How to Decrease E-mail Overwhelm in 2016–The First Step

42 Comments

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“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
– Henry David Thoreau

I’m often asked how to handle e-mail overwhelm.

While I do use some great apps to help stem the flood, the most important shield is still low-tech: a rock-solid e-mail autoresponder.

This unsexy tool allows you to ignore some or all correspondence.

Answering every inbound e-mail faster might seem like the cure-all, but it’s a Phyrric victory. Robert Scoble observed long ago what is now standard: for each e-mail he responds to, he gets ~1.75 in response!  It’s an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole.

The only sustainable solutions involve selective ignorance.  Step 1: Answer fewer e-mail (or “Ignore more e-mail”). Step 2: Give your e-mail address to fewer people (or “Use a decoy email that goes to your assistant”).

Below is my current autoresponse, which you might be able to adapt or borrow from. More examples follow.  If inclined to dismiss the concept based on my example (e.g. This doesn’t apply to me!), read this real-world example from a radio station employee in Austin, TX.

These things are highly personalized, of course:

Subject line: Tim is off of email — please read this

Hi All,

Thank you for reaching out.  I’m currently on deadline.

We often receive 1,000+ e-mails per day, and it’s sadly impossible for us to respond to every message.

Please don’t take offense if you don’t hear back.  This is true even for family and close friends.

PLEASE NOTE:

– I’m no longer doing startup investing or advising, so I will not be responding to anything startup-related (excluding current portfolio companies).  AngelList is a great resource for finding the right investors, but I’m out of the game.  Here’s the full(er) story.

– I never respond to cold e-mail intros.  I am touchy about having my private email addresses shared.  I much prefer people to ask before making intros.  My inbox is otherwise unmanageable.

– I’m no longer doing book blurbs.  I get sent 20+ books per week and have to turn away friends, so I’m saying no to everyone.  It sucks. (But good news: Blurbs don’t do much for book sales anyway. These things have far greater impact.)

– Book marketing advice?  All the advice I might give, and certainly enough to hit the NYT lists with a good book, can be found at this link.

– I’m taking a break from most unpaid speaking engagements. (Looking for speakers? Search “TEDx [insert nearby cities]” on YouTube to find good speakers.)

Thank you for your understanding!

If you genuinely need to reach me for an emergency (and emergencies only) — [Insert emergency email for yourself or assistant] with “Emergency” somewhere in the headline.

All the best to you and yours. May you live well outside of the inbox.

Tim

Before setting up such an autoresponse, I will separately email (BCC) my lawyers, accountants, team members, etc. to ask them to text/SMS or use Slack if they need my attention. I indicate that my inbox should be treated like a black hole, unless they SMS/Slack to ask me to see a specific email (e.g. “If it’s not in SMS or Slack with @Tim, it will not get read”). I reiterate this before vacations or extended travel.

My approach has evolved over time, and one my past templates may work better for you.  Past examples:

Reader example from SXSW (2007)
Two real autoresponders that work (2014)

Good luck!  Please share your own autoresponse or email strategies and tools in the comments.  I’d love to see them.

May you live well outside of the inbox:)

Tim
P.S. If you want more inspiration for the new year, here is my favorite commencement speech (20 minutes) by the amazing Neil Gaiman.

Posted on: December 23, 2015.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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42 comments on “How to Decrease E-mail Overwhelm in 2016–The First Step

    • I was literally setting up my post-Kickstarter autoresponder before taking a Holiday break today. So, I thought the timing for this post was perfectly appropriate! Tim, Soma’s recommended autoresponder was a huge help during our entire Kickstarter campaign, which we got from your blog post here:

      http://fourhourworkweek.com/2012/12/18/hacking-kickstarter-how-to-raise-100000-in-10-days-includes-successful-templates-e-mails-etc/

      Today’s autoresponder (which will be up for at least two weeks of midwest vacation and probably during a ski trip in the Rockies) focuses more on customers. Post-Kickstarter madness brought tons of happy and angry customers. The autoresponder lets customers know that they are top priority, and it lets everyone else know that they probably won’t get a response, while directing them to an FAQ page. Here is a rough template, without the links:

      “Hello and thanks so much for writing to us! We just finished the Cosmic Mug Kickstarter!

      Check it out: (INSERT KICKSTARTER LINK)

      The good news is that 1,000+ cosmic pots are out in the world! Hundreds of people globally got great deals on a beautiful pottery, while helping to renovate our studio and reinvent how society views, uses and appreciates handmade art.

      The bad news is that I’m getting a ton of daily emails. I might be slow to respond and can’t respond to every inquiry.

      Customer Service is our top priority. If you have questions about your pottery order, please know that will respond to any issues you might have ASAP.

      If you want to get your hands on a Cosmic Mug when more are available in February, signup for our email newsletter here: (INSERT LANDING PAGE LINK)

      If you want to write about Cosmic Mugs, you’ll find everything in this press kit: (INSERT PRESS KIT LINK)

      You can also find many answers at this FAQ page: (INSERT FAQ LINK)

      Cheers!
      Joel

      Joel Cherrico
      Cherrico Pottery, LLC
      (INSERT WEBSITE LINK)
      (INSERT GORGEOUS PRODUCT IMAGE)”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My biggest challenge with this is that I have tried this and my firms culture just doesn’t respect this approach and I have to deal with comments like “didn’t you get the email”.

    It’s a culture thing that I am moving away from in 2016!

    Like

  2. Thanks, Tim. I personally find that using Gmail filters is the most effective way (for me) to only have my attention drawn to the most important messages. I’m curious – do you still “batch” respond to any emails with this autoresponder, or are you at the point where your email volume is too high for that?

    Like

  3. I like the template — fair, firm, and professional. As a person who regularly emails high-caliber people for interviews, I (of course) regularly receive rejection. And to be honest, when someone big declines because they’re busy, I completely understand.

    On my end, sometimes people email me and, while I wish I could respond to everyone, I can’t. I either don’t have the time (rare) or it’s just wastes precious cognitive energy to draft a thoughtful response (almost always). I guess it’s like that old saying goes:

    To be great, you have to say “no” to the good.

    Happy holidays, Tim.

    Like

  4. With a team of people it works to get everybody to use the subject line for a one sentence confirmation or a quick question that can be answered yes/no. (and then use EOM or NNTR for further timesaving) You can whip through a lot of info in a short time that way.

    Like

  5. As an educator, it is impossible for me to simply not respond to emails. That said, I drastically limit my responses. Often, I aim for less than five sentences. Many times a visit down the hall or to the coworkers room/desk subtracts the email from the equation. People write wayyyyy tooooo longggg emails in general. I do think my coworkers appreciate my quick “Got it!” or “Thanks!” emails acknowledging I opened/read/am aware of what they sent. I see too often emails get lost in space which is very frustrating.

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  6. Do you set this up so your vendors/partners only receive this once? I would imagine the people I do communicate with via email would be annoyed to receive this auto-responder from me EVERY time they emailed (some valuable things still come through to me via email).

    Thanks for this though – a reminder to keep fighting the good fight to stay sane. Implementing your other email tactics and setup has helped keep me sane(r) this year.

    Like

  7. First time, long time. Even after 5+ years of reading and listening, I can still find valuable nuggets from almost every piece of content. Keep it up. Happy holidays, sir.

    Like

  8. Hi Tim, very interesting and intriguing autoresponse, indeed, and glad it works out all right for you. Thanks for sharing it along and for kicking off the conversation. Back in the day (February 2008) I, too, thought about using an autoresponse, but, early in the game, I realised it was not going to help me tackle the main problem on its own: email itself. Better said, our contant (ab)use of it. So I decided to ditch email entirely at work (back at my former employer > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnv6K5JmpTM and now on to my third year as an independent adviser) and, instead make good, smarter use of social / digital tools to get work done.

    The rest is now, probably, history, a fascinating journey of (personal) transformation, of working smarter, not necessarily harder, of becoming more open, transparent and collaborative, not just for me, but also for those around me, including my clients, to the point where it’s the very first thing I do when starting to work with them: get them OFF email as soon as I possibly can! And show them how there *is* a different way of working together solving business problems.

    Nearly 8 years later I can tell you, Tim, that it *is* possible to live a (work) life without email and even though I still use it on occasion, for those folks who may persevere and insist on still use email, I’m currently averaging about 5 emails per week, which I guess it’s just as good as being 100% off it. For me everything else, i.e. vast majority of interactions and work, have now both moved into social tools. It’s where I have been living all of that time and still having a blast altogether!

    So, my tip of advice is before you go ahead and set up your autoresponse, think, very carefully, whether you could get rid of email altogether. Because, if you can, it’s probably the best thing you will be doing to yourself in 2016 and, believe me, everyone else around you will be eternally grateful to you.

    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Elsua! For someone who wanted to use social tools instead of email with clients, what would your suggested first 3-4 steps be, and which tools would you recommend using first?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Tim, many thanks for the follow-up comment! Greatly appreciated! It would probably depend on the person and the client they are about to work with, but here are some quick steps that can provide some immediate results starting right away:

        – Break the chain: stop responding to email via email and instead look for other options. 10 or 15 years ago that may not have been possible, but nowadays, if anything, we have got plenty of choices. Move away from your Inbox one conversation at a time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Remember, I stopped using email nearly 8 years ago and I still get 5 emails per week😀

        – Negotiation: discuss and learn with the client how you may want to use different communication / collaboration tools other than email. There is a great chance your client is the most interested party in moving away from email, so help them realise that by having you move away as well from email. That’s where the negotiation tidbit kicks in.

        – Pick the right tool: in most cases there is a great chance that the client may be using already an ESN (Enterprise Social Networking tool), where most of them allow to bring in external parties, so *make the effort* to hang out in *their* space, not your own. Leave your comfort zone for theirs. And IF they don’t have any ESN just yet, discuss with the client how you may want to collaborate and communicate with them through tools like Slack, Trello / Asana, a third party ESN, Twitter, etc. etc. Like I said, there are tons of social tools. Just a matter of picking the right one based not necessarily on the functionality, but on the context, on the task / activity at hand.

        – Enablement (Education): And, finally, the big piece. After you have broken the chain, after you negotiate how you are going to work together, after you have picked up the right tool for the job (not email, please ;-)), then you would need to make some time to invest in your client by enabling them on how to work smarter, not necessarily harder, with those social tools. It’s a time / effort investment, but it pays off tremendously, as you will be showing them how it’s possible to be ever so more productive and effective using digital tools than traditional, awkward, private, obtuse ones:)

        After all that, the next thing would be to kick off the #noemail effort, one conversation, one task, one activity, one client at a time, and before you realise it, in about 5 weeks you would be off email for nearly 80% of your current volume. And off it goes! Start slow and build from there. It’s the marathon that counts, the passing of years and be able to say email is no longer the kind of communications / collaboration for you, but just one other option, amongst several dozen others😀

        Happy Holidays!

        [And here’s to a #noemail 2016 for everyone out there wanting to break free from the email yoke! :-O]

        Like

  9. Tim I love that you provide ways for people to get help on their own instead of just saying no thanks. I get calls all the time in my work that often are the same thing that I can’t help people with, I should template that and send an email rather than have the same 20 min phone call several times a week

    By the way I have been loving the podcast so so much. They are really amazing and I have picked up and read most of the recommended books including meditations, the prince, letters from a stoic and more. They have been amazing. Thanks man!

    Like

  10. Oh Timmy,
    My last 2 months have been spent consuming you via reading, podcast, and YouTube. I am completely enamored 😳 Now that that’s permanently etched into the Internet, ONWARD!

    How did you go about building your email list to begin with? I am just not getting serious about people subscribing to my blog (I was hiding, not sure if I wanted people to delve into my soul/psyche) and I find it to be so much work just to integrate social media, my business, and subscribers AND also still have my own life. Unfortunately, I’m not yet to a place where o can hire assistants/assistance.

    Anyway, have a lovely holiday. Thanks for being obsessive compulsive and leveraging it to help the rest of us.

    XOxoxXXOxo

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I sent you a thank you message in response to your automatic message confirming my subscription to your email list, before I saw this blog post and before I noticed the warning at the bottom of said email. Oh, me!

    Managing my inbox is not really a problem. Weirdly, I suspect it means I’m not living as full a life as I could be. If it ever becomes a problem – these are good ideas. Thank you for taking the time to share them with us.

    Like

  12. Tim, always enjoy the info. I think it is great that you engage on your comments section and Twitter (you’ve engaged me on Twitter previously re: Seneca Nation in NY and it made my day). Thanks for that and for great content.

    In 4HWW you describe getting past gate keepers, etc. as part of your effectiveness in sales. I understand the need to be selective about your inbox access and responses to those that can access it. But do you ever respond to the occasional email or other clever engagement out of a desire to give back to someone on the hustle? At the level of people trying to connect with you I can imagine it’s a slippery slope.

    If Tim Ferriss circa 2002 were trying to connect/cold call with Tim Ferriss of 2015 how do you think Tim Ferriss of today would react to Tim Ferriss of 2002? Put another way, do you utilize any of those techniques for making connections today or does the Tim Ferriss name transcend the need for such creativity?

    I have no ulterior motive (nothing to pitch you), and not intended in a bad way. Just curious your thought process to the hypothetical above.

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  13. Recently I have been listening to more podcasts. I have been using them as personal fuel, whether running, driving or just whenever. I commend you, Tim, on The Tim Ferris Show. You are a phenomenal moderator, hands down. I am learning, with great enthusiasm might I add, and find myself continuously inspired in a multitude of ways from yourself, as well as the endless stream of fascinating humans that have been spotlighted. Thank you. On several occasions, you have made mention to being open for suggestions. This said, I would be stoked if you were able to link up and conduct a podcast with Dan Millman. I have found myself, not once, but twice now, feeling tremendous gratitude for Dan. Way of the Peaceful Warrior changed my life, and Sacred Journey has been pivotal in helping me progress forward once again, rekindling a seemingly lost connection, and essence towards life. Dan, your way with words and your ability to tie in platforms for critical thinking is second to none, thank you. I would not be surprised if your paths have crossed at one point or another, but if there is an opportunity to connect on a podcast, or alternative medium, I would be there, ready to listen and learn, without hesitation. Thank you both again, respectively, for your thought provoking and inspirational contribution to my journey, and without a doubt, many others’ as well. Happy Holidays! Until next time

    Like

  14. Hey Tim, my name is Sam Kurpis, and I’m a sophomore at Cornell (studying Econ and Africana Studies). My main interest, outside of my majors, is Neuroscience: specifically understanding the effects of Psychoactive compounds on cognitive function — although I haven’t finished my due-diligence that prefaces the experimentation. I’ve been trying to get in contact with you for awhile, but you’re a busy man and hard to track down — understandably so. I’m one of your many fan, and especially enjoyed “The 4-Hour Body” (all three of the 4-Hour “trilogy” were filled with useful insights that I use everyday). I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life, and currently row Varsity HWT Crew in College. I’m fascinated by your approach to holistic optimization, and would love the opportunity to work for you. I’m 21 now, so I can legally enjoy wine — hopefully that’s enough to get my foot in the door. I assume your schedule probably doesn’t let up frequently, so I understand if you don’t have the time to contact me back. Regardless, I’m a fan of your work and would go well out of my way, if you could find a use for a quick understudy.

    Like

  15. Hi Tim,

    what is the purpose of an email address that only sends automatic responses? In this case, why do you provide an email address at all? Just because everybody has it or because you want to be polite? Well, I fear not everybody will find your auto response polite.

    All the best,
    Dirk

    Like

  16. Maybe people getting all upset about e-mail auto responders should start to question their own impulses first, before hating on the person using the auto responder. Why do you think you are entitled to everyone constantly being available to you? I’m not trying to point the finger – if anything, I struggle with that notion of entitlement myself… For a long time, I had to remind myself constantly that other people cannot be expected to be on standby for whatever strikes my fancy. My mantra became: “You can ask, but you must not expect anything.” Once that concept truly sinks in, life becomes a lot more enjoyable. So maybe Tim’s auto responder gambit is just one half of the equation – actively managing your own expectations being the other.

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  17. Hi Tim,

    From your template it seems that you selectively use that autoresponder. Why don’t you have a permanent one? Coupled with good filters of course.

    I know many public figures who have a standard “Thank you for your email, I get thousands a day and can’t respond to them all” or some variation.

    Like

  18. I am out of office. Please note all emails received will be automatically forwarded to the recycle bin so please resend your email on or after the date xx-xx-xxxx.

    (Most will realise their emails weren’t important enough to send again, I’m sure)

    Like

  19. I am Director of a Food manufacturer/marketing/sales company. I have 50+ people that are dotted line reports. I have no problems with to many emails/texts. When I joined the company 7 years ago, I was getting 60-100 emails a day. Now I am only getting between 10 – 12. The reason… I do not respond to non important emails. I make sure people figure their own issues/opportunities out. They understand I am not going to figure their problems out. You will be amazed. While on vacation, I reply to Zero emails, and have done this for 20 years. Hire the right people, and empower them to embrace responsible. I have been very successful with this style, financially and having lots of personal time for enjoying life.

    Like

  20. Tim, let me share with your readers a way that I get a very minimal numbers of emails a day. I do not respond to emails that are unimportant. Try this… Do not respond to emails for a day, people will figure it out. And if you do it consistently, people will stop emailing you and find it quicker and easier to do it themselves. As a company executive, I only get 10-15 emails a day and this has been very consistent over my 25 year career, running businesses of a quarter of a billon dollars+. On vacation I do not look at any emails, none. Make sure you hire the best people and empower them to manage their responsibilities.

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  21. Tim, many thanks for the great blog/podcasts! I recently “rediscovered” you and have loved the Tony Robins and Jamie Foxx podcasts. I just read your reason for not investing in start-ups and really appreciate that you feel you can have more impact with your writing than investing. From one reader, I sincerely appreciate your desire and am looking forward to learning and growing this year along with you. Will be starting my auto-responder in the next few days…. Happy New Year! P.S. Writing from Brazil where I am learning Portuguese and how to cook churrasco!

    Like

  22. I just paid for a software download – 19.95. Safari can’t spin file “body trackers 82-2 exe because no available application can open it. Want my charge back or send my tracker.

    Like