How Startups can Manage Email Inboxes Better

At SaneBox -- a company that makes an email plug in that acts like apersonal assistant --  we’ve thought long and hard about optimal email workflow, and have come up with a long list of rules and tips. But one of these rules is so important for entrepreneurs it should be both rules No. 1 and 2, just like in Fight Club — but this one’s okay to talk about. It will require a substantial shift in your thinking about email, but this rule will change your life: don’t make clearing your inbox your top priority.

There’s an inherent gamification in clearing your inbox. It feels productive and provides a brief feeling of accomplishment. But this feeling fleeting and has a dangerous flipside - processing email is a reactive activity. When you let other people set your priorities, you’re not in control of your time, and this should be a deal breaker for entrepreneurs.

What can you do to apply this rule to your life? First, become comfortable with the idea that some of the emails in your inbox will never get responded to. And that’s okay. Imagine a world where you don’t have to respond to an email just because it’s there. It’s okay if you choose to, but not because someone else decided for you. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Second, have a clear set of priorities. Whenever you sit down to check email, ask yourself: “Is clearing the inbox the best use of my time? Is there really nothing more valuable I can do?” If you can’t find any higher priority things that will actually grow the business — by all means spend time on your email. And if there’s an email that directly aligns with your top priorities, then it’s a win-win for you and your inbox. It’s completely okay if on some days “clearing the inbox” is in the top five of your to-do list. Eventually it needs to be. The problem is that email has become the default top priority without us even realizing it. We spend 28 percent of our time on email but when we think about our priorities, email isn’t even on there.

Lastly, there are two types of emails: 1) ones that require actual work and 2) ones that just need to be “dealt with” (responded to, forwarded, filed etc). While we tend to be more afraid of the first kind (nobody likes more work), the sheer volume of the unimportant mail adds up. Research on interruptions shows the second kind are very harmful to productivity – it takes 1.5 minutes to read and recover from an average email. Since most email clients and webmail UIs allocate the same amount of screen real estate to each email, our brain is tricked into giving them the same amount of attention. However, not all emails are created equal: some emails need to be dealt with right away (important/urgent), others can wait until later (important/non-urgent), and everything else should be processed in bulk (unimportant.) In other words, you should have a prioritization system even within your inbox.

Dmitri leads business development, sales and marketing efforts at SaneBox. Prior to Sanebox, Dmitri founded Wanto - a social networking app which brings together people with common goals. Previously Dmitri spent several years at Overture (acquired by Yahoo) in a number of sales strategy and business development roles. He was responsible for launching Yahoo's Global Reseller Channel, and led business development efforts in Emerging Markets.  

Dmitri graduated from UC Berkeley with a BS in Finance, and spent the first couple of years of his career in investment banking, focusing on software and Internet M&A. When not working on making email better, Dmitri enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, and playing music.

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