How I Email: Sheri Salata, Chief Visionary, The Pillar Life

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

Sheri Salata is the cofounder of The Pillar Life, a lifestyle company. Oprah’s former boss lady producer is also a fixture on iTunes with This Is Fifty, a podcast she cohosts with her best friend, Nancy Hala. We talked about how her email habits changed after she transitioned from employee to entrepreneur and how to email mindfully.

You’ve said you’re “upending your relationship with email.” What led you to do that?

For the last two years I’ve been an entrepreneur. I run my day now, but I spent most of my life—decades—being a staff person. What I’m trying to do in my professional development is ramp up the quality of my life. That means really preserving the first hour of the morning for meditation, working out, or reflection. But each day when I get up, I feel this pull to check my email and all of my Gmail accounts—of which I have five—and I couldn’t resist it.

I realized months had gone by and all of my best intentions to create this beautiful golden hour for myself in the morning was gone because of this kind of addictive behavior of needing to check my email first thing. If I’m around people who are checking then I’m like Pavlov’s dogs.

When I say I want to upend my email life now, it’s because it has gotten completely out of control. It’s every ten minutes.

I remember email being paramountly important to my job and the work I was doing, but it didn’t run me. In my staff life, my days were filled with meetings. But people were not rudely on their email while they were in meetings. I had all these natural expanses of time of being away from email. I check my email because I don’t have those breaks in my day anymore. I have meetings here and there, but it’s not quite so all-encompassing.

I realized I need to create a space to check my email. Many wise people have said this and I’ve thought, Oh, must be nice. I could never do that! But I want to challenge that absolute for myself. I haven’t done it yet. What I’m gearing up for is a midday email time—not in the morning and not at night. Midday’s going to be my email time where I go through all the accounts and see what’s important. Check back with me on that.

You mentioned having multiple Gmail accounts. Do you like the separation?

I do. I feel like there’s a certain mojo and energetic quality around each of the businesses I work on and there’s a certain energetic quality around my friendships and my family. So when I check a certain email account, I know what I’m conjuring; I know what I have to rise up to.

You put a lot of emphasis on mindfulness. How does that help with managing your inbox?

I think the tone of email is a very interesting thing to consider. When I’m doing well at that, according to my own standards, I’m carefully considering my audience before I tippy-tap the keys. I love that concept of the boss voice because the truth of the matter is if you’re sending out 150 emails a day as the boss with approvals and whatnot, there isn’t a lot of time for polite conversation. But a little smiley face here and there doesn’t hurt.

When I wasn’t doing that well, I’m using my boss voice and I’m in a hurry and I’m feeling a little annoyed at the question. In my entrepreneurial life, I’m dealing with bunches of people who don’t know me, so I have to have some pleasantries because otherwise it would be just grossly rude.

I think mindfulness is always a good practice for any kind of communication. Any time I find myself having to fire off so many emails that I don’t have time to be mindful about them, then something else is going on that I need to address.

There’s either a level of anxiety about getting it all done, or there’s a vibration of make it happen, make it happen. I’ve set those qualities down at the curb. I don’t wish to operate in that lane anymore. To be what I’m being is more important than what I’m doing. So my to-be list is more important than my to-do list. I don’t want to live a life where I find myself filled with anxiety, having to explode out a ton of email responses.

How can the ideas from your project The Pillar Life help people navigate information overload?

I’ve been friends with Nancy [Hala], my co-visionary for The Pillar Life, for a really long time and we had very different career paths. When we found ourselves in our fifties, we’d kind of checked all the boxes career-wise. But golly, the rest of our lives, outside work, wasn’t quite the dream come true. Also, I’d spent so many years being embarrassed by having to answer How do you manage work–life balance? Because I didn’t manage it; I didn’t have it together. Work came first.

We created a structure—the eight pillars—so we could know on a daily basis whether we’re on track for the life we want to live. It can be innovated and tweaked, but the idea is, how do you get your best business ideas out there while still having a very integrated full life?

It’s definitely about mindfulness. It’s absolutely based on meditation. The foundation is radical self-care. With communication and email, which is a way for others to communicate with you, how are you going to be the CEO of your email life? I think we all end up feeling like we’re under attack by information. The only antidote for that is to be the detective of your own life.

I was kind of a morning show news junkie and then I asked, Is that serving me?

How do I feel after all that? I’m on Twitter. I know if somebody died or if there’s something big going on in the world. I don’t really need to immerse myself in somebody else’s idea of what matters in the world.

Any email pet peeves? Let’s talk about that.

I have two. One is when emails are way too long. That is not the purpose of email. For somebody to think I’m going to read an email of 3,000 words is ridiculous. I often had that situation—it’s like you’re afraid to have a conversation.

The second thing that I think is a major mistake is people thinking that they can have every conversation on email. There are nuances to voice conversations that are super important in business. There are ways for us to filter somebody’s words and take it the wrong way and take things personally.

What can you share about Oprah’s email style?

Oprah was very much in charge of her own personal email account. We all were on BlackBerrys, all the livelong day typing our messages. She was very up to speed on handling her own communications on email, unlike a lot of other celebrities. And she likes emojis.