Let’s just throw that out there. Everyone hates it. It’s distracting, burdensome, and occasionally feels like a fly buzzing around our heads. Yet despite our love of hating it, we need it. Our entire professional life runs off email.
So instead of ostracizing it, perhaps we should start optimizing it. Which poses an interesting question:
How do the world’s most successful people make email work for them?
Well, I’ll be honest — I don’t have a damn clue.
But I took my first stab at understanding how they do it. A few days ago, I got a behind-the-scenes peek into the inbox of HubSpot’s VP of Growth — Brian Balfour.
He’s a busy guy with an impressive resume.
Brian has sold two companies for millions, advises various VC-backed companies, and is leading the charge behind Sidekick’s rapid growth. Employees email him questions. Bloggers email him interview requests. Entrepreneurs email him for advice. And so on.
So how does he keep it all straight? And how does he stay sane?
He uses a system, split into 10 principles, that makes his inbox incredibly efficient. He can now spend less time in email, get in touch with hard-to-reach people, avoid repetitive tasks, optimize his energy, and leverage a few tools that have skyrocketed his productivity.
Here are the 10 email productivity tips from this world-class entrepreneur and angel investor [click to Tweet image].
What is Brian doing during those 2-3 hours?
Instead of hearing it from me, I'll let Brian share the advice in his own words.
Take it away, Brian.
Email Principle #1: Archive everything.
The two features I use religiously in Gmail are:
- The Archive button
- The Send & Archive button (I'll explain in a minute how to activate this)
As a result, my inbox never has an overwhelming amount of messages in it. Here's what it looks like:
Notice there are only nine emails there. This is because I treat each email as a to-do list task. Thus when I get an email, I follow this flowchart:
If I don't need to respond, I archive it.
If I need to respond immediately, I use the Send & Archive button. This automatically archives the message after I reply. If I need to respond, but my response can wait for later, I'll follow the same process when I have time.
Constantly archiving messages keeps my inbox tidy and clean, making it easier to comprehend emails I need to tackle next.
Now when you reply to an email, the default button will be Send & Archive. But you still have the option to send a message without archiving it afterward:
Oh yeah, and see how I annotated that image above? That's using one of my favorite tools ...
Email Principle #2: Use tools to work faster, thus spend less time in email.
There are four email productivity tools I use pretty much daily.
1. Evernote web clipper - If I need to email a screenshot to someone, I capture it using Evernote's web clipper extension for Google Chrome. It also lets me add arrows and text (as you can see in the first tip above) for easy annotation.
2. Pocket - When I receive an article via email that catches my eye, I'll save it for later using Pocket. Then I’ll read in my downtime.
4. Sidekick - If I'm writing emails at 11pm, I schedule them for the next morning using Sidekick. It also automatically shows Linkedin and Twitter profiles inside of Gmail, which saves me time from having to look them up outside of email.
Email Principle #3: Batch emails.
I believe the worst habit we can fall into is not batching our emails.
I typically batch email twice a day. First round is between 11am and 12pm. Second round is between 4pm and 5pm:
But do I always batch my emails? No, I'm not perfect. But I understand the consequences of sporadically checking email throughout the day.
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, shifting between tasks causes temporary mental barriers, depleting our productivity by as much as 40%.
This principle goes beyond email. I try to batch all tasks, as I work in a series of sprints and rests. This let's me focus on high-priority tasks when I'm most energized and low-priority tasks when I'm least energized.
Email Principle #4: Email when you have the least mental energy.
Conversely, I'm least energized in the afternoon. And since email doesn't require intense mental energy, I send most emails then. But of course, some emails are urgent and require a faster response. So I respond to those during my 11am to 12pm email batching time slot.
The trick is understanding when we're most energized, then optimizing each time period for the appropriate task. This empowers us to get more done in less time.
Email Principle #5: Shut off notifications (especially on mobile).
Email is distracting enough. Using notifications (both desktop and mobile) just intensifies the distraction. Shut them off.
It took me a while to realize this, as I used to have a very bad early-morning habit:
After waking up, still in bed, I'd pull my iPhone from the charging cable and flip through email notifications for urgent messages.
I discovered this stressed me out more than anything. Because instead of starting the day clear-minded, I'd be distracted by requests and questions from others.
Nir Eyal, an expert on habit-building, follows a similar process. He shuts off email notifications so he can focus on high-priority tasks.
Email Principle #6: To get a response from someone successful that is difficult to reach, follow these guidelines.
If we're sending ineffective emails, we won't get an answer. If we don't get an answer, we're wasting our time in email.
It's not easy getting in touch with venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs, and CEOs. But it is possible. However, it requires we learn a few rules on how to get a response.
Here are the principles that have connected me with various successful people in the past:
Get an introduction from someone else. It puts social pressure on the other person to respond.
Discover how you can help them. Don't just blindly ask for help without offering something yourself. Do your research (ex. Twitter, Linkedin, blogs, etc.) to discover how you can offer value to them.
Be unique. Grab their attention. If you write the generic, "Hey I'm Joe Schmo from XYZ company and would love some of your time..." it's an instant delete. Try a unique subject line and introduction that doesn't sound like everyone else.
Keep it short ... and specific. Always ask one specific question. Not two or three questions. One. And be very specific about what you want a response for. More on that in the next tip ...
Email Principle #7: If you want a quick response, don't ask generic questions.
Please, if you're an entrepreneur, don't do the following to anyone (it is my biggest pet peeve):
When we ask generic questions, we get (1) no response, or (2) emails asking for more clarification.
If we get no response, we end up sending a follow-up email (thus spending more time in email). If asked for more clarification, it just adds yet another email to our inbox. It's a lose-lose situation.
For example, I often get hit up by entrepreneurs asking for growth or marketing advice. The email usually goes like this:
My immediate answer in my head is,
"I have no #$%@ing clue. I don't know who you are or anything about your company. And you are asking me a generic question that is nearly impossible to answer without anything details about your situation."
It makes me feel like this person hasn't put in any time or thought into the email. And if they haven't, why should I?
Email Principle #8: Be ruthless about unsubscribing.
I give all newsletters two strikes (i.e. two articles where I didn't learn anything new) before I unsubscribe. This keeps my inbox from overflowing with junk that doesn't teach me something new.
Likewise, I unsubscribe from product updates or promotional offers if I'm not getting value from them.
By ruthlessly unsubscribing, I avoid the "email debt" that progressively builds over time from multiple email subscriptions. If you're buried in a mountain of email subscriptions, give Unroll.me a try to mass unsubscribe all at once.
Email Principle #9: Use "no templates" to stop typing repetitive emails.
I have priorities in my life that I really care about. Unfortunately those don't always line up with the priorities of others. When that happens, I have to say no.
But it's innefficient to say "no" in a unique way whenever someone emails me.
Thus, I save time by using canned responses in Gmail. Now whenever I get a request, but don't have the capacity to help, I can send this email in two clicks by using a canned response:
(Feel free to copy and paste the above template for your personal use)
Most people respond well to that. If they don't understand, then they probably aren't the type of person I want to be helping anyways.
Email Principle #10: Use email templates to outsource tasks that aren't your specialty.
Finally, I used to do everything myself. And then one day I realized how stupid this was.
I'd trick myself into feeling busy with smaller tasks, when I was just wasting time. My stress levels continued to rise until I realized I needed to start outsourcing tasks.
But there's this little problem — outsourcing tasks takes time as well.
We have to type the email, give directions, and make sure we don't miss any important parts. After we do all of that, we might as well of done the task ourselves. By using email templates (again, with Gmail's canned responses), all the hard work is automatically done for me.
Now I just have to make three clicks and press send.
You can flip through all of the email templates below:
Originally published Jun 15, 2015 1:46:00 PM, updated June 15 2021