Fight back, don’t let the emails win

How to deal with your overflowing inbox and get more work done.

Disclaimer: I am not pretending to be a productivity guru and don’t often do a great job of staying productive. In this article, I want to share my experiences, get some feedback, and try to fix some of my bad habits.

Being a CEO and a solo founder often feels like juggling dozens of tasks and emails. I receive a lot of emails every day. Despite being distracting, they are a necessary evil to be dealt with. I have found a few ways to process emails while staying focused.

#1. Inbox Zero

It’s probably the best state of your inbox. “Inbox Zero” doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have any incoming emails. It means that all emails are sorted out, organized, and taken care of. But it’s not an easy state to get to.

I use a combination of the standard Gmail and Inbox (by Google) for emails. Few times a day I check my inbox and sort all the emails like this:

  1. Delete and hit the “Spam” button for all spammy and notifying emails.
  2. Reply to emails that don’t require any extra action / thinking / research right away.
  3. Forward an email to someone else, if they can provide a better reply.
  4. Leave emails, requiring the extra action and get back to all of them at a later time. I call them “TO DO emails”.
  5. Move the rest of the emails to specific folders or archive them.
  6. Snooze an email (this feature is available in Inbox by Gmail)

No need to have an inbox full of read emails, when you know that everything is organized and you know what to do with them.

#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 Mike Butcher asking for an interview for Techcrunch?

Yes, every email might be THE EMAIL. But every email will most definitely distract you. So it’s important to understand and accept, that emails create a lot of noise and don’t help you in finishing your other tasks (Assuming that you have other things to do).

I usually close a tab with Gmail / Inbox and turn off all notifications on my MacBook.

#3. Email time slots

Okay, your notifications are turned off — how will you know, that someone wrote you? I have set up special time slots during the day, where I process emails.

My day in the office usually starts at 8am or earlier and I don’t schedule any calls or meetings before 9am. So I spend that first hour on planning my day and answering (and deleting!) emails.

During the day I have 5 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.

Isn’t that hard to manage? I prefer to use the Pomodoro technique to define 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. (I use Pomodoro One for Mac, but go out and find your own favorite.)

#4. TO DO emails

As I mentioned above, I mark all emails that I need to reply to as “To Do”. This lets me come back and handle them when I have time for it.

Note: “To Do” is special label in Airmail that works with Gmail, but you could just make a custom one for that purpose.

Even though it sounds simple, there are two main rules you have to stick to:

  1. Don’t skip emails. It’s a simple “anti-procrastination” rule, but I often want to “send it later”. There are plenty of reasons for it: it’s too important, it’s not a straightforward email, I don’t know what 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).
  2. 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 a master (or at least much better than I was) 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 to get straight to the point and spend 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 😉

#6. Delegate

As a CEO and a control freak, I often want to be 100% sure, that everything is going well. It does not only require more time but is in general not healthy for a startup. Don’t be afraid to CC and BCC the right people if you think they can provide the right answers.

A potential problem with this is to have a conversation with 100+ addresses in CC, so no one is in charge and no one even remembers, what the topic is. When I worked in banking, this was something I experienced every day. 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. Nowadays this is a lot easier to avoid internally with tools like Slack, but unfortunately you can’t use Slack everywhere and with everyone (although I wish I could).

So those were the tips I follow in my day-to-day life to manage emails and run my company Easysize. I’m not saying that it’s the best way to do it, nor I’m pretending to be a productivity guru. I have clearly not been completely cured of my addiction to emails and probably never will be.

Something, that I personally can’t do yet but would really like to, is to not check my emails at night and be less addicted to my phone. Once I’m away from my laptop, I feel a need to check my emails all the time.

Please comment and share your tips, I would love to know how you deal with your overflowing inbox!