Whether you like it or not, you have to deal with email. It’s a part of your life.
It can also start to take over your life if you don’t manage it well.
You know the feeling — that horrible feeling when you know there’s over a hundred unread emails in your inbox. You know that eventually you’ll have to waste an afternoon answering them all.
So you procrastinate. You stress about your full inbox, and you go nuts thinking about whether or not you missed something important.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In this podcast, you’re going to learn everything you need to know to make answering email easy, painless, and productive. You’ll hear from Ari Meisel, a productivity coach who specializes in mastering email overload.
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The Art of Less Doing – Make Everything in Life Easier by Ari Meisel
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**Armi Legge:** If you had to guess, how many emails would you estimate are in your inbox right now?
Here are a few more questions.
How long does it usually take to clear your inbox?
Do you enjoy checking your email or is it a total pain in the ass?
Whether you like it or not, we all have to deal with email. It’s a part of life. It can also start to take over your life if you don’t manage it well. Email overload and affect anyone and everyone. I’m sure you know that feeling- that horrible feeling you get when you know there’s over 100 unread emails in your inbox and you know that eventually, you will have to waste an afternoon answering them all.
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. In this podcast, you’re going to hear from a good friend of mind named Ari Meisel, who I like to call “the most productive man in the world.”
Ari is kind of like a lesser known Richard Branson. He started three companies before graduating high school and it seems like every other day, he’s starting a new venture. He’s also a devoted father, an accomplished athlete, a speaker, and even makes time to come on podcasts like this one.
Ari gets more email than just about anyone else I know, yet he’s usually able to respond to every single one within at least an hour or two, often sooner. Even more impressive is that he does all of this without ever feeling overwhelmed or lost. Ari is one of the most calm people I know.
In this podcast, Ari is going to share all of his best tips for how to keep your email inbox from dominating your life. If you’re one of those people who seems to be drowning in emails no matter what you do, you need to listen to this podcast.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, a podcast that helps you simplify your health, fitness, and productivity. If today’s show helps you better manage your email problems or helps you in any other way, here’s how you can get more information like this. Go to impruvism.com. Enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click the button below. After you do, you’ll get free updates from the Impruvism blog delivered straight to your inbox when they are published.
Now let’s learn how to kill that damn email inbox once and for all.
Hi, Ari. Thanks for coming on the show today. Can you tell our listeners who you are and what you do?
**Ari Meisel:** Sure. Thanks for having me, Armi. My name is Armi Meisel and I am a productivity consultant and a wellness coach. I created a system of productivity called “the Art of Less Doing” about 2 years ago and I teach people how to optimize, automate, and outsource everything in their lives in order to be more effective.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. One of the things you’ve covered in tremendous detail- far better than pretty much anybody else- is mastering the email inbox, so that’s what we’re going to focus on today. It’s something a lot of people struggle with, myself included. Before we talk about specific strategies to better manage our email, let’s set up what we’re dealing with.
Roughly how many emails do you get per day and how fast are you able to respond to all of them?
**Ari Meisel:** It’s not a simple answer. I probably receive somewhere around 350 – 400 emails per day. Only about maybe 50 or 60 of those get to my inbox and I am able to deal with all of them usually in a matter of minutes.
**Armi Legge:** Nice. Where do those other emails go? I’m sure we’ll talk about that more in a second, but…
**Ari Meisel:** One of the main systems I created was you really don’t need multiple folders in your email. You need your inbox and an optional folder. It’s very important for people to be able to determine the difference between the essential and the optional.
The essential is the things we need to do and read. That’s pretty obvious. But the optional isn’t junk. It’s just the stuff that doesn’t really require immediate attention and maybe doesn’t require any attention at all, but if we have the time, it’s something that we would like to get to. The key is to filter that noise out of the inbox so the inbox can be a place of action.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. We’ll talk about how you do that in a second. So how many times a day do you normally check your email and how much time do you estimate that you check your email every day?
**Ari Meisel:** This is probably one that might shock some people. I probably check my email upwards of 30 times a day. I love checking my email because if it’s in my inbox, it’s 90% of the time really interesting and important, whether it’s a client needing something or a new project that I’m working on. I can’t wait to look at my inbox because I know it’s going to be something good there to deal with. The amount of time I actually spend dealing with email everyday I would say is no longer than 20 minutes.
**Armi Legge:** Wow. That’s amazing. So what’s the most time you think you’ve spent on email in your life? You mention that you really enjoy it but for a lot of people, it’s almost like they reach this tipping point where it’s consuming every extra second they have. Was it ever something like that, where you were spending all day on email and got tired of it?
**Ari Meisel:** I honestly can’t remember a time where that was the case. I do know there were definitely times when I was on my computer a lot during the day and a lot of that time was spent on email. I don’t remember too overwhelmed but that was because I was being very diligent and staying on top of things. But it wasn’t efficient by any means. There was definitely a time when the majority of my day was spent on dealing with email.
**Armi Legge:** Right. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. You just mentioned how you also do a lot of coaching and helping people become more productive. When most of your clients come to you, how much time are they generally spending on email per day?
**Ari Meisel:** Per day, let me think. I know that on average, a lot of clients who start working with me are spending between 14 and 17 hours per week on their email. Around 2, 2.5 hours per day I guess.
**Armi Legge:** Wow. So let’s tackle that.
**Ari Meisel:** But that’s not even an accurate number because the time that you’re actually in your email is one thing. But the time people spend thinking about and, more importantly, stressing about email is a lot more than that.
**Armi Legge:** That’s an excellent point and we’ll also talk about what strategies you use to counter that as well. But before we do that, let’s tackle the real source of the problem first. What are the most common mistakes people make when answering email that take up all that extra time? As you said, almost 20 hours a week.
**Ari Meisel:** I think there is sort of this misunderstanding about what people want when it comes to email and what they want to receive when it comes to email.
A lot of times, I’ll see somebody gets an email that is either personal or it’s somebody who’s saying something very nice about their business, but there’s an emotional component to it. Most people’s immediate response is “I want to write a really nice answer to this person.” Then two months later, that email is still in their inbox and they haven’t been back to that person.
My feeling is it’s better to get back to someone quickly. That’s what people expect with email. The whole point of email is it’s instantaneous and you have that instant gratification. People need to get back to someone quicker, even if the response isn’t as eloquently worded. You can still get the purpose there. People spend too much time worrying about writing an email as if it was a wax-sealed letter from the 1700s.
**Armi Legge:** That’s a great point. Are there any other mistakes people make or is that just the biggest one? Spending too much time on stuff that doesn’t really need to be spent on?
**Ari Meisel:** No. There are certainly others. It’s sort of a paradigm shift that needs to take place, but the inbox is not a holding tank and most people treat it as such. It’s not supposed to sit in your inbox until you can deal with. The inbox, as far as I’m concerned, is a place of action. You have three choices if there is an email in your inbox. I call it the “Three Ds.”
You can either delete it because it’s done or no longer relevant.
You can defer it to a time that would be better for you to deal with it. There are services that I will recommend to do that.
Or you can deal with it right now because not is the time.
But if it’s not one of those three things, that’s not an option. It can’t just sit there in the inbox because that defeats the entire purpose of having it set up.
**Armi Legge:** Right. It sounds like you really need to act on it. It’s not something that’s supposed to sit there waiting for you.
**Ari Meisel:** If it’s in the inbox.
**Armi Legge:** Right. Exactly. This is a loaded question, obviously. What is your strategy or system that you use to manage your email? You just mentioned the three Ds, but I’m sure there’s more to it than just that.
**Ari Meisel:** Right. The number one most useful service that I can possibly ever recommend to people is something called followup.cc. Followup.cc a very simple service but it’s very powerful in the way you can use it. It’s an automated email followup service. It’s very simple. From any browser, device, or mail service, you send a mail to somebody and then you can either bcc or cc any time period you want at followup.cc.
So I might write an email to you, Armi, and say “I’m looking forward to next week, to the podcast.” And then I might bcc 5 days at followup.cc. So I have a reminder in my head to get in mode and go over the questions that you shared with me.
The way it works is when that period comes up, that email will come back to my inbox from followup.cc, the original email, and it will include a snooze functionality to it so if that’s not the right time, I can snooze it to a better time. The key difference there is that it’s not about procrastinating. It’s about deferring to a better time to deal with it because there is a better time to deal with every kind of different task.
Followup.cc does something that’s psychologically very important. When I send an email and I have a followup.cc on it, within three seconds of hitting that send button, I couldn’t tell you what that email was about. It is completely out of sight and completely out of mind, and that’s the way it should be.
A lot of the stress related to email is people thinking, “Did I get back to that person? Did they get back to me? Did I then get back to them?” Not only are connections lost but it’s a really stupid way to use your brain, to be worrying about those things.
When I have followup.cc added, I know that it’s going to come back to me at the time that I need to deal with it. I don’t have to miss anything. I don’t have to worry about it and I can move on.
**Armi Legge:** Basically, it’s a tool that allows you to remove these thoughts in your brain when you don’t need to be focusing on them or shouldn’t be focusing on them and then have them seamlessly and automatically come right back to where you need them when you need them.
**Ari Meisel:** Right. To that place of action, the inbox.
**Armi Legge:** So just a quick question about that again. Let’s say I get an email from you that I want to deal with later. I need to download something or write a slightly longer response. I put it into followup.cc. Do I delete it from my inbox then? Like I forward it to followup.cc. Do you delete it? If you delete it, will it come back?
**Ari Meisel:** If you’re using gmail, which I recommend everybody use because it makes email so much better, you can send an archive at the time. When you’re sending that email, it will also archive it immediately. It goes out of the inbox into that big hopper that is the archive. If you’re using gmail, there really isn’t any need to delete an email ever. You can just archive it so it’s not in the inbox.
As I said before, I don’t really care what happens to it if it’s not in your inbox and not in your optional folder. Beyond that, it’s not really relevant. If you want to have all sorts of folders, it’s fine. But that doesn’t go toward the productivity. So yes, it will bring back that original email to you.
**Armi Legge:** Great. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about integrating email into your life in general. You said how you check it roughly 30 times a day but just knowing you as a friend, I know you do all sorts of stuff. You’re such a busy and productive guy that There have to be times when you’re not checking your email. Like maybe training for Ironman France, which you also did.
Do you set any time limits, like certain days of the week when you don’t check your email? Certain times of the day when you don’t check your email? Or any other kind of structure to keep it from just taking over?
**Ari Meisel:** Yeah. While I say that I check my email 30 times a day, that doesn’t mean that I’m checking it every chance I get or every few minutes. If I’m walking the dog. If I go to the bathroom. Even if I have three minutes of something. You know, walking the baby in the stroller. Three minutes is all I need to get through a significant amount of email.
My general rule is that I never want to have more than 10 emails in my inbox. That doesn’t usually become an issue. I also don’t have the notifications turned on with my phone. I have to actually look down at my phone and see what the number says. If I’m doing something and I’m getting caught up with writing or I’m training or something, I’m not going to do anything with the phone unless I notice I’ve hit like 11 messages. Then I’m going to stop and go through it and deal with that very quickly.
It’s funny because I’ve made email so important to my life and I do so much through email but I also pretty much only check email while I’m doing something else. It’s sort of like an auxiliary activity.
**Armi Legge:** That’s awesome and I’m sure a lot of people listening to this would kill for that ability. So what do you think of batching emails, as in letting them accumulate throughout the week and then answering them all at once or every few days instead of every day? That’s something Tim Ferris and other people recommend. Your strategy has some advantages and might have disadvantages in certain instances. What do you think of that?
**Ari Meisel:** This is the interesting thing. The way that my system works, I could go off the grid for a week and come back and have hundreds of emails and most of them would not be in my inbox and it wouldn’t be an issue. It really wouldn’t affect my productivity. I would most likely set up an auto-responder if I was planning on being out of touch for that long. But realistically, it’s a real skill thing.
Batching is a funny one. I do recommend batching for lots of things. Email is not one of them. I think it builds more stress than anything else. I tell you that I almost guarantee that anybody who tells you they don’t check their email at least once a day is lying to you. Also, to have it built up over a week I really wouldn’t recommend.
There is a difference between processing efficiently and then also giving the appearance that you’re not professional. People do expect a faster response when it comes to email as opposed to a letter or a phone call nowadays. Texting may be the most immediate thing that you can expect someone to respond to. If someone doesn’t respond to a text within 30 seconds, you start to get annoyed. Email used to be that medium in some ways.
But letting things go is almost batching for the purpose of batching, not for the purpose of efficiency.
**Armi Legge:** Right. That seems like an interesting point. Let’s say somebody decides to overhaul their email strategy but they want to know how much of an effect their efforts are having. Are their any techniques you have used or are currently using to quantify your work with email in your system and what effect that has on your business?
**Ari Meisel:** Absolutely. RescueTime is a great application that you download and it runs in the background on your computer. It will tell you exactly how much time you’re spending on facebook, email, Excel, outlook or whatever you’re doing. Your computer will break that down for you. I’ve got tons of clients that have gone from the 15 hours of week to 4 hours of week on their email. Depending on what business you’re in, it depends on how you quantify the dollars associated with that.
But email is a skill. It really is. Email is a skill and it’s something people need to get better at.
**Armi Legge:** Excellent. We’ve talked about followup.cc, gmail, and now RescueTime. Are there any other tools that you use to process email faster or improve your system in general?
**Ari Meisel:** Most email services offer filtering of some kind. Again, I feel that gmail does it really well. The automatic filtering is automatically having a message, based on certain criteria, go to a certain folder or being forwarded.
The number one filter that anybody should have on any system that they’re using regardless of what they do is that if an email has the word “unsubscribe” in it is that email should automatically be taken out of the inbox and put into an optional folder. I don’t care if it’s a forward from your best friend or your mother, if it has the word “unsubscribe” in it, it’s probably not an essential thing.
**Armi Legge:** Is that a label or something people can create in gmail? If so, how do they do that?
**Ari Meisel:** Yes. You would create a label called “optional.” Everything with “unsubscribe” in it. You can create a whole bunch of other folders that get more specific. All emails from this particular sender or any email that has this particular cue word. Those should automatically be put into an optional folder. Then at the end of the day, if you have the time to check that optional folder, you can and then you can go through things.
But it’s important to note that it’s still even more efficient because once you switch to the optional folder and you know that everything you’re looking at is not essential, you can go through 100 emails in about 2 minutes because you can just scan headlines. I can look at a page with 20 emails on it and maybe there’s 3 facebook notifications and something from Groupon and something from Woot! and something from 3 other newsletters, something from a charity. I can look down a list, see the senders, see the heading, and know the one email that I actually want to look at in a matter of seconds.
**Armi Legge:** And you only set up two folders, is that correct? So you have optional and then whatever the other one is, “essential” or “important?”
**Ari Meisel:** No. Not even. It’s your inbox and an optional folder. Everything else is just archived.
**Armi Legge:** Wow, that’s great. It’s an awesome system.
You talked a little bit about gmail and why you think that’s a great applicant. But a lot of people out there still rely on outlook and they have the gmail thing synced to their Apple mail application. What do you think are the pros and cons of using a different email client from gmail?
**Ari Meisel:** There are lots of great plugins that are just for gmail that I could go on and on about how much I love them. You can get a vast majority of these issues taken care of with filtering and followup.cc which are both platform independent.
**Armi Legge:** What best practice tips can you give our listeners for how to craft a fast email response?
**Ari Meisel:** One of the greatest things is a template email. Again, if you’re using gmail, there are versions for Outlook and other services, but in gmail there is something called “canned responses.” If you get a lot of common questions or you’re writing about a product that you sell a lot, you create a pre-filled in email you can just pop in there whenever you want.
As far as responding to emails, it really is a matter of less is more. An email is not a love letter typically. Obviously, you can have emotion but 95% of emails require a factual or informative response. You can do that without being flowery about it and having to worry as long as you get the information across.
**Armi Legge:** One of the tips I heard from a friend of mine called Carol Godja is to never write an email longer than five sentences. Do you have any little rules of thumb like that that you use?
**Ari Meisel:** The five sentence thing is funny. There’s a three sentence one also. It will even insert a little explanation for why you’re doing that. I think it’s kind of gimmicky, honestly. I’ve answered emails with one word and I’ve answered emails with two paragraphs although that’s pretty rare. It’s really answering the question.
Honestly, a big thing is subject lines. I hate when someone says a subject and it says, “Hi.” That’s not an effective subject for me. You can really say a lot in the subject. I’ve had tons of emails, from not just me but from a ton of colleagues and friends, where the entire message was in the subject line because it was just one sentence.
**Armi Legge:** That’s one trick, writing the whole message in the subject line. Are there any other tricks you can use to make the subject line more relevant or get it opened more often or make it easier on the other person?
**Ari Meisel:** Yeah, for sure. Avoid the generic. Say what it’s about. If it’s about a certain order, put the order number in the thing. If it’s about changing a meeting, don’t say “meeting,” say “changing meeting to this time.” People get very detailed and useful messages out across twitter, you know, in 140 characters. There’s no reason you can’t do that in the subject line of an email.
**Armi Legge:** Good point. Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about something else that you are just the master of. That is using virtual assistants to get more done. One of the cool things you’ve done is you’ve used virtual assistants to help you manage your email. How can people do that?
**Ari Meisel:** For one thing, the easiest thing you can have a virtual assistant without training do with your email is having them get rid of any junk. Because even the best junk mail filters and even the best CAPTCHA system is going to leave some spam coming through and it’s usually pretty obvious. That’s one. They can clear it up before you even see it.
But really, as simple as this may sound, sometimes forwarding an email to an assistant with a very, very simple, short instruction on what to do with it. I’ll forward it to the assistant and just write the word “calendar.” That means they’re supposed to put it in the calendar. Or I might get an email about a deal or something for my son that he might like. I’ll forward and say, “Buy this.” A lot of times, it’s not just about receiving the email but it’s about what you do with it.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. One of the other cool tricks that you’ve talked about before is using your email inbox as a to-do list. How do you create that?
**Ari Meisel:** Well, it really is what I said it is. It’s a place of action. If it’s in your inbox, it’s something that you have to do one of those three Ds with. If it’s not in the inbox, then you don’t have to be worrying about it right now. In essence, the inbox becomes a very short term, very relevant to-do list.
**Armi Legge:** Interesting. So we’ve talked about a lot today but our listeners might be wondering how they can use all this stuff, or how they can put it into a streamlined process. Would you take us through your typical process for going through email from start to finish. I know you said you do it throughout the day. Take us through a typical morning of processing email.
**Ari Meisel:** For instance, I’ll pick up my phone right now and I have 4 emails in my inbox. I don’t know how many I have in my optional folder because I don’t sync that with the iPhone.
Somebody sent me a quote for a door that I need to put in a house. That’s something that I’m going to just forward to my general contractor on that particular job. I have a google voice notification from my broth-in-law. I’m going to call him as soon as I get off this interview with you. There’s no reason for me to do anything with that. I’ll be calling him within the next 15 minutes, probably. There is a newsletter update which I’m just going to delete because I don’t have the time. Then there’s a virtual assistant informing me of an appointment that they’ve made for me. It’s already in my calendar so I can just delete that. And I’m done with my email.
I don’t know. We’ve been on this call for maybe 20 minutes and there’s 4 emails in my inbox and I just dealt with them.
**Armi Legge:** Ari, thank you so much for talking to us today. I’m sure our listeners are going to love this episode. Email is just such a huge problem for so many people. Where can people learn more about your work and what you’re doing?
**Ari Meisel:** First of all, thanks for having me, Armi. I love talking about email. Everybody can find out more by going to lessdoing.com. My blog is there with all sorts of really great posts. They can also access my online courses there, where you can actually learn how to implement a lot of that stuff.
**Armi Legge:** Yeah. Can you talk about those just for a quick second and what people can expect from them?
**Ari Meisel:** So I have a couple of online courses that are hosted through Udemy, one of which is the general Art of Less Doing course. I do recommend it to everybody. It’s relevant no matter what walk of life you’re in. It really goes over the nine fundamentals of the system I’ve created. Everything from creating the external brain to never running errands again to wellness.
Then I have a slightly shorter, more focused course on using gmail, IFTTT, which is a website I love that creates automations between different web services, and virtual assistants. The three of them are sort of the ultimate productivity tool.
**Armi Legge:** Thanks, man. It is a ton of fun talking to you. We will definitely have to have you here again on the show if you’re willing to talk about some more of your system.
**Ari Meisel:** Always willing. Thanks for having me, Armi.
**Armi Legge:** Thanks for being on the show, Ari.
I would rather clean my cat’s latter box than answer email, but after that podcast, I almost wanted to check my inbox because I was so excited to use Ari’s tips. Here’s your mission for today. Pick one of the tips you learned in today’s podcast and start using it . . . today. Don’t wait until tomorrow when you’re less excited. Before you check another email, pick one tip from this podcast and start using it today.
I’m going to start by setting up filters to sort my emails into an optional folder. Feel free to start that with that tip, too, if you prefer.
If any of the information in this podcast helps you with your email problems or makes your life better in any way, here’s how to show your appreciation. Go to impruvism.com/itunes and you will be redirected to the iTunes page for this podcast. Once you’re there, please leave a ranking and review. Obviously, positive reviews are nice, but I also want to know if you don’t like this podcast.
I actually had a conversation with my dad recently, where he asked me to describe the concept of good business in as simply terms as possible. My response was “find what people want and give it to them.” That’s the same approach I take with my business and this podcast. The only way I can know what you want is to get both your negative and your positive feedback.
So long story short, this podcast is for you and you can help me change it into whatever you want by leaving reviews and feedback on iTunes. You can also leave comments on impruvism.com. You can contact me via twitter or facebook. Or you can email me. Whatever you do, I will take your feedback seriously and I will use it.
Thank you for listening and I will see you next week, when you are hopefully less overwhelmed by your email.