Episode: How to Get Out of Email Jail
Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today, we’re tackling a huge problem for leaders, and we’re making a bold promise. We’re going to get you out of email jail.
Megan: That is bold, and it might even feel impossible to a lot of our listeners right now, because most of us are inundated with messages during the day. Most people in business receive well over 100 emails a day, and then there’s now, of course, Slack and texting and social media and all of the other inboxes you probably have.
There is nowhere to hide, my friends, and there’s no off switch, because messages arrive 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We know most people check their messages right before bed, along with social media and the news and all that stuff. At first, it probably felt kind of nice to feel wanted, if you can remember way back to your first email account, but not for long. It now feels like we’re in email jail. So, the question is…How do we get out?
Michael: I was just thinking back, remembering what it was like when I had my first AOL account. “You’ve got mail.” There was an entire movie done on that. People were so excited about getting email.
Megan: I don’t think that would even make any sense to my kids now. If I showed them that movie, they would be like, “What?”
Michael: I know.
Megan: It would just be like a big question mark.
Michael: It’s not so novel anymore, and it’s a problem we have to solve. So today, we’re going to solve that problem once and for all by giving you four steps you need to create a personal communication strategy, but, as usual, we’re not going to do that before we bring on Larry, because he has to guide us through this conversation. Hey, Larry.
Larry Wilson: Hey, hey! How are you guys doing today?
Michael: Doing great.
Megan: Good. How are you?
Larry: You know, thinking about that movie You’ve Got Mail… I mentioned that to somebody the other day as I was thinking about doing this episode, and they said, “You’ve Got Mail. Wasn’t that back during the Carter administration?” It does seem so long ago that email was fun or that getting messages of any kind from people was fun and exciting. When did it become a problem for you, when messaging went from being something fresh and immediate to being “Ugh, another email” or “another text”?
Michael: Well, I think it was one thing to get a message or two a day, but then, like rabbits, they started to multiply. It wasn’t so bad until when I left my previous corporate job to start Michael Hyatt & Company and, for the first time in a very long time, I had no assistant. Previously, I had two full-time assistants. I was the CEO of a pretty large company, and I had one assistant who did nothing but calendar maintenance and planning trips and booking travel, and the other one helped me with email and did all that.
But for the first time in a long time, I had no assistant, and I was getting 150 to 200 email messages a day. I was overwhelmed just by the volume of communication. It felt like a full-time job. The only problem was it wasn’t paying the bills. All I could do was basically just try to keep up with it, but I couldn’t move the ball forward. I realized I had to have a strategy to deal with it.
Megan: It was kind of the same for me, too, as the company grew and my role here expanded. At first, it wasn’t that much volume, but as a small company, that began to spiral quickly as our growth really scaled. Then came Slack, and, oh my gosh! Then it got so much worse. There were so many messages. I realized I was going to have to have some kind of strategy to determine how accessible I was going to be, because it was just too much.
Michael: The key is to be intentional. If you’re just reacting to messages, you have a problem. You can never type fast enough to respond to all of them. There aren’t enough hours in the day. You have to get intentional. You need a strategy. I talk about this in my new book No-Fail Communication. I go more in-depth in the book, but this is more than enough to get you to inbox zero. So, that’s what we want to talk about today.
Larry: Speaking of your new book, Michael, it is out now. It has been out for a couple of weeks now and available at nofailcommunication.com. So check that out for much more on this topic. Today, we’re saying that any leader can get out of email jail by having a personal communication strategy, and you can create that with these four steps. Step one: determine who will have access to you.
Michael: This is one that some people will shy away from because they feel like, “We have to have a democratized system. Everybody needs to have open access. I practice an open-door strategy. Anybody ought to be able to email me and expect a response.” The simple truth is you, Mr. Leader, Ms. Leader, are a limited resource. You can’t give your time to everyone. There’s just not enough of it.
As your organization grows, the more successful you become, there’s less and less time of you available to distribute to others. So you have to answer some hard questions. “Who needs access to me?” I mean, really. “How much access do they really need? How will I handle communication with everybody else?” In a word, you have to segment the communication, and you have to come up with a response, or a strategy, to each group of people.
Megan: This can feel a little bit arrogant at first, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s honestly more of a question of stewardship. After all, you are your company’s most valuable resource. Your time and your energy and your mental bandwidth are precious commodities. At some point, you have to stop spending those things on low-leverage messages, because everybody doesn’t need the same kind of attention from you. That’s just not what’s going to be necessary.
I have found, for example, that when I’m spending time responding to a meeting invite or a mass email from my kids’ school about whether or not they’re going to bring cupcakes to the party next week, that’s not necessarily the highest and best use of my time, and it’s much more productive for me to delegate that to my assistant Jamie, for example.
Larry: You know, Megan, it does sound a little arrogant at first. I remember being at a conference one time back when I was in pastoral ministry days, and the speaker was the pastor of a very large church. I think it was about 20,000 people in attendance. He was making a point about something else, but he said, “If you call up this church and ask to speak to me, I can guarantee you you will never be put on the phone with me.”
I thought, “Wow! That’s really cold.” But when I thought about it in terms of scale, it’s not at all. I myself, pastoring a much smaller congregation at the time, thought, “Wow! I need somebody to screen my calls too,” because too much availability just dilutes your effectiveness.
Megan: Right. I think the important thing to mention about that story, Larry… It’s a great example, because it’s not that nobody would answer your call or your email message that was meant for a pastor in a large church. The truth is there is somebody who is the best person to take care of the needs someone would be emailing about or calling about. The question we’re asking is…Are you the best person to respond to this certain kind of message?
Here are a few questions you can ask to help narrow this down: “Does this person need a personal response from me in order to do their work? Is this a high-value customer or stakeholder? Could someone else respond to this message and produce the same result?” That’s a really important question. “Does this message require a response at all?” I mean, I find that a lot of the emails I get are just informational. I don’t have to respond in any way.
Michael: One of the things where leaders can do a better job is setting themselves up for success by calibrating people’s expectations on the front end. For example, back when I was in the publishing business and we’d be meeting with a prospective author, I’d always like to go in with a team so I didn’t become the point person from that point forward. I liked to go into that initial meeting, have that initial conversation, but I wasn’t going to be present in every communication after that.
I set it up for success by saying to the author, “From here on out, Brian is going to be your point person. He’s the one you’re going to be communicating with. If you have a question about sales, Mark is the guy you communicate with.” Whatever it was, I helped them understand it was a team effort so they wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t respond. I might say something like, “Of course, if it’s an emergency or something really urgent, don’t hesitate to contact me, but honestly, these people will get to you faster with a much better response than I could do.” And it was the truth.
Megan: I had this exact experience last week. I was meeting with our financial advisor, Keith Knell. I was in a meeting with him, and he had one of his team members, Joanne (9:22), on the phone with us. Joanne is kind of the person who’s overseeing our whole process with Keith. He’s doing the overarching strategy and thinking, but she’s the one who is collecting the action items. She’s the one who’s making sure our file is complete, that we have all of the components in place that we need to, and she’s the one who follows up with us, who we follow up with.
So, really, the only time we’re talking with Keith is when we’re in a meeting with him, more or less. Occasionally I’ll email him about something. That ensures that we’re getting great service as clients, because she’s super responsive to us, and it keeps him in a position of doing the thing only he can do, which is providing financial advice and strategy, which he’s excellent at. It has been a great illustration of this very thing.
Michael: Good example.
Larry: So, step one in creating your personal communication strategy: determine who will have access to you. Step two: automate, automate, automate.
Michael: I’m a total geek on this. I think everyone knows I’m big on automation. A lot of the people in Michael Hyatt & Company are big on automation. Megan, I’m not so sure, but everybody else loves it. This is one of the easiest places to leverage automation. I go into much more detail in No-Fail Communication, my new book, but here are some basic tips.
First of all, create email rules to direct messages by sender and subject. For example, all messages from those with high access stay in my inbox. Messages from others are directed to an assistant. Subscriptions, newsletters, and things like that are directed to a “Read later” file, and I use an application called Unroll.Me to manage all subscription emails. It kind of intercepts those and gives me a digest of them. The magic here is that you’re keeping things out of your inbox that are low priority. They’re still going to be handled properly, but you don’t even see them.
Megan: Here are a couple more automation tips. For example, Dad, this is one of your most favorite strategies: use email templates to respond faster to routine requests. Talk about how you use these.
Michael: Years ago, I noticed I kind of had a finite universe of requests that were coming in to me. You know, people wanted to sit down and pick my brain or people wanted me to consider serving on their board or people wanted me to review a book proposal, or whatever it was. I began to identify that there were 40 or 50 routine requests I got, and I found that sometimes I would respond with something really thoughtful. Sometimes I maybe was short on time and would give something not-so-thoughtful. Sometimes I would just be irritated and maybe even express that in my email.
So I thought, “Okay. For the sake of quality control and for speed, each time I respond to one of these requests, I’m going to act like I have all the time in the world and really respond thoughtfully but then save it as an email template so the next time I have to respond to this same request or a similar request, I’ll just pull up that template, personalize it a little bit, and Bam! So I can respond in like five seconds instead of taking five minutes or ten minutes to write that email and reinvent the wheel again.”
Initially, I would save these templates as email signatures. You can use a signature aspect of your email program to save not just your name and address and title and all the usual stuff but entire paragraphs, entire messages. Then, of course, we got more sophisticated. For example, TextExpander is an application that allows you to use snippets of text and type a few words or maybe a few letters and get an entire boilerplate of text. Now I use Spark email, which has a template function, so I can save my templates right in there.
Megan: The cool thing about that is this is a really good solution, especially if you don’t have an assistant. If you don’t have someone who can respond on your behalf to things, this is almost like having an assistant, because you’re able to process all of these things without having to write original copy for each one.
Another thing is you can create a workflow to have an assistant screen and respond to messages. For example, “If this happens, then forward it to my attention.” So, you create some criteria that you want to be the person to answer those messages. “On the other hand, if that happens, then respond on my behalf.” This has been really useful for me.
One of the places I’ve gotten really bogged down with email is personal email from my kids’ school. I have five kids. We’re getting a barrage of email all the time. It’s very inefficient communication, and usually buried in these emails is something we have to do, like something for a party or a special assignment or something they need to bring to school.
With five kids and a business and all of the things, it’s really easy to miss those, and then they show up and they’re the only kid not in the costume or the only kid who didn’t bring something to the party, or whatever. So, this is a great way that Jamie, my assistant, helps me. She goes through all of those emails and pulls out whatever the action items are and then coordinates and makes sure those happen for me so I don’t have to worry about it. Otherwise, I was just missing stuff left and right. So that’s a great one.
Another thing you can do for automation is to let all but calls from high-access teammates and family go to voicemail. Can you raise your virtual hand if you just hate the phone? Don’t you just hate having to deal with answering the phone? This is really, really helpful. Dad, you’ve taken this to the next level and used Google Voice to do something pretty creative. Do you want to talk about that briefly?
Michael: Yeah. I basically have two cell phone numbers. There’s the cell phone number my direct reports and my family and my very best friends have but nobody else has. Then there’s my public number, which is a Google Voice number, which, by the way, is free. So then inside of Google, what I’ve done is set up my voicemail preferences so it never rings on my phone. (You can set it up to ring on your phone if you want, and nobody knows the difference.)
I always have it set up to go automatically to voicemail, to transcribe the message, and then to send it to my public email account where Jim, my assistant, picks it up, and then he handles it. If I need to deal with it, fine. Then he’ll move it to my inbox so I have to deal with it, but 99 times out of 100, it’s something he can deal with because it’s somebody who doesn’t have that close access to me. It saves so much time.
Larry: So, step two in creating your personal communication strategy: automate, automate, automate. Let’s talk about step three: communicate asynchronously.
Michael: Don’t you just like to say that word?
Larry: I love that word.
Megan: You just feel so smart when you say it.
Michael: I know. Well, here’s what it means, and it’s pretty simple: take your communications offline. In synchronous communications, message and response happen at the same time. This would be like text messaging.
Megan: The worst.
Michael: Somebody sends you a text message and you automatically respond. By the way, if you have that Google Voice number and people decide to text you, you’re not going to get that either. That can also be fed right into your email so your assistant can pick it up or you can pick it up when it’s more convenient. Again, synchronous communication would be like a phone call, like text messaging. Asynchronous communication is like snail mail or email if you choose to have it asynchronous.
I value responsiveness, so at first, I tried to give every message a same-day reply. In fact, I kind of prided myself on giving an instant reply, but honestly, that quickly became exhausting. It’s also unnecessary, and in fact, it trains people to expect an immediate response. So I’ve learned to take my communication offline and, as a general rule, communicate asynchronously whenever possible. Let there be a lag time and only check email a couple of times a day.
Megan: The good thing about this is that asynchronous communication actually takes less time. You can schedule your response times maybe two or three times a day for most people. I like to do this as a part of my workday startup and shutdown rituals, which is one of the things we talk about, Dad, in your book Free to Focus and also a concept that is heavily integrated into the Full Focus Planner.
You can also quickly delegate the response to someone else. Sometimes when I get a voicemail or even an email, I’ll just forward that right on to my assistant Jamie. She can take care of that. This is a great thing to do with voicemail, like doctor’s appointments, or something like that, where I don’t need to call back to confirm an appointment. She can do that for me. I can just use that little forward feature that’s in your voicemail.
You can also offer a brief response or just delay responding without seeming rude. Sometimes we forget we’re actually saving people time when we’re responding without a lot of fanfare and extra words. It just makes it easier for the other person on the other side as well. Many leaders haven’t yet figured out that this is possible. You don’t have to respond to a text message as soon as you get it, although I have to say, I hope someday they figure out a way to leave it unread so it has a little green dot next to it even after you’ve looked at it. I would love for that to be true.
You shouldn’t have to have your notifications turned on on your social media. In fact, we strongly encourage you to turn your notifications off on as many things as possible. The truth is that very few emails require a quick reply. In fact, one of the things we have set at Michael Hyatt & Company is that if you need an urgent response from someone or if it’s an emergency, you need to text during the daytime, or if it’s after hours you need to call, because we don’t want anybody feeling like they’re just watching their Slack or their email all the time. That’s not healthy.
Larry: So, that’s step three in creating your personal communication strategy: communicate asynchronously. Now we come to our fourth and final step: set expectations according to your schedule and preferences.
Michael: There are other strategic choices besides deciding who has access. One of the things you need to decide is what’s going to be your standard response time to various kinds of messages. For example, email. Twenty-four hours? Forty-eight hours? A week? What’s the proper time? By the way, whatever you respond, if you set the expectation on the front end, usually people can live with it.
For Slack, maybe two hours or maybe twice a day. For other contacts, define a standard for you and the team. By the way, when you respond instantly…again, I just want to emphasize…you’re setting a standard there whether you know it or not, and if for some reason you can’t meet that standard, like you’re in a meeting, then people naturally think, “Well, what’s wrong? He normally gets right back to me.”
Then, how often will you communicate? Again, I do email twice a day. I’m often on Slack more often but at specific times. The key is to define this for yourself and let others know, because email is not the only thing you’re doing. You’re probably not getting paid to do that unless you’re in customer service. You need that time for deep work, time for focused work, and the only way you’re going to do that is to segment your day and sequester these response times to specific times that you’re going to respond.
Megan: Dad, you were talking about that whatever you do becomes the default expectation for people. I think it also becomes the default expectation your direct reports assume you have of them. If you’re not aware of that, you’ll unintentionally create a standard where if you respond to the text or emails or Slack messages from your direct reports within 10 minutes, say, every time they come in, they’re going to think that’s what you want them to do, and then you create this whole vicious cycle when maybe you just did it because it was convenient, or whatever.
So be intentional, because if you’re a leader, whatever you do, your behavior will become the default standard for your team. So watch that carefully. The truth is that any answers here are okay, but you need to communicate your expectations. Tell your team when you generally check your inboxes so they know when to expect a response. Again, especially if you’re a leader, you can really hold people up if they are waiting for an answer from you. If they know they’re going to get an answer at some reasonable period, then they can wait, but you can make people anxious if they don’t know what your expectations are or what they can expect.
Set team-wide expectations for response times to email, phone, and Slack. If you respond to email only once a day, you can use an autoresponder. In your voicemail greeting, you can define how long you take to respond. For example, I usually ask people to text me because I hate voicemail. Use the status feature in Slack to show when you’re in a meeting or on vacation, and always use an “out of office” message on your email when you’re gone. There’s nothing worse than sending an email or a message into a black hole. We’ve all been there.
Michael: So true. By the way, the more messages you send, the more you get. Every message is an opportunity for further contact. The kinds of messages I hate the worst are the ones where somebody just writes back one word “Thanks.” It just keeps going. A simple question can start a discussion, maybe even a meeting. Sometimes one polite “Thank you” can trigger a string of responses: “My pleasure,” “Much appreciated,” etcetera. That’s all fine, but it may simply add to the overwhelm.
I’m not name-dropping, I promise, but one of the people I’ve communicated with from time to time is Seth Godin. Seth is kind of known for these simple one- or two-word responses. He’s not really chatty. He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t even capitalize. It’s all lowercase, but it’s very efficient. I’ve never quite brought myself to do that, but I’ve always admired it.
Larry: That’s funny, Michael, because I was talking to Seth the other day, and he said, “I’m not name-dropping, I promise, but I got an email from Michael Hyatt the other day.”
Michael: “And it was just a little too chatty.”
Larry: Today we’ve learned that every leader can get out of email jail by creating a personal communication strategy in these four steps:
- Determine who will have access to you.
- Automate, automate, automate.
- Communicate asynchronously.
- Set expectations according to your schedule and your preferences.
If you’ve listened to this whole episode, you’re probably someone who needs a little help getting out of email jail. I know a lot of you will let those four steps stay right there, and I want to offer you another resource to get control of your communication problem. Michael’s new book No-Fail Communication: 13 Workplace Communication Problems and How to Fix Them is out now. I promise you there is practical, actionable advice in there on so many of the communication dilemmas you’re facing in your work right now.
It’s out right now and available at nofailcommunication.com, and it includes these free resources in the Key Communication Template Pack: Project Vision Caster, which is great for delegation; the Hard Conversation Template; the Recommendation Briefing Form; and the Note-Taking Template for meetings. Again, all that at nofailcommunication.com. Megan, Michael, what are your final thoughts today?
Megan: Well, if you’re somebody like me who has struggled with email over the years and who may not be at the level of geekery as my dad is or maybe you, Larry, I think the strategies we shared today are really practical. They’re also something anybody can use. You don’t have to have a lot of tech savvy or anything else to do these.
This is really a question of stewardship, though. As leaders or aspiring leaders, we want to be spending our time on the most high-leverage activities possible. We don’t want our focus to be fragmented. We don’t want to be distracted all the time. We don’t want to be interrupted all the time. Getting out of email jail is just one way we can be freed up for more important and more high-leverage investments of our time and energy.
Michael: I would say, as a leader, you always have two tasks when you’re trying to solve a problem. Email overwhelm is one. You’re always trying to solve the immediate problem, which is “How can I get caught up and get my inbox to zero?” but then there’s the bigger problem. This is where I would urge people to think about “How can I take a systems approach to this and adopt strategies or systems and be smarter about the way I manage this so I don’t have to keep dealing with email overwhelm and so I can give that a death blow once and for all?”
That’s really what we’ve outlined here today, but we’ve only scratched the surface on this topic. Larry is right. Not to pitch the book, but the book goes into more detail: No-Fail Communication. You can pick it up at that same URL at nofailcommunication.com.
Larry: Well, Michael and Megan, thank you so much. Very, very helpful, practical information here today.
Megan: Thanks, Larry.
Michael: Yeah, thanks, Larry. Thank you, Megan. Thank you, guys, for joining us. We’ll see you right here next week, but until then, lead to win.