How I Email: Sarah K. Peck, Writer, Consultant, Founder of Startup Pregnant

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.

Sarah K. Peck has a lot going on. A 20-time All-American swimmer, Peck teaches yoga, advises startups, runs the media company Startup Pregnant, creates online courses, and somehow finds time to blog regularly. Despite her various projects, she describes how she maintains a disciplined email habit and why she no longer believes every email requires a response.

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

What’s your email philosophy?

Lately (for most of 2017), I’ve been really working on changing my email game. The results I was getting from being hyper responsive to email just weren’t that interesting. I would answer emails late at night, to what end? To be the fastest emailer? What was the point?

Social media and messaging takes up an enormous amount of our time. It’s estimated that people spend four hours a day talking to each other via messaging applications. Four hours! You could write a book a month with that kind of dedication (or run eight miles a day). It’s also highly addictive. But is it additive? Does it build to something useful?

In some industries, certainly [it does]. There’s a need for speed in particular cases. But not all. I’m not a doctor or a PR rep; I’m a writer and a leadership and business consultant. I’m lucky to have room to test and make mistakes. So I’m experimenting.

This year I’ve been practicing slow email. I can take two to four weeks to reply, which can be insane for some industries. I only answer quickly for things that are already on my schedule or are easy enough to do and fit in my allotted email times.

I’m also experimenting with significant social media breaks and sabbaticals. It has been tremendous, I have to say. I’m not sure what other people’s experience of my slow email habits are, but I’ve had time to read books (eight last month!), spend time with my kid, and write a lot more.

What’s your process for managing your inbox?

In general, my email practice looks like this: I set aside a three-hour time slot to get into messaging and email communications on Monday afternoon and again on Friday afternoon to start and end the week (Six hours total). I try to clear out as much of my Priority Inbox and Starred Inbox as possible and answer key client work and any important or urgent messaging. Clearing it out and setting up the week helps me free up Tuesday through Thursday for project work.

I try to tell people I’m working with what to expect. For example, with my team at Startup Pregnant, we meet up on Tuesdays and they get most of their messages from me on that day.

I do my deep work in the morning from the hours of 8 or 9am until 12pm, and writing days are sacred (sometimes I’ll be offline for most of the day). I try my best to have email wait until afternoons between 3 and 5pm, but that’s just a quick check and fast answers if I can do them. Sometimes in the afternoons if I’m working from home, I cycle workouts with emails (I do a rep of weights and then answer 10 emails as a break), and repeat until my workout is done. The physicality of the pairing makes me notice how long each email is taking. It’s like Getting Things Done with an added physical reminder.

I regularly go through and delete messages that I won’t have time to respond to and unsubscribe from things I don’t need. I no longer believe every email needs a response. It’s too easy to send an email and plug up someone else’s life with noise or chatter.

You’ve previously written about your core business and life beliefs. One of them is, “We’re swimming in information and yet unable to speak.” As this pertains to email, do you have any tips for ensuring clear email communication?

1. WWWW. Who, what, where, when. Specify each piece.

2. Delete pronouns and get specific. Repeat info for clarity. When people reply they often say things like “Yes that’ll be fine.” What is that? Say “Yes, 3pm on Tuesday is great. Speak then. I’ll give you a call on Skype…” Give your email a quick scan and make sure all articles are specific (names instead of he/she, actual things instead of it/that/these).

3. Write the response you want to get. If you’re struggling with crafting an email, flip it inside out and write the desired response you want to get. THEN write the email you want to send. Makes it a whole lot easier.