Why Inbox Zero works and Tim Ferriss is wrong about email

by Peter Shallard

Why Inbox Zero works &Tim Ferris is wrong

Unshackling us from the idea that answering email equals “winning” is the best thing Tim Ferris ever did for the entrepreneurial community. However, it’s essential to remember that Tim Ferris is an author, which is a type of artist.

For artists, email is an obstacle. It’s a distraction between you and what Steve Pressfield calls “doing the work”. I couldn’t agree more.

Entrepreneurs don’t get to be so idealistic. You – as a business owner – are not a creative island. You need people to know about the work you’re doing. You need to communicate. You need email… hell, you probably need to send a few text messages!

This article isn’t really about Tim Ferris. It’s about ending the demonization of both a powerful communicative tool and the ENTIRE philosophy of communication itself!

The last thing I’ll say about Tim, is having turned into a angel investor himself, you can bet your last dollar that he needs the founders he’s invested in to communicate digitally. I would go so far as to say: They need email.

As an entrepreneur, “Inbox Zero” is a performance indicator for ME. Maybe it’s not for most people. That’s why this article comes with one helluva “your mileage may vary” warning.

Let me explain the post-modern evolution of Inbox Zero:

First up, it’s not just about email for email’s sake

Achieving a inbox zero implies efficiency of communication. Digital communication is a ping pong game and inbox zero means you’ve hit all the balls OUT of your court. It means you have a lot of communication – out there in the ether – making you front-of-mind for others.

Email received IS a function of email sent, but if you need people to have you on their radar a busy inbox can mean you ARE winning.

For me, this is important because opportunity comes from communication in general.

I receive a ton of inquiries that result in lucrative speaking opportunities, consulting gigs and client relationships. Every single of one of these opportunities is more likely to convert if a swift response is given. Believe me, I literally split tested this while building my Shrink for Entrepreneurs brand.

For my company Commit Action – which one could argue needs me to ignore email and focus on the “big picture stuff” – rapid responses to inquiries from the public (which I actively encourage) create sales and encourages serial-referring raving-fan customers.

A daily ritual of mine is to reach out – proactively – to someone in my network (or who I’d like to be) and help, share or connect positively in some way. Over the years I can trace back many of these points-of-contact to the biggest and most lucrative breakthroughs in business success I’ve had.

Responding to email inquiries creates sales. Reaching out to connect and help others sows the seeds of opportunity. This usually happens via email. Responses happen via email.

Is this infinitely scalable? No. But one of the smartest venture capitalists in the world advises founders to Do Things That Don’t Scale. It worked for AirBNB.

Second, email ain’t your only inbox no more

More and more, I’m “working” out of my iMessage window. Facebook messages is a powerful way to connect directly and powerfully to otherwise “unplugged” people. Slack has changed the game for my company, forever, and we’ll never go back.

Every single one of these platforms can be horrifically abused. You could easily use Facebook to alienate everyone you know and ruin your career. But in the right hands, even Instagram’s direct messages can get you an advantage in life and business.

My day-to-day communication workflow contains the following:

These all have to do with receiving and responding to communication, critical reminders and storing information. Keeping these apps organized and striving for that “zero” feeling keeps communication, opportunity, deals, sales, delegation and even ideas flowing.

And please note: This is not my ALL-DAY workflow. I don’t spend 8 hours plugged into these apps spamming the world. That’s not the idea at all.

It’s also worth mentioning that all the new messaging platforms can reduce email to the most mission critical messages only, if used correctly.

Slack is powerful because it took internal company communication out of my inbox directly. Now Slack feeds straight into my task list as needed, while simultaneously making our team tighter and more efficient than ever. After Slack, the only emails I receive are from outsiders – which means every email is even more valuable as an opportunity to connect, delight and create a life long fan.

Every communication with the outside world – email or otherwise – is an opportunity to activate a powerful sleeper cell: To turn an acquaintance into an active collaborator for your success, and you theirs.

Using Evernote as an archiving tool is the biggest breakthrough of all. Most people store things “for later” in their inbox or email folders. This kills inbox zero.

I have zero folders. I delete or respond to every email and when I respond I hit the “Send and Archive” button every time. I copy paste critical info into Evernote. Wholesale storage of emails for later is fundamentally incompatible with Zero Inbox.

You can still be judicious about deleting emails too. I am. Email me an unsolicited pitch and I’ll delete it and never respond. Why? Because fuck you! Life is too short, and I believe in Zero Inbox. I’m not going to lose any sleep over not responding to communication – of any form – that betrays a total lack of curiosity, generosity or business intelligence from the sender. Zero Inbox doesn’t entitle every idiot to a slice of your time.

The point: Having your cake and eating it too

Using the tactics I’ve touched on, it’s possible to receive and response – as I do – to hundreds of emails a day while still achieving inbox zero several times a week. What’s more, you can forge a terrific advantage for yourself in life and business by adding value for hundreds more people than the next guy by using these communication tools.

It’s possible to touch an enormous number of people in powerful ways. You can build a powerful network of advocates, supports and outright friends (really!) by simply being a generous communicator.

Further, you can be a powerful and rapid clearing-house… delegating high leverage items to your team, getting an enormous amount done as a leader. This is something the full time artists, alone in their creative cave, will never understand. More power to them, but if you’re building something that scales remember this: Delegation is communication too! And it has an inbox.

What’s MORE, you will still have time for creative pursuits. You will still have time to get into a flow-state on the big, important projects that require 100% focus:

Writing blog posts. Working on your code. White boarding out that new product idea. Whatever “work” you really need to do. There’s time for it ALL, and you’re better at it than ever because you have the clear head of an entrepreneur with zero items in ANY inbox.

And when you’re done with that, you can really enjoy your weekends too – and really connect with the family and friends who matter – because you actually get to escape that underlying sense of guilt that you’re somehow letting down all those people. Side note: My mum emails me all the time and I love it.

Maybe email isn’t evil or even broken. Maybe most people are just doing it wrong.

Digital communication is here to stay and will continue to be used by smart people to get ahead. Anyone who says otherwise is on the wrong side of history.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Daar February 29, 2016 at 1:25 pm

While the overall goal is to attract leads, inquiries, and opportunities to my business, there is a list of companies I would love to serve whom I do not have a connection to as of yet.

Any thoughts/advice on unsolicited emails to them?

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Peter Shallard February 29, 2016 at 5:37 pm

Hey Steve,

I think unsolicited emails without a prior connection, in general, are a pretty bad idea. The best way to create a relationship is to create a virtuous cycle of generosity and trust… but you need PERMISSION to get started.

That’s why content marketing is a great idea. Case in point, if I sent you a private email right now (that was generous in some genuine way) – which I’ve never ever done before – you would have a positive response to it because we connected here through this content.

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Sarah Arrow February 29, 2016 at 1:43 pm

A fab read as always Peter. I reached Zero Inbox yesterday. I archived 10k of unread emails. If I hadn’t read them by now, I’m never going to read them. And although it’s tempting to do a James Altucher and respond to the odd one or two 9 years later, I just don’t think email is serving my needs well.

If I recall correctly Mr F didn’t email anyone on his growing list for some time. His communication, like all of ours, has changed.

I think your line “Maybe email isn’t evil or even broken. Maybe most people are just doing it wrong” nails it. Email is used wrongly by so many of us, that we’re trapped in a perpetual cycle of ignoring and responding only when it suits us. A good assistant or excellent inbox management would bring a heap of new conversations and opportunities.

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Peter Shallard February 29, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Thanks Sarah! Congratulations too 🙂

Declaring “email bankruptcy” is a good way to get started. I’ve only done it once or twice in the last decade. Thanks for sharing!

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Danielle Scott February 29, 2016 at 4:06 pm

True, true, true! I view fast response to email (and clearing the duds) as a super important part of building the community which enjoys my newsletter and then has a level of knowledge and trust which prompts them to purchase my products. As well, messaging and email is personal, which many people, especially older generations, appreciate and prefer.

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Peter Shallard February 29, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Right on Danielle!

The truth is that it’s not just “old people”. Direct, private digital communication is ALWAYS going to be essential for people serious about doing serious business. It literally cannot be any other way.

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Brent Lowe February 29, 2016 at 9:08 pm

Great article Peter! The most valuable email lesson you’ve taught me is to turn off notifications and use email on my terms. It’s been a life changer. I’m a zero in-box guy now and, thanks to you, I do it on my terms. Thanks for the tips and reminders.

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Peter Shallard March 1, 2016 at 11:24 am

Thanks Brent! Rock on!

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Kathryn Atkins March 1, 2016 at 11:45 am

Hey Peter! Thanks for alerting me to this provocative analysis. Calling Tim Ferris wrong was a brilliant hook, but seriously invited me to read your article, which is a boon to all of us creative “solopreneurs.” It is way too easy to make email THE ACTIVITY of the day.

One of my favorite lines: “Delegation is communication too! And it has an inbox.”

Kudos and thanks! 🙂

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Peter Shallard March 2, 2016 at 9:00 am

Thanks Kathryn! Glad you dig this piece 🙂

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Anna Saldi March 2, 2016 at 11:56 pm

I really enjoyed reading this post, you’ve done an excellent way of showing that nothing is black and white, and that email can still be a powerful tool if used properly. And, like Kathryn said, nice hook 🙂

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A.D. March 16, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Great post. Email is so powerful nowadays. You just have to be able to separate yourself from every other email marketing campaign. That’s the trick!

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