Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be a productivity guru and in fact often struggle to stay productive. In this article, I want to share my experiences, get feedback, and try to fix some of my bad habits.
Being the CEO of a tech company often feels like juggling dozens of tasks and emails. On a regular day, I receive close to 60–80 new emails. Despite being distracting, they are a necessary evil to be dealt with. I have found a few ways to process emails while staying focused.
I’m currently using Gmail (both for personal and work emails), so while the guideline is mostly email client agnostic, some of the tips are more applicable to Gmail. I’m, however, looking for an alternative and will be updating this post soon.
#1. Inbox Zero
I love my coffee black and my inbox zero. “Inbox Zero” doesn’t mean, that you don’t have any incoming emails. It means that all emails are sorted out, organised, and taken care of.
Reaching Inbox Zero is a never-ending fight — one moment you’re done, next moment a bunch of new emails flooded your inbox. To be on the winning side, I follow a strict but simple guideline:
- Delete and hit the “Spam” button for all spammy emails, notifications and other junk emails, that there is no need to keep.
- Reply to emails, that don’t require any extra action / thinking / research right away.
- Forward an email to someone else, if they can provide a better reply.
- Leave emails, requiring the extra action and get back to all of them later. I call them “TO DO emails”.
- Move the rest of the emails to specific folders or archive them.
- Snooze an email — this is by far my favourite feature in Gmail. I use it quite often for emails, that I need to follow up on, keep track of etc.
Tip: Create and use a shortcut to easily archive or move emails to a dedicated folder.
#2. Turn off notifications
Yes, it’s painful and it’s hard. Every email seems to be THE EMAIL. What if it is an investor writing you with an offer? Or a customer reporting a problem? Or the dream candidate is accepting your job offer?
Yes, every email might be THE EMAIL. But every email will most definitely distract you. So it’s important to acknowledge and accept, that emails create a lot of noise and usually don’t help you in finishing your other tasks (assuming that you have other things to do).
Tip: This can be further extended to other messengers, Slack etc. Setting up clear boundaries and adjusting your notifications settings will give you much-needed peace and quiet to focus on important tasks.
I now have all email notifications turned off on my phone and laptop and only check my inbox during special email time slots.
#3. Email time slots
Okay, your notifications are turned off — how will you know, that someone wrote to you? I have set up special time slots during the day, where I process emails.
My day in the office usually starts at 8 am or earlier and I try to avoid any calls or meetings before 9 am. That gives me an hour on planning my day and answering (and deleting!) emails.
During the day I have 15-minute slots every 1½–2 hours to check my emails and quickly reply to some of them. I also have a 30-minute slot before lunch and after 5pm to reply to those emails that require a long or well-prepared answer.
Tip: Isn’t that hard to manage? For a long time, I used the Pomodoro technique to allocate 5-minute “email breaks” for each 25 min or 1-hour working sessions. There are plenty of apps for all platforms that help you use this simple yet super effective technique. Nowadays, this became a habit, so I usually just follow this routine more or less by myself.
#4. To Do emails
As I mentioned above, all the emails that require extra research, a more detailed answer etc. are marked as “To Do”. I don’t technically mark them and instead leave in my inbox until my longer email time slot, giving me enough time to work on them.
Tip: You can create a special label “To Do” to sort out and manage these emails in a better manner.
Even though it sounds simple, there are two main rules you have to stick to:
- Don’t skip emails. It’s a simple “anti-procrastination” rule, but I often want to “wait and send it later”. There are plenty of reasons for it: it’s too important, it’s not a straightforward email, I don’t know how to reply…. No matter what the reason is, there are only two things you can do with the “To Do” emails: reply now or create a task (to reply later).
- If an email reply requires extra work, create a task. If you need to do something in order to send the reply, for example, a presentation or a document, create a task for it. It’s important to not immediately switch from emails to doing something else though — it requires extra time and energy to go back to the emails at hand. So I usually do it separately: reply to the emails that I can → create tasks for trickier ones → go through all the “extra work” tasks → send all the replies → Profit!
#5. Keep it short
I’m becoming an expert at sending short emails. There are a lot of posts about writing short and meaningful emails — I like this one posted by John Corcoran on Noah Kagan’s blog.
The idea is to value your own time (by spending less time writing) and value the time of others (by having written less for them to read). Also, there is something magical in getting straight to the point instead of spending countless paragraphs trying to say something, that could be compressed into two sentences. (That’s what Medium posts are for!) Keep that in mind and maybe practice using Twitter to help you form your thoughts in a limited format 😉
It’s natural (as a CEO or a business / team leader) to want to be 100% sure, that everything is going well. But you have a reliable and capable team, so don’t be afraid to CC and BCC the right people, if they can provide the right (or better) answers.
A potential problem with this is to have a conversation with 100+ addresses in CC and no one taking a lead and no one even remembering, what this whole email thread is about. Back in the days, when I was working in corporate, this was very common and recurring feeling. An email would start from one Head of Unit, asking another Head of Unit, and would end up with VPs and Heads of Departments and a bunch of confused employees in CC. Hundreds of emails are sent — nothing is done.
So how does one avoid ending up in this rabbit hole of CCs and countless emails threads?
First of all, clarify why you or someone else is in CC.
- Is it to keep them up to date and informed about a certain problem or a project? This is what a call “look but don’t touch” situation — e.g. not further action or reply is needed, you’re in CC to follow along. Make sure, that whoever is in this position knows exactly what they have to, or in this case don’t have to do.
- Is it to add a person, who is more capable of providing the right answer? Then make sure to tag or mention them in the email making clear what’s required from them.
Communicate clearly within your team and be upfront with what expected actions are.
Secondly, avoid adding people who are not essential to a given email thread. Don’t be a part of the problem by bloating email threads.
These are some tips, that I follow in my day-to-day life of managing emails while running my company Easysize. It might not be the best way to do it, nor I’m claiming to be a productivity guru. I have not yet been completely cured of my addiction to emails and there is still more work to be done.
I can also recommend reading this post by Alex Iskold, where he shares his tips on getting and maintaining Inbox Zero.
Please comment and share your tips, I would love to know how you deal with your overflowing inbox!