How I Email: Josh Evilsizor, Chief Productivity Officer, Atlas Advisors
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.
From Josh Evilsizor‘s perspective, everything can and should be optimized. That definitely includes email. He rounded up his top inbox tips from his blog and details his thoughts on all things email management. Through email, Josh attacked our questions with amazing vigor and depth. Buckle down and enjoy.
What’s your personal approach to email? How do you handle your inbox?
My philosophical approach to email is an ever-evolving one, and I also have a number of proven technical methods for handling my inbox. All of these were forged in the crucible of life, juggling a civilian career, military career, and numerous entrepreneurial ventures.
Because our thoughts are what ultimately drive our actions, I think it makes the most sense to begin with my philosophical approach to email.
First and foremost, any emails in my inbox that did not originate from me are someone else’s priority, not mine—and are therefore prioritized last after completing my most important tasks that day.
This is how I operate 100 percent of the time, which has taught anyone who interacts with me that urgent and important items require a phone call or chat message to garner my attention. I typically do not even look at my inbox until I’ve completed at least one or two of my Most Important Tasks (MITs).
Also, because I work to my priorities, the only notifications that I ever receive are chat messages or phone calls (these come silently to my watch) my phone is forever banished to silent mode. I also receive zero desktop notifications, despite slack’s very best and very persistent efforts.
Second, although email is my last priority, it is still absolutely important. As such, I leave the office with six empty inboxes every day (I have five other work/personal Gmail accounts and a military webmail account). So if you sent me an email yesterday, I responded. If I send you an email, you should do the same. If you don’t, I (and Adam Grant) are forming a strong opinion about your reliability and organization skills.
Third, email is not work—it’s merely communicated information. As we know, Rome was built without email. Although email can be very powerful for the correct types of information, email is very bad at many others. Sending a newsletter to your thousands of subscribers with one click? Awesome. Sending a detailed meeting summary Google Doc through email, also very helpful. Having a highly detailed, highly technical, one-on-one, how-to conversation with someone? Terrible! Yet how many times have you heard someone say:
“I spent all day today sending emails.”
If you stop to think about it, that’s just like saying:
“I spent all day [very inefficiently] talking to people.”
How has this become acceptable workplace behavior? We’ve gotten the point where “I sent so-and-so an email about it” is an appropriate status update in a meeting… well, in some people’s meetings, at least.
Even in the military, where important projects must necessarily must move forward quickly, it’s become common practice for people to try to move time-sensitive things forward over email, over the course of a week or month, using back-and-forth emails instead of just picking up the phone, setting up a meeting and hammering it out. Or, heaven forbid, actually walking over to someone’s desk and hashing it out in person.
Bottom line? Unless you’re in customer service, sending email should rarely ever be considered actual work. The value that email provides is the ability to rapidly share and exchange large amounts of information with large amounts of people. At the end of the day, me sending you an email never directly produces a thing of value.
I do of course recognize the value of simply exchanging information with others and the indirect contribution this knowledge transfer has on producing things of value. As such, I exercise discipline and always seek to use the most effective medium for coordinating directly with others.
The methods I strive to use, in order of precedence: face to face meetings (HBR found face to face requests to be 34 times more effective than email requests), video conferences, phone calls, or video messages (WhatsApp, Marco Polo, Loom) or audio messages (FB Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Voxer, etc.). With the options I just listed free and available to all, sending email is sometimes just plain dumb.
Finally, the primary reason I am able to manage multiple inboxes so effectively is because of one core principle: I do not treasure (or hoard) my email. I extract the information and then I archive the email! I do this using just a few trusted systems that share much commonality with the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.
I’ll explain how my systems work using a simple, and perhaps a little bit silly, analogy.
Let’s compare email to a freshly picked ear of corn. In this analogy, email is simply the container of the information, much like the corn husk holds the corn. And just like the corn belongs in my stomach, the information contained in an email actually belongs in a trusted system.
To take this one step further, once I’ve shucked and eaten the corn I can throw away the husk. Similarly, I immediately discard (or archive) my email once I’ve actioned the request or moved the information that was in it, to a trusted system. These simple and easily repeated actions allow me to both eat corn and process email using approximately the same amount of brain calories. That is, I do both on autopilot, almost without thinking. This is true simply because I learned (or decided) a long time ago how corn and email are to be processed.
People reading this right now are likely having one of two reactions, disbelief or violent agreement. The reason for the dichotomy is simple, those in disbelief do not have trusted systems, those in violent agreement do.
I’ll talk in some detail about my trusted systems as part of the technical approach I use to successfully battle my five Gmail inboxes, which I will discuss next.
There are five critical components to my technical approach and each component builds on the previous. I’ve listed the five components below:
- Embrace the Archive
- Establish Trusted Systems
- Receive Less Email
- Batch Process Email
- Send Less Email
Now I’ll explain each of these, along with some of the supporting functions.
I fully embrace archiving email. I do this by following two simple steps as I power through my inbox: action, then archive. I action an email by clarifying what the email requires, then doing or deferring the action to a trusted system, as required by the content of the email. Once an email is actioned, I archive it. Immediately.
I archive actioned emails by moving them from my inbox to exactly and only one DONE folder (deleting is rarely necessary). This DONE folder is the All Mail folder in Gmail and when I’m using Outlook (my military email) I use a folder I created called Completed.
My one folder system removes the requirement to ever ponder where I’ll file an actioned email, and as such, removes any delay between the email action/archive (or retrieval) process—as all emails are always to be archived to the same folder. This one folder requirement is so important and so misunderstood I made a short video explaining the necessity and value. Feel free to share it with anyone you know awash in a sea of useless folders or labels.
Because I only keep email in my All Mail folder, I need a trusted system that will help me locate emails with ease. Anyone already skilled at finding things on the internet should immediately recognize this method. It’s called search. It was also surprising to me how many people don’t know how to search their inbox intelligently, so I made a video for that too, along with a list of Gmail search operators.
The Send & Archive button is also a key tool for rapidly shucking emails very and is my default send button.
Finally, the key benefit to this process (beyond having zero emails in any of my inboxes) is as follows: Because I have to physically move each email from my inbox to my DONE folder (via the Archive or Send & Archive buttons), and because I do not leave work until my inbox is empty, I never miss an email. Ever. Tack on some trusted systems and I can confidently say that I never (without purpose) miss a task, deadline, or reminder.
Imagine adding that skill set to your toolkit?
I have four—100 percent reliable—trusted systems. At this point, I am very excited to talk about the four horsemen. My four trusted systems are my task management, time management, follow-up, and read later systems. These are simply apps that are trusted by me to do certain things because of how I use them.
What makes my systems trusted? I follow some or all of these rules when employing each system:
- Available. It’s always on me.
- Accurate. I review it regularly.
- It. It is the only one I use, so it’s accurate.
These are Josh Evilsizor’s core operating system and I could talk about each one all day. Instead, I’ll briefly outline how to employ them.
Feel free to reference this infographic while I explain the fundamentals:
Do or defer criteria. That email I just received, is it an action that is best accomplished now, and in less than one minute? If so, I action then archive the email. If not, I defer the action as follows:
For an email that…
- … requires > 1 min to complete: I add it to my Task Management System (GQueues)
- … requires talking: I schedule it in my Time Management System (Google Calendar)
- … requires future action < 1 min: I send it to the future using Follow-up System (fut.io)
- … requires reading > 1 min: I send it to my Read Later System (pocket)
In order to move emails to my trusted systems, I must first determine to which system that email belongs by clarifying the email, GTD-style. Once I’ve clarified what the email means and what the next step is, I then pivot to the appropriate system and tee up my next action as appropriate.
The only tricky part about all of this is that tasks, calendar events, read later items, and follow-ups always arrive disguised as email. It is of course, up to me to determine where the “corn” of each email husk belongs. Tasks and read later items are generally the easiest to identify, follow-ups are a close third place, with calendar events trailing dead last as the trickiest to spot.
A good example of a calendar event well disguised as an email might initially present as a very lengthy email about a not-so-simple subject matter, ending with, “What are your thoughts?”
My canned response would be something like, “I think this is best discussed one-on-one, in person, virtually, or over the phone. Please click my calendly link below and select a meeting time that is most convenient for you. Thank you!”
After years of using this system, spotting and shucking even the most well-camouflaged calendar-event-disguised-as-email has become an almost autonomous task for me as I triage emails.
Finally, the glue that keeps all of this together is my battle rhythm (or routine). At a minimum, to keep my task and time management systems accurate I have to review them at least once a week. However, to operate at optimum efficiency I update both systems once in the morning, and again at the end of the day. This update can be as simple as rearranging my calendar after I complete a few of the day’s MITs.
The key components of my battle rhythm are my GTD-style weekly reviews on Sunday night, my morning task-prioritization routine where I validate my MITs, and finally, my select-tomorrow’s-top-3-MITs-before-leaving-work, Ivy Lee routine.
My morning battle rhythm is one of my most important, so I’ve detailed each of the key steps below:
- Open email or Slack Never!
- Open my task/time management systems (GQueues is my task management system and it syncs with my calendar, so I can review both tasks and events at the same time).
- Review the day’s tasks and events (meetings, etc.).
- Validate my prioritization of both from the night prior (i.e. no change as long as nothing urgent has surfaced since last night) and ensure my plan is feasible by limiting myself to three MITs.
- Go to work! (I make sure to complete at least one or two of my MITs before I even think about looking at my email.)
- Batch process emails no earlier than noon, adding tasks and events to my task/time management systems according to the do/defer criteria outlined above.
- Repeat steps 3-5.
Once I’ve completed steps 1-5, I operate completely from my calendar. By doing this, at any given point in the day I can ensure that I’m on glide path to complete all of my MITs. If I get derailed by a drive-by or other, I’ll then adjust my tasks or events on my calendar so that I don’t end up surprised or frustrated when key tasks aren’t complete at the end of the day.
Finally, I probably need to shed a little light on my follow-up and read later systems. I count on these as trusted systems to help manage my inbox for many of the reasons your readership likely already understand, but just in case, I’ll spend a few seconds on each.
Pocket is a read later app, website, email address and Chrome extension that allows me to defer almost anything that I want to read later by storing it offline to my phone. This “available offline” functionality is key, as it easily turns air travel or military “hurry up and wait” events into enjoyable get smart opportunities!
Followupthen.com has been an actual game-changer for me (I use this term sparingly). Used casually, followupthen reminds me about quick, simple tasks at exactly the moment I need to do them (pay a bill, check something online, etc.) or it provides me a piece of information that I only need on a certain date (boarding pass, concert ticket, etc.). Used thoughtfully (and paired with my battle rhythm), followupthen obviates 100% of the GTD-esque “waiting for” items in my task management system.
Certainly, on the surface followupthen may seem like just a different version of Boomerang or the “new” Gmail snooze function, but the capabilities and almost limitless use cases of followupthen dwarfs both Boomerang and Gmail snooze. And of course, once autocomplete kicks in, using followupthen requires far fewer clicks than the other two.
I purposefully receive less email. I take an active role in receiving less email each day, whether that’s by using unroll.me or aggressively tagging as spam, blocking and unsubscribing any stray voltage that shows up in my inbox.
I’m also very careful to only send smart email. I define smart email as email that when sent, is unlikely to garner any return fire.
Here are some examples of the smart email I try to limit myself to sending:
- Email sent as a follow-up to a discussion (phone/meeting) that includes information or files that were already promised or discussed (i.e. nothing new is being introduced)
- FYI emails that are purely informational updates (i.e. no action or response required)
- Emails requesting a file, link, or other from someone who will understand exactly what is being requested (i.e. a standard request, no clarification requests likely)
- Anytime zero responses are guaranteed!
I only batch process email. Like most of your readers I’m sure, the only way I process email is by batch processing. I’ll typically wait until an hour or so after lunch—around the time I hit my trough—and then get after it. I open my inbox and power through, from the very first email to the very last email, not stopping until I’m at zero.
Two simple acronym rules that I follow when batch processing my inbox are LIFO and OHIO. OHIO stands for Only Handle It Once, which means that I won’t open an email until I’m ready to do something about it. If I need to decide later about an email, that’s also acceptable because I’ve made a decision—I’ve decided to decide later.
LIFO is an acronym that stands for Last In First Out. Processing emails in LIFO order is key because why would I start processing my inbox with older emails when there is newer information available?
Finally, the key Gmail features enabling me to batch process like (i.e. similar) emails most efficiently are priority inbox and filters. I use both of these tools to elevate tier one emails (important) to the top of my inbox, push tier two emails (relevant) to the bottom of my inbox, and block tier three emails (unwanted) altogether.
I actively limit the emails I send. Email begets email! Send an email, get an email. Or, send one email to ten people, receive ten or more emails back!
Said more positively: Send less email, receive less email.
In lieu of sending email, I leverage my weekly in-person meetings with our staff—a core component of my battle rhythm that I stick to rigorously. When meetings are not possible or something is both urgent and important, and therefore must be addressed immediately, I’ll use any of my go-to video or voice, live or recorded options before I ever resort to email.
Quick side note: One of the reasons I use every other medium possible before I resort to sending email is not only the gross inefficiency of email, but mainly because email is completely devoid of the feedback we as humans require to understand each other’s intent (body language, tone, facial expressions, etc.). When we lack non-verbal cues, as a survival mechanism, we default to assuming negative intent—which is never helpful when trying to accomplish meaningful work. Nick Morgan explained this well on this HBR podcast.
So yes, instead of sending emails, I’ll wait a full six days to discuss anything that’s not both urgent and important. And, as you can imagine, or, believe it or not, purposely delaying almost-but-not-quite-urgent action items until a future meeting date takes tremendous discipline (at least initially), a long-game mentality, and a trusted system. My trusted system consists of a shared Google Doc meeting agenda for each of my regular meetings. I call this my “don’t-send-an-email-add-it-to-the-meeting-agenda” system. I have a shortcut to each meeting agenda Gdoc in my browser shortcuts toolbar which makes for quick on-the-fly additions during the work day. Finally, these Gdocs are trusted because (1) we use them and (2) we review them every week, without fail, during each of our meetings!
An added bonus to this email-deferment system is that because all participants can update the Gdoc throughout the week, and because we trust that we’ll use the Gdoc to run the meeting, we can defer anything that isn’t both urgent and important to our weekly meetings. And oh by the way, because we add topics of actual importance to the Gdoc throughout the week, meetings are much more meaningful and productive.
If I’m mobile, no sweat. I don’t have quick access to my Gdoc agendas, so instead, I’ll just forward the email in question to email@example.com, where ab = the initials of the person I’m meeting with. I have also created a filter/label for emails sent to this email address and named the label AB Meeting Agenda. The clincher here is that on the meeting agenda Gdoc I’ve created a hyperlink which links to the AB Meeting Agenda email address (filter/label). So, when I click on the AB Meeting Agenda hyperlink during the meeting, it immediately brings up every email that I sent to that address (filter/label) during the week. Then, as we very efficiently discuss and resolve the issues associated with the labeled/filtered emails, I simply remove the label and move to the next email.
In summary, I defer all potential important-but-not-urgent emails to regular meetings via a shared Gdoc where the email topics can be addressed face-to-face or over video conference. Consequently, rarely do I ever have to set aside meeting prep time since meeting agendas “build themselves” over the course of a week.
Finally, I’m very careful to avoid the one-on-one email conversations that only serve to confuse and waste time. However, sometimes, and seemingly out of nowhere, these happen. When they do, I do my best to quickly move the conversation to the appropriate trusted system. Oddly, others will sometimes resist. When this happens, I break contact by employing my one-on-one email conversation canned response that politely requests that we disengage. Finally, if the canned response still fails to solicit the correct response, I’ll employ the nuclear option and send them one final email… “Call me.”
What are some of your favorite Gmail-related tools or features?
As boring as it probably sounds, you could take away every Gmail extension, tool, or feature and as long as you left me with the Send & Archive button, priority inbox, and filters, my ability to end each day at zero emails wouldn’t change much.
As I briefly mentioned, priority inbox and filters allow me to physically separate the grouping of tier one and tier two emails, moving tier one to the top, tier two to the bottom, and completely filtering out tier three emails. This then allows me to batch within a batch, essentially—processing all tier one emails midday, then processing tier one and tier two emails at the end of the day.
The second piece of this elegant dance is Gmail’s auto-advance feature, which has to first be enabled in Gmail’s Advanced section, for literally no good reason at all. Then in the General section, I’ve enabled the option titled Go to the previous (older) conversation (aka LIFO). By doing this, when I open, process, and then archive an email, I am immediately and automatically presented the next email from my inbox. This feature eliminates the very manual and inefficient process of return-to-inbox, determine where I left off, find the next email, open the next email, and begin processing. For. Every. Single. Email. No thanks!
Now for the sweet sweet icing on this cake: Send & Archive.
As I mentioned before, Send & Archive is my default send button. So my email flow with all three of these tools singing in harmony sounds something like this:
- Launch Gmail
- Open the first email in my inbox
- Clarify the email requirement
- Do or defer the requirement
- Punch the Send & Archive button (Ctrl+Enter)
- The next email automatically opens, ready for me to attack
- Rinse and repeat steps 3-5, email after email, rapid succession, no interruptions until I hit inbox zero.
What two or three things can someone implement today that will improve their email productivity?
After working with people on this stuff for so many years, I’ve become very sensitive to the fact that inbox management and personal productivity tools and techniques are very individualized and personal choices. As such, I’m guessing that for the majority of people reading this, it’s likely only one or two of the things that I discussed on this list immediately resonated with them. Because the things that resonated with them are also most likely to be understood by them the best, it also stands that they will then probably have the most success implementing those things. So in all earnestness, it’s those things that resonated with them that I would recommend they implement today.
However, I don’t want to dodge your question, so I would like to list three of the things that I believe have the highest ease-of-implementation to immediate and lasting impact ratio.
– Enable and set-up priority inbox, then…
– Enable and start using Send & Archive, then…
– Archive all of your emails and then, open your All Mail, see that all your emails are safe, your fears are not real, inbox zero is possible and actually, nbd.*
Final email thoughts?
Voice is the future. If you can get used to voice dictation now (because it will be “a thing” eventually) you can type (or “talk”) emails eight times faster than you can type them (imagine how much slower you are on your phone?).
The two major impediments to doing this are embarrassment and perfectionism (oh, and Siri, sorry iOS).
First, to remedy the perfectionism barrier (which was a huge hurdle for me personally) I added the following phrase to my android device’s personal dictionary, “Composed w/voice dictation, pls forgive spelling” that can be inserted with the shortcut “mm” (yes, it’s because the letter “m” is the easiest to reach one-handed).
So now, after I’ve composed an email or text message with my voice and Google has misspelled my wife’s name, all I have to do is type the letters “mm”, my keyboard inserts the “I didn’t type this, Google did” hand wave, and all is forgiven.
I’ve also set up this same postscript on my laptop using TextBlaze, but my phone’s voice dictation and the Gmail UI work so well, it’s now almost easier/quicker to process emails sitting in my backyard than it is at my desk inside. I’m dead serious about this. Go outside and process email faster? Yes!
Finally, to get past the awkwardness of talking into your phone, go somewhere completely out of earshot and have a text conversation with someone. Then, move to your Gmail and send some smart email replies to any of the emails in your inbox. I promise you this, it won’t take long at all to get really good at typing with your voice… and to get really tired of typing with your fingers.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what type of Sneetch you will be. Will you be a 40 WPM Sneetch, or a 300 WPM Sneetch?
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