This is an article in our Pregnancy Week by Week series, a resource to help you manage your job and life, through and after your pregnancy.

Week 54: Where to Even Begin With Your Mountain of Emails

There’s nothing quite like that moment when you first come back to the office, sit down at your desk, and turn on your hibernating computer. As Outlook refreshes, a small pit starts growing in your stomach because it’s taking longer than usual. And then the number appears.

3,000 unread emails.

Did you know the number one reason Americans say they don’t take all their annual paid vacation days is that it’s too stressful to catch up on the work they missed when they get back? Well, imagine the stress ball awaiting you if you took a vacation and missed 3,000 emails. (And that’s after a restful vacation...not a sleep-deprived fog of diaper changing).

Three thousand emails is how many you would have gotten if you missed 50 emails per work day times the 60 work days (three months) you missed. Sound ludicrous? Maybe. But for many desk warriors, email is a lifeline, and 50 emails may actually be a light day.

So should you dive right in? Where do you even begin? Reverse chronological order? The other way around? Search for all the ones that are clearly junk (so as to hit DELETE with great satisfaction)? The latter sounds immensely satisfying, but no.

Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return, a blog and e-course for moams returning to work, suggests that the best answer is to avoid trying to tackle that mountain of email. Possibly forever. Her advice?

“Schedule 30-60 minute meetings with your key stakeholders at work (direct reports, bosses, key members of your teams) throughout the first few weeks you’re back. Ask them (1) to give you highlights of what happened while you were gone, and (2) to advise you on how you can contribute best right now. Then let go of whatever happened. Don’t read every old e-mail. And don’t worry about knowing every detail of what happened while you were out. Look ahead and focus on what you can add to the team moving forward.”

Woo-hoo! This may be the best news we’ve ever heard.

It also jives with our advice in Week 33 to craft an auto-reply that includes your colleague’s email for anything requiring a response (i.e. not the more common promise that you’ll reply when you return).

If this challenges every OCD instinct within you, try to fight it. Or at the very least, go through and delete stuff that is obviously so outdated it doesn’t require opening. Dead give-away subject lines for trash: “Preparing for next week’s meeting” (dated eight weeks ago). Do this enough and before you know it, you’ll probably be down to at least 2,500 emails.

If you find you really can’t help yourself but to go through every single email, then at least do it by grouping subject lines / threads together first and then going through the ones that are most important (or involve the most important senders like your clients and managers).

Whatever you do with your email, remember that the first thing you should probably do when you return from maternity leave is go say hello to your manager and set up time for a proper meeting. After that, you’ll be able to reset your priorities (including which emails are the most important). If time then allows, you can tackle your inbox leisurely, whenever you have a down moment in your commute or you’re standing in line for lunch.

After all, it took three months of maternity leave to grow that mountain of email. Chances are another three weeks won’t kill anyone.

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How do I keep my back-to-work inbox from overwhelming me?

I'm just returning to work after maternity leave and the amount of emails I have to go through is enormous. Is there a way to tackle these that won't take months?

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