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How The Most Productive CEOs Keep Email In Check

Not every exec hits “inbox zero”—or even tries to. There’s more than one way to keep emailing to a minimum.

How The Most Productive CEOs Keep Email In Check
[Photo: LudgerA via Pixabay]

How many hours a day do you spend sifting through your inbox? Does the idea of taking up arms against a sea of emails each morning feel hopeless? You aren’t alone. Some of the most productive people out there struggle with email—or used to, before coming up with some useful hacks and regimens to help them. Email may not be going away anytime soon (even the pros at group messaging companies like Slack and HipChat still rely on it for a few things), but there may be a few ways to make it more manageable. Here’s how some of the busiest execs keep their email time to a minimum.

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Related: How This MailChimp Employee Limits His Email Time To 90 Minutes A Day


Getting To Inbox Zero . . .

Some people find the idea of “inbox zero” a totally unwarranted holy grail of email productivity; others swear by and achieve it. Many CEOs strive to clear their inboxes daily, or at the very least weekly, a goal that forces them to stick to certain habits for staying on top of their incoming messages. Typically, that means setting aside multiple windows of time during the day—usually one in the morning and one in the evening—to wade through their inbox.

Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit, the maker of TurboTax and parent company of Mint, sums up his email approach as “read, act, file, or delete.” By limiting himself to these four options—and requiring that he performs one of them—Smith says he manages to clear his inbox daily without the help of an assistant. It “requires real commitment,” he concedes, but the goal is simple: “Never touch something more than once.” In order to leave time for regular inbox maintenance, Smith schedules meetings that can’t run longer than 45 minutes so he can catch up on emails during the 15 minutes in between meetings.

BaubleBar CEO Amy Jain is smart about how she uses downtime, too. She spends her subway commute sifting through her inbox and flagging messages. “Once I get to my desk, I take care of the flagged emails first so no one is waiting on me for time-sensitive things,” Jain says.

. . . Or Close Enough

Some execs manage t0 keep email to a minimum without quite hitting inbox zero. “Twenty emails in my inbox is too many,” says Alex Friedman, co-CEO and cofounder of organic tampon brand Lola. “I try to keep it below 10.” Like Jain, Friedman makes good use of her commute. “A trick I’ve learned over time is that I can keep replies more succinct if I reply on the go,” she says.

One of the most effective ways to trim your inbox, of course, is to send fewer emails in the first place. Karl Iagnemma, CEO of the self-driving car startup nuTonomy, is so sparing with email that he aims to cap his sent messages at 25 a day. Whenever he finds himself exceeding that threshold, it “usually means that I’m not spending enough time on more important activities,” Iagnemma says. “Most emails get forwarded or deleted; a few get a brief response; still fewer get longer treatment.”

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A number of CEOs I spoke to said they didn’t respond at all to emails that weren’t addressed to them directly; if they’re simply copied on a thread, they assume someone else will handle it. Some CEOs use a folder system to organize their inboxes or turn to scheduler tools like the Boomerang extension, in order to set email reminders and manage when their messages go out. Other execs say they’re diligent about taking the time to unsubscribe from mass email lists or else bundle the newsletters they subscribe to using tools like Unroll.Me.


Related: Six Ways The Most Productive People Write And Send Emails


Forsaking Inbox Zero (And Living To Tell About It)

But if you’ve failed to reach or maintain inbox zero (as I have), you’re still in good company, productivity-wise. Many CEOs say it simply isn’t realistic—and still manage to get quite a lot done anyway.

“It’s impossible and something that will give you too much unnecessary stress if you spend too much time trying to get there,” says Yarden Tadmor, CEO of job-search app Switch. Tadmor also echoes what execs of both persuasions on the inbox-zero question typically say: If someone really wants your attention, they’ll reach out again.

Keeping this in mind can be liberating. Michel Morvan, U.S. CEO of the CoSMo Company, which makes systems-modeling software, noted that even if he did someday manage to hit inbox zero, it probably wouldn’t last for more than a few days. “My job isn’t to manage email,” he points out, “it’s to manage a business. Email is only a tool in that regard.”

Taking It To Slack—Or Maybe Offline

When it comes to external email, chances are you have little control over how many emails you receive. But internally, CEOs can set expectations about how their employees should—and shouldn’t—be using email, all of which impacts their own productivity.

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“Say what email is for,” Amol Sarva, CEO of office-space startup Knotel, recommends. The notoriously productive Sarva also suggests that CEOs lay out explicitly to their teams how they prefer to use various communication mediums, from email to Slack, texts to phone calls and even meetings. But there’s more to it than just setting guidelines and hoping your employees will follow them. “Model the behavior,” he adds. “Don’t email things that should be saved for meetings.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, CEOs often point to Slack for helping them cut back on superfluous email back-and-forth so they can give priority to the fewer internal emails to do trade with their teams. Some execs recommend other tools for diverting conversations away from their inboxes, from video-conferencing system Zoom to project-management platforms like Wrike and Trello.


Related: Here’s How Trello Employees Use Trello


Zoom CEO Eric Yuan uses Zoom’s chat feature for most internal conversations, and he’s not alone in turning to video to keeping in contact with his team; Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes shared his “video selfie” technique with Fast Company last year. Says Yuan, “It’s a faster way to communicate, especially since I can immediately turn any conversation into a video meeting.”

Sarva uses his own product, the note-taking app Knotable, as a “non-urgent, asynchronous channel” for issues that employees want to alert him to but don’t need addressed immediately. When it comes to more time-sensitive stuff, some CEOs say they encourage employees to use the chat feature in Google Hangouts or just fire off a text message to reach them quickly.

But sometimes good, old-fashioned talking is just more efficient—and more effective. “An actual conversation, where you can hear the tone of a person’s voice rather than text or emoji, saves hours in an endless loop of messaging and lost productivity,” says Ajaz Ahmed, CEO of digital agency AKQA. Ahmed likes to hold walk-and-talk meetings with his employees, he says, because they’re “more focused and don’t have the distraction of devices.”

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Sarva agrees that one of the most effective ways to keep email at bay is just to be more present offline. “Walk around enough,” he advises. Because chances are, “the people who email you don’t see you enough.”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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