Jobs and the Future of Work

The email habits of successful people

Rachel Gillett
Careers reporter, Business Insider
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This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider

When you receive almost 150 work emails every day, your inbox can quickly become the bane of your existence.

That suffering increases exponentially when you’re the leader of a company.

So how do top executives like Bill Gates and Tim Cook manage their overwhelming inbox flux?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos forwards pressing emails with one added character.

When a customer emails Bezos to complainabout something Amazon-related, which they can easily do, Bezos often forwards the message to the appropriate person at the company, adding just one character: “?”

“When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark email, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb,”Businessweek reported in 2013. “They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself.”

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner sends less email.

The golden rule for email management, according to Weiner, is, if you want less email, send less email.

He writes on LinkedIn that the rule occurred to him at a previous company when, after two email-happy colleagues left the company, his inbox traffic decreased by almost 30%.

“Turns out, it wasn’t just their emails that were generating all of that inbox activity — it was my responses to their emails, the responses of the people who were added to those threads, the responses of the people those people subsequently copied, and so on,” Weiner writes.

He continues: “After recognizing this dynamic, I decided to conduct an experiment where I wouldn’t write an email unless absolutely necessary. End result: Materially fewer emails and a far more navigable inbox. I’ve tried to stick to the same rule ever since.”

Birchbox cofounder Katia Beauchamp makes employees include a response deadline.

The beauty-sample subscription service CEO told Lifehacker that insisting people on the team indicate when they need a response in all emails is one of her best time-saving tricks.

“It makes prioritization so much faster,” she said.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh employs a full-time team of email ninjas.

In a fascinating Quora thread about CEO email habits, Michael Chen, a responder who once met Hsieh, wrote that the Zappos CEO told him he had a team of four or five full-time email handlers.

“Fun fact, I think their official titles are Email Ninja,” Chen said.

Loews executive Jonathan M. Tisch never starts an email with “I.”

“My boss told me that whenever you’re writing a letter — and now it applies to emails today — never start a paragraph with the word ‘I,’ because that immediately sends a message that you are more important than the person that you’re communicating with,” Tisch told The New York Times’ Adam Bryant.

He says that having to think about how to start a sentence without “I” helps you become a better writer and teaches you how to really think through an issue.

Apple CEO Tim Cook reads most of his 700-plus emails./AP

The CEO who wakes up at 3:45 a.m. each day said during an interview with ABC that he receives somewhere between 700 and 800 emails a day:

And I read the majority of those … Every day, every day. I’m a workaholic.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is blessed with too few emails to stress about inbox zero.

Gates told “Today” in 2013 that he only received between 40 and 50 emails a day.

“So you process some, and get back to others at night. You make sure if you put something off you get back to it later,” he explained.

Huffington Post cofounder Arianna Huffington has three email no-nos.

Huffington has three simple rules for email:

  1. No emails for half an hour before bed.
  2. No rushing to emails as soon as she wakes.
  3. No emails while she is with her children.

“The last time my mother got angry with me before she died was when she saw me reading my email and talking to my children at the same time,” Huffington wrote in her book, “Thrive.” “[B]eing connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us — including ourselves.”

Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson has a system for remembering contacts.

The online marketplace CEO told Fast Company that you need to have a system for everything, no matter what it is.

For example, whenever he meets someone new and adds their contact information to his address book, he includes a note about when they met and what they discussed. That way, whenever he emails someone, he can directly reference their meeting before he moves on.

Hint Water founder and CEO Kara Goldin wakes up early to check email.

Goldin considers her morning a critical part of her day and devotes the wee hours of the morning to checking her email and schedule.

She says she heads straight to her inbox at 5:30 a.m. because “doing this gives me a clear understanding of what the next 12 hours are going to look like and what my priorities are once I get to the office.”

Hootsuite CEO and founder Ryan Holmes goes for email broke.

When overwhelmed with his inbox, Holmes likes to “declare inbox bankruptcy” and delete everything so he can start fresh.

He recommends only doing this once every few years, and practitioners should add a disclaimer message to their email signature after deleting unread mails. Something like, “Sorry if I didn’t get back to your last email. To become a better communicator in 2015, I’ve recently declared email bankruptcy,” he advises.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt responds quickly to every email.

In his book “How Google Works,” the former Google CEO wrote, “Most of the best — and busiest — people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone.”

Even if the answer is a simple “got it,” Schmidt says being responsive establishes a positive communication loop and a culture focused on merit.

Zuckerberg Media founder and CEO Randi Zuckerberg puts email on hold.

Zuckerberg tells Marie Claire that she has two important rules when it comes to email:

  1. She waits at least 20 minutes after she’s woken up before she checks it.
  2. She holds off on sending emails when she knows she’s feeling overly emotional.

“You’ll likely breathe a sigh of relief that you didn’t send it once you’ve read it again,” she says.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Rachel Gillett is a careers reporter at Business Insider.

Image: A woman’s hands are pictured as she types on her laptop. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash. 

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