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Innovation Economy

Timely tips to empty your inbox

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / October 25, 2009

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Rich Miner, an executive at Google Inc., was boarding a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Boston last Wednesday night, and he wasn’t expecting to sleep. The airline offered in-flight wireless Internet access, and Miner was planning to plow through about 2,500 unread e-mail messages on his laptop.

“I got behind,’’ said Miner, who helps run Google’s venture capital division in Cambridge and was earlier involved in developing the Internet company’s operating system for mobile phones.

Talking to Miner made me feel a little better about my often haphazard approach to e-mail. I’d been interviewing the busiest people I know about how they manage the deluge of incoming messages without drowning. I wanted to collect the best advice I could find.

Miner had been suggested to me as someone who was great with e-mail volleys. And he did answer my request for an interview, sent via e-mail, in about three hours. (Since he was in California, he would’ve received my note at 4:41 a.m. local time.)

It was good to know that even the e-mail pros can get overwhelmed at times.

I didn’t talk to any self-professed time management experts or efficiency consultants - just extremely busy people who, in my experience, would have some tips for me about improving my e-mail skills. Here are the nine best pieces of advice I got:

Open it once. I sometimes look at a message two or three times before deciding what to do with it - does it require a reply, and do I want to write that reply now or later? George Colony, chief executive of Forrester Research in Cambridge, said he lives by the “one-touch rule.’’

Whether he is reading e-mail on his BlackBerry or his computer at work, “I only touch it once,’’ he said. “I either forward it, I delete it, or I answer it. You don’t want to close an e-mail without having dealt with it.’’

Christopher Ahlberg, founder of a Somerville data visualization company that is now part of TIBCO Software Inc., told me that if an e-mail requires him to do something more involved than writing back, he adds that task as a to-do item on his calendar. “That makes it something you have to deal with, not a nebulous thing,’’ he says.

Delegate. Robert Langer, who oversees a laboratory at MIT with nearly 100 researchers and has helped launch several life sciences companies, responded the fastest to my request for an interview: in four minutes. Langer is rarely without his BlackBerry, and he deals with about 95 percent of his e-mails on that device.

“I have it on the exercise bike in the morning, and if I’m in a cab, I just answer a ton of e-mails so they don’t back up,’’ he said. “If I let them back up, I feel real stress.’’ When he gets inquiries from researchers about joining his lab, he typically forwards them to colleagues to ask whether a candidate is worth talking to.

“I just write, ‘Interest?’ ’’ he says. “Basically, do people in the lab think that this is someone we should take a look at?’’

Set aside time. Two executives told me that they set aside specific windows of time when they handle most of their e-mail, though they may answer urgent messages outside of those time slots. “I reserve five to 10 minutes each hour to check e-mail, so that I don’t become the bottleneck for people waiting for a reply,’’ Paul Levy, chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, wrote in an e-mail.

I asked Levy what happens if an e-mail needs a more detailed response. “I don’t use e-mails for thoughtful and lengthy replies,’’ he wrote. “It is a poor medium for that, in that subtleties are lost. If a long reply is warranted, I do it in person or by phone.’’ (Levy’s two e-mails to me this week averaged 88 words.)

Gail Goodman, chief executive of Constant Contact, a Waltham-based e-mail marketing firm, says she does e-mail over coffee, first thing in the morning. “I try to get rid of what came in overnight,’’ she says. And during the day, her assistant schedules a half-hour slot in the middle of the day, and another one around 5 or 6 p.m., when Goodman can tend to her e-mail.

Not everything requires a response. I told Goodman that I often feel guilty about not responding to every e-mail, since I like to imagine that I am a nice person. “I used to try to be polite to everybody,’’ she said, “but then I got over the need to respond to someone I’ve never heard of who is trying to sell me something.’’

Use folders. Consider creating folders for e-mail newsletters you receive regularly, or correspondence that you are being cc’ed on, and then having those messages automatically routed to a folder. Consult those folders when you have time.

Use keyboard shortcuts. Rather than using your mouse to maneuver through your inbox, clicking delete or moving messages into special folders, learn to use the shortcuts that allow you to delete or forward messages with the stroke of a single key. “It’s infinitely faster,’’ says Bijan Sabet, a partner at Boston-based Spark Capital, who recently started using Google’s free Gmail service to manage his e-mail and has become a big fan.

Print some e-mails. Printing out an e-mail to give it the proper attention isn’t a crime, says venture capitalist Maria Cirino of the Boston firm .406 Ventures. Langer says that if he gets a lengthy e-mail with questions that need answers, he’ll often ask his assistant to print it out, write the answers longhand, and have her type out the reply. It’s old school, but Langer and his staff run one of the most streamlined operations I’ve ever dealt with.

Don’t be distracted. Colony and entrepreneur Sim Simeonov both said that they shut down their e-mail program when they’re trying to get other work done, like creating a presentation or writing software code. “Switching from one context to another has a cost,’’ Simeonov says. “It reduces your productivity. That’s just basic psychology.’’

Clear out the inbox. Most of the people I spoke with aim to achieve a totally empty inbox by the end of the day (or week).

“My base principle is to never go to bed with any unread e-mails,’’ says Ahlberg. (Venture capitalist Maria Cirino confessed to me that she keeps her BlackBerry next to her bed, so if she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about an e-mail she forgot to answer, she can deal with it and go back to sleep.)

New Hampshire entrepreneur Andy Palmer said, “I drop my inbox to zero every weekend.’’ Kiki Mills, executive director of the Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange, a trade group, said that if there’s an e-mail that she must defer until the next morning, she puts it into a special folder called “First Focus.’’

Miner, the Google executive, says, “When I’m doing well, I live by that zero inbox philosophy.’’ Of his flight back from California, he says, “I made progress, but had to sleep . . . Still not quite at zero.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

Tips for managing
e-mail overload

"Touch" each e-mail only once. When you open a message, respond, forward it to someone else, or decide not to answer it, but don't put off action until later.

Trying to schedule meetings (or conference calls) with groups can generate lots of back-and-forth e-mail traffic. Consider using Doodle (www.doodle.com), a free tool that allows you to suggest a set of times for meetings, and then asks participants vote on which ones work best for them.

Consider creating "prefab" responses or documents you can send to answer common inquiries, like how someone can get a job or an internship at your company.

Close your e-mail program when you're doing work that requires your complete attention. Visual or audible cues that you've just received an e-mail are distracting.

If you haven't dealt with all of the day's messages by the end of the day, consider creating a folder called "First Thing," and reply to those e-mails in the morning.