I am still not sure if the fight is over (as you will probably read below email always fights back and it’s an ongoing battle), but for the first time in years I feel that I am beginning to tip the scale in my favor.
Also, before you even start to read consider if you are getting just a couple emails per day? If yes, then skip this post, go outside and enjoy the fresh air. Your time will be spent more wisely. After all, this is a productivity tip, and what better way to waste time than to read something you don’t need, let alone can’t use…
Here’s the background story on how I got into trouble with email. From 2006 to 2011 I ran a small hosting company with a friend of mine. Small company meant that we had to take care of everything, including support. We made a pact that we will answer support tickets and email as soon as possible! So literally, like a dog getting treats for a job well done, if I answered an email quickly I “psychologically” rewarded myself with a tap on the back. Good job Goran. To add oil to this fire, the media would sometimes test all the hosting companies in Croatia, to see what is our response rate. Afterwards they would publish a table, and criticise the company at the last place, for example, look at this horrible company it took them 3 hours to answer our email, shame on them. Our company was always in the top 3 responding really quickly. Again, tap on the back, good job for being… an email slave.
Then something weird happened, we sold the hosting business in 2011, there was absolutely no need for me to reply to all emails within the first 15 minutes (our new service was still deep in R&D) but I still had my email notifications on my iPhone ringing and responding to them immediately. The habit was so deep, and it was taking a lot of my valuable time. I didn’t have clients requesting support, I had emails with product offers, newsletters, various tasks and other “important stuff” that wasn’t really helping my new company. But nonetheless, after clearing my inbox it felt good, and accomplished, like a job well done even if sometimes it took 2 hours to clear the inbox.
Another bad habit I had (and for this one I credit my former business partner) is we used inbox as a to-do list! All this time wasting, counter productivity (or even worse, mistaking movement for achievement) had to end once I realized what was actually going on. Who wouldn’t rather spend one hour of having fun, meditating or being productive, instead of doing email?
So, what steps did I take to tame the beast called email?
Step 1: Unsubscribe from all the newsletters
Yeah, this one is easy, and you expected it. But also the things that are easy to do, are easy not to do. Some companies subscribe you as default, or one of their representatives “contacts” you (which is basically a drip campaign), and sometimes you subscribe to a newsletter hoping they will notify you with discounts, but you get nothing but ads. Enter the liberator, put your game face on, and unsubscribe from everything, go into history, find past newsletter and hit that unsubscribe link. Once I was done, I thought I was left with two or three subscriptions, but I had various newsletters coming in for next 4 weeks. I unsubscribed from about 50 newsletters and most of them I couldn’t even remember. I keep getting new ones, and I kept unsubscribing. By now I have a habit, 99% of newsletters I get, I unsubscribe automatically. This should be ongoing until a couple months from now you notice progress (less email in inbox, more time in your hands).
Step 2: Create filters to “archive” directly
Sometimes some companies will keep contacting you, and you just can’t unsubscribe from their emails (like head hunters, sales representatives, anyone annoying etc). Create a filter in Gmail (I hope that your provider has this same option) and just archive immediately anything that comes from @company.com. You might be thinking, but what if they change and send me something REAAAALY important? My bet is, they wont, and I was willing to exchange that possibility of an important email, for peace in(the)box.
Step 3: Check email only once per day max 1 hour (have it closed in the meantime)
Oh the horror. Only one hour per day in my inbox?!
It’s unbelievable how many people still operate their day (myself included not so long ago), by the emails that arrive in their inbox. It’s such poison! And once you are able to cut free, you realize that it’s easier to just follow other people’s agendas instead of figuring out THE REAL VALUE you are supposed to deliver, real work, and where it counts most.
“Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.” –Archimedes
Some of you may be thinking, but Goran, I am doing sales on my email, shouldn’t I be selling as much as possible? Great, do sales for one hour, then close the inbox and then keep selling outside of your inbox. Prioritize. Also, if you are doing sales over direct email, have you tried some form of automation like “If no reply” or “Get Response“? Are you tracking your closing ratio via direct email? Are you really able to sell? If you are selling inside your inbox, sooner or later that juicy non-sales email will arrive, and I bet you won’t have the courage to ignore it.
With this 1 hour per day, you are taking charge of email. Instead of email interrupting you through the entire day, give it 1 hour of undivided attention. If someone is screaming attention and urgency, it is your obligation and duty to explain that something is urgent if it is not planned properly. If it is an emergency, email is not the proper channel of communication.
I am still having a hard time with this, but I am getting there. At first it might feel incredibly anxious (at least it was for me), but after a few weeks you get used to it, or get back to the old pattern. Hopefully you will keep trying, like I do. But more often than not, you will realize that nothing radical happens, and rarely people notify someone over email when there is an emergency. I can’t imagine someone saying, “Oh, my house is on fire, let me send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org”.
I had two inboxes (company’s & personal) open all the time, and kept checking them all the time. Now I keep trying to force myself to close them, and reopen them an hour before lunch and before dinner. Basically max 60 minutes before you plan to eat, because then you will want to finish the email ASAP, so that you can eat. This is better than having a stopwatch open every time you open your inbox. Which leads me to step 4.
Step 4: Answer every email in under 2 minutes / send short email.
I tried having a stopwatch open every time (read this advice somewhere) when I was doing email, but I think that’s an impossible habit to have (plus it takes away time). So I figured I’d just do email before something I really wanted and needed to do, like food. If I couldn’t answer an email in under 2 minutes, I would turn it into a task. For example if it’s a long email (it takes 5 minutes just to read it), or my bookkeeper needs me to send over some papers, sometimes I would reply “I’ll do it on Wednesday 2pm”, and create a calendar reminder. Maybe you can’t start a stopwatch each time you open an email, but you can open the email with a single thought. “How can I close this email as soon as possible with the outcome I am after”? The answer sometimes is “hit unsubscribe” or “just close it”. Know your outcome for the day before you start opening emails, and you will notice how differently you respond to them.
Send short email
I mean, hello! If you don’t type 50 words per minute, don’t send long emails! Pick up the phone, or just go straight to the fact! There are so many ways to say the same thing, and emails are a great place where you can put your Shakespeare face on, type away your life! Don’t do it! If you want to write, open a notepad or a blog.
Step 5: Create tasks instead of emails
Don’t keep your important tasks in your inbox because sooner or later you will think that “all emails are created equal”. And I don’t have to tell you they are not. How do I create a task from an email? For example, if a bookkeeper sends me an email to find this lost invoice (and I immediately know it will take me at least 15-30 minutes to locate that paper, or at least, that’s my estimation), this is what I do.
1. I reply to my bookkeeper immediately that I will do it on Wednesday 1pm, (the bookkeeper is happy right away, and knows this will be done)
2. Inside that email I put a little hashtag so that I can locate this particular email later ex. #INAinvoice123 (if you would like, you can color it in white, so that the other recipient doesn’t see it, or just write some code understandable only to you)
3. I create a calendar reminder to find this particular email – ex. Find that invoice for bookkeeping #INAinvoice123. The reminder is created 1 hour before (Wednesday noon) so that I have some peer pressure, and that I know she is expecting it an hour later.
Or if someone sends you a choir, but you don’t want to reply to them, just forward the email to yourself (automatically archive it), just write a hashtag in it, and put it in the calendar.
Step 6: Don’t send emails for everything
The more emails you send, guess what? Maybe, the more emails you will get? Of course! Instead of sending an email, wait for the meeting, call the other person, take another second by rethinking if you REALLY need to send that email or just don’t answer that last email.
Step 7: Avoid handling really important stuff over email
Some of you were probably thinking on step 4, how can I send a short abrupt emails when it’s this angry client, or excited investor. You don’t. Pick up the phone, or setup a quick meeting! Email can’t handle situations that require a personal touch. And it’s not just email, it’s text on the Internet in general. If you doubt me, check the comment section on any news related portal. Trust me, I lost a couple of friendships because of this. I know that it’s easier to type than to call. That is exactly why you have to call. It’s also easier to say mean things you will regret later (maybe for the rest of your life). Sometimes one email can turn into a bloodbath with dozen emails. Close your laptop, pick up the phone, before it’s too late.
Step 8: Avoid polls, surveys and other time drains
Someone you care about, asks you for a favor. Fill out this survey. Ohhh, that’s a tough one. I hate to be a bad guy, and not help out. But I can’t remember how many hours upon hours I lost by filing out long surveys because someone doesn’t know how to get to the point and create a good survey… Think of it this way. Imagine Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein or someone really important you personally look up to. And imagine their inbox, and an email just came in. It’s a survey from Zappos, a certain startup, or somebody else. Does that person take the survey?
I know I am being hypocritical here, because I send at least one survey every year. But I am out to kill the beast called email! There are plenty of people out there who don’t have to kill that beast, and there are plenty of reasons why someone takes or doesn’t take my survey. I’ll just have to find peace in my self on this one.
P.S. Remember step #4, 2 minutes per email.
Step 9: Send IF / THEN emails (courtesy of 4 Hour Work Week)
Sometimes there are multiple choices available, and the person on the other side expect you to reply to their emails as soon as you get it. There is bound to be some bruised egos in this game, but just because other people don’t know how to use email (hey, nobody’s teaching them/us) why should you also be the one who isn’t using this business tool properly? So answer those emails with an IF / THEN email thinking of potential options. Ex. Lets meet for lunch at 1PM or 1:30PM or 2PM whatever works best for you, just send me an invite. I am all tied up before and after! And for the location, may I suggest Chinese restaurant “Dva stapica” or Pizzeria Bolero, whatever you feel like eating, just tell me which one (inside the calendar invite). Boom, you are done.
Or, pick up the phone, and get straight to the point and end the problem in two minutes. If you got the question by email, IT DOESN’T mean that you have to hit the reply button, although there’s an incredibly strong habit to do so!
Step 10: Disable email notifications on your mobile phone
Once you are ready for the jump, disable, I repeat, disable email notifications on your mobile phone! Cut it out with the “Oh, I’ll just take a sneak peak”! I’ve fell into this trap hundreds of times, until I realized I have to limit my access on the mobile phone as well. I can’t remember how many times everything was running smoothly, I would do some meaningful uninterrupted work and then I would caught myself checking email on my mobile! If you do it once in a while, you might be wondering what the fuss is about, but this rarely happens. You either keep checking your email, or you execute your email in a given timeframe when you are supposed to take care of your email.
Step 11: Knowing it, is not the same as doing it
If you read all this and understand it intellectually, and agree that this is the right course of action, that doesn’t mean absolutely anything if you are not doing it! You have to have this attitude and habit everyday, or at least every time it’s email time because if you don’t, the previous ten steps wont mean anything. You have to do it, you have to be relentless, and if you fail, you have to keep getting back to them and try again.
Unsubscribe, create filters, twice per day, short 2 min. emails, email2task, don’t send emails, avoid important stuff over email, avoid surveys, send if-then emails, disable notifications, rinse and repeat.
I am really hoping these 11 steps help you achieve inbox zero everyday (just like I have), and that you can deactivate your auto responder “Hey I get to much email, so don’t email me” like the one my investor Dave McClure has active. On the other hand if by trying to do some of the stuff I recommend here you don’t get an email afterwards from your: “bank, lawyer, wife or anyone you think is important”, I am not legally responsible for the damage. So many things can go wrong, and expect to hit bumps along the way. If you have any other hacks that help you keep inbox and your time under control, please let me know in the comments.