How ultra-productive people manage their email

Would you like to cut the time you spend on emails in half? Do you think “inbox zero” is actually possible, or a silly Silicon Valley legend?

I recently interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs, CEOs and highly successful solopreneurs for my new book, 15 Secrets Highly Successful People Know About Time Management. I learned that ultra-productive people don’t react to email the way most of us do. They don’t react, at all. They treat email processing as they would any other task; it’s an activity to be scheduled, and to complete in as little time as possible.

While not all ultra-productive people follow the exact same system, I discovered that most had habits that reflect the following rules and instead of “checking” email constantly, they “processed” emails in a manner that I call “The 321Zero System.”

Rule #1, unsubscribe from email newsletters. Do you really need to subscribe to all those flash deals-of-the-day offers? Those viral clickbait “news” headlines? Don’t give companies permission to intrude on your day. If you really want those newsletters, use a secondary email address for them, and schedule time off-hours to read them all at once. For now, go to and you can easily unsubscribe from the newsletters you want to trash, and then it will consolidate the newsletters you want to keep into one big daily email.

Rule #2, turn off all email notifications. Email is not intended to be an urgent form of communication, so getting email notifications is a sin. Notifications interrupt your concentration, your work sprints, and your ability to be present and mindful during meetings and conversations. Whether you have an audible ding, a phone vibration, or a little window that pops up with every new email—turn it off.

Rule #3, think twice before you forward, cc, or bcc. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, London-based International Power reduced total email traffic by 54 percent just by encouraging their top executives to “think twice” before they forwarded an email or added anyone to the cc: line. If you send less email, you’ll also receive less email.

Rule #4, keep emails short—really short. Think of emails more like text messages than business letters. Realise that being brief isn’t rude; it’s a sign of respect for the other person’s time. In an interview for my book, HootSuiteCEO Ryan Holmes told me:

“Keep emails short and sweet. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to write three-sentence emails, leaving out the fluff and keeping only the most essential points. It saves my time and it saves the reader’s time.”

Rule #5, process email with the 4 D’s. Every time you open an email, you should ask:

  • Can I Delete this email? These days, with virtually unlimited storage space, it’s easy to just hit the Archive button on most things, knowing that you can use the search function to get it back again in the future. Or, similarly, just “file it” by moving it into a folder or giving it a label.
  • Can I Delegate this to someone else? If yes, immediately forward the message.
  • Can I Do it in less than five minutes? If you can take care of an email in less than five minutes, you should do it right away. Then delete/archive it.
  • Can I Defer it? The remaining choice will be an email that you have to personally respond to, but it will take longer than five minutes. In this case you will want to immediately schedule time on your calendar to respond to it (i.e., defer it).

Finally, ultra-productive people don’t respond to email through constant check-ins. Instead, they process email in scheduled work sprints.

Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Contagious. In an interview for my book he said:

“Meetings, phone calls, and emails can break up your entire day if you let them, leaving you little time to get any big thinking done…only check email a few times a day.”

Using the “The 321Zero System”will keep your inbox at inbox zero.How’s it work?

  • Schedule three times a day to process your email (morning, noon, night),
  • Set the timer on your phone for 21 minutes,
  • Try to get to inbox zero in that time.

Make a game out of it. 21 minutes is intentionally not enough time, but it will keep you focused, ensure that your responses are short, and that you don’t start clicking links out onto the wonderful world of internet distractions.

Time management methods white paper

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