Inbox 0

I love to optimize things, and I am scheduling nut. I love planning my days and weeks. Most of my inspiration comes from Fred Wilson and Brad Feld (I’ve been reading their blogs for 7+ years) and they are incredibly organized about their life.

I get 300-400 emails per day for Techstars (all of which I answer) + maybe 50-70 personal ones (most of which are spam). Most people who work in tech are like me. We all love tweets because they are short, but emails are not. What they are is stress.

Counterintuitively though, the stress is NOT cause by sheer volume of emails. It is caused by chaotic way that we typically process them, and by the fact that new emails arrive while we are answering existing ones.

Here is the system that is incredibly simple, but is likely dramatically cut down on the amount of time you spend on email, and the stress that it causes you. Here are the steps:

Step 1. Install Gmail INBOX Pause extension.

If you are not using Gmail, then start using it.

Step 2. Adopt this labeling system:

  • Quick emails — can be handled quickly, less than 30 seconds
  • Garbage emails — can be just deleted on the spot
  • Important emails — important emails that take time, need to be answered often
  • Other emails — less important emails that don’t need to be answered often

Step 3. Block the following time spots in your calendar:

  • Mon/Wed/Fri/Sun — 1 hour to Scan emails, answer Quick ones, delete Garbage ones and label the rest
  • Mon/Wed/Sun — 1 hour AFTER the hour above to answer emails labeled Important
  • Fri — 1 hour AFTER the hour of Quick emails to answer emails labeled Other

Step 4: Hit PAUSE

Sit back and relax. If you are bored, go read tweets or TechCrunch. I prefer to actually work :)

Step 5: When reminder to Scan emails arrives, hit UNPAUSE

All new emails load, and you go through them for 1 hour. You answer Quick ones, you delete Garbage ones and then you label the rest. My scan hour is 2-3 pm ET, you can do whenever of course, but I like to keep mornings clean / email free. When you are done – go back to Step 4, i.e. hit PAUSE.

Thats pretty much it. A few points:

  • It is important to stack the times as I did above, because if you don’t have a ton of new emails, then you get to Important ones faster, and likely get yourself some free time.
  • If you find that 1h is not enough, keep adding 30 mins to each spot. It really should be enough because you are solely focused on the emails.
  • Set the rule that you are actually busy during this time, and treat this as a meeting you can’t get out of.
  • Note that you won’t see emails on mobile phone either, and this is fine.
  • If you are expecting urgent emails you can hit UNPAUSE. Obviously if you do it all the time and then start doing emails the whole system fails. So use urgent when it really is, not when you are bored.
  • Pausing is super important, it totally reduces stress.
  • I try to avoid starring emails, but sometimes, very rarely I do.

Would love to get feedback — what worked, what didn’t work for you. Also would love to hear how you manage your emails if different from above.

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5 comments

  1. Love this post! This is definitely a way I want to start approaching emails. I’m a student so I don’t get nearly as many as you do (maybe 20-30 a day, total) but it’s still a mental drain. Over the past year I’ve done two things that I think have helped: 1) switched to Mailbox. It’s designed to help users approach email like a to do list with a goal of inbox 0. 2) actually unsubscribing from annoying lists before I delete them. It takes some time but it’s a good habit I’ve built.

    Thanks for this breakdown of your daily email system- super helpful!

  2. unroll.me makes it really easy to mass unsubscribe from emails – I discovered I was on close to 800 lists. I also use Boomerang for Gmail, which allows you to mark things to re-surface at some point you determine in the future.

  3. […] This is the most important tip in the whole post. Email will own you unless you own it. To own your email you must avoid doing it all the time. To do that you need to schedule the time to do your email. It is absolutely a must. In fact it is so important that I wrote a whole entire blog post just about managing your email. Go read Inbox 0. […]

  4. Thanks Alex, this is another great post that helps me take action.

    Additional tips:

    * I use mailboxapp to send newsletter type emails to “Later Today”. I’ll read those on the eve commute.
    * I fwd emails to evernote that I need to organize and store as reference.
    * I’ve uncoupled personal and work email, focusing only on work email during most days and sifting through personal email every few days.

    1. Great tips, Kelly!! Thanks for sharing.

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