8 email management tips from Philly tech leaders

Inbox Zero vs. Inbox Infinity. Auto-responders. Management apps. How do we measure a clean inbox — and how do we get there?

Like this, but on the internet. (Photo by Flickr user Michael Dunn, used under a Creative Commons license)
When an article from The Atlantic suggesting people simply let their email inboxes swell to infinity started to make the rounds on Twitter last week, my immediate thought was: If I tried this, I’d be fired in two weeks.

I’ll save you a click: The premise of the piece is that getting email under control and hitting near-perfect efficacy levels is simply unattainable. Instead, the piece proposes, one must simply acknowledge that some emails will go unanswered. For a reporter trying to keep up with the latest happenings in a fast-paced community, that’s just not going to fly.

That said, and though we at mostly adhere to the Inbox Zero philosophy, there is a case for starting 2019 with a gut check: Is there some value in loosening the reigns on our email? What does “efficient” email management really look like? And what are the best ways of getting there while also making sure the actual work gets done?

We reached out to a few local leaders (over email, of course) for inspiration. Here’s what they said:

Triage is key

Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham says that, of the 300 to 400 emails that make their way to his inbox on the daily, maybe 20 to 30 get responses.

“I am not an inbox zero devotee,” Cheetham writes. “I try to end each week having removed more than have been added, or, at minimum neutral to the previous week. I only periodically check email through the day, and mostly just try to triage (remove from inbox and archive) in order to keep the inbox down to just relevant items.”

Hit the pause

“I use Google’s Pause Inbox feature daily,” says Philly Startup Leaders Executive Director Kiera Smalls, a frequent proponent of self-care and work-life balance. “It allows me deep concentration with a project while also referencing previous emails. Sometimes I peek at my inbox if I set the pause to four hours or more but I don’t respond during that time unless absolutely needed.”

Guard your will power

One of the most enlightening thoughts around email management came from Crossbeam CEO Robert Moore.

“Inbox optimization is all about avoiding willpower depletion: not letting someone else drain your precious mental energy just because they have your email address,” said Moore. “Inbox Zero’ is not about replying to every email, it’s about ruthless prioritization.”

Moore uses an email client called Superhuman, which he learned about from his Stitch cofounder Jake Stein.

“Everything is managed by hotkeys and I can triage through hours worth of emails in five minutes without my hands leaving the keyboard,” Moore said. “Nearly everything is archived (no reply), snoozed (bounces back later), or delegated. Then I’m down to the stuff that actually matters, which very rarely involves staring at emails.”

Email overwhelms you? Color-code it

For University of Pennsylvania professor and investor Vanessa Chan, visual aids help quickly triage email by order of urgency.

“Emails that need my attention but I don’t have time in that moment to respond to, I do a red flag and look at the red flags first thing the next day to respond to those,” Chan said. “Although my red flags are backing up these days.”

Ongoing convos that need checking up on get orange flags, while items that might be of use later get purple flags, with monthly purges to clear out old content.

The 4-1 rule

Kismet Cowork founder Christopher Plant does four daily check-ins with email, plus a nighttime recap to finish out the day strong.

“I try not to use my phone much for messaging and love having a good record of what is going on so staying in deep contact with my email inbox is incredibly helpful,” Plant said. “I hope to graduate one day from having to keep such a stiff handle on email but for now it is my best practice.”

Use your inbox as a to-do list (or, don’t)

This controversial tactic (see passionate bids against it and apps specifically designed for it) is a favorite of Backstage Capital’s Opeola Bukola, who took to Twitter to ruminate on workplace culture.

“I think the best way to manage email is whatever way feels satisfying, or at least mitigates anxiety, for you,” said Bukola, who left Techstars to join Backstage Capital. “I’m really intense about my admin, so I’m in that oft marveled-upon inbox zero camp. I typically have three to 10 emails in my inbox, and they’re starred, marked, and labelled such that my inbox functions like a “to-do” list.  I don’t find it particularly burdensome to manage like this, despite a high volume of emails, but that’s because it’s ultra satisfying for me to on top of that chaos.”

The three-day rule

Brianna Wronko, founder and CEO of Group K Diagnostics, responded to my email within exactly 60 minutes even though she was at a conference in San Francisco.

What does email efficiency look like to the founder? It’s a time thing: not letting emails slip through the more than three days crack.

“Normally what has worked til now is I use Gmail’s feature to star anything I don’t immediate take care of,” said Wronko. “I also devote the beginning and end of my day to sorting emails and can filter the starred emails.”

Kill the noise

Similar to muting your Twitter notifications to prevent a loss in focus, Stitch’s cofounder turns off all alerts and indicators of unread emails on both laptop and phone.

“If I’m not working on my email with all of my attention, I don’t want to be distracted by it,” Stein said.

People: Opeola Bukola / Kiera Smalls / Jake Stein / Robert Cheetham / Robert Moore

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