The 10% Rule — How to Bust a Backlog

I’m recovering from the 1st vacation of the summer (which was preceded by a two-week crunch on two important projects). As usual, there’s a huge backlog of email, including all sorts of little things I thought of while away and emailed myself about.

The 10% rule rocks for this type of backlog, where most tasks take under a minute, but some might take half an hour.

Divide your tasks into groups (folders) of 50 to 100. (For me, that’s about 2 weeks of email per folder, but for this example I’ll use 1 week.) Don’t worry about making the folders the same size. They won’t stay that way, and near the end it’s nice if they are different sizes. Date works well since it groups conversations, but also leaves things mixed up a bit, in size, complexity and associated emotions. (Unless you want to deal with five customer complaints in a row…)

Every few days, triage the backlog, one folder at a time. Since the folders are small, each one is doable. Look ahead by a week, just in case your next triage is delayed.

After the triage (if it’s a triage day), do 10% of each folder, as measured at the start of each day. If it’s likely that you’ll have another vacation before clearing this backlog, then start with the oldest folder each day, or take turns. If you start with the newest, then the oldest might sit around forever.

Handling the email backlog has to be an active project, not something you squeeze in as you can. Otherwise, like most projects, it won’t get done. Even worse, backlogs grow if you don’t keep working on them.

After that do anything you like to choose the next one.

Early on, I sort by conversation. All 15 attendees publicly thanked the hostess? That’s 15 emails, dealt with. That’s 15% of a 100-item folder. Or sometimes I roll a die and count, so the choice is random, then maybe deal with all the emails in that conversation.

“Do” means deal with fully. Update notes, print, file, telephone, whatever. The only exception is when you deal with that type of task in a batch, even when not clearing a backlog. Move it to the inbox for that process. Be wary, though, of that batch getting too large and unwieldy. Also, it’s tempting to leave things at that intermediate stage until you find everything that might go in it. That leaves a huge, unwieldy batch at the end.

Yes, you can do more in each folder, but only if it’s silly not to. That’s very important with the first few folders of the day, when you need to pace yourself, but less critical with the last one. I do the folders in the same order each day, even if I don’t get to all of them. (Another reason for triaging with 2 days in mind.) That way, some of them actually get cleared.

Believe it or not, I round down, not up, unless rounding down gives me zero. In theory, that means the last 10 items take a day each. In practice, dealing with an entire conversation at once often takes me over the 10%, and when the list is down to 5 I get enthusiastic about finishing. (It’s rare that more than one folder will be this small on a single day. Again, if it’s the first folder of the day, you should pace yourself and do the minimum.)

If a conversation spans two folders, it’s okay to deal with the entire conversation, or to deal only with those in the current folder. It’s okay to deal with things out of order.

When the folder is large, go for the low-hanging fruit. It has to be done sometime, so may as well do it now. (Also, if I have to eat the frog first, I go to a different buffet.)

When the folder is smaller, and the uglier items are left, your quota is smaller.

Incoming email goes into another folder. Treat that as you normally treat your inbox, such as “to zero by day’s end” or “no more than 20 pending”.

If an incoming project involves email in the backlog, may as well deal with the associated backlogged email. In the morning, that counts towards today’s 10%. If you’ve already done today’s 10%, you don’t get the same credit, but at least tomorrow will start with a smaller target.

Incoming email stays in the inbox until the end of the day (unless its dealt with immediately). At the beginning of the next day, move it to the newest of the backlog folders — before measuring the 10%. If it’s Monday, use the brand-new folder for this week’s backlog. (Unless you’re an inbox zero person, in which case, your usual rules apply.) That most recent backlog folder will go up and down a bit, depending on incoming vs 10% of start of day. Eventually, though, it will no longer be the most-recent backlog folder, and it will go down.

If you can’t keep the 10% pace at least 3 days out of 5, then you probably won’t clear the backlog in a reasonable time. Maybe you’re putting too much time into each item, or maybe you have too much incoming work.

This method usually knocks a month if inbox neglect down to nothing within a week or two. Urgent things get dealt with on time. You don’t go numb dealing with screens full of email. It doesn’t interfere with my handling of incoming work. Folders get emptied, so you see real progress. You never have more than 200 items in front of you at one time, so it’s not scary, and it’s easy to review each folder for urgent items.


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