How I Email: Amol Sarva, CEO and Co-Founder of Knotel
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.
Amol Sarva has co-founded several startups including Virgin Mobile USA, Peek, Halo Neuroscience, and Knotable. He currently serves as the head of Knotel, which offers companies “headquarters as a service.” Amol is also the founder of Inbox Awesome, a conference on the future of email, messaging and productivity.
Inbox Awesome takes place next week on November 9th in Brooklyn. Readers of The Gmail Genius can get 25% off the ticket price — register here and use the code GMASS to get the discount.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your email routine like?
My email diet, it’s mostly iPhone mail. The vast majority of my reading and writing these days is now happening on my phone, and the app I use is Mail. I don’t find any of the other apps better and faster, unfortunately. I’m waiting for one that makes it worthwhile to switch.
And then, I guess the Gmail web interface when I’m sitting at my computer. It is definitely faster to do more mail there, but I basically read and write email all day long. I don’t have any schedule, where I like do it in certain office hours, so, probably half my day or maybe two-thirds is reading and replying to emails.
Do you have any preferred email tools?
I made this product called Knotes, which I actually use a lot. I’m not sure that many people use it, maybe 50,000 people or so. I use that for persistent long-form stuff. So, if I’m working on a project, or in my company I have somebody I’m working with, I’ll make as much of the work as possible get posted there that’s supposed to happen in conversation and email. So that’s one important tool.
The second tool that I don’t use at all is chat, so I very rarely text with anybody, and I definitely don’t use Slack or any other chat thing.
What’s your beef with chat?
I don’t follow any of the chat rooms that my colleagues use because it’s hard to find the answer. Usually, there’s a lot of talking, but the thing that I need to refer to is usually less than all the conversation around it.
What area of email do you think offers the most opportunity for development?
Well, I’ve been working on this email stuff for ages. Here’s one way I think about email. A while back, people started thinking about Craigslist as community. And so they would make a drawing of the home screen of Craigslist, and they’d say everything that happens on Craigslist is stuff that people wanna do on the internet. Now, let’s just find ways to do each of those things better, and so people built companies that were just one square of the screen of Craigslist — like buying and selling used cars, or like dating, or subletting apartments or whatever.
I think of email that way. Your email inbox, when you sort all the messages by their senders and their purpose — it’s just everything you want to do using communication.
So, if you sort and organize all that — you’re getting updates, you’re asking questions, you’re finding out about sales, or shipment notices, you’re getting summaries of things, you’re getting news, reconnecting with old friends, or making decisions about complicated topics, asking more questions about them. All of those are transactional flows — some of them are frequent, some of them are infrequent, high velocity, newer velocity.
It would be nice if there was an abstraction layer that would help you bundle and manage some of those flows better. Every time someone tries to make one though, they just recreate email again.
Like the complaints you hear about Slack — that there’s too much chatter flowing through — basically, those are the same complaints about email. Well, my inbox is overloaded. Okay, let’s move everything to the Slack. For a little while, it’s all really smart, useful stuff, and then after a while, it’s just marketing offers, and bots, and API’s, and other junk that you don’t really need to be in there.
You studied cognitive science for your PhD at Stanford University and previously helped develop a neurostimulation technology. What email management insights can you share based on your background in neuroscience?
I think a lot of the inbox habits that people market, for example, Inbox Zero and this and that, those are developed around the acknowledgment that if you can enter a state of flow you will be able to get through more stuff faster.
And so sorting messages by the ones you can reply to immediately versus punching on ones that are going to take more time are nice strategies for making sure you don’t break flows.
The idea of working memory is a really relevant one. And you see that in the Getting Things Done mindset, which is, always reply to emails right away, instead of reading them once, and leaving them unread, and reading them a million more times, and not doing anything about it each time. Just reply when you read it. I think that’s a sensible concept and it’s related to this notion from cognitive science about loading things into memory and then reloading them, so that’s real.
Fast twitch and slow twitch is a third interesting idea, which is that sometimes in flow, you’re in a really good slow twitch flow where you’re working on a long, complicated thing for a while. Other times, you’re in a fast twitch one, where you’re making a lot of little decisions quickly, bang, bang, bang, bang, and just making sure you don’t intermingle those two because that’ll break your rhythm. Set time aside for short stuff, but different time aside for long stuff.