How I’ve Made Email my Secret Weapon

It’s quite fashionable to hate email. Countless articles have been written decrying how awful it is. Billions of dollars have been spent trying to reinvent it. And the latest fad is just to give up — screenshots proudly showing six-figure unread message counts and articles about “inbox infinity” abound.

I’ve become quite the contrarian on this subject. I love email. It’s my secret weapon. Some of the best news I’ve ever gotten came in an email. As an adoptive dad, I caught my first glimpse of two of my kids through an email. I’ve closed deals, hired amazing talent, and connected great people via email.

I love Slack as well, but there is still nothing better than email for connecting with the world outside, and looping in members of your team to get things done.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who get more email than me, but I’m no slouch in that department. I’m the CEO of a 200+ employee company with 20,000+ customers. It takes a full time executive assistant and a full time Chief of Staff to keep my world in orbit right now. My email address is also not hard to figure out. In fact, I put it right on my LinkedIn page.

And yet, I get to Inbox Zero anywhere between 1–3x a week.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how that’s possible, so I decided I’d take a little time on vacation and write this post. (Yep, sharing ideas like these are my idea of fun. 😂)

Slow the Fire Hose

People talk about the messages that appear in their inbox as if they have no control over them, and that’s not entirely true. The first thing you probably need to do is turn down the flow of messages.

I know people who have followed these four tips and killed an astounding 80% of their incoming messages.

Kill the Notifications

I’m decently responsive to important things in my inbox, but the only way I got there was to massively reduce the noise, so I could hear the signal.

Upgrade Your Tools

I’m a big believer that high quality tools more than pay for themselves in higher productivity. There are limits to that logic, of course, but if you can make your own tool decisions, ask yourself if having a good setup can increase your productivity by 1, 2, 3%. You can do the math on that.

If you’re in a big organization stuck on an archaic version of Exchange server, or they won’t let you use a tool like Asana, a few of these tips may be a challenge for you. You should come join Riskalyze and help us empower the world to invest fearlessly instead. 😉

Set up Text Macros

I get more sales pitches, and requests for calls or meetings with VCs, private equity firms and investment bankers, than I know what to do with. These are personal emails without unsubscribe links.

If I don’t respond, I usually get a second or third email from them. So I set up text replacements on my iPhone and, to my delight, discovered they sync to my iPad and Mac. Here are my three…

These don’t work for every circumstance, but they’re often a good starting point, and then I edit them from there.

It’s Time to Triage

Okay, we’ve got the flow of email reduced to the messages that matter. We’ve equipped ourselves with a to-do app so we can move our tasks out of the inbox. And we’ve killed the notifications so we can stop going into our email every 30 seconds. Now we’re going to triage our inbox.

Triaging is not the same as processing. We’ll get to that below. Triage is something we can do for two minutes, even if we don’t get every message triaged. We can do it on our phones while walking down the hallway. I always scan the names and subject lines, and triage the most important messages first.

And oh yes, let’s just forget the silly myth of “touch each email only once” — it’s a nice thought, but that’s for people who aren’t busy, or can do the “I only check email twice a day” thing. The rest of us need to triage first.

Here are the actions you might take while triaging.

At the end of triage, the only things left in my inbox are the deeply urgent things that I must handle on the run, before I’ll get back to my to-do list. If my CFO needs me to call the bank, or one of my board members has sent me a note that shouldn’t wait until later, that stays in the inbox to deal with as quickly as possible. Emails from your boss or up your chain of command, unless explicitly not urgent, probably belong here!

After triaging, my inbox is often empty…but I don’t consider this Inbox Zero quite yet.

Okay, Let’s Process!

When your inbox is empty, and the critically urgent is under control, it’s time to process. I always process emails in the order they were received, oldest to newest. On a good week, I might find half an hour every day to process, and be running 2–3 days behind. On non-stop weeks, I’m processing emails on a Saturday that arrived last Tuesday. Such is life.

I’m usually on my Mac, but at times on my iPad. Trying to process without a real keyboard is a waste of time, so I rarely do it on my iPhone.

Here are the actions you might take while processing.

For my email load, processing takes 2–3 hours a week. Your mileage may vary. But I find that this approach is way more efficient than trying to process at the same time you triage — that, plus allowing too many of the wrong messages to flow into your inbox, are what makes email feel impossible or overwhelming.

Tasks Involving Email

Rarely do I task myself to reply to an email; I just try to reply while processing. However, there are often more complicated tasks that involve editing/reviewing attachments in an email, and then replying back with those edits. So you want the email handy for those tasks.

That’s the purpose of my second folder, called “On Tasks.” When I forward the email to Asana to create the task, I change the subject line to “Review new product financial assumptions for Dan <ontasks>” and that reminds me the message is waiting in that folder when it’s time to work on that project.

Welcome to Inbox Zero

My definition of Inbox Zero is when I have my inbox and my “To Process” folder completely cleared of messages. (For what it’s worth, I also include clearing out all the Slack messages I’ve starred for a response later; I do that during processing.)

So what have we accomplished?

May email turn into your secret weapon that closes deals, recruits amazing talent and makes you the connector of amazing people.

@Riskalyze CEO. Adoption + Orphan Advocate. Husband and dad striving to live Isaiah 1:17.