The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Inbox

It Only Takes 20 Minutes of Email a Day to Manage a Company (Or 3). How to Do it in 100 Days

The result: Today, as I am typing this, I am in Croatia (Austria and Italy next!) and have successfully not checked my email for more than 1-2 minutes a day since arriving. Wahooooo!

I don’t know how much attention I’ll get with this topic, but I can take comfort from the fact that the people who need it, really need it. I know I could have used it before I found a better way. At my peak, I was spending two hours (officially) a day, plus all the time I spent drifting through my inbox before I got up or went to sleep. I know there are people out there who are in a much worse position.

Wherever you are on the scale of wasting time with email, I can promise you; you could be doing better. I thought I needed every second of those hours. I thought my time waking up and going to sleep was supposed to be dominated by reading, organizing and replying to emails. Now that I’ve come to the other side, I can say with confidence that those hours were WASTED. I could have been doing real work in that time. I could have been meeting with friends or even just giving myself a minute to relax. So this isn’t something you should wait on. Get yourself that time back! I’ll tell you how.

Sections:

Why 100 Days?

This new method was a HUGE change for me, but I had help. I have to credit Tim Ferris’ Four Hour WorkweekRework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson and Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive for helping me put together the mindset and toolset that made this possible.

It means a lot of work, though. If I had even tried to do it over a month, it would have been a disaster. If you want to get to a point where you can only spend 20 minutes on email per day—and still expect that you won’t miss something important—you need to take the time to find out where all your limits are.

inbox zero - Adam Steele

Auditing Yourself (One Week Test)

Try something for me. It will be a little scary. Try going one week without reading your email. It’s best to try this while you’re on vacation when (presumably) few emergencies can come up. That’s still too scary for some people, but I have done this, read about others doing it and we all seem to come to the same conclusion: There are never as many fires to put out as you think.

It’s important to realize you don’t need to be as “always on” as you think you do because that’s how you get to the point where you realize you’re wasting time. To find out how much time I was using (wasting) in the first place, I decided to start tracking every second that I spent managing emails. 

When I first started tracking time spent on emails, I expected that it would average out to an hour a day. When I actually tracked it, using a handy stopwatch app, it was twice that on the best days, and easily up into 4 or 5 hours. Auditing yourself has only one instruction-

  •         Turn on the timer whenever you read your email

That means every time you even look at it, even if it’s only a few minutes. I can almost guarantee that you are spending way more time than you think, and this step will help you understand where it’s being wasted. You’re probably checking it constantly throughout the day, and that’s something you’ll need to change for the next step. Let’s have a look at how I’ve done it. I broke up my milestones by months, and I measured my daily time to see how much I could cut it down.

Elimination and Automation (Next 30 Days)

First, Unsub from everything. Anyone who sends you emails you don’t read should be cut off instantly. If unsubbing doesn’t work, step it up and spam list them. Be really strict about it. If you must keep it, filter it to your archive. You can always run a search to find it later on. In my experience, you absolutely will not. There is software that will handle this for you like unroll.me.

You’d be surprised how much lighter your inbox becomes when you make use of off-the-shelf features like filters. If you haven’t tried them before now, you’ll need to use them until they cover every kind of message you could possibly get. For the next 30 days, I want you setting up filters daily. If an email absolutely cannot be deleted, consider a filter. In Gmail, you can filter to archive, filter to labels, filter and forward to someone else, and the list goes on. Basic stuff.

Have some fun, and count how many emails you are receiving in a given week, and divide by 7 to get your average daily emails received. Then you can measure against this at the end of week 4. You’ll get a real kick out of how much you’ve accomplished.

Check out other services like Zapier and IFTTT to further automate your inbox. If you were working in a team, you might also consider a messenger app like Slack. Slack can be a real time suck too if you abuse it, or it can save you a ton of time.

By the end of the 30 days, your inbox should be neatly divided into categories based on your filters. When a new one comes in, you should be able to slap an existing label on it and put it where it needs to go without wasting a single thought on it until later. My categories/labels look like: ADAM, ACCOUNTING, BANKING, HIRING, LEADS & SHOW. 

Once you’ve been doing this for 30 days, you’ll start to have a very clear picture of which emails need responses and which don’t. The next 30 days, then, is going to be about optimizing. Those custom filters are the first gate that you put between yourself and the emails that aren’t worth your immediate attention. Now you’re going to try to limit your entire “email existence” to just the items that you NEED to see.

Testing and Documenting Your Plan (And Delegating)

 

Your next 30 days is all about documentation. You will be creating a Big FAQ for whoever you choose to delegate your mailbox (or for direct employees and partners to so they can get an answer to important questions without emailing you).

I built my FAQ based on Tim Ferriss’ template that he shares in his book. You record logins for your various email accounts, the purpose of each account, share some basics around setting appointments, reply policy, when to check for mail, and other rules to follow. Finally, it finishes up with the very important FAQ which is intended to a) provide context into your lifestyle and b) answer questions so you don’t have to over and over again.

Spend this first 30 Days ready to update your FAQ every single day. If you get questions for answers that are already there, point them to the FAQ. Yes, it will feel a little rude, but you are trying to get by with only 20 minutes of emails a day. You need to make sure that you set expectations early. After 30 days, you should have the bulk of the FAQs written, but expect to continue plugging new ones in periodically. The better the FAQ, the freer you will become. Derek Sivers wrote a book called Anything You Want where he described how he moved away from his business, never having to step a foot in the office ever again. This was achieved, in part, by creating one badass FAQ. 

The Need for Delegation

It might sound super fancy to have a digital (virtual) assistant (DA), but it really isn’t. I will, however, share what I’ve experienced thus far. Understand, I am still very much in the thick of this, and am learning as I go.

My assistant is local, and she costs $20/hour. I value my time at a little more than $20 an hour, and thus for me, this is a fair trade-off. The best thing? Even though she manages all of my email now, it still only takes her about one hour to do so with the system we have in place. Very affordable for an amazing benefit.

 You may be concerned about experience, but the truth is my assistant didn’t know much about my line of business when she was hired. She was able to learn what she needed from the FAQs, and then she learned to ready responses to learn how to cover anything that got sent to me for the next time. 

I like local because she has context, and must know me better than what I believe someone elsewhere would be able to. That’s important IMO, when it comes to her speaking on my behalf.

This is by far the most time-consuming part of the process and totally caught me off guard. As always, I expect that I can just hand something off once the process is built and ta-da, never again. Not so, not even close. The first few weeks, I spent an additional 15 minutes (as much as 42 minutes on one day), 2-3 times per week going over emails she didn’t know what to do with. This was the valuable time I wanted for myself, but I was already saving so much time I couldn’t feel that frustrated.

On days we don’t meet, she sends me a SHORT AND CONCISE (I am a stickler about this), email, noting the emails she wasn’t too sure about. I reply inline, giving her the answer and the WHY and that is 4-5 senders I may never have to worry about again. The great thing about this is I only have to reply to one SINGLE email to reply to all of my most important messages for the entire day.

This is where I am at now. I’ve made great progress, and week after week I am creating more freedom for myself. I have built an entire process for my DA so far, and I am happy to share it with you.

A Plan for Your Digital Assistant

digital assistant - Adam Steele

Using this plan, your DA can start putting a plan to automate most of your emails for you.

  1. Set him or her up on your email account, but give them their own signature line so that clients know who they are talking to
  2. Set a daily time (I like twice per day, morning and evening) for emails to be checked and organized. Clients will quickly develop expectations for when you can be best reached.
  3. Make sure your DA understands all of the categories that you have created. Plan a review for the first few weeks to make sure items are filed correctly. 
  4. Make sure your DA has a plan for which questions can be delegated to another team member. For example, a message for the CEO may actually be best answered by the CTO, and if that’s the case, there’s no reason it shouldn’t just go to the CTO directly, without you even seeing it.

Once they understand this, they can start giving you your emails as a daily briefing. That’s right, instead of reading a bunch of messages every day, you just read one message that gives you the details you need on any of the messages that matter…

The 5-Part Email Memo

The email memo my DA sends to me every day consists of the following 5 sections:

Yesterday’s Items: This is usually first on the list. Any items that have been added from yesterday are the first priority for today. However, the only emails mentioned are usually those that require…

Actions: The emails that require actual action are in this section. These would include decision requests from clients, documents that need to be officially signed or questions that no one but the CEO is qualified to answer.

FYI: This list is stuff that I was CC’d on or is important, but does not require any action from me right now. It could be something like a changing vendor policy or an expiring service that my DA thinks I should know about. I also like to hear it here when a client gets an important deliverable they need or sends a payment.

Archive: this is for long threads that go on and on for months or years. Sometimes these are conversations with ad industry people or clients. My DA summarizes this with the title and author and marks it as archived if I ever want to see it.

Questions: This is not emails, this is my DA’s questions about how I do things if they aren’t sure. I don’t get many of these very often anymore.

 

Some Final Thoughts and Tips

This is really everything that took me from spending hours on email a day down to only 20 minutes. Let me put that in numbers. I estimate that I used to spend ONE THOUSAND HOURS A YEAR on emails. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s just three hours a day. A lot of people spend more than three hours a day on emails. I now spend less than 150 hours a year on emails. That’s 850 extra hours to spend with friends and family, to plan my next project or to just take a breather.  

I can verify (as someone who manages several companies now) that this is something that can work even for people who have a lot to manage every day. You will definitely need to do some refining of your own, but even a little discipline will save you hundreds of hours in a year. That’s time you could be used to do much better things.

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