week. It helped me to be able to glance at it and mark things off as they were finished.

    Again, I know this isn’t the most modern way to do things, but it worked for me. The act of having to transfer unfinished items helped me see the back burner items that kept getting pushed off and keep them somewhere near the forefront of my brain. As the week went on, and new emails kept coming in, I would add tasks to the list and decide what needed to be done in what order. I realize that may not be the best if you’re not able to stop and read the emails, though. I take advantage of the little Outlook notifications that pop up on the bottom corner of my screen and can usually see if it’s an email with an item to add or not pretty quickly.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I’m also a pen-and-paper person. It sticks in my head better. It’s probably less efficient in some ways which is frustrating. But it helps.

      1. PT*

        There is SCIENCE behind this! It is because you are using multiple sensory inputs to record it. The tactile aspect of forming the shape of the letters, using your muscles, feeling it on the paper, in addition to seeing and reading it, helps encode it in your brain better than just the tap-tap-read of typing does.

        Taking notes by hand is better than typing them.

      2. nona*

        I have my post-it list system.
        1. High level projects/areas
        2. post it for each of those project areas and the subtasks that are needing to be done for those
        3. the Today list – the 4-5 (or however many) things that I want to get done *today*. helps to focus me among all the outstanding things and keep from getting overwhelmed. It may be a mix of things on the #2 lists and things in my email, or things just swirling around in my head.

    2. Hermione Danger*

      That’s actually a very modern way to do things. It’s just that now it’s called bullet journaling, and it’s really good advice.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          With occasional fancy doodles to make the lists more satisfying to look at, more or less yeah.

        2. Sapientia*

          That’s where it got its name, yes. I’d say the essential thing about it is that it’s all in one place (the notebook) and since it’s only paper and pen, you can tweak the system to accommodate your needs. But at the same time it forces you to reflect about your needs.

          There is a quick introduction to it on bulletjournal.com if you want to look it up. I found the blog there quite helpful as well.

      1. Sapientia*

        Just thought the same: Sounds a lot like bullet journaling! Which has really helped me keep an overview of things by looking at certain time frames (year, month, week, day) and deciding which are the most important 3-5 ones in that time frame.
        Of course when I get too stressed and fall off the wagon, I have the same problem as OP, namely either sacrifice a load of time to organise everything again or just do something while not knowing if it’s the right priority. I suspect the solution is to consistently spend a small amount of time each day to organise and to be okay with the fact that it won’t be perfect. That’s much harder done than said, though!

        1. Long Time Reader*

          Yup. I’m in another “the work will never be done” kind of field and my bullet journal has done wonders for my sense of being relatively in top of things. I can’t accidentally delete a note, and my brain has started to trust that when I write things down, I can look them up later. Having everything- calendar, to-do lists, meeting notes- all ina single notebook is helpful too

    3. SansaStark*

      Me too. When I’m super stressed or have too many things going on, I take a minute to actually write down what needs to be done. I typically divide them into “Projects” (things with multiple steps) and “Tasks” (things that can just be accomplished in one step). It helps me get clear about what actually needs to be done.

    4. Flower necklace*

      My to-do list is a stack of post-it notes on my work computer. Not only do I prefer physically writing things down, but it’s also easier to do it that way. Things come up when I’m teaching all the time. I don’t have the time to stop and type something into an electronic to-do list. It’s much easier to grab a post-it note and stick it on my computer. Then, when I have a minute, I check the stack of post-it notes and toss everything that’s been done.

      Not the neatest looking system, but it works.

    5. Tuesday*

      I’ve just started to do this, and I’m finding it really helpful. I agree – there’s something about writing with a pen and paper.

    6. OP*

      I keep my Getting Things Done system in a notebook and I love it. Or I would love it if I had time to keep up with it. I’m a big fan of paper.

  20. drpuma*

    One thing that was really helpful for me when my workload doubled a few months ago was accepting that my brain is finite. I acknowledged that at best I have 4 hours per day of really deep productive brain cell energy and I’d plan my days around that. If all my productive time needed to be taken up by meetings (and not every meeting is worth the brain cells), I’d go easy on myself in terms of what else I got done that day. On lighter days I would block time on my calendar to focus on specific work. I’ve found I can quickly prune my inbox by organizing it by sender rather than conversation. That makes it easy to quickly mass-delete automatically-generated emails so that when I re-sort by conversation I know everything is from a coworker.

    You ask “How do I know I’m working on the right projects when I don’t have time to organize?” and that’s really a boss question (or boss problem, if you can’t ever get a solid answer). That’s different from getting comfortable with what you describe as a company norm that folks are forgiving about occasionally falling behind.

    1. KHB*

      That’s been a really useful insight for me too: That just because I have X hours in a day doesn’t mean I can do absolutely anything at tip-top efficiency for all X of those hours. If you have the luxury of being able to plan your days to intersperse “easy” tasks and “hard” tasks, that sounds like a great way to go.

    2. spinstah*

      I developed a very similar system when my last job started to get overwhelming. I spent half to two-thirds of the week in meetings, and sometimes that meant I only had little half hour chunks of time. I got a paper planner with the week on the left and a plain lined page on the right. To dos were in a haphazard list on the right and each week I’d go through and either add bigger items on days when I had enough unbroken time to deal with them, or make a note that it was a busy meeting day. I tried to save all the little quick, relatively brainless tasks for busy meeting days.

  21. Chc34*

    Honestly? I think part of this is accepting that you can’t get to everything. Emails are going to go unread, things are going to get missed, projects are going to stay on the backburner. It sounds like that’s the nature of your workload and your job. Learning to let go of the expectation you put on yourself that you will can be really freeing.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, on some level we are just all going to….well, fail. I feel bad, but my job has shit me over so much that I’m not giving them a second extra than they pay for, and if a lot of people don’t get their help, then….oh well.

    2. Mimi*

      And also realizing that you can’t be in go-go-go mode all the time. You can do busy season levels of work during the busy season, but you *will not* be as productive during slow season, because you need time to recoup everything and recover from that. One of the things I’ve worked to accept is that if there’s a period where I’m living by deadlines, when the deadlines ease up for a while, it will be hard to motivate myself to do things that don’t have deadlines. It can help to make artificial deadlines, but also I just won’t do as much for a certain period of time, and that’s okay and normal and expected. Beating myself up about it will just mean that I need more time to recover.

  22. Prof-elsie*

    I did something this summer during my downtime that has made a huge impact. I analyzed my workload and put it on a several pages of a spreadsheet according to categories. I’m a professor who coordinates a program in addition to teaching and serving on committees. I focused on recording recurring tasks, how often they recur, which month they recur, how much time they take, and how much focus they take. I even noted which software they use, if any. After I did this, I understood my workload so much better —what could be delegated, what I could do when I had time for deep focus, what I could do, when I didn’t have the time or energy for deep focus. I’ve since time blocked my work schedule so that I would have time to do the deep focus work that was being crowded out by other things.

    1. Sapientia*

      Oh, that sounds fascinating! Not sure if I can summon the energy to replicate this method, but I really like the idea. Thanks for sharing :)

      1. Prof-elsie*

        I was inspired by Cal Newport’s book _Deep Work_ and the need to prepare my annual review. I was able to generate to do lists for each month based on the recurring tasks, which has really helped.

    2. deesse877*

      You are a goddess. Teach me your ways.

      More seriously, would you mind sharing a general field? Your description sounds like a lab or social science to me, and I’m in the humanities, but curious if I could make something similar work for me.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yeah that is a factor in my case too. There are still strategies! But it’s an extra hurdle.

    2. Janie*

      LOL. Mine is diagnosed, but even medicated, an unreasonable workload is…unreasonable. But, yes, some things absolutely take me longer to do than they should, some tasks often seem unsurmountable, and developing my systems is also time spent (when I don’t have any extra time), and of course, certain distractions can derail everything.

  23. Quickbeam*

    Not sure if this is useful but I get boatloads of e-mails every day at work that are sent to a too broad user group. I litetrally do not need to see them and have no use for the information. I spoke to the manager of that unit and asked of they could please create a narower user group for their informational e-mail notifications. They did so and it cut down my day to day inflow by 30%. It’s a small thing but it did help.

  24. Mr. Cajun2core*

    Is it possible for you to set aside time to “ignore interruptions” including the phone and emails. This may mean closing your email if necessary and putting your phone on DND. You may just need an hour or two each day. We all know that with each interruption you lose more time than you realize. Then after that hour or two, you can review all of your emails or phone messages.

  25. Ama*

    I have a workload that’s a lot like this. I have two strategies that help me keep track of those projects that might at be lower priority for right now but do have to get done at some point. Both of these use Microsoft Office products because that’s what my current employer has available but I bet you could find ways to do similar things in other products (in fact before my office added OneNote to our suite I used Google Keep for the second strategy).

    1. If it’s a project that is related to something I can put in my calendar or a particular email chain, I use Outlook reminders. For example, I receive a lot of deliverables that do need to get logged in a particular way, but which may come in at a time when I’m busy with something else. I will put a calendar reminder on the email with the deliverable and set it to a day I think I’ll have some extra time — if it pops up and I’m still busy, I can use the snooze function to push it out a little further. This also works really well for emails from colleagues that are something along the lines of “no rush, but someday I’d love to pick your brain about X before we do this project six months from now,” which inevitably arrive at a point where I’ve got a thousand other things to take care of. This is particularly great for vacations because as I get to the last week or so before a long vacation I’ll start dividing my list between “Things that must be done before leaving” and “Things to do as soon as I’m back” which helps keep things from falling through the cracks.

    2. For bigger picture type projects or things that don’t connect directly to an email or calendar item, I have a running to do list in One Note. Every Friday I check in and review it, checking off anything I’ve done and moving all the not yet done tasks up to the top (I will also reorder them if there’s something that has suddenly become a higher priority). (I used to delete checked off items but the stress of the pandemic has really messed with my short term memory so now I keep them archived just in case I have a sudden anxiety attack about whether I actually did a certain thing.)

    1. Sapientia*

      Oh, I do number one as well! Great to see that it is a tried and tested method! I do try to set time aside every other month or so to go through all the open reminders as I keep snoozing them :)

    2. May Flowers*

      When my work world gets “out of control” busy like this, I also opt in to the power of Microsoft products. When the stress is at its worst, I spend an hour or two on a weekend at an outdoor location, taking time to unpack what’s on my plate. I find that connecting with nature while doing this unloading really helps me emotionally, preventing me from spiraling into outright panic.

      I do a brain dump in a bulleted list in Microsoft Excel–not looking at documents or emails, but just “dumping” the list of “To Dos” in a spreadsheet. Then I add an estimated number of hours in the row next to each task. I add that up to see where I am in total work hours and then make a decision about how to pace out the tasks over the next number of weeks.

      Then I turn to my Outlook calendar. I start blocking off time on my calendar for each of the tasks–writing the name of the task as the subject. This has proven to be a tremendous help in a work culture that leans heavily on meetings, since now I have blocked work time that others can’t use to schedule meetings. A manager I had a number of years ago encouraged me to “take proactive control” of my calendar, rather than letting my calendar control my work life. And this process helps me achieve that goal.

      I find that once I have my tasks listed in Outlook and the swirling mass of unfinished “To Dos” out of the ether of my mind and down on paper, my stress level reduces tremendously. It doesn’t necessarily cut down on the number of hours of work per week, but it does help me have a more emotionally stable response to the work coming in.

      In terms of responding to emails, I’ve learned over the years that I manage expectations of others by the speed at which I respond to emails. So, during the quiet times, I still try to wait at least 24 hours to respond to emails, so that I’ve set up the expectation that I’m not going to provide an immediate response. Many times, this also helps because others who are copied on the email may respond first, saving me some time. I also block out time each day to focus on email responses–usually in the afternoons when my brain is tired from work time or meeting time.

  26. Anon, obvs.*

    I know it’s wrong, but when I was in a similar situation, I considered paying a friend (a former admin assistant) to come to my house everyday and spend an hour or two helping me deal with email.

    Fortunately it didn’t come to that. I’m pretty sure I could have gotten away with it, but had I been caught it would have been bad news. Instead I got a different job.

    1. Van Wilder*

      LOL. On 9/15 when I was signing returns, (literally affixing a PDF stamp hundreds of times) I wished I could get my 5-year-old to do it for me while I took a nap.

  27. General Organa*

    I’m going to go in a slightly different direction than some of the commenters on this. For background, I am a lawyer who has moved from a very stressful BigLaw job to an equally stressful (fewer hours maybe, but higher stakes) nonprofit legal job, and I have anxiety issues that I see a therapist for. And my answer to “how do I keep up with something that can’t be kept up with?” is honestly, at this point, “work on accepting that I can’t.” As you say, you focus on your main deliverables and triage–if you do that, and if during the slow season when you have a minute to think you put some conscious thought into your email and to-do list systems (I live and die by my Outlook calendar, but I like tracking daily, weekly, and monthly must-do deliverables on paper) and adopt some of the great tips from other folks on this site, you are doing about all you can do about the actual work. But if you are anything like me, you might still have room to gain by working on your own mental health when it comes to learning to let go. I do that with my therapist, and by using conscious redirection techniques when I find myself getting anxious, and by asking trusted colleagues to tell me whether my work is satisfactory to them even if it might not feel satisfactory to me, and by asking my boyfriend to call me out when it starts to sound like I’m in an unproductive spiral. I wish you luck in finding what works for you!

    1. Marion Cotesworth-Haye*

      100% this. In these environments, you won’t ever be able to do it all, so the main solution is accepting that reality.

  28. Allison K*

    What works for me dealing with the email pile:

    1) turn off wifi. That way nothing comes in while I’m working on something else and I don’t get lost because I needed to “just look something up.”

    2) organize the inbox by Sender. That way if someone followed up, just answer the most recent email and delete the rest. This also immediately points out that there’s 3 months worth of newsletters I meant to get to and didn’t. Delete!

    3) make a game of “I’m going to do as many emails as I can in 30min” or whatever time you have.

    4) remember that most people don’t care if your email is perfectly phrased or spelled. It’s ok to be brief and to the point. Not agonizing over phrasing beyond basic kindness has sped me up a lot.

    Ongoing:
    Reduce clutter by unsubscribing from everything political and all newsletters unless you’re passionately interested, in which case send them to one folder you check weekly or monthly.

    And I set my email to delete automatically anything more than six months old. If I didn’t handle it, and they didn’t send another email or call, it wasn’t that important. If the opportunity was lost, oh well. If I was truly excited about it I’d have done it right away.

  29. Dragon Fruit*

    I know you wanted advice on how to manage your workload and not advice on pushing back but you absolutely need to push back. My spouse and I are CPA’s – I spent 6 years in public and was a Tax Manager and my spouse has 9 years in as a Tax Manager at a Big4. Managers/partners have a terrible habit of crushing well-meaning and hardworking people who do good work and won’t say no. You need to reach out to your mentor/councilor (whichever your firm calls it) and let them know what’s going. You also need to have your managers sort out what projects are a priority. If you have completing projects you need to put that back in their laps — it’s their job to work out scheduling and workflow, and to tell you what your priorities are.

    I benefited greatly by saying no to everyone in my firm at some point. I was able to concentrate on my work, better understand my clients, and was overall much happier. There were times that my workload in busy season would get to be too much and I noticed my ability to work greatly diminished — I was making lots of mistakes, could not remember any details about a return I just finished, and was not sleeping well. You can’t do good work with the workload you have and you’re not getting the learning experience you need to continue to improve.

    I beg you to push back on this. Saying no and standing up for yourself in a professional manner will be one of the greatest skills you can have. Every workplace does this (public accounting is far worse at it) so you will continue to be taken advantage of even when you have moved on from this firm if you don’t learn to advocate for yourself now.

    1. Me (I think)*

      I have to agree with this 100%. I am not in accounting or law or any similar field, but I work for a large organization and I’m the only person who does what I do — and a lot of people here want to give me assignments. For several years it was so overwhelming that it affected my health, but then we got a couple of new bosses, and I was able to start prioritizing my work, and turning down projects to better focus on the important ones. The job is still intense and requires long hours, but I am able to do the important work and not get bogged down or overwhelmed.

      Good luck, OP.

    2. OP*

      Absolutely agree with you if I were a Staff or a Senior. But I’m a Senior Manager and if I can’t handle the same client load that the other SMs can handle, I will be pushed out the door. Which may be the reality eventually but I’m trying to make the money now while I can.

  30. Sam*

    You need a great assistant!

    My boss does not read emails unless we are in a meeting and I open the email on my laptop for him to read. Otherwise, his emails are my problem. I read everything that comes in, file away half of it, respond to another third, and bring the tiny fraction that actually require his personal attention to him. I also manage his calendar, book all his meetings, plan his travel, and manage his corporate expense claims. That frees him to focus on the actual work his job entails.

    You didn’t make it to this role for them to pay you to panic over emails! Even if your admin skills were strong earlier in your career, it’s time for you to let go of that task entirely. Hire a talented assistant and let go of the urge to control your inbox. Someone can do it better at a quarter of your pay or less.

    1. OP*

      I wish I could. But there may be an admin pool that can take some tasks off my plate, and I can ignore some others.

  31. Checkert*

    Ohhhhhh how I don’t miss Big 4 life, for exactly this reason. The expectations are absolutely insane and for me, the benefits did not outweigh the ‘cost’. However, you are not alone. I think first and foremost you need to speak to your leadership and/or a mentor to get some tailored advice specific to your situation. The advice I most received was choose your time and effort wisely. There were endless projects and business dev opportunities one can find themselves involved in, but that doesn’t mean you should DO them all. Find the things you care about, the ones with impact and that fit your goals, and protect your bandwidth beyond those. That can be tough when the direct deliverables themselves are what is driving you underground, but in that case, SPEAK UP. Your manager/supervisor are not mind readers and if they are at all good at their job, they WANT you to come to them before breaking point to see if they can help resource, advise, or reframe things for you. We’ve all been there in Big 4 and it ultimately comes to you to protect what’s left of your sanity and ensure you are building a future you want and are excited about!

    1. OP*

      That is good advice. There are so many side projects that I think might make me look good, but if I don’t care about them, I can’t find the emotional energy to spend my time on them. My spare hours are too few.

  32. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Apologies if this gets lengthy! Veteran of more than one complete breakdown here. Some things I do nowadays when it gets to ‘arrgggomgwhatslartibartfast’ levels of work:

    1. Take regular breaks. I know, sounds counterintuitive when there’s not enough time but I’ve often found that 5, 10 minute stop gets the mind to drop a couple of gears.

    2. Risk assessment! I am in a different field to you (IT) but I’ve got good results out of looking through all the urgent tasks and doing a bit of thinking of a) what’s the worst case scenario here? B) what’s the impact? And C) what’s the likelihood of this? Working out that actually, yeah, it’s not that likely that one person’s machine going down is going to cause a multi-train pileup gives some perspective.

    3. Emails get specific time to deal with. Trying to deal with everything as it came in did nothing for me. I’ve got folders I’ll sort stuff into with names like ‘must be read in a week’ ‘must be read by tomorrow’ ‘information only’ that sort. Only things that stay in my inbox are things I have to deal with today.

    4. A to-do list doesn’t really work for me because my brain is a bit weird and prone to doing multiple things at the same time so I’ve got a big bit of paper (actually a sketchbook) on my desk with my favourite pens and I kind of do a neural map-ish drawing of things to start with/do alongside each other/relate to topic A. Helps to get the plan down on paper.

    1. Bamcakes*

      I’ve discovered I need two types of notebook— I have a squared jotter/pad for rough notes, visualisation, drawing things out when I can’t think, and doodling during meetings. Then I have a separate (expensive, pretty) journal that gets a page a week for one-line To Dos, broken down into a max of 3 sub-ToDos. At the end of each week I cross each item off or transfer it fo next week. I try and keep that very neat and pretty and brief.

      I used to find that my To Dos got lost in meeting notes and scribbles and visualisations, and separating the two has made a really big difference for me.

    2. "Creative" Type*

      So glad to hear some one else’s brain works like this! I’m most productive when i’m in the middle of 2-3 different tasks (most of my day-to-day workload can be divided into discrete tasks that take 5-20 minutes each) but if i get an interrupting slack or email on top of that, it all falls apart and i can’t remember what i was doing.

    3. OP*

      Funny you should mention risk assessment. That’s one of the areas of focus that my counselor gave me this year and it was always running through my mind as I was running out of time on this deadline.

      Neural map instead of to do list is fascinating. I will think about this.

  33. Midwestern Communicator*

    Email is a large part of my job – but this is what works for my husband and my mom (who is the owner of her own CPA firm). I’ve helped them implement this!

    1. Don’t check email every single minute. Turn off email notifications that show up in the corner of your screen.
    2. Set aside 30min-60min a few times a day to triage your email.
    3. Not every email needs a long response – you can set boundaries by not replying to every email.
    4. To prioritize, I would recommend using folders based on clients, and then one for each of the employees you manage, and then one for just general organizational announcements. Within those folders, have a sub folder for ones you need to get through or read later.
    5. For some, if you open an email that needs immediate response, make sure it pops out into a different window. I do this, and it helps make sure at the end of the day when I close out of my emails I know if there is one I haven’t gone through.

  34. anonymous73*

    Figure out the best way for you to organize your work in the non-busy season and then you won’t spend your time figuring our how to organize when you’re swamped. This can be different for everyone but I use my inbox as a to do list. Once I complete a task I file the email out of my inbox. You could also set aside times to check your email and not be tempted to check it every time something comes in. While I’m not an accountant, my last job was similar – we were super busy every year preparing for the yearly enrollment period and pretty slow the rest of the year.

  35. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I use the flag/followup feature in Outlook to highlight and schedule emails that really need my response or other action; if it’s just an FYI info email or friendly correspondence, I still keep it but I don’t need to flag it. I also set up filters to get them into project/client folders automatically so I can tackle them by project and not jump through a bunch of random emails.

    I keep a physical notepad for each major ongoing project I’m working on — yes, that means I have a stack of 9 yellow legal sized notepads with the project name written in sharpie across the spine. And all my random thoughts and meeting notes and to do lists, etc. go on those notepads.

  36. Little Pig*

    I’m in management consulting, and while it’s not exactly the same, I’d say our jobs are cousins. A few ideas come to mind:

    1. Never compromise on your ability to plan. Having 15 minutes in the morning to skim your inbox, set your priorities, and block out your day is a top priority, and the busier you are, the more you need it. The time you lose to planning is time that you save in efficiency. Non-negotiable.

    2. Talk to your mentors about this (and if you don’t have mentors, use this issue as a reason to find mentors). They might have some tactical advice, or they might see a larger issue that you don’t. For example, in my industry, when people start being promoted into manager roles, they often get overwhelmed because they can’t let go of the individual contributor work that they used to do, so they try to do it all. Mentors can help spot issues like these.

    3. Get comfortable with the idea that you’ll never get everything done. The to-do list will always be longer than your capacity, and you’ll kill yourself if this idea keeps stressing you out. Your job is structurally designed to be impossible, and you have to learn to be okay with that. In other words, care less.

  37. Sleet Feet*

    Fellow big financial worker switched to healthcare (which is just as if not more busy).

    Here is what I do.

    Organization:
    I set up 30 minutes of sacred time on whichever day makes most sense. Usually Monday or Friday. It’s first thing in the morning and I will decline meetings to preserve it. I mark it as busy. During this time I review my to do list and order by priority. I make sure I get those done or delegated.

    For back burner projects I evaluate where the org is – it’s ok if a back burner project simmers for two years and then gets turned off. It’s important you don’t let that stress you out. Sometimes good projects don’t get cooked often because regulatory changes barge in and demand attention now.

    Emails:
    Rules are your friend. Does Daren send you a lot of fyi emails that are nice to know to not critical? Put a rule so Darens emails go to the Daren folder. You can also make rules that give you an on screen alert. If you get an email from Sarah the super project manager on the C project you can have a rule that all emails from Sarah with C in the body or subject give you an alert.

    Backlogs. Delete them. Honestly 85% of the time older emails don’t matter anymore. If you have been gone for a week (or get over 500 emails a day and are gone for a day) then when I return I organize all emails by subject line. Skim the emails based on my rules for the vital subjects. Then I’ll read the latest email and if there doesn’t appear to be something I need to action from it then I will delete the entire chain. Because really if the latest email says OK we are going to do A,B, and C by next week then you don’t need to read through the nitty gritty of getting to that decision.

    Auto delete spam. You go to a conference and you get a million advert emails. Set up rules to auto delete all emails from UNeedMyServiced.net. how I handle it is as I see an email come in I right click it and choose set rule based on email and then it will auto fill my rule so all I have to choose is what to do with it (skip the inbox and delete it).

    Auto move industry news.
    I had special folders for BKD, advisory board, etc. Where all their emails wemt to a folder out of my inbox. I also had a folder called Small Hands von Clownface for any email with a certain presidents name in it. Of there is stresser you can sequester to only look at when you need to that helps so muchm

    Delegation:
    I know you said you don’t need tips on that, but my experience is that most people do not delegate nearly enough. In my early years in fiance it was really common for my boss to be drowning burning the candle on both ends and causing bottlenecks on projects while me and his other direct reports were having to make up work to be busy 8 hours a day (and plenty of my coworkers fartednarpund all day and stayed late to look good but they weren’t actually vusy either). Please be sure to look at this with a critical eye. Do you really have to attend and be the point person for that project or can you deputize Devon and give him a growth chance?

    Most important – say NO more. Seriously say no whenever you can for you and your direct reports.

    Good luck and I hope some of these work for you!

      1. miss chevious*

        Oh man, subject line is the FASTEST way to clear out your inbox, especially after you’ve been away for a while. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

    1. StlBlues*

      As someone who worked in audit for awhile, I second all of this. Organizing by subject line can also make your inbox seem a lot less scary — AND it allows you to read everything about one thread at once instead of skipping back and forth.

      When I was a junior auditor, I used to read everything. As I got more senior and was included on more and more FYI emails, I set up a rule to automatically send everything I was CC’ed on to another folder. Then I set up some time to review just those cc’ed emails. Most of the times, they really are just FYI. (And, bonus, people eventually learn that if they actually need you to do something, they have to send you a direct email)

      It depends on your work place, but I also second sending any group emails to another place. My company had LOTS AND LOTS of distribution lists, where emails would be sent to 400, 4000, 40000 people. Once I moved all those distribution lists to another folder, the inbox seemed less scary. This is just like Sleet Feet’s advice to move all those industry emails somewhere else.

      I’d love to read everything that comes to me… but in reality, if you’re so swamped that you have a backlog, you don’t have time to be reading most of the CC’ed or industry news emails day to day. If you ever find yourself, say, waiting for an airplane with time to review, then you can always duck into those other folders.

      1. StlBlues*

        Oh, also? Delete / mark read anything older than a certain date. (FWIW, I never delete anything ever. I also keep basically everything in my inbox. It’s just a unread = still need to do it, read = done.) For me, my “older than” timeline was two weeks. If it was really important, (1) you would have done it already, (2) it would have been escalated to you already again, or (3) someone will reach back out if they still need it. It’s kinda liberating to just toss the old stuff.

        Realistically, if it was something from someone I NEEDED to respond to to keep job security (boss, senior client, whatever), I would have prioritized those already anyway. Having lots of unread emails from weeks ago adds to stress without actually achieving anything.

    2. Anonymity*

      Check your firm’s retention policy before you delete anything! Especially at a public accounting (or in my case law firm). Put it in a folder where you don’t have to deal with it if necessary but don’t delete anything client or project related unless it is consistent with your firm’s email retention policy.

  38. AthenaC*

    Since you’re in Big 4, you should have a coach / performance counselor / whatever the specific term your firm uses. Talk to them about how you’re feeling! They were in your shoes just a few years ago so they have a sense of whether there are strategies you could employ or whether the way you’re feeling is just The Way Things Are at your firm, and successful people just … learn to not let it bother them.

    The second person I would talk to is whomever reviews your work the most, or whomever is managing your largest, most urgent projects most of the time (or more than others). Check in with them to ensure you’re meeting their expectations and see if they have any feedback for you.

    Third, keep communicating any changes to timelines for back-burner projects to whomever is managing them. They will tell you whether the answer is “it’s okay to keep putting this off” or “I’ll find someone else to do it” or “I’m sorry, but you just need to put in the time to get this done NOW.” Sounds like you’re already a reasonably effective communicator, so make sure you keep doing that!

    Finally, whenever you get too stressed, just remind yourself that the sun rises and sets like it always does, the earth is rotating on its axis in an orderly manner – all the REALLY BIG things are going okay.

    Good luck!

    Source: Veteran of not 1 but 2 big 4 firms.

  39. Christina*

    1. Get real with yourself about how much workload you can reasonably handle on a weekly basis and work with leadership to move some stuff off your plate. It is unlikely that you will be able to ever become so efficient and effective and organized at this point that you can turn an untenable workload into a tenable one.
    2. Think critically about your backburner projects, unless they benefit you by improving your processes to elevate your stress forget about them. If they are assigned projects, work with your leadership to establish time to move them forward.
    3. Maybe you need to work on your prioritization and delegation skills more?
    4. Prioritize based on points 1 and 2. Not all emails, tasks, meetings, communication are the same priority. You need to be able to judge the priority based on your workload, schedule, deadlines (soft and hard), and understanding of the job and work environment. In some cases emails can be ignored or disregarded, tasks can be changed to reflect, etc.

  40. Nea*

    How do I organize without spending all my time organizing?

    I am about to speak blasphemy, but David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system slowed me down to the point that I was spending 100% of my time organizing and creating lists and tables that needed to be organized and not, y’know, Doing The Things.

    Furthermore, it sounds like your lists of things to do and priorities to do them are constantly changing, and Getting Things Done is surprisingly inflexible in a constantly shifting set of needs.

    Step one is to be a little zen. You are in a high-stress, high-volume job and things are going to get away from you. This is the nature of the job and not a personal commentary on you, your self discipline, or your work ethic. This is outside of you and entirely beyond your control.

    So focus on what is in your control – how you use your time. Pick a project, any project and dedicate x amount of time to it. Maybe in 30 minutes you can gather all the things you need to prep to start it. Maybe in 60 minutes you can do it. I don’t know, whatever works for you. But block out that time and focus only on that project. Don’t think about your email; that’s beyond your control. Don’t worry about something new coming in; it can wait for half an hour/an hour until you’re ready to work on the next thing.

    When your time period is up, then you check email again, pick a new task for the next project and go.

    It’s the only way I’m getting things done at all. They don’t get finished all at once, but they’re moving pretty smoothly. And because I’m constantly cycling through my list I haven’t (so far) dropped any balls or missed any new priorities.

    1. cubone*

      “You are in a high-stress, high-volume job and things are going to get away from you. This is the nature of the job and not a personal commentary on you, your self discipline, or your work ethic. This is outside of you and entirely beyond your control.”

      I wish I could hire a skywriter to trail this around day in and day out. I was in a very high stress job, burnt out and constantly judging myself as a failure for not doing All The Things, and an external mentor said to me: “if the organization is set up in a way that you will never be able to do everything, that’s the choice they’ve made. Do what you can in the time you have and let the balls drop, because they have given you more balls than anyone can carry. That was their choice, not yours, so stop taking the blame for it.”

    2. Nona*

      I’m with Nea on this. I am also expected to achieve far more than is feasible, and eventually realized that I was spending more time tracking tasks than was worth it. I realized recently that the one advantage of my workload is that pretty much no matter what I’m working on, it’s urgent and important, so I’ve stopped worrying so much about whether I should be doing X or Y. I use trello boards to track my large projects, as these are my core job and could easily fall by the wayside if I let myself get distracted by the smaller time-sensitive things that pop up (the whack-a-mole tasks). I have a board for “things I want to get done this week”, but all the minutiae that comes in through the day doesn’t make it onto trello unless it’s a large task. I then have a running list on paper of what I want to do that day, and small things that pop up through the day get added to that . I revise it each morning (<2 minutes) making sure there's a reasonable balance with things on my weekly list. Then I just work through my list as the day goes on, often saving the smaller tasks for the end of the day so that they don't squeeze out the more long-term stuff. If there's anything time sensitive (which is probably only <25% of my work), I put a note in my calendar that I need to start working on it by X day. The biggest thing that has worked for me in terms of stress levels is to be very vocal about my workload – in my case the problem is that the deadlines for large projects are being set by senior management who don't understand the work involved. I've become a broken record repeating at every meeting that the deadlines aren't realistic and I won't meet them (at least without cutting so many corners that there'd be no real value in the work). On this I have my bosses 100% support, but it's still very easy to get stressed about all the expectations.

    3. Mockingjay*

      Ironically/coincidentally, my company just sent out an invite for GTD’s online course. I hadn’t heard of it, so I googled some reviews and a description of his method. Some liked it some didn’t.

      After perusing his methodology, this truth jumped out at me: I’m not the one who needs organizing. The project leads and program managers above me are who need it. They are reactive managers and resist every attempt to issue and track unambiguous tasks and keep to the goddamn project schedule. I can organize, delegate, and update emails and tracking systems all day long – in fact I have done just that for nearly 5 years. But the problem isn’t me. The problem is above me and I can’t fix them. A system can’t fix them. So I work on what I can and let the rest go. The kicker: no one has missed any of the dropped stuff.

      OP, before you commit to fixing this problem, take a hard look to see who/what is the root cause. I’m betting it’s not you.

    4. Cold Fish*

      Yes! This is so overlooked and described in such simple terms. We are often told to multi-task to get everything done but just focusing on one thing at a time is so much more efficient. Say I have 20 minutes of work left on Project X, my boss comes in and tells me Task Y needs done. Well Task Y only takes 5 minutes so I stop X to do Y. I go back to X, but that takes 30 minutes to finish now since I have to figure out where I was when I stopped to do Y. Stopping to do Y has actually cost me 10 minutes! Those minutes here and there add up big time!

      Also splitting out big projects into steps and working on them one at a time can be extremely effective. It is very much ingrained in me anymore, I don’t think about others not doing it. If a big project can be split into five, one-hour tasks, I will do so and work on one step a day. By the end of the week that big project is done! On the other hand, if I’m trying to do it all at once, suddenly it is taking 8-12 hours because I keep getting interrupted, hungry, sleepy, (oh look, a squirrel).

  41. Rebecca1*

    Sometimes my company’s IT department offers trainings to streamline workload. That can help if it’s relevant.

  42. Meghan*

    Can you get your email to auto sort some of the emails? It might take a few hours upfront, but it might help delegate (to you) the most import stuff.

  43. Nikki*

    No advice, just solidarity. I used to work a job like this. I loved it but I was constantly scrambling. I was performing at 120% all the time and it still wasn’t enough. It affected my health to the point where multiple doctors told me to get a new job!

    This past spring I finally took the leap and moved to a different (but related) career path. My new job is way less stressful and my boss is protective of my time and energy.

    I think the reality of the high-intensity, high-stress jobs is that you have to make peace with not doing everything. I couldn’t, which is why I eventually had to leave.

    Hang in there!

  44. cubone*

    You describe that you’re doing GTD, feeling on top of things, then Something Happens and you no longer are. I think that ….IS how things go? No one is on top of things all the time, and as much as I love a good system (and I love GTD too!), sometimes these optimization/organization systems just make the messier days look all the worse. I really don’t believe anyone is on top of it all the time and feels good all the time. If they do, it’s because they’ve accepted or learnt to be okay with chaos when it comes, not that it never comes.

    I also think, at the end of the day, if your workplace wants you to have time to work on back burner projects or prep for busy seasons, that NEEDS to be an actual, accounted for task in your workload. I have learned the hard way that if it’s not, making myself feel bad for not doing it is, frankly, a pile of BS. If the “powers that be”* aren’t willing or able to actually make sure these are priorities (in the sense that they are accounted for in your workload/goals), then they aren’t priorities to them. I really do think it’s that simple and so many people mark their work as a failure because they’re not ‘planning ahead’, even while there is no recognition of planning ahead as a metric/goal/task/what have you.

    *unless you are the “powers that be”, in which case, um, advocate for better/healthier/more clear workloads and expectations, I guess?

  45. Fingerlime*

    I would:
    -Set up as many filters/rules as possible so that anything that can wait at all is automatically sent into various folders, so that you’re never wasting any time filing newsletters or automatic emails that a Trello board’s been updated. Perhaps a rule that emails from a particular client are marked as important. Etc. The more your email client can do the organizing for you, the better.
    -Have a folder of emails you need to read and/or respond to, but not immediately, and then set a time to go through that folder and catch up on those. Perhaps even let some of your coworkers know, you spend time catching up on non-urgent emails every Tuesday and Friday at 3pm and they can expect to hear from you then. Inbox Zero might be overly ambitious for you, but could you do “This week’s non-urgent but still vital emails folder zero”? (PS: I also love this for vacations. I put all emails received on vacation into their own folder, and then slowly work my way through them upon return.)
    -Let certain people know that if something is truly urgent (and define what “urgent” means), it’s better to reach you via (text/Slack/Teams/a phone call/etc.). If an email goes missed, it should be because they failed to escalate it properly, not because you couldn’t keep on top of your inbox.
    -Most people encourage emails over meetings, but perhaps you need the opposite: for people to stop sending you as many emails, and save it for the regularly scheduled meetings. If so, tell them.
    -Have set times for email, and then close the app (or Work Offline in Outlook if you still need to access those emails for the other work) so that you can focus on other work.

  46. lunchtime caller*

    I have the type of job where they’re always more work to be done, there’s never such a thing as being “totally caught up,” and honestly I’ve just made my peace with it? I come up with my own metrics like not wanting my inbox above a certain number (that is not zero!), or not leaving X sort of tasks for longer than Y time, but that’s the best I can do really. If your workplace doesn’t seem bothered by your pace, then you probably have the same type of job and just need to make your own mental peace with it, honestly. Some things that do help me though: trello for my to do list so I can put dates on things, immediately snoozing things that I have replied to but need to follow up on if no response later, not replying to email right away unless it is a TRUE emergency and otherwise doing it in batches at the end of the day or every other day (this will also get people used to hearing from you on that timescale), and just being more honest and communicative about my real timeline versus my fantasy timeline. Good luck!!

  47. Sparkles McFadden*

    There are different ways of being organized, so it’s kind of hard to come up with specific ideas. Here are some things that worked for me:

    – I had a white board in my office where I would list out priorities and deadlines. I had a second white board for project timelines. While I did organize things electronically, I found that having the white board there, where everyone (and my boss) could see it. I found that having everything in a non-electronic form kept things separate from the computer where I did the rest of my work.

    – Kept my emails as unread until I acted on them. I had folders for organizing the emails I did read, usually by project, subject or sender. I filed away ones that didn’t require action, and I had a “to be worked on” folder for tasks I didn’t want to get to right away.

    – I would check email on a schedule. I found this a good way to keep from being overwhelmed by the flood of emails interrupting me while I was working to finish a task. Unless I was waiting for something in particular via email, I would mute the alerts so I wouldn’t be distracted. I don’t know the nature of your work so I don’t know if this is possible.

    – If organizing doesn’t come easily to you, update your priority lists at the beginning of the day, and work from that list.

    Most importantly, you need to really know that you cannot get everything done. This is easier said that done! Yes, intellectually, you know you cannot get it all done, but you still feel the pressing need to try to get through everything. I totally get this. It feels as if you will get to the point that you will get so overwhelmed that you will never catch up. That’s exhausting and the kind of thing that keeps conscientious people up at night. The priority lists are a help because it gives you a way to discuss priorities with your boss. “If I move item #4 to the top of the list, then item #3 will be finished a week later. Does that work or is there some other way you’d like me to handle this?” That’s not pushing back…it’s just facing reality.

  48. Junior Dev*

    Ok, so take this with a grain of salt as I’m a programmer and don’t know your industry well, but I think you should try to automate as much as you can. I’d be interested to hear from people who don’t work in software but have learned a little code to automate things, here.

    Some non-programming ways to automate things include mail merges and Excel.

    When it’s the less busy season of the year, you could work through the book “Automate the Boring Stuff with Python” (search the title and the first result shows you how to read it for free with author permission, or buy it from various sources)–the book is very focused on practical things that will eliminate repetitive work. Here are the examples the site gives:

    Search for text in a file or across multiple files
    Create, update, move, and rename files and folders
    Search the Web and download online content
    Update and format data in Excel spreadsheets of any size
    Split, merge, watermark, and encrypt PDFs
    Send reminder emails and text notifications
    Fill out online forms

    If any of that sounds like something that would make your job faster, try saving some of the relevant files to use as examples from when you’re in the busy season, and try building some automation around them when you’re out of the busy times. You don’t have to learn about databases or web development if you can get used to running things from the terminal, and to using the built-in csv package to read and write spreadsheets.

  49. awasky*

    Hi OP—
    I also work in Big 4 accounting, and I feel you on the emails, and prioritizing. There’s a lot of advice already out there about email management, but the things that work for me are: (1) setting up email filters to file certain emails that don’t need to be dealt with urgently (like firmwide bulletins); (2) turning off all notifications on the email program so it doesn’t interrupt me and then only dealing with email when I’m at a stopping point between tasks; and (3) periodically taking an hour or two to go back through my inbox, read, and file everything to make sure I haven’t missed something. I keep a to-do list in One Note, so when I’m going through email, if there’s a task, I add it to my to-do list then keep going through email rather than getting side tracked.

    But I think the bigger question about how to prioritize and what you should be working on would be best served by talking to someone at work—if you have an official mentor, or an unofficial one, or just your manager on a given project. I have absolutely had similar conversations with mentors, especially in promotion years where I didn’t know how I was supposed to be handling new job responsibilities. They should be better able to help you level set about what you’re really expected to get through. In Big 4, you’re never going to be able to do everything you want to do, so talk it through with someone people to figure out what you *must* do, and then get comfortable with the fact that you’ll never get to the bottom of your list.

  50. Aepyornis*

    I use automated labels/folders a lot so that things can be tackled with focus and much more efficiency (if I have one hour to dedicate to account B, it’s useful to be able to see only the emails but all the emails related to that).
    I also use the snooze function for the most important emails a lot. They don’t get buried in a folder but pop up in my inbox only when the time I had scheduled for that particular account arrives, meaning that they are also much more visible and I don’t have 200 emails lurking in my main inbox in various states of emergency.
    Many email systems also allow you to filter emails by whether you are the main recipient, cc’d or bcc’d or (I think?) if there are more than X recipients. It’s not useful to me but I have colleagues who use this a lot as a first raw sorting of how much their attention is actually needed for a particular email.
    Most of this is maybe all very well known to you, but I hope you find some practical solutions in all the comments!

  51. hbc*

    “My workplace is reasonably understanding when backburner things fall behind because everyone is in the same boat (obviously, there’s no room for error in filing tax returns on time) but I want to be as efficient and effective as I can.”

    I think you need to contemplate why these aren’t two separate thoughts. Everyone has back burner things that fall “behind” and the world does not end, no one dies, your company doesn’t get sued. As long as you let these items take up brain space as Missed Requirements versus Nice To Haves, you will feel stressed. And yeah, maybe no one can officially label those other things as optional, but in practice that’s what they are when everything comes ahead of them.

    Then, separately, are you as efficient and effective as you could be? There’s probably room for improvement. Try out the various suggestions here to see what helps. But you will never feel good about your improvements if your goal is having an empty inbox. You just don’t have that in some jobs.

    1. cubone*

      I’d also like to add, I left a chaotic, constantly stressed about my drowning inbox job for one where I absolutely can maintain Inbox Zero almost all of the time. I … am still pretty darn stressed because it’s still a high stress industry. It’s definitely nice to have an emptier inbox, but it absolutely has NOT meant that I am on top of everything and never stressed and highly efficient. I just get less emails and the stressful parts are elsewhere.

  52. EleanorShellstrop*

    I’m not exactly sure if this is what you want to hear, but as a big 4 tax alum, my suggestion is to get out. I went from 100 hour weeks to 45 hour weeks when I left. I’d respond to emails all day during business hours and do my actual work in the evenings. Work-life balance didn’t exist, and it’s my understanding nothing has changed in the decade since I left public accounting. The benefits aren’t that great if you’re taking work with you on every vacation, and due to turnover and new engagements getting ahead is always impossible. I’m grateful for my experience- I left as a manager when I realized i never wanted to be a partner, but I’m even more grateful to have a life outside of work.

  53. More dopamine, please*

    I don’t know if anyone has mentioned it already, but I took Kelly Nolan’s email management e-class recently (not her longer time management one, but the short one for email) and it was amazingly helpful. I really needed someone to map out a clear strategy for exactly how much email work to do (and then stop). Highly recommend.

    Some takeaways: Determining how much time I should spend on email every day, and scheduling (protecting) that time. Using some new-to-me tech tools (boomerang for Outlook) to make it easier to keep track of messages that need follow up. Calendaring emails that require me to spend time on them. (The calendar thing is genius since it lets you objectively see if you have enough time to do something.)

    And finally, a tip that’s not from the class: When copied on an email to a large group, wait a few hours before responding. These conversations sometimes resolve themselves and then I don’t need to do anything except archive the conversation. ;)

  54. Serenity Gerbman*

    I am an event manager for a non-profit, and email seems like it’s become a huge productivity suck. I hate talking on the phone, but honestly, I now often schedule 5-10 minute phone calls with people to take away the multi-day back and forth that keeps the inbox full. It has helped.

    Also, I do email in generally two batches per day, or three during a busy event season. First thing in the morning, I do a quick skim through and respond to things that are urgent/easy. This is sometimes at 6:30 am after first up of coffee. I schedule those responses to land after 8 am so people don’t receive and feel compelled to respond.

    In the second pass, I mark everything else with a code according to priority. Low priority items might take days to respond to, but that is why they are low priority. Things that are a priority but take some time get done that day, and again if it is after regular work hours I schedule to land at 8 am next morning. If I’m on a group email that is informational and doesn’t need a response, I file it and move on quickly. Sometimes, I respond to an email just to let them know I’m not ignoring them, and give a time frame for when they can expect a full response.

    Rules, color coding, and flags are your friends with the inbox. They help reduce anxiety about what actually needs your attention. I am not a huge fan of spending a ton of time setting up organizational systems that require a lot of maintenance. Most people don’t have time for that, and then that feels like another failure.

    Finally, try to think of attacking inbox like you attack clutter in your home. Aim to touch it only once. Once I’ve addressed something, it’s filed so I don’t see it anymore. If it’s in my inbox, it’s because I haven’t dealt with it yet. All you people with 100,000 plus emails in your inbox, I don’t know how you sleep at night but hats off to you!

  55. HR Professional*

    This probably sounds counterintuitive, but I think you learn to accept the fact that you will always be running behind and things will probably be out of your control to a certain extent. I switched jobs a few years back and went from a place where projects were usually neatly wrapped up and my inbox was manageable to an industry that is built around crisis management so plans often go out the window. My natural inclination is to conquer every task that is set before me as quickly and effeciently as possible, but that is just not how my current job works. I have reached the acceptance phase and have found that everyone here pretty much works in crisis/triage mode most of the time. I may feel like my inbox is Mt. Everest, but I have had to let go of the feeling that I have to conquer it daily.

  56. Them Boots*

    Where I work we can get suddenly slammed but also need to keep up with email because we are a key tiny cog affecting multiple departments that are sometimes slow paced and other times live in the weed, so responding in a timely (ie hour) manner can be critical. My early training as a concierge for luxury hotels juggling many asks has been really helpful in the triage element! When I’m in the weeds, i forward the email to myself with a set delivery time, which could be next week or later today if I can’t respond immediately. This really helps my anxiety about things falling through the cracks.

  57. Former Llama Herder*

    When I was teaching hybrid lats year (which for us meant teaching an in person class AND students on Zoom, simulataneously, which means twice the work for the same number of people) my team and I talked a lot about glass versus plastic. It was really helpful to talk out what responsibilites were glass and really couldn’t be dropped versus what tasks were plastic and wouldn’t cause a crisis if they were dropped. It helped with some of the guilt I felt to acknowledge that the standards were unrealstic. I’ve seen commenters above say something similar, so I think talking to somone who’s expertise you trust may help to calliberate your expectations about prioritizing projects.

    I also used my Inbox as a to do and set up smart filters to send things like Google Classroom notifications that needed action to one folder so I could sit down and do it all at once. The advice from others to set aside time dedicated to tackling your email is also really good-that way you’re protecting your workflow for both emails and other tasks. I hope this gets easier, LW!

  58. NW Mossy*

    My most revelatory insight about email was realizing that I have way more control over how much email I get than I realized. Making email-reducing choices was a huge boon in getting my inbox under control.

    Here are some of the questions I ask myself to help stem the flow:

    – Do I need to receive this at all? This might mean unsubscribing, taking my name off an alias, sending auto-generated emails straight to deleted or a specific folder, and/or developing an alternative way of getting the info that’s less intrusive (like a dashboard instead of email notifications).

    – Why am I sending this email? Is it to inform, prompt an action, discuss something? If I’m going to send something where I expect a reply, is that reply going to be valuable enough that it’s worth landing in my inbox? Can I craft my email to make a reply unnecessary?

    – Can I end this email chain right now? Will my reply close the loop? Should I call or schedule a meeting instead? Drawing something to conclusion or advancing the conversation a different way works wonders to terminate long-running chains.

    – Do I need to respond right now? Is someone else on this chain that can answer better than I can? Am I contributing something meaningful? If I responded tomorrow instead of today, would that materially change the situation?

  59. ChzPlz*

    I spend time evenings and weekends triaging email and converting them to Outlook Tasks.

    Don’t do what I do. Set aside time during your day for this.

  60. El l*

    The three classic strategies are: Delete, Defer, Delegate. You can’t really defer, and while not explicitly stated it sure sounds like you can’t delegate. So delete.

    How? Every job is different and it’s particular to you how much you can do this, but…it’s easy to just handle email and not to handle long-term tasks. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, always be aware of what the stakes are for each situation.

    And so here’s how I suggest to organize and triage things:

    Important and urgent
    Important but not urgent
    Urgent but not important
    …and everything else

  61. AdequateAdmin*

    My advice is mostly for the email portion of the event. If you use G-suite use the label function. My last job the inbox was our to-do list and we labeled the heck out of things. Have bright ones for urgent that you won’t miss and leave the others less noticeable colors. You can actually filter your inbox to show just one label, making looking for specific projects easier.

    As for the work: just accept that some of it won’t get done in a timely manner. This is is 100% on your boss and company. The same job that labeled the crap out of our inbox also had issues hiring and actually having enough staff. They also liked to accept way more work than could reasonably be done so I just made myself get comfortable with the idea that it wouldn’t get done on the customers time-table because my company/boss had not given me the tools and support to do so. Taxes are important (more important than what we did at my old job) but they are generally not life and death. And you’re right; in this instance it’s better to take longer than rush and mess up.

    Also, good luck! (I couldn’t take old job, so found a new one. Hats off to you for making it this far with your job.)

  62. Red*

    I think I can help with this one. Also in accounting but a different sector/company.
    *No email notifications except the little envelope icon so there’s no interruptions when your working on other tasks.
    *Rules, rules, rules! I have different outlook rules for all sorts of things. In my case I have rules that sort items into separate folders and rules that will leave the hot ticket items with specific keywords in the main box and flag them for me. I also have a rule that automatically deletes anything that I send to myself, including reply-alls so my inbox isn’t uselessly full.
    *You may feel like you don’t have time to organize but you have to set that time aside. I made myself a binder with the kind of agenda planner items that works best for me. Every day before I leave I review what I have pending and I make my action plan for the next day. Once you’ve got a review process in place this can take only a few minutes (especially because a lot of the time things roll over into the next day).
    *Recognize it’s not you, it’s them. You’re working in an industry famous for overworking people and causing burnout.

  63. laser99*

    In my experience, nobody cares if you are burning out—the way only consideration is if you are getting the work done. So if/when you push back, frame it in terms of “I’m too overloaded to do X Y and Z and if it doesn’t get done , here are the consequences” as opposed to “This is driving me insane.”

  64. Bananagram*

    I totally sympathize! Here are a few things I’ve found to be helpful:

    1. I turned off absolutely all email notifications on my computer and my phone. No chimes, no pop-up notifications, no badge counts on the icon. The Outlook app looks the same whether I have new emails or not. I still check Outlook several times a day, but the action is deliberate rather than from a random digital cue. (I still have calendar reminders, but changed the default from 15 to 5 minutes to reduce the mental load.)

    2. I use Outlook rules ruthlessly to shunt mass emails to the “Clutter” folder and deal with them once per day. Anything sent to distribution lists, with “Invitation” in the subject, where I’m BCC’ed, and so forth. It took dozens of rules and months of refining, but now the only emails that make it to my inbox are ones that someone sent to me intentionally.

    3. Whatever stays in my inbox becomes my to-do list. I use Outlook’s “Categories” function (and color code them) to label every email by project, then I sort my inbox by category. It helps me see which project has the biggest backlog, work in batches and avoid task switching.

    4. I read Cal Newport’s book “A World Without Email,” which helped me realize how detrimental email is to actual productivity — i.e., delivering a finished work product for an actual paying client. A huge share of internal emails is just people kicking around half-baked ideas, low stakes requests, or performative collaboration (“Looping in so-and-so!”), which they would never bother with if it required interrupting you in person. Newport calls this “frictionless communication” and it is *incredibly* costly. Seeing email in this way made it much easier for me to focus on the important emails that would still have merited a face-to-face conversation.

    5. I started talking to more colleagues about work loads. After a promotion I became completely overwhelmed with new tasks. I kept it to myself because I felt it was my own fault for not being better at my new job. Only after I started asking around did I realize that I had been assigned twice as many projects as a typical staff at my level. Once I understood the “norm” I was able to push back and have some projects reassigned to others. I would bet lots of good workers get taken advantage of in this way, because they are afraid to discuss their limits with the person who writes their performance review!

  65. HR Exec Popping In*

    This is what it is like at some companies. Those companies generally pay very well which is why people don’t “just leave”. Only the letter writer can decide if the full package (money, benefits, experience, work, development, people, etc.) is worth it. I will assume that it is for them.

    So to answer the question… I have a very stressful job and have at times worked 7 days a week on a regular basis. It can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Things that I do. I keep lists. Constantly. Microsoft OneNote is really helpful for this. Tip number two, I block time on my calendar for the things I will be doing during that time. It forces me to prioritize the most important work and actually do it when I have it scheduled and not get distracted by other things. Finally, I designate a full day each week where I will not take meetings. That is a day for me to catch up, focus and get work done.

  66. Cat Lady in the Mountains*

    I’d start from, what goals do your systems need to serve? Do you want to be more organized because you’re missing urgent and important things that get buried? Because you’re dropping balls on back-burnered projects? Because it’s stressing you out to be less organized? Being crystal-clear on the why can help rein in the amount of time you spend designing and maintaining systems you don’t really need.

    I work in a very high-volume role that’s constantly fast-paced, so my system requires me to identify the Must-Do’s and ignore everything else. (I rarely back-burner things – I drop them. If it’s low priority it can’t take up my brain space. I have a lot of autonomy and authority to decide what projects are important though.) I use tools I’d have to work with anyway, like my inbox and calendar, to capture the Must-Do’s — I liberally use outlook’s flags or put work-blocks on my calendar as soon as something important comes up. Then, if it slips through my online systems once, I write it on a notebook (aggressive circling and underlining indicates level of urgency). I don’t sign off for the day until I’ve completed all my workblocks, flags, and notebook notes. If it’s not important enough to be in one of those categories, I let it go – mark as read, move into a folder that never gets checked again, and put it out of my brain. (If it requires a response, I write a polite “sorry this isn’t going to happen, let me know if that will cause you a crisis and I can reassess” before I file it away. I have this stock answer saved in a notepad on my desktop so I can copy/paste it to 20 people in a few minutes, with slight circumstantial customization.)

    From the outside, my system looks like chaos. My boss works in a different location and the first time he met me in person (after being very impressed with my ability to stay on top of the workload for 18 months), he was astounded at how I can stay on top of everything with a system that looks so incoherent. But it works for me.

  67. Blarg*

    I work in a field where there is always more work. And it is meaningful and the “helper” personality can be a real challenge. I could continue working forever and it still wouldn’t be done.

    So I don’t. I stop. At the end of the day. I’m I think a rare one who has been able to set better boundaries working from home. It will never be done so I have to be done.

    And I am so, so much better at my job when I don’t try to do it 10-12 hours a day routinely. (There are long days sometimes of course. But they are very much meeting dependent and not me just keeping on going).

  68. Random MN CPA*

    So idk if OP will see this, but I’m in very much the same boat. I’m in public in audit and busy season just seems to never end. Honestly I’d say go to your manager you work the most with (you sound like a senior with the whole 4 years comment) or whoever is your line supervisor and tell them it’s unsustainable. You know right now it’s hard for firms to find staff at our level. It’s a big reason why we’re as stressed and as overworked as we are. If you’re even semi competent they will do what they have to to keep you.

  69. idahotax*

    I used to work in tax, a couple of things I did . .. Emails are only handled once. If I read it I must act on it. To manage the workload I sometimes worked on things out of order. Large tax returns that required more time and questions I would look at first. I would setup the workpapers, look at last year’s workpapers and send out my questions. Then I put it aside (for days or even weeks) and worked on smaller/quicker returns just to get them out the door. If in the course of working a return I came upon a planning item I would create task in Outlook with a due date in the future (after tax season). That way I have a reminder that popped up in the offseason with attached notes/documentation. It was a way for me to earn brownie points later on for being organized and thoughtful. Also, always be on the lookout for clients that can and wouldn’t mind being extended. Sometimes running up a quick extension estimate with an email that says “Hey, I estimate you will receive a refund of $XX. I can file an extension now if you would like more time to gather your tax documentation.” You can always circle back and get it done earlier if time allows, but it can give you some breathing room when you need it.

  70. Elle*

    My husband is director level at a big public accounting firm. There are firms that are big, but not Big 4. They have similar work with much better work-life balance. If you aren’t interested in transitioning to the private sector, I highly suggest you look at the firms just under the Big 4. They usually pay VERY competitively with Big 4 while having a more humane overall culture.

  71. Cold Fish*

    I don’t know if it will help or not, but can you make it a priority to work on some of those back-burner project for 1 hour every Friday afternoon? Personally, just knowing those back-burner projects are out there stresses me out even though I know they don’t have to get done right now. I feel so much better when that thing is off my to-do list and it is amazing how fast those projects actually get done with small continuous progress.

    I’m not familiar with the person you mention in the OP but I do tend to be high-output. What works for me when I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed is to try and spend the first 5-10 minutes every morning prioritizing my daily workload. I’ll have a physical list of what I want to accomplish that day (with any noted due dates – then if a true emergency task comes in I can quickly see what can be pushed out a little more). At the top of the list every day is 1, 2 or 3 quick tasks that I can get done and off my desk; they may not be high priority but just accomplishing something makes me feel better and more productive the rest of the day!

    Oh, and I only check my email 4 times a day unless I’m waiting for an email from someone. When I first get to work, mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon. It is amazing how much of a time-suck checking emails can be!

  72. Missy*

    I have a job like that. Last year I earned over 250 hours of comp time during our “busy season” to take off during the slow season. It was…a lot. I think that the mindset of “maximizing efficiency and effectiveness” is the issue. OPs job might be different, but in my position there is a lot of burnout and a lot of people who leave after the first year because of the stress. So, it’s okay if I don’t maximize my output as long as I get it all done. That’s the goal.

    My previous work involved prison litigation and it was similar. Sometime I had 3 cases to file a week, and sometimes it was that a day. And each case took an unknown amount of time when I started it (would it be a quick dismissal that I could cut and paste, or would I need to do a detailed brief on the merits). You work each one and then you do the next one. I am sure there are people who could work faster than me and more effectively, but it’s a marathon and not a sprint. And that is a skill in itself, if that makes sense. Stamina over efficiency.

    As for specifics, like about emails, during busy season we only use emails for things that can wait, IM or Slack is for immediate issues. I check my email between cases/filings as a way to sort of reset my brain from one to the next one. Anything that requires research or I can’t answer immediately gets ignored until the end of the day, when I will then deal with all the emails (or if it’s already late, the start of the next day).

    As for making sure things get done, I just use an old school notebook where I write down stuff as it comes to me that I need to do. It might be work (respond to email, call someone) or personal (order more cat litter) but as it pops in my head it goes on the list. And then either during one of the break of the end of the day I work on the list. For tasks that might have a longer lead time, I set an email to send to myself in a week or month with those longer term projects. Takes it off the immediate list, and I can look at it when I receive it later, after I have probably forgotten about it.

  73. 3DogNight*

    This is not a how to manage the workload question. This is a “How do I manage my expectations of myself” question.
    First: Look to the feedback you’re getting. Is anyone reaching out because you missed things?
    Second: How important, really, are the things you’re missing or late on?
    Third: You say that you have the ability to delegate, is there some mental block preventing you from delegating more? Or from telling the group asking that you can’t take this on?
    Fourth: Review yourself like you would a subordinate. Look at the work, all the hits (remember to track your good stuff!), all the misses, and the general day to day. How would you rate that work? (I think you may be being a bit hard on yourself.)
    Only you can answer those questions, but this will be a good start for you.

  74. Boof*

    I am in a similar position; if I am doing all the things I think I am SUPPOSED to be doing, the way I want to do them, I would never do anything but work. As it stands even 60 hrs a week is still triage mode.
    Some of it is that I am probably slower than others at certain tasks – although I like to think of it as more methodical. For reference though, I am a doctor and I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m not willing to cut any more corners in the name of speed.
    I’ve come to accept I need to adjust my expectations and workload. I’ve been getting burnt out to the point that I’m even slower/more distractable than I used to be; when I started I was building and saying yes to everything. Now I’m on the defense and a lot pickier about my projects, but still am not where I’d say I’m at a great balance. But it’s getting a little better?? I’m also still trying to figure out if there’s anything else I can try for my bottlenecks; ie, writing is something I can do but is hard for me and slow for me. I’d love to try a scribe or some kind of writing support where someone else dose the writing and then I edit it, but I a) don’t know how well that would work and b) not sure how to trial it anyway. The conventional wisdom tends to be “oh here’s more work you can do to get better at writing” (ie, workshops, retreats, etc) and… no. Sorry, the problem is I just don’t like writing, and after 30+ years, it’s not changing, even with a workshop.

    So I guess the answer is figure out what can be dropped or delegated and then do that?

  75. Silverose*

    I used to work in a different field that was notorious for being perpetually understaffed and overburdened, and our deadlines were hard and fast – we WERE dinged if we missed them, and badly. You may feel like you don’t have time to get organized, but ask yourself if you really can afford not to. I used daily, weekly, and monthly “To Do” lists, added new things to the appropriate lists as they were added to my plate, kept deadlines on my Outlook calendar with notifications far enough ahead of the actual deadline so I wouldn’t be late, and when emails came in I decided whether I had to answer immediately or if it could wait – and if it could wait, it went on the correct to do list so I wouldn’t forget. Then, I eventually learned I ALSO had to give my supervisor ongoing updates (ie, daily updates for weekly projects, or weekly updates for monthly projects) or she would assume I wasn’t going to meet my deadlines. And that I had to acknowledge every single informational email I received from her so she knew I got it and read it, no matter what it was or if it even applied to me. *face palm* So the update emails went on the to do lists, the acknowledgment emails went on the “immediately do” email protocol. I lasted 2.5 years in that state job before going private sector; most don’t last 6 months, which is only 3 months more than the training cycle.

  76. DC atty*

    I work in “biglaw” (so we are similarly inundated with emails/known for long hours), and I want to caution against the email filters people recommend if you need to be immediately responsive on some emails. They can send emails to certain folders, where you are more likely to miss things than in your primary inbox. Don’t get me wrong, I would use folders to organize emails so you can find them later; I’d just be wary of auto-sorting.

    Otherwise, I think a mix of a good spreadsheet/calendar/list/whatever method works for you where you keep track of your matters in a way that lets you organize by both urgency and importance is really key. I use a spreadsheet and have a color-coding system so I can flag important ongoing projects (to ensure they don’t get put off too much) as well as things with quick due dates. Fast-paced jobs require us to prioritize by urgency to some degree, but it’s so important to find a way to ensure urgency doesn’t dictate your whole day. Other ongoing, key projects need to be tracked.

  77. km85*

    Suggest the company start a relationship with a temp agency or hire a seasonal intern. Internships don’t just run during summers, if that’s not the busy season.

  78. JT Thompson*

    I haven’t read everything. Lots of what I have read above is .. not going to work.
    Pick out the top 3-5 email (maybe 10, you know the top items for you) and shift aside. Take ALL the rest and delete it.
    Set your Delete folder to hold onto stuff for.. awhile. I like a year. It will age off. Anything a year old doesn’t matter to today.
    Now move your top 3-5 back to your inbox. Now that’s what you work on. You just successfully declared email bankruptcy. Do that monthly. Maybe biweekly.
    Set up rules to shove most everything into your Delete folder. You CTRL-F later if someone comes asking about whatever.
    Everyone wants of piece of your time, but they haven’t earned it.

  79. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

    I oversee a global program as well as a large department that spans across several states. I would drown under the weight of emails if I didn’t use Outlook rules — especially in my busy season, which starts in May and lasts often through September. First, I set up rules to automatically archive crap I don’t need to pay attention to. And whenever I am scanning my inbox and run into another such email that wasn’t caught, I add it to the rule. Next, I have set up specific rules to catch emails with key phrases and then I color code them based on a system I set up. When it’s time for me to scan my inbox, I can rely on the color coding to help me focus on things that could be highest priority. I then use the follow up flag in Outlook to designate things I need to go back to. Sometimes, if I have some extra time while triaging/reading my mail, I will specify a date to follow up. Most of the time though, I just flag it and come back every 2 or so weeks to see what’s in my ‘follow up’ list.

    Beyond that, if those rules and follow ups don’t work, people will reach out.

  80. Rick Tq*

    Creatively set up email filters really help. I’ve set up over a dozen over the years, here are some that have been the most helpful:
    – Any thing I’m CC:d on goes to Info Only
    – Anything from the owners stays in my inbox regardless
    – Anything to various email distribution lists is filed
    – many messages from the marketing group are deleted unread
    – messages with a project keyword are filed in a related folder but still unread
    – Automatic OOA replies are deleted
    – Expense accounting messages are filed in a specified folder

    Many messages are refiled but still unread so they can be located when still new. I also have a Quick Step to move a copy of messages with tasks I can’t immediately address to a Pending folder so I can track open tasks.

  81. Big 4 Denizen*

    I actually may be able to help! I work in Big 4 on the advisory side, with busy seasons like tax.

    First, my condolences with the end of extension busy season.

    Here are my tips:
    1. Set up automatic mail rules to send automated emails (training/webinar invites, office emails, etc.) to separate folders. That way, you can corral those, sign up for the trainings that you need/want to do, and then delete the rest. I find that a good 50% of my emails are practice- or firmwide emails that are info only. You can also set up rules to flag emails from specific people, such as your engagement manager or people from the client, to make sure you do not miss them.
    2. I am a visual person, so for my engagements, I will set up a specific color category. Then as I triage my inbox, I assign the category for the engagement to the email. This also helps me to select and drag all those emails to the specific a at engagement folder in Outlook (more on this below). I will also tie this color to my OneNote notebook for the engagement.
    3. Once you are done with an engagement, make sure you are following your firm’s document retention rules. You may need to delete all of the emails that are not specifically attached to your final workpapers, so this makes that task easier.
    4. Realize that there are times when your inbox will just explode. Breathe, then check in with your manager to make sure that priority items are addressed timely.
    5. You could just chuck them all in a folder and start over, then slowly work through the backlog. But I wouldn’t recommend this.

    Good luck!

    1. Ella*

      I’m ex-big four advisory, also with busy seasons (Tech Risk), and I found similar things also worked.

      I think one issue you may also be having, is struggling to navigate the peaks and troughs. The fact is, in that role, you have periods where you’re very, very busy and periods where you’re super quiet. When you’re quiet, it’s ok to be! You don’t have to have had every item addressed. I think a lot of Big Four stuff isn’t critical, and being able to view that and see which tasks are worth prioritising made the difference for me (though knowing what tasks is entirely service line, office and culture dependent).

      I’d also suggest writing separate to do lists on One Note or a piece of paper, so you know what actual tasks you have to do and when, rather than just being sucked into all the email ‘noise’.

  82. LSR*

    I came here to second the comments on conditional formatting — I have outlook set to italicize emails where I am only cc’ed (since that should mean its for awareness only) so they don’t get priority. Similar to other commenters, I also use conditional formatting to color code emails from specific people who get priority so they catch my eye. I also utilize rules liberally to automatically file items that I need to keep but don’t need my response. I try to keep my inbox as an ‘active’ zone — Everything that is resolved or doesn’t need action gets filed. Depending on what I am working sometimes I can keep it up, sometimes I cannot. But that’s the goal

  83. Drizzle Cake*

    Have a look into the Eisenhower matrix. The idea is you split tasks into the following.

    – Urgent and important: genuine top priorities
    – Urgent and not important: things that pop up to grab your attention but aren’t actually moving you forward on your goals (like dealing with unimportant emails…)
    – Important and not urgent: most likely the area you are neglecting
    – Not important and not urgent: low stakes downtime tasks that don’t really matter

    What do you do with this? You try to prioritise more – don’t let the urgent-not-important stuff steal all your energy.

  84. Kiki*

    Two things I picked while working as consultant, where on multiple projects 400+ emails daily was pretty standard.

    1) Use Categories in Outlook. You can assign a category per client, or according to when you want to deal with the email (today, this week, this month). You set up a colour and a shortcut for each, and with the shortcut the triage is super fast: you can flag and file the email instantly (or do many other actions, like create a task from the email). You don’t realise how many seconds you waste by manually filing emails with drag and drop! It all adds up.

    2) Application called Fingertips. It allows you to set up shortcuts for anything: launching an application, a website, starting a new email or a calendar invite, anything at all. When you’re looking to shave off time from all activities, it is essential that you’re not clicking around launching an application or looking for a website bookmark and then it takes half a minute or more to load. You do the shortcut and it starts up in the background. App has a learning and setup curve but oh so worth it!

  85. Kiki*

    And one more thing: you can set Outlook to offline after triage. It stays open and you can work on stuff in it, but you don’t see the new emails coming in until you put it back online.

  86. Big 4*

    Big 4 Tax Manager (non-US).
    If you plan to stay in this job, you need to NOT care about your inbox/ back burner projects. Anything else is unsustainable in the long run, and no decent manager will give you a hard time for not always being on top of your inbox.
    You only need to care about
    – liability
    – fraud
    – net sales.
    If you come across any of these three, holler to your manager to let them handle it.
    And yes, your manager knows there‘s too much on your plate and cannot do anything about it because that‘s how the system works.

  87. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    Some people can handle up and down cycles like this, some can’t.

    There are many people who need stability, either really slow, moderate or fast paced.
    I imagine if this was fast past all year that would be even worse for you (as well as me, i’m not wired that way).
    Since you can delegate perhaps you can get one of your reports to just handle e-mail and making sure deadlines are not missed?

    In the medium term i would suggest job hunting for a job that is more your taste which seems like moderate pace, which is probably the most common if you were to take a poll of most workers.

  88. OP*

    OP here. I would have responded earlier but… 9/15 is my worst deadline of the year so I was up efiling until 3:30 in the morning. (Those unmissable deadlines I mentioned? We missed them – partially due to a software outage.) So then, after weeks of getting 3-5 hours of sleep/ night and working 7 days/ week, I slept until noon today. I was so excited when I finally saw that my letter was posted today!

    I’m about half way through the comments above. I will circle back later and finish reading them. (See? Inbox management.)

    Thank you so much for the advice! I appreciate all of it, both the practical and philosophical. I was really looking for practical advice, and I’ve made note of several things I want to try. But the advice on perspective is so helpful too. I need to remind myself that these expectations are not reasonable and I didn’t feel like a slacker just because I’m not doing more than I’m capable of.

    1. Fizzy water*

      Good luck, OP! And….I think I just missed that deadline too, in my personal life. Sigh. Someday I will pay estimated taxes on time.

    2. Ella*

      Use your annual leave and take sick days where you need them. It’s better to be always seen as working at top form than being seen as a tired person who is unable to focus (me when I’m ill), even if the sickly person is in the office more or working more hours. Definitely take time to recuperate now the deadline has passed, it’ll make you better for the next task!

  89. Fizzy water*

    So interesting to read the Outlook comments – my company uses Gmail, so I’ve set up a triage system where I read what comes in, sort to multiple {you have to do something with this} inboxes using colored stars/icons, and archive everything. After 10+ years of attempting project folders and other versions of subject-matter based folders and having them all fail (things change too often here), I’ve realized that Google search is great, I can archive forever, and all that actually matters is what I can control – so my inboxes are 1. Unread 2. Take care of this week (two levels/colors, red and yellow exclamation marks) 3. Watch for response (orange star means I wasn’t the last to respond, green star means I was) 4. Get this documented out of email (purple question mark) 5. Info you need soon (blue i box). Changing to an action based system was a game changer for me.

  90. Drizzle Cake*

    Further to my post about the Eisenhower matrix, I’d recommend you stop trying to use GTD. It is not designed to help you prioritise – it is built around the idea of projects and next actions, and selecting tasks based on what context you’re in. None of that fits your situation.

    It does raise a useful question though. One idea behind GTD is to get things off your mind and into a trusted system so you don’t worry about them or forget them. Some of the solutions in the comments will help you worry less about work and some will help you remember what you need to do – but don’t mistake one for the other.

    It’s possible that organising your tasks more effectively will make you feel worse – if you have a better overview of what you need to do, you may feel more overwhelmed and stressed as a result.

    I’m not saying don’t get an overview. Just that you might find it helpful to stop and consider which strategies are going to help you track what you need to do, which ones are going to help you actually get it done and which ones are going to reduce stress.

    Also, any organisational system needs to work for you personally and be a good fit with how your brain works. There are comments above about how it’s better to write your tasks on paper but personally I feel immensely stressed if my tasks are not in a digital system. So only do what feels helpful.

    You mentioned that things can be ok for a while and then it all goes south when something happens. When something happens, what are you doing? Are you telling anyone that you are now overloaded or just trying to do it all without speaking up? Are you planning ahead for vacations? It sounds like you’re trying to just absorb it all. DO you have a coach you can chat to?

    Also. Some people have mentioned that if a task is just going to take a few minutes, they do it right away. But I think this is one of the things eating your time right now – little things from email that don’t matter enough. Personally I do not do that unless the task is genuinely urgent. Otherwise I put them all in a folder and block off time to go through a load of them. This is one of the concepts from GTD that I do find helpful – batching similar tasks so you can bash through a load at once.

    And ultimately you need to ask yourself what it would look like if you felt ok in this job. Is it about knowing what you need to do? Getting everything done? Feeling less guilty? What does ‘good-enough’ look like here and is it actually possible or are you expecting you can somehow achieve the impossible? Because you can’t, you’re human.

  91. LC*

    Hope I’m not too late!

    My tips are
    – drive outlook tasks to the max and run your day from your calendar and tasks not your emails

    Some tips here https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/best-practices-for-outlook-f90e5f69-8832-4d89-95b3-bfdf76c82ef8

    Change your outlook settings so it doesn’t open to your inbox.

    But also
    — categories/colour coding can be used on tasks too
    — create colour coding like traffic lights (red critical, orange, yellow, green etc) for your emails, calendar and tasks

    – set aside dedicated email time to ‘process’ your emails. Ie if you can respond in less than 2 minutes, otherwise schedule it with calendar and/or tasks. This isn’t to think about emails, this is about processing them into calendar time, take list or deleting

    – set up multiple email signatures for different tasks (or quick steps or both) eg one to delegate to staff, one for common responses, one for regular reports to minimise the individual email time

    – consider and out of office reply: response times to adjust expectations eg 2 business days to slow things down

    – consider shorter email replies
    http://five.sentenc.es/

    – set aside an hour or two to unsubscribe and set up rules

    – and consider ‘strategic patience’. Where there are lots of people on an email, chances are someone else might reply. Do you really neee to get involved?
    — related to this, set up conditional formatting so emails sent only to you (see https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/color-code-email-messages-sent-only-to-you-83c150ab-2c69-43c3-ae4f-73912f594f9e) are a different colour in your inbox. These are the emails that’s will bite you the most! You can also colour code for your boss and critical clients to align to your category colours

    Also consider pep (personal efficiency program) training. It’s expensive and time consuming but covers all this stuff and more

    Hope this helps! Good luck

  92. Workfromhome*

    Use your outlook calendar to maximum advantage. Schedule meetings with yourself. If you have projects that require strict attention make it a meeting where you are “unavailable” During those time you dont look at email answer the phone etc.
    Set blocks of time to triage your email. Maybe a couple times a day. Constantly trying to keep up with your inbox is a losing battle and it sets expectations with people. If you answer emails within 15 minutes people expect that. If you answer them within a day people will expect that and if they need something more urgent will use a different method.

  93. SleepyKitten*

    Your industry needs a union.

    If your workload is unmanageable, then your company should be hiring more people to manage it. But I’m willing to bet that because other companies in their industry are also working people to the bone, in the short-medium term they can’t maintain a competitive price for their services and part enough people to do the job. A union would be able to improve conditions for everyone in your industry at roughly the same time, by having conversations with all the big 4 at once. And they have a lot of tools other than striking – just threatening to stop doing overtime is a really powerful tool.

    You probably have a lot of leverage to negotiate this on your own. You are a high performer, and the threat of you leaving might be enough to get your employer to hire more staff. Especially if you point out that it will increase the quality of their service and long term reduce turnover. I should know – before I stopped being able to work I’d convinced our department to invest in spare capacity for new clients for the first time ever. And if you band together with your co-workers you have even more power.

    I’m not suggesting you need to set up a union on your own! If there isn’t one already it will take cooperation from a lot of people. And there’s lots of things you can do to help accept that your job is constant triage and let the less important stuff go. But I just want you to know that not being able to keep on top of things isn’t your fault! It’s the fault of the system putting way too much work on your plate!

    Yes there will always be jobs where there just aren’t enough skilled employees or the work all happens in a couple of months – but we need to minimise those jobs and make sure the few that are left have good enough pay and conditions that people don’t have to stress about housing, healthcare, or anything else on top of their job. And unions are how we get there.

    tl;dr: UNIONS: not just for coal miners™

  94. Acey Deesie*

    Im in a like situation. I basically had to set a boundary with my boss that i could no longer take on any new work. I gave examples of situations that I could have done more had I had the time and resources.
    She finally agreed and we just hired a second ‘me’ that starts next week. Present it to your boss. Ask them which is priority on activities and deadlines- give examples how those CANT be reached. Its scary to admit you cant do your ‘job’, but I found providing backup had good results.

  95. LQ*

    So one of the things I want to potentially suggest is delegation of attention as well as action.

    For me one of the things that I sort of have a group of other folks in my division. If something comes through for the organization about HR? I don’t bother to read it, I know that someone else will have my back and tell me if I need to pay attention to it. Our central organization has decided to do a lot of like random committees and meetings that don’t matter. We just ignore it, and my person will tell us if we have to care. I manage some of the stuff, mostly the IT stuff. So they know they don’t need to care, they don’t need to have someone on call for it, I’ll take care of it. This means a lot of things I just never read. I would guess there’s some stuff like this you can divide and conquer on, but also some stuff you can just go, “I don’t care about soup club, I’m never going to care about soup club, I’m never going to ask myself if I care about this thing at all.” Making decisions ahead of time for yourself can save yourself a lot in stuff like that.

    When I’m on top of things I spend a half hour a day at the end of the day setting up for the next day and cleaning out all the no time at all emails and all the HR or the like emails I just dump as a matter of routine. The only thing that slows me down is when email is slow.

    I also do a little weird thing which is I have a programmable keyboard and I’ve set up a bunch of keyboard shortcuts on one layer and it’s all just, respond with done and file, mark as done and file, mark as read and file, mark as flagged, delete, etc, and so i just run through them all with just this layer which has weirdly helped a lot because it’s sort of a lazy sorting and I’m slightly less tempted to deal with things I don’t need to deal with. which i think is the key here, find a way to speed through things you don’t need to care about.

  96. CouldntPickAUsername*

    speaking as an outside there’s one comment I want to target directly: “I don’t have time to plan” wrong. You’ve admitted that stuff is going to be late, you say that’s the norm and pretty much expected. So therefore you can in fact carve a day to plan, is being one day later really that big a deal? From now on pick a day, say every 2 weeks and that’s plan day. You don’t take meetings or phone calls that day. You make a battle plan for the following two weeks. Figure out a workflow and map it out. The time you take to do this will be made back in the end. Further pay attention to work habits, do you do better when you alternate big tasks and little tasks or do you want to save up all the little tasks and do them at once in a row? And if your managing others and assigning them tasks, ask them that same question and assign the tasks accordingly.

  97. AnonaLlama*

    Came here to say that I spent about 2 hours this morning building out my Outlook rules and I am loving life today! I had set some rules up eons ago but haven’t really re-visited them in a while. Today I allowed myself to build more restrictive rules like moving anything where my name is not in the TO box (so things sent to groups I’m in, items where I’m cc:d or bcc:d) gets moved into my archive box. I ran them on my current inbox and it felt like an enormous weight was lifted. I might end the day with a clean inbox! :-)

  98. bumbleblue*

    I’m part of a very small team that supports 5,000 volunteers and our Board of Directors. In addition to this, I do a lot of behind the scenes research for our strategic planning and process improvement, I lead training and onboarding for our volunteers, I’m on several committees, I monitor several general inboxes and I’m training new staff. I also have ADHD, so some hours are just …better than others.

    How I manage my inbox and time is everything. First, I have Outlook rules so that that any email sent to me that is NOT from my boss or higher ups goes into an “Inbox pause folder.” That way I know anything that comes into my direct inbox is immediately important, and it’s way less stressful to see 100 emails in ‘inbox paused’ vs my inbox. Then I categorize my emails into urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, and neither urgent or important. This helps me make sure I’m focusing primarily on the right things. I also let my phone go straight to voicemail; most of the time I need to follow up with an email anyway because of the information they’re asking for.

    Then I have categories for each inbox we monitor/respond from. It’s easier for me to group things into categories and then tackle each category at a time. Some questions are very quick to answer and I have standard templates for them. Others require that I reach out other departments. We leave the emails marked ‘unread’ until we have finished them with them. We have a category for ‘in progress’ or ‘waiting on more information’ as well.

    What helps the most is ongoing communication with my team and manager about what our priorities are. If I know what my higher ups to view as important vs not important, then I know which balls I can drop for a bit. Sometimes not responding or at least not responding quickly is in our best interest. Being responsive may make someone else happy, but then it can set up a precedent that isn’t sustainable. Good boundaries with other departments, coworkers, and volunteers is very important.

    Our directors have made it very clear to us that they consider work/life balance to be a priority, and that they care about our mental health. I’ve been here for several years and I have seen this to be true. When we were actually in the office, the building’s lights were timed to go out by 6pm. When we feel overloaded, we reminds ourselves that nothing we do is an actual emergency and it often won’t matter if we have to take longer to respond to someone. I can always ask if a deadline is step in stone or if we can be flexible. For example: there’s an absolute deadline for when things to be submitted to Board meeting agendas, there are some deadlines we absolutely want to hit on time because it’s more work if we don’t, but a lot of “deadlines” can be moved if we need.

    The hardest thing to manage is my own feelings about my work and my inbox. I’m a recovering people pleaser and can be conflict-avoidant. Our volunteers have high expectations and can be incredibly demanding – they often forget that there are thousands of other people we support and not just them. They seem to think my department is just a customer service line specific to them, which is not true. It doesn’t help that our customer service department agrees with them.

    A lot of what we do involves working closely as a team and communicating often, but I found I am far more efficient and calm when I am able to just focus on the work and nothing else. I pick up on other people’s stress and it exhausts me. I have scheduled time each day where I go off chat and won’t take calls from my coworkers. My manager is fine with it, and over time my coworkers have moved from ‘they are never around when I need them!’ to ‘oh that’s just what Bumbleblue does, but I know they’ll respond today or tomorrow.’

    I bought a giant whiteboard for my home office so I can keep track of what I really need to get done each week (this is also categorized/color coded by level of importance). I keep track of when I tend to have the most focus and efficiency, so I adjust my hours so I work less in the morning and more in the afternoon. Some days I just have to change my schedule based on my attention span and what I have to work on. I never had this flexibility at previous jobs, so I am very thankful for it now.

  99. RB*

    Hey, this sounds really tough but I wanted to offer this: the working from home has really helped me see that I focus much better when I don’t have any interruptions, whether it’s e-mail, IMs, a meeting later in the day that keeps pulling mental focus from the task at hand, etc. So I do a large chunk of my work in the evenings because I know I won’t be interrupted, and this is when I tackle my difficult projects or anything that needs a larger chunk of time. Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone because some people have a partner or kids or are around in the evenings.

  100. MCMonkeyBean*

    I don’t have much advice as I made the decision to skip public accounting and go straight to industry (no regrets!)

    But I did see my boss’s inbox yesterday and thought it was interesting. She has a lot of format-coding going on. Emails from her boss come in red. Emails from me and the other people she supervises come in pink. We have an outsourced team as well and their emails come in green.

    So if there are certain people whose emails are likely to need to be addressed earlier, maybe you can play with font colors or sizes to catch your eye. And I think combining that with someone else’s suggestion I saw about using a rule to separate emails with you in “To” vs “CC” could maybe help a lot with prioritizing.

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