How I Email: B.J. Mendelson, Author, Social Media is Bullshit

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.

B.J. Mendelson, a word of mouth marketing expert and author of the book, Social Media Is Bullshit, describes his method for spending just an hour a day on email.

Interview by Jaclyn Schiff. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s get right into it — what’s your email philosophy?

You just sort of have to be ruthless. You can’t just let stuff sit in your inbox, that’s what most people do or they use their inbox as a to-do list. If I don’t want to do something, I immediately archive it. Or if it’s something I need to act on then I’ll just write it down on a piece of paper and then I index or archive the emails. This way things don’t get crazy. It’s Inbox Zero all the way.

You’ve been open about struggling with OCD. Do you see your ability to keep a tidy inbox as a constructive application of your OCD?

Yes! OCD is a thing, but it is helpful to sort of channel that stuff for good instead of evil. So if there’s a little voice that is saying, you should clear out your inbox and only spend an hour a day on it — that’s perfect.

So all in all, you’re spending an hour a day on email?

Yeah. That’s it. I don’t do anything more than that. That’s just a waste of time beyond that.

Do you have a designated hour in which you do your email check?

Yeah, it used to be at the end of the day like at 5 o’clock. You only have four hours of productivity on any given every day so by the time 5 o’clock rolled around, those hours were more than exceeded. So I moved it to the morning for that reason. When I get up, I grab my laptop and go through my email. I set a timer on my phone for one hour, and then once the timer is ringing, I’m done.

Let’s get Gmail specific. How do you manage your Inbox?

I definitely use the filters quite a bit. Everything is labeled, everything is filtered, everything goes in its appropriate place. Just using the updated inbox [with the Primary, Social and Promotion tabs] instead of having everything flow into the inbox is great especially because of all the newsletters I had, was extremely helpful. I’d realize I don’t need to look at that first thing when I start my one hour. I start with what’s in the main tab. So that’s been helpful.

Also anything I spend money on, I track. I will tag it with “2017 business expense” or whatever. So I have very detailed labels I use for everything that comes in so I can find stuff going back to 2008 by doing that. It only took me 10 minutes to do my taxes because of how well organized everything is in my Gmail.

How did you come up with this system? Is it your own? Did you learn about it from somewhere else?

I read Getting Things Done, so I’ve read those books, but I didn’t find their systems to be useful. I think that putting their system in place was just a big waste of time because not only do you have to learn this entire system, but you have to commit to it and most people are pretty bad at committing to things. So my attitude was that I’m just going to figure out what works for me and that’s what I am going to do.

What’s your biggest frustration with email?

I think the biggest pet peeve is other people’s expectations — that if you didn’t write me back within an hour then you must be ignoring me.  That’s the worst thing about email. I think we’re used to, “I have to have an instant response otherwise, what are you doing?”

If there was a dream Gmail feature, what would it be?

I kind of wish there was a built in snooze button where I could say, I don’t want to look at those until next week. So instead of archiving it, have it bounce back to me at that designated time or be able to schedule them.

Or my biggest one is probably contacts. So right now, I have about 12,000 contacts that I put onto a spreadsheet. I hired a virtual assistant and all she is doing is cleaning it up and organizing it because there is no good way to do that within Gmail, and there is no way to constantly keep everything updated. People change jobs and usernames all the time. People talk a big game about machine learning, the technology is there to do that [keep contacts regularly updated], so I’d love an address book that is actually “living” where I don’t need to think twice about it. It’s just always updating itself.