Transform Your Bad Email Habits

Juliet Starrett shares how to become an email pro.

Before I became the CEO of San Francisco CrossFit and MobilityWOD.com, I was a practicing attorney at Reed Smith LLP, rated one of the top 20 law firms in the world. There, I learned many important lessons that I now apply in my businesses. One in particular stands out: the importance of responsiveness. When Reed Smith polled clients about what was important to them in a law firm, their universal first response was “responsiveness.” What people care about — whether involved in a complex contract or running a gym — is communication.

In 10 years of owning and operating a CrossFit gym, I’ve learned that clients will work through weird or poorly developed workouts without complaint and they will even tolerate less than a perfectly clean gym. But what they won’t tolerate is being ignored. A CrossFit client often takes an unanswered email or call personally. No response, or a lukewarm response, can send them packing.

The question then becomes: How can you get organized so you can be properly responsive to your clients? Because emails are the primary means of communication at our gym, that’s where I’ll focus my attention.

I could easily be stuck 10 hours a day, five days a week glued to my email inbox. Between San Francisco CrossFit and MobilityWOD, I estimate I get in the neighborhood of 500 emails a day. Now that my businesses have grown and evolved, I have several people who help me respond to all of those emails. Still, I am bombarded by a huge amount. Although I find all this communication tedious at times, I never forget that I have chosen to be in a client-service industry and communication is critical. I’ve set up effective systems so that email no longer rules my days.

If you are a CrossFit gym or small business owner who has difficulty responding to emails in a timely fashion, you are not necessarily too busy or genetically dis-organized. You have developed a bad habit, and habits can be changed. I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (which I recommend) and he summed up the key lesson from the book here: “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them … Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work.”

If you are ready to go to work and change your bad email habits — and to recognize the critical importance of being responsive — you are ready to get started. First, if you have more than a single page of email in your email account it’s time to start all over again. Begin by archiving all of the emails beyond that first page, or about 25 of the most recent. Let’s be honest, once an email falls below that first page, there is no way you are ever going to remember it, find it and respond. Start over.

After you archive all of the thousands of emails in your inbox, block out two hours on your calendar to set up a functional and efficient email system. The goal here is to cut down on email clutter, so you can get to the business of responding to important emails. Here’s how:

  1. Create Filters — I use Gmail and it does an excellent job pulling out a lot of spam. But, I still set up filters, and I think they are critical. For example, every time a San Francisco CrossFit member signs an electronic waiver, I get an email attaching the waiver. It’s not an email I need to respond to, but it is an email I need to save, so I set up a filter that sends those emails automatically into my Waiver folder. Here’s a tutorial on setting up filters in Gmail: https://support.google.com/mail/answer/6579?hl=en
  2. Pre-Empt and Re-Direct Emails  — It is a massive time saver to stop emails that are not for you from ever even getting to your inbox. If a client goes to the Contact Us page on MobilityWOD.com, they see a list of directions for their email. Membership questions should be sent to Dave, media requests to me, suggestions to Susan and so forth. We also direct people to our FAQ page in the hopes they can answer their question without need of sending an email. Check out http://www.mobilitywod.com/contact/ to see what I’m talking about.
  3. Set Up Folders — Once I respond to an email, I move it immediately into the appropriate folder. It should not stay in your inbox, because it is then clutter. I keep very few hard copy files so my email folders are essentially my business file cabinet. I keep and folder every critical email about insurance, legal issues, client feedback, facility issues, employees, gym events and many, many other categories. I save about 95 percent of my business-related email in folders. Create at least 10 folders based on your most common email themes and keep adding to them as necessary.
  4. Unsubscribe — Unsubscribe from emails you no longer want to receive, or unsolicited emails you never signed up to receive. There are several ways to do this: (1) create filters (see above) or (2) click on the unsubscribe link at the bottom of each unsolicited email. Because number two is tedious, you may want to consider using a cool new website called Unroll Me (www.unrollme.com) where, for a small fee, you can see a list of all your subscription emails and unsubscribe instantly from whatever you don’t want.
  5. Create A Dummy Email — I like to shop online and don’t want my business email to be cluttered with receipts and shipping notices. Accordingly, I set up a dummy email that I use when I create online accounts for shopping. I only check that email when I need to follow-up on a purchase. Otherwise, I never see those emails and they don’t clutter my inbox.
  6. Write Four or Five Email Templates — You probably have a handful of emails that you get over-and-over that require a response but that don’t need to be written from scratch each time. Write and save several standard email responses to those emails and save them in an easily accessible place. It takes 15 seconds to copy and paste an email and add a personalized salutation. It’s a big time-saver.

Now that you’ve set up an actual functional email system, here’s how to manage your email day-to-day:

  1. Calendar Time to Process Email: Set aside two to three hours a day to respond to and process email. Actually enter it on your calendar as a recurring entry. There are many bloggers out there who recommend only responding to email once a day, but if you are in the client service business, that’s not going to be enough time and won’t allow you to be properly responsive to clients. I’d recommend doing this during business hours (when most of your clients are online) at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  2. DELETE! My absolute first step every time I open my inbox is to delete spam and emails that don’t require a response. Despite my efforts to pre-empt, re-direct, unsubscribe and filter, a fair number of these emails are in my queue each and every time I open my inbox. I don’t respond to a single email until I have de-cluttered my email. It took me a long time to be okay with deleting emails that were directed to me but were non-essential. But now I delete them without a second thought. They clutter my inbox and make it difficult to view and respond to critical emails.
  3. Treat Your Inbox Like a To-Do List: Your goal should be Inbox Zero. The only emails still sitting in my inbox after an email processing session are ones that require a response but are not time-sensitive — they are my to-do list. A realistic to-do list can never be more than 25 emails long (or one page) so process your email until you get to fewer than that number. The goal is Inbox Zero, which means you have nothing on your to-do list.
  4. Be Professional – It may be the lawyer in me, but it really bothers me when people don’t include a simple salutation and a signature on emails and don’t write complete sentences. It’s unprofessional. I may be old-school, but a gym is a business and the rules of professionalism apply. Chances are, a lot of your clients are lawyers, doctors, investment bankers and other professionals accustomed to these considerations.
  5. Acknowledge Receipt: If you run out of time to meaningfully respond to an important email, send a one-sentence response acknowledging receipt of the email. This goes a long way in creating goodwill with your clients and staves off the dreaded feeling of being ignored.
  6. GET HELP! If you try all these strategies and are still buried with email, you need help. Hire someone! It took me way too long to realize that I couldn’t manage it all and only hired an office assistant after being in business for nearly seven years. It’s probably my greatest business regret. I should have hired help sooner. It would have saved me a lot of 11 p.m. email sessions.

Changing habits it not fast and is not always easy. But it can and must be done. Trust me, the rewards are great — more free time with your family, an end to feeling overwhelmed, fully experiencing the pride that comes with cultivating happy and loyal clients, and being a master of your own business.

Juliet Starrett

Juliet Starrett is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and MobilityWOD.com, an attorney, two-time extreme whitewater world champion, cancer survivor, winner of the Jefferson Award for public service, and proud wife and mom.

1 Comment

  1. brad Chase

    January 5, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Great Tips, especially “Treat Your Inbox Like a To-Do List”. I don’t know if my inbox has ever hit 0, so I need to get to work! Thanks Juliet.