Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Email Zero Is Easier Than Inbox Zero

January 18th, 2016 · 27 comments

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The Attack of the Inbox

Not long ago, I was listening to Pat Flynn’s podcast. Pat is an excellent podcaster, so it doesn’t take much to convince me to listen, but this time I was particularly interested because the episode title caught my attention: 9000 Unread Emails to Inbox Zero.

Pat tells the story about how his email inbox grew along with the success of his online brand. He used to try to empty his inbox. After a while, he began to consider “only” 100 unread messages as a victory. Then, one day, he looked up and his inbox had expanded to 9000 unread messages.

Something had to give.

Pat’s solution was radical: he hired a highly-trained executive assistant who could devote many additional hours to sorting through the communication deluge before it reached Pat. He still spends a lot of time on email, but at least now it’s tractable.

Longtime readers will not be surprised to learn that the subtext of this story depresses me.

I am, as you know, a big proponent of deep work — as I think this activity can produce a professional life that’s both successful and deeply meaningful. But as Pat’s experience seems to attest, our current digital economy has perverse incentives: forcing you, it seems, to fragment your time into increasingly small, anxious slivers as recognition for your skill grows.

To me, the idea of needing to hire assistants to increase the amount of one-to-one communication you can fit into a single day is, to steal a relevant phrase from George Packer, a truly “frightening vision of the future.” 

But then Brett McKay came along and gave me hope…

The Deep Life of Brett McKay

Brett and his wife Kate run the Art of Manliness (AOM) website and Brett hosts the accompanying podcast (which is a favorite of mine). AOM is famous for its smart, detailed, and above all, long posts on fascinating topics.

Brett and Kate sometimes spend weeks researching just a single article. It’s a site, in other words, that built its success on a foundation of deep work.

Which is why I was not at all surprised (though relieved) when Brett recently revealed to me, in a podcast interview about my new book, their unorthodox strategy for dealing with the massive flow of emails that their popular site used to generate.

Here’s a screenshot from their contact page:

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Brett mentioned that before they removed their email address from their site, the time he spent answering emails — like Pat also experienced — become unwieldy. Eliminating that task freed up massive mental resources.

I asked him whether this shift away from a publicly available email address hurt the traffic to his site.

“It didn’t make a difference,” he replied.

This case study warms my heart.

We spend so much time figuring out better ways to filter, automate, outsource and otherwise manage the sources of seemingly mandatory distraction in the digital age that we forget to step back and ask whether these distractions really need to be in our lives in the first place.

(Photo by Lisa Leggio)

27 thoughts on “Email Zero Is Easier Than Inbox Zero

  1. Dain says:

    You Cal, and Art of Manliness have helped me mature so much as an individual. I definitely echo the heart warming feeling you had, but pointed towards you both. Thanks for all that you do.

    1. Anon says:

      Same here. Cal more than brett, but brett too.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    Beautiful insights!

    I, too, am a fan of deep work.
    It’s how I enjoy the journey, and it’s how I learn (and keep learning.)

    > ask whether these distractions really need to be in our lives in the first place
    So true.
    I’m a fan of trimming the banzai’s branches first, before messing with the leaves.
    It’s so easy to create our own productivity challenges if we don’t first challenge our own assumptions of how the world: what is, what if, what could be.

    I think Clay Shirky nailed a deep insight a while back when he said that one of the key challenges we have in the digital age is “filter failure.”

    When everyone can publish and everybody can read anything and everything, we need to create new filters.

    I think our key filters come down to our vision, our mission, our values, and our objectives.

    Strategy becomes more important than ever — what we will or won’t do.

    And that difference, makes all the difference.

  3. AC says:

    I’ve just looked at the Art of Manliness contact page and it seems to contain more information than Cal has noted. It has a link to Twitter. Now I don’t know how twitter would work in this instance, and I don’t have an account and have no interest in it, but I can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t Twitter make you just as available as a publicly visible email address?

    I know it’s only 140 characters and that may force people to be a little more concise, but surely, surely being available on Twitter is the more modern equivalent of email. Aren’t they going to be inundated with tons of shallow requests and queries that they will have to deal with?

    They also supply an email address for the shop that people surely abuse i.e. send all manner of queries to it in the hope of getting a quick response.

    I’d love to hear more about how the website deals with the administrative work around it’s Twitter account and the email address for the shop.

    Below is the text from the page in question.

    =====

    We love to hear from our readers. If you have a comment or question, please contact us by dropping a letter in the mail box to:

    Art of Manliness
    PO Box 978
    Jenks, OK 74037

    Or you can reach us via Twitter at @artofmanliness

    Before contacting us, please check the Art of Manliness FAQ page to see if your question has already been answered. If you write with a question that was covered in the FAQ, it’s going straight to the trash. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

    If you’re looking for help with your order from our store, please call (866) 722-1424 or email us at shop@artofmanliness.com

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I looked at the Twitter address provided. I barely saw any email-style one-on-one interactions. I think this provides a really interesting data point about email and its abuse. As you noted, if you really needed Brett’s attention, then it would only take a little bit more effort to obtain it using Twitter. Presumably, therefore, you would expect that most of the 100’s of people who used to send Brett emails would now shift their attention to Twitter to communicate.

      But instead, essentially none of these would be correspondents tweeted their point instead. To me, this indicates just how unimportant and low value the bulk of this type of communication most be. Because email has zero marginal cost (it is incredibly simple to send a message), people will dash things off at the slightest whim.

      When Brett made it a little bit more difficult (you have to capture the core point in a tweet; you have to prepare for others to see what you have to say; et.) suddenly all of this time sucking interaction disappeared.

      1. John says:

        Not quite correct.

        Go to their twitter page and click “Tweets & Replies”. You will then see numerous conversations, many even asking them to email contact@artofmanliness.com.

      2. AC says:

        Hi Cal,

        It’s odd, and a really interesting point that the emailers are not Tweeters.

        You said: “Because email has zero marginal cost (it is incredibly simple to send a message), people will dash things off at the slightest whim.”

        The marginal cost of a Twitter message can’t be too different from that of an email. So why don’t people Tweet? Is it simply that it’s too much hard work to edit it down to 140 characters? Perhaps it’s not cool to have stuff like that show up on your Twitter feed. That loss of privacy could be off-putting for many potential Tweeters, but that’s great news for AOM.

        1. Duncan Smith says:

          Twitter has private Direct Messages (https://support.twitter.com/articles/14606?lang=en) so there’s no way to know all of the messages that people are sending to a particular Twitter account. DMs are commonly used as an email replacement for short communication.

          1. Mike Huberty says:

            Yeah, but you that person has to follow you for you to be able to DM them, otherwise celebrities would get constant Direct Messages. As long as Brett isn’t a Twitter follower of the person trying to contact him, the only way they can is through an @mention – which is a lot faster to go through than email because 140 characters is a lot to truncate your mesaage.

            I don’t think being on Twitter invalidates Cal’s argument here – which is a nicely disguised ad for a podcast promoting his new book – which I’ve already bought and have done my damnedest to integrate its principles right away!

          2. AC says:

            Thanks Duncan. Learning that Twitter has private Direct Messages makes me even more keen to learn about how AOM manage their Twitter account because people who know how to use Twitter (lots of people!) could easily be bombarding them with pointless communications through that channel.

            How do AOM ensure that their good work with zero email isn’t undone by Twitter?

            Cal, do you have any idea about this?

          3. Claire says:

            You can only send a direct message on twitter if the person you are sending to is following you – so you can’t just bombard public figures or companies with direct messages. I assume that AOM isn’t silly enough to follow people back!

          4. Brett McKay says:

            Thanks for sharing this, Cal.

            As to the questions about Twitter undoing my no email policy. Short answer: it doesn’t.

            The only questions I get on Twitter are “Do you have an email address I can reach you at?”

            I just ignore them since they ignored my not so subtle request that I not be contacted via email.

            And I don’t get private messages on Twitter. Last one I got was about a month ago and it was from a friend.

            I don’t spend much time on Twitter or social media. All of our social media sharing is scheduled out for a week using Buffer and I have someone who does that for me. I hold Twitter “office hours” from 7:30PM to 7:45 PM while the kids get their daily screen time in where I’ll check in to interact with folks a bit. Even then I usually don’t spend the full 15 minutes. It’s more like 5.

            In re: mail- The amount of mail we get varies from week to week. Sometimes it’s a letter or two or sometimes I’ll get a dozen. Like I said in the podcast, most of the mail we get are thank you letters not people requesting something so answering is easy (and I do respond to letters). I devote an hour on Saturday to mail.

          5. AC says:

            Thanks Claire for clarifying that. It does seem that as long as you don’t give an email address, then you’re free of a great deal of pointless interaction. It strikes me that email is the most efficient way of communicating electronically, despite it’s short comings, so it didn’t make sense to me that people would stop email only to encounter equally extreme problems with Twitter or some other form of social media as there way of interacting with customers.

        2. Tim Bourquin says:

          For me, reaching someone by Twitter feels like standing up in the middle of a crowded room and having a loud conversation that everyone in the world can hear. As an introvert, that’s just not an option for me and that’s why I think a lot of people won’t do it instead of emailing.

          Yes, if they have allowed for Direct Messages without following people, that is an option. But most people don’t enable that checkbox in their settings.

          I recently wanted to ask someone to speak at a meeting (and paying all travel, per diem and an honorarium to do so), but the only contact information I could find was their Twitter. I did not want to “shout” the request so I found someone else.

          Certainly if Twitter is the only way you want someone to communicate with you, that’s your free choice. It will cut down on the noise, but you’ll be cutting out the valuable messages you might have received otherwise too.

          1. I see where you are coming from there Tim and I would certainly not use Twitter for work conversations (in particular). I always use a combination of Skype or Email, there is always a reason to choose one over the other!

  4. Brooke says:

    Hi Cal,
    As usual, thank you for more insights to chew on, digest, and act on.
    I wonder how much posted mail AOM receives since this change in their Contact policy and how much they receive on a day-to-day basis?
    -Brooke.

  5. Devlin says:

    Cal – Love the book and podcasts. When are you going to appear on Lewis Howe’s show? He’s a former pro athlete.

  6. Abdulvahid says:

    “We spend so much time figuring out better ways to filter, automate, outsource and otherwise manage the sources of seemingly mandatory distraction in the digital age that we forget to step back and ask whether these distractions really need to be in our lives in the first place.”

    Such wise words, I need to read more about this.

  7. Dan says:

    Hi Cal,
    I just finished “Deep Work” and recently read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. I have to say that (at the risk of sounding cliché) both books have been life changing. I am a 55 year old government lab technician here in Canada, and have had vast amounts of “free time” in my career that I have frittered away on the internet and other time-wasting habits. While I have been successful in my career, deep down I know I have wasted time and not even come close to what I am capable of. That’s why your books have impacted me so deeply – I want to change. I work in the field of analytical chemistry and while I am technically proficient and successful at what I do, a lack a deep understanding of the theory behind my lab methods. I have always wanted to do the deep work required to gain this knowledge, which would involve a lot of studying in the areas of general chemistry and biochemistry, were it not for a lifetime of laziness and the lure of the internet and other distractions. I would like this to change, and your books have been immensely helpful in this regard. I have begun implementing some of your strategies and I believe I am finally starting to make lasting changes!
    In my personal life, I am also a guitarist and piano student. I started piano lessons with my kids many years ago, and reached a grade 8 level of proficiency (Royal Conservatory of Music). After I quit lessons, however, and for many years, I have had the desire to keep advancing in my piano playing and master pieces meaningful to me, but again my inherent laziness and the distractions of the internet and other forms of shallow entertainment have helped me to basically stagnate in my playing for the last 10 years or so. Your book “Deep Work” has helped restore my excitement and enthusiasm to get back to the piano and relearn how to seriously practice, and work on mastering and memorizing music that I have always wanted to play and add to my “personal repertoire”.
    One last thing, I really enjoyed listening to your two Art of manliness podcasts, and always look forward to your interesting and helpful emails (blog posts). Best wishes for your continued success!!

    Dan
    Winnipeg, Manitoba
    Canada

  8. Karan says:

    At my previous college when I was the SGA President I had many emails I had to respond to and took pride in responding very quickly. Right now I am a transfer student at a different college with no leadership responsibilities but I still receive tons of emails that could be relevant to my classes or opportunities that could benefit me.

    This is what I do for emails. I actually block out time to schedule emails and limit checking my email to those designated time blocks.I created a rule and a folder for emails sent by my instructors. Anytime an instructor sends me an email it goes to that folder and I check that folder in the afternoon. I allow only 10 minutes of my time looking at those emails which is usually enough time. Than an hour before I go to sleep I like to read all the other emails that were not from my professors. This works for me because night time I am the least productive and lack energy to do any deep work or complete meaningful tasks.

  9. Mike says:

    How do you know of sites like art of manliness or pat flynns podcasts if you don’t “surf the Internet”? I don’t understand. When do you listen to podcasts and how do you choose which ones to listen too then?

    And why do you make me give you my email to comment? Just kidding 🙂

    1. Michael says:

      I’m curious how that works as well, I suspect the answer might be that Cal uses the internet to research for his books and comes across these things then. Or that they are recommended in books he reads or by people he meets. Did I miss anything Cal?

      1. Study Hacks says:

        It’s an interesting question. I do end up seeing a reasonable amount of interesting content, but I’m not always sure how I find my way to it. Sometimes people send me things. Sometimes I go searching for a particular topic (for example, one way I find podcasts is that I search for a particular interview subject who interests me at the moment and see who has interviewed them. I suspect this is how I found AOM originally). Sometimes I just hear things mentioned by friends or in other venues. It sort of just works out that I see a lot without having to spend a lot of time surfing.

  10. Austin says:

    This post from Cal, like so many of his others, centers around an important principle: email, like other digital mediums, should be used strictly and deliberating as a TOOL, and only when it is superior to other options of communication and work, only when it serves a deliberate, meaningful purpose.

    Underneath this principle are just specific details of specific scenarios, all frivilous and unimportant to the bigger goal: accomplishing deeper work.

    A specific example, a college professor should not abandon his email address, because there are sufficiently numerous times when students will turn to email as an absolutely essential tool to getting answers for solving their own problems, while other times those same students may have the opportunity to have personal interaction with the professor instead.

  11. So interesting article! Thanks for this! 🙂

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