Some people have asked how I achieve inbox zero regularly. When we first started the company declaring email bankruptcy was something I thought about every day. In the first two years of starting the company, opening my inbox gave me severe anxiety.
This post is about what worked for me and continues to work for me. Things will likely change as we grow, but my hope is that some tips will be useful to someone out there.
Your most precious resource is time. Don't let email steal that from you.
As your business grows more people will request more things from you and your team. Know your priorities and say no to everything else. For example, we say no to all potential partnerships. It doesn't matter if you are a large corporation or a small startup. Because our current priority is recruiting scientists and making sure they have an exceptional experience on the platform, we do not make time for partnerships. This doesn't mean that partnerships are not important to our business. They just are not important right now. This helps me do one thing and do it well.
If your business' online presence grows, and if you raise money from investors or start making money people will perceive you as having money to spend. You will get a lot of cold emails. If the product is not relevant to you, my protocol is to email back saying "not interested right now" and mark as spam. Out of sight out of mind. If the sales person is persistent or if the automated robot is persistent and gmail doesn't move it to spam, I will create a filter to filter out all emails from that domain directly to trash. Don't let spammers put things on your to-do list.
Do not have discussions over email. Emails should be short and concise. If there is something that needs to be discussed, pick up the phone and call. In my view, phone calls should not exceed 30 minutes. My calls are generally around 20 minutes. If you need more time schedule a one hour call, but don't schedule anything for another hour in case this needs to run two.
I have a no calls before 10:30AM policy. The protocol I use for scheduling calls is the following:
"Are you available for a short 30 min call? I'm free tomorrow at 3PM ET (12PM PT). If that works for you, what is the best number to reach you at?" Snooze the email to have it return to your inbox the next day at the time of the call.
Put that event on your calendar as a placeholder.
Tomorrow at that time, if the person has not responded send them another email saying: "You still interested in having a call?" If this person is important to you, snooze the email to return to your inbox the next day in case this person does not respond.
If they respond, which they almost always do, send a calendar invite. I title my calendar invites Bob (Bob's Burgers) <> Cindy (Experiment), schedule the event in their time zone, the description is Cindy to call Bob at 123-456-7890, and I invite email@example.com to the event.
This protocol gives the other person a single thing to decided, yes or no. I put the time in their time zone to make it easy for them. I use worldtimebuddy to convert time zones. I always offer to call them. That way I make sure that we start the call on time, which makes it more likely it will end on time. If you do a lot of phone calls I recommend using a service like Clara. When I was doing 8-10 calls a day Clara saved my life. For my calendar I use Fantastical. R.I.P Sunrise.
I use services regularly like Amazon. Filter your transactional email into a single folder. For example, all of the lab notes of projects I've funded on Experiment go to a lab notes folder. I read them all at once. I also have a folder for updates from the Kickstarter projects I've funded. For all other services that I do not use, I unsubscribe from everything. If there is no unsubscribe, I will mark as spam. If that doesn't work I will create a filter to send all email from that domain directly to trash. All of this goes to my personal email, not my work email.
I subscribe to a few newsletters. I only stay subscribed to newsletters that I actually read. I unsubscribe from everything else. My newsletters get filtered to a folder. For community forums, for example Y Combinator's community founder forum emails it goes to a separate folder that I read more regularly.
I have two emails and I'm not afraid to tell anyone that. I have firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. There is a difference. cindy@ is my personal email that only I have access to. Private emails go here, for example emails with our lawyer or investors stay here. cindy.wu@ goes to a shared inbox that my team can see and respond to. We use Front to manage all our shared inboxes in the company. cindy.wu@ is just another email in addition to contact@ and a few others.
If I need to go out of town to attend a conference, if I am on vacation, if I just want to take a day off, I can forward all of my cindy@ email to cindy.wu@ email and know that my team will answer all the urgent emails. Usually they can answer all of my emails. Additionally, if my cindy@ inbox gets too full I will start to forward some emails to cindy.wu@ to distribute the workload. There are really very few things that only I am capable of answering.
This has done wonders to reduce my anxiety about answering email. Knowing that I have a team that can support me, having my team know that I am always on top of my email, and having customers know they will always get a response within 48 hours makes things better for everyone.
Most emails can be answered in a few sentences. Try to be as concise as possible.
When a journalist emails us I always respond with, "We have limited bandwidth right now, so I am not available for a call. I am happy to answer specific questions over email." They will usually send over questions and I will answer questions in line. I answer these emails very quickly and the trick is to answer questions the same way I would speak to the journalist in person. No edits, hit send.
People are often surprised that I answer every email that founders send me. If a new founder or young scientist sends an email asking to meet up to to ask for advice, I ask them to send over specific questions. It is much easier for me to help if you tell me what you want from me and how I can be helpful for your priorities. I rarely do phone calls or meetings with people who are not Experiment users.
When my email load was really high I used Freedom to block out Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium. Anything else that distracted I would add to that list. When Freedom is on I block email from 10AM - 6PM. I turn this on during periods when I am writing, coding, or reading.