Managing your mailbox: top tips from busy people

My fiancé once told me that in Silicon Valley, etiquette dictates that you should reply to an email within 24 hours. Great rule of thumb that may be, but it’s heavy on idealism. I’ve found only about 10% of people reply to messages within a one day window; for some, the average response time is more than a week. I’m not talking here about promotional or instructional material, but emails that require an answer, if you please. I got an email the other day from a (clearly wildly busy) startup founder answering a question more than two months later. (I haven’t replied.)

So why is this? Have we no manners? Would Mr Darcy have dared leave Elizabeth Bennett’s letter mouldering in a corner for weeks on end before taking up his quill?

This lethargic response time seems especially ironic given the proliferation of website “Contact Us” pages written in that rather over-friendly, “we’re so cool” tone that has become as ubiquitous as startups adding “-ly” to the end of a noun. They invite you to “PLEASE REACH OUT” because “we’d LOVE to chat about our favorite paleo desserts with you.” Frankly hello@xyz.com email addresses are usually black holes and it doesn’t matter how excited you sound about the company’s product, don’t expect to hear a squeak back.

Surfing the email wave

Turns out that despite his laudable 24-hour response rate goal, my fiance can’t reply to all his emails — not his work ones anyway. He’s a nodal point in a large, established hi-tech firm, where often the only way to get a message across multiple teams simultaneously is by email. “I receive around 500 a day in busy season,” he told me. He has to filter, reroute, prioritize according to the seniority of the sender, and then ignore 95% of the general correspondence.

This isn’t unusual. A brief survey of some of the busiest people I know reveal many of them receive several hundred emails a day. How is a mere mortal supposed to keep on top of that? With every company under the sun now engaging in email marketing campaigns, and email lists getting liberally hawked around, we are all drowning.

Better email hygiene

So how do incredibly busy people manage their email? I asked some.

Derek Pando is a sleep-deprived new dad and works on product ideas at a top Silicon Valley internet firm. He says his trick is to get up and to work before most of his colleagues: “This usually lets me get ahead of my email since no one else is in the office to interrupt me and no one is writing me new emails that early that might distract me.” And he says he tries to bring context to every communication: “If I know I’m a block on something, I respond quickly [ …] I’m also very quick to respond to senior leaders, even if I’m not blocking them on anything.”

Sylvain Kalache is an entrepreneur working on an education project related to software engineering. His approach, he says, “ is to avoid [being] distracted by email that is not important at the moment.” He says he uses Mailbox, especially the “Later” feature which allows you to hide your email for a certain period of time: “Because you know you won’t be able to treat this email, which contains a long article you want to read but will only have time for during the weekend, you can say to Mailbox “archive this email and bring it back this weekend”.

Ilya Moshovich is juggling a growing startup and various consulting gigs. “I believe that making quick decisions and pursuing immediate action will help keep your inbox ‘under control,’” he says. He uses Gmail for Work and consolidates his different accounts in his smartphone Gmail app. His method is to scan for emails such as spam or promotions, that can be immediately deleted or archived. He also says that if it’s impossible to respond right away, “I’ll communicate to the sender that I received the message and will be in touch shortly. I set a deadline and follow up.”

llana Golan leads a startup called Stiya, and says she works 12-15 hours a day, “not including sleepless nights.” She learnt methods for dealing with email in her former business, an enterprise startup. Deluged, she created a strict folder system which she prefers to searching her inbox. Now, she says, mobile notifications are the biggest nemesis: “the only way to be effective […] is to reduce the amount of irrelevant content. People are lazy sometimes to go to settings and turn something off, or unsubscribe from an email list, but if you take that minute, you save a hundred later.”

The most hardcore of all is Guillaume Lesur, who leads a team of engineers in France and Tunisia and works on a dozen projects in parallel. He gets about 4,000 emails a day. He says: “I declared e-mail bankruptcy publicly” by declaring to co-workers that “e-mail is not a safe way to contact me for work related emergencies.” It’s too asynchronous. Instead he prefers instant chat services which have “all the features that made email discussion so convenient”. To deal with the daily inbox flood, he has created extensive Outlook rules separating email into prioritized folders, notifying him of critical emails (only) to his smartphone:

  • Is the sender a “VIP”? (Corporate exec / close friends / family)
  • Am I the only recipient of the email?
  • Am I mainly concerned by the e-mail (in the “to” field of the e-mail)?
  • Am I named in the “cc” field?
  • Sender is a robot / a mailing list I subscribe to
  • And he refuses to ever use “Reply All.”

Roll up, roll up

Let’s face it — without taking ourselves in hand, we’re all a bit undisciplined when it comes to email, perhaps responding to the fun stuff first and letting some important but more boring emails slip. I know that as my network has grown, so has my email traffic, and these days I have three different inboxes to manage. One way I’ve been trying to stop becoming one of those people who responds a week later is by using Unroll.me, a neat tool to help you classify your subscriptions, and “roll” them up into a daily digest. There are other great ways to avoid the email time suck, such as using Spark, a virtual meeting room, or Slack, for real-time messaging.

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