How I’ve Made Email my Secret Weapon

Slow the Fire Hose

  • Email is for messages, not for articles. There is VERY little content that I allow to flow into my inbox. Unsubscribe from all those blogs and newsletters you subscribed to. Follow them on Twitter, or drop them into Pocket. If you can’t bring yourself to do that, think about setting up a separate email account for this stuff. That isn’t an inbox; it’s your personal magazine.
  • Be selective on marketing. There are 10–15 brands that I have a strong connection with who I’ll let into my inbox because I actually want to hear from them. Otherwise, I’m pretty confident they will find a way to get my attention in another channel.
  • Kill non-essential or duplicate email notifications. Every app and service that we use is pinging us with notifications. But a lot of time, they are non-essential, or the same alert also comes as a push notification on your phone. Either change the settings in the app, or put in some email rules to kill those.
  • Be an aggressive unsubscriber. When you get unsolicited email you don’t want, always click unsubscribe if the link is there. Most unsub systems work with 1–2 clicks.

Kill the Notifications

  • Turn off all the app notifications. Email shouldn’t generate banners, unread badges or sounds. Trust me, you won’t forget that your inbox exists; you don’t need any reminders to check it. Give yourself the space to do focused work and then tap your email app when you’re ready to triage your inbox.
  • Use the VIP feature if it’s helpful. I have my direct reports and my board members on the iOS Mail VIP list, so I get a notification on my phone if one of them emails. However, the more that our urgent stuff moves to Slack or texting, the less valuable this has become.
  • Free yourself from feeling obligated to respond to everything. I’m sure I miss emails from real people that go into spam, but I also get a lot of “asks” from people I don’t know. Given that I’ve committed my time to family, company and non-profit work, spending time and attention on those is breaking my commitments to others. These emails are like people who show up to your office without an appointment — you might drop everything to give them your time, but you usually can’t. Why is an email any different?

Upgrade Your Tools

  • Use an email service with great search. You need to be able to find archived messages with ease. Nobody beats Google on this front. Both my company and personal addresses are on Gmail. I have both accounts set up in Apple Mail on my Mac, iPhone and iPad because those apps work really well when offline. But if a quick search isn’t turning up the message I need, I hop into Gmail and there it is.
  • Kill all those folders. I know people who make long lists of folders for every project or topic. Guess what? It takes a lot of time to archive emails that way. I have two folders (more detail below) and I still misfile things by accident once in a while. If you use an email service with great search, you do not need 85 folders in your mailbox. Put everything in one big archive, and use search to find it when you need it.
  • Get a to-do app. Too many people use email as a to-do list, and trust me, your inbox is awful at that. What is important gets mixed in with what is new. You constantly have to re-read the email and reinterpret what you actually need to do. My favorite to-do app right now is Asana, particularly because I can hit forward on an email, change the subject line to “call Bill re: contract terms” and hit send. Bam, it’s on the list, and I can archive that email.

Set up Text Macros

  • notint = Not interested but thanks; please remove. This is short, sweet and to the point. The “but thanks” disarms the person and makes them want to be polite and follow my wishes. It used to read “please remove me from your list” but that resulted in a bunch of silly replies insisting I wasn’t on a list. Shortening it did the trick.
  • novc = I’m sorry; I’m heads down on a bunch of initiatives and don’t have time for a call right now. Maybe in a few quarters. This has worked well for VC, PE and investment bankers. I might want to talk with them eventually, but I genuinely don’t have time to invest in a call or meeting right now. They’ll email me back in six or nine months, and my answer will either change or be the same.
  • nocant = I’m sorry; I’ve already made commitments I’d have to break if I tried to make a call or meeting work right now. Is there another way I can help? The last sentence is only for those I genuinely feel like I might have a way to help, like an introduction to make.

It’s Time to Triage

  • Reply. If a very quick reply is all that is warranted — like a “Thanks” or “Great” or “On it” — I’ll reply while triaging.
  • Reply with a Macro. If one of my pre-written replies works, I’ll send it while triaging. Done.
  • Forward/Delegate. I’ll delegate things that don’t need context or deep explanation. My team is very used to getting messages from me with “please handle” or “?” as my only note.
  • Process Later. The “To Process” folder is my second inbox. This is where I put messages that need more than 10 seconds of work each. I don’t have time to handle them during triage, so I move them into To Process instead.
  • Archive or Delete. If no further action is needed, I hit archive. If it’s something I don’t need, I might hit delete instead. (On the other hand, I might put it into “To Process” if I want to unsubscribe or block the sender later.)

Okay, Let’s Process!

  • Unsubscribe or Block. I talked above about being an aggressive unsubscriber, but there’s no time for that while triaging. And to whoever put me on the master list of professional real estate investors, may you be cursed with a thousand Viagra spams. 😂
  • Reply. This is when I will write longer or more substantive replies. Writing more than a few sentences requires time and thought. I’ll do that during processing. (By the way, this has taught my team something interesting. Send me a concise email with numbered options and you may get a reply in an hour. Send me an email that requires a longer reply, and you may not get a reply until the weekend.)
  • Forward/Delegate. There are also times I need to forward and delegate things that need more substantive thought and context. Processing is when I’ll write those notes.
  • Task. If the email requires me to take action, and I can’t get it done in 2–3 minutes while processing, I’ll task it. This may be “edit draft blog post” or “call Bill re: contract terms.”

Tasks Involving Email

Welcome to Inbox Zero

  • Triage clears the non-urgent out of our inboxes.
  • Processing gives us time to focus on the important things.
  • Getting to-dos out of our inboxes allows us to have a clear view of what we need to do and stop reinterpreting emails over and over.
  • Email becomes manageable and we become more responsive to the customers, partners, teammates, shareholders and friends that we care about.

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