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