I used to get over two hundred emails a day. Now I get less than five. There are days I don’t get a single email. Just imagine that. I come to work with a set of things I want to get done, and I do them, and nothing else.
Do you accept email as an essential part of your job, and spend a good part of your day in your inbox? That’s understandable. If a client emails you about a problem, then it’s your job to reply with a solution. If your boss emails you a question, it’s your job to email an answer. If a prospect emails you for a quotation, it’s your job to email them an offer.
But here’s the problem — as long as your job is answering email, you are not in control of your time. You can’t set priorities. Worse yet, you can’t do any strategic or creative work or pursue long-term goals. You’re reacting, not managing. Your email inbox is your To Do list, and you’re not the author of it.
When I realized that, I decided that it had to stop. I began a ruthless mission to empty my inbox and keep it empty. This is how I did it. I stopped working through my inbox and whipping through emails as fast as I could. I began to look at each email and asked myself “How could I ensure that I never get another email like this one again?” I found that my emails fell into a few categories:
The first and easiest way to reduce inbox clutter is to take the time to unsubscribe from everything. I know it’s important to stay informed about what’s happening in your industry. That’s what blogs are for. You get to choose when you read a blog. Most of the content I was getting via email was accessible online. So I unsubscribed from all newsletters. If it was something that I valued, I bookmarked the blog in my web browser.
I have a folder in Chrome called Blogs. It has subfolders for the types of content I read. When I want to catch up on my reading, I set aside the time that works for me. I choose the topic to read up on, and visit the blogs in my browser. I don’t see every new idea as it’s published, but that’s okay. If there’s anything earth-shattering happening in my field, I’ll hear about it on Twitter.
Maybe there’s a newsletter that I need to follow, and I can’t get the content anywhere else. For those, I create a rule in Gmail to move those emails to a folder called “Read Later.”
Other automated emails that I want to get are things like automatically-generated invoices. Those I direct to a folder called “Print and file.” Then I can go through that folder and print all the attachments at times that work for me.
I used to get a lot of emails that were better handled by someone else. If someone wanted me to re-send an invoice, or check the status of a budget, I’d just get the data myself and send it on. That was easy, but it’s not my job. We have accounting people who can do that faster than I can. I started introducing people who ask me questions to the best people to answer them. Once all my clients knew the office manager or accountant, they stopped emailing me about money matters.
If there was some data, like how much we’ve billed to date on a project, that clients often requested, we might make it easier for them to find the answers themselves by adding a report to our online time tracking system, or maybe updating an FAQ. Every time I get a question like that, I can show them how to get the data whenever they like. It takes a little longer, but each time is one more person who will never send me that email again.
I found that there are always a couple of people who would email me frequently about a wide variety of topics. I started scheduling weekly calls with such people, and the emails stopped. The call rarely takes more than fifteen minutes, but the regular contact is both better for relationship-building and it addresses their needs. Since I scheduled the calls, I re-claimed control of the time that used to spend replying to their emails.
Closing Open Loops
Some email threads go on far longer than they need to. If I get an email inviting me to engage in a discussion, the best reply is a phone call. A quick call can eliminate a lot of back and forth emails.
An email like “Want to meet?” should never be answered “Sure!”. When invited to conversations like this, I started taking the time to give the sender the tools they need to close the loop. For example “Sure! How about at Starbucks tomorrow at 2:00 or Friday at 10:00?”
I also have a one question rule. If I get an email with one question, I answer the question. If I get an email with two or more questions, I call the sender to talk about it. That eliminates any back and forth correspondence and immediately satisfies the sender’s needs. Some people, having learned that about me, will send two emails, each with one question. That’s fine. Such emails are easier to respond to.
By applying this strategy of asking of each email, “How can I never get this email or another like it again?” for a few months, I managed to get my 200 emails a day down to almost none. Now, when I open my email, there are only a few messages. Every one is important to me. That makes “doing my email” a pleasure, and one that takes me less than half an hour a day.
With the whole day ahead of me and an empty inbox, I can assess my long-term goals, choose the most important and valuable tasks to achieve them, and have all day to work on them.
I have achieved the ideal relationship with email. If there is an email in my inbox, it’s written to me, by a person who is important to me, about something interesting that I am in a unique position to address. Even when I was managing two companies and three conferences, that was rarely more than five a day.
Now that I am only working on Kanbanery, the only emails I get are from clients with interesting questions or proposals and the occasional invitation to lunch. I can spend more time crafting thoughtful replies that helps to build rapport with the most important people in my life.
One Last Email Hack (one of my favorites)
Which brings me to my last email hack. If you answer emails in the morning, how to keep the inbox empty all day? Once you’ve cleared the clutter so that only the most important emails make it to your inbox, those are the ones likely to generate a bit of back and forth conversation. If you reply to someone at 8 AM, they are likely to write back before noon. You might be tempted to drop what you’re doing and reply.
I recently started using the “send later” feature of Boomerang for Gmail. Most email software has this feature. I used to think it was for tricking your boss into thinking you were still in the office at 5:00 when you slipped out at 4:00. I use it to send my emails at 6:00 in the evening, even if I write them at 6:00 in the morning. Everyone who emails me gets a reply within 24 hours, so they’re happy, but I only get their replies the next day.
If you have any questions about how this worked for me, or any suggestions for more email hacks, please leave them in the comments.