The Holy Grail: How to Outsource the Inbox and Never Check Email Again 144 Comments
What if you never had to check e-mail again?
If you could hire someone else to be spend countless hours in your inbox instead of you?
This isn’t pure fantasy. For the last 12 months, I’ve experimented with removing myself from the inbox entirely by training other people to behave like me. Not to imitate me, but to think like me.
Here’s the upshot: I get more than 1,000 e-mail a day from various accounts. Rather than spending 6-8 hours per day checking e-mail, which I used to do, I can skip reading e-mail altogether for days or even weeks at a time… all with 4-10 minutes a night…
Let me explain the basics, followed by tips and exact templates for outsourcing your own inbox:
1) I have multiple e-mail addresses for specific types of e-mail (blog readers vs. media vs. friends/family, etc.). tim@… is the default I give to new acquaintances, which goes to my assistant.
2) 99% of e-mail falls into predetermined categories of inquiries with set questions or responses (my “rules” document is at the bottom of this post — feel free to steal, adapt, and use). My assistant(s) checks and clears the inbox at 11am and 3pm PST.
3) For the 1% of e-mail that might require my input for next actions, I have a once-daily phone call of 4-10 minutes at 4pm PST with my assistant.
4) If I’m busy or traveling abroad, my assistant leaves the action items in numerical order on my voicemail, to which I can respond to in a bullet-point email. These days, I actually prefer the voicemail option and find that it forces my assistant to be more prepared and more concise.
Each night (or early the next morning), I’ll listen to my assistant’s voicemail via Skype and simultaneously write out the next actions (1. Bob: tell him that…. 2. Jose in Peru: ask him for… 3. Speaking in NC: confirm…., etc.) in a Skype chat or quick e-mail. How long does the new system take? 4-10 minutes instead of 6-8 hours of filtering and repetitive responses.
If you only have one e-mail account, I recommend using a desktop program like Outlook or Mail instead of a web-based program like Gmail for a simple reason: if you see new items in your inbox, you’ll check them. Like they say in AA: if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery. This is why I have a private personal account that I use for sending e-mail to my assistant and communicating with friends. It’s almost always empty.
E-mail is the last thing people let go of. Fortune 500 CEOs, bestselling authors, celebrities — I know dozens of top performers who delegate everything but e-mail, which they latch onto as something only they can do. “No one can check my e-mail for me” is the unquestioned assumption, or “I answer every email I receive” is the unquestioned bragging right that keeps them in front of a computer for 8-12 hours at a stretch. It’s not fun, and it keeps them from higher-impact or more rewarding activities.
Get over yourself. Checking e-mail isn’t some amazing skill that you alone possess.
In fact, checking email is like everything else: a process. How you evaluate and handle (delete vs. archive vs. forward vs. respond) e-mail is just a series of questions you ask yourself, whether consciously or subconsciously. I have a document called “Tim Ferriss Processing Rules,” to which my assistants add rules when I send them via e-mail with “ADD TO RULES” in the subject. Over the course of a week or two with a virtual assistant (VA), you will end up with an externalized set of rules that reflect how your brain processes email. It often shows you how haphazard your processing is. I’ve included my “rules” at the bottom of this post to save you some time.
A few tips:
1. Setting appointments and meetings takes a lot of time. Have you assistant set things up for you in Google Calendar. I use input my own items via my Palm Z22 or iCal, then use Spanning Sync and Missing Sync for Palm OS to sync everything. On my uberlight Sony VAIO, which I still use for travel, I use CompanionLink for Google Calendar. I suggest batching meetings or calls in one or two set days, with 15 minutes between appointments. Scattering them throughout the week at odd times just interrupts everything else.
2. If you jump in your assistant’s inbox and answer anything, BCC them (probably your own address) so they are aware that you handled it.
3. Expect small problems. Life is full of compromises, and it’s necessary to let small bad things happen if you want to get huge good things done. There is no escape. Prevent all problems and get nothing done, or accept an allowable level of small problems and focus on the big things. I highly recommend reading my short article on “The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen” before outsourcing your e-mail.
Ready to jump in and test the holy grail? Here are the steps:
1. Determine exactly which accounts you will use and how you want them to respond to (or just categorize or purge) email for you
2. Find a virtual assistant. See “The Personal Outsourcing Olympics: Bangalore Butler or American Assistant?” and “Extreme Personal Outsourcing” for tips and providers.
3. Test for reliability before skill-set. Have the top three candidates do something on tight deadline (24 hours) before hiring them and letting them in your inbox.
4. Use a probationary period of 2-4 weeks to test the waters and work out the problems. Again: there will be problems. It will take a good 3-8 weeks to get to real smooth sailing.
5. Design your ideal lifestyle and find something to do other than let your brain fester in the inbox. Fill the void.
TIM FERRISS PROCESSING RULES
[Note the Q&A format -- some of the questions are my standard points for VAs, some have been added by my assistant, who put together this document.]
Google G-mail Account:
Reader Only Resources:
http://fourhourworkweek.com/wms/members/members.php >> PASSWORD FOR READERS ONLY IS: XXXX
[I often have exec-level assistants manage 4-5 other "sub-VAs" who handle certain repetitive tasks, often at half the exec VA's hourly rate. The exec VA takes on an office manager or, in some cases, COO-level function.]
- Download: www.alexa.com – Toolbar
- Learn Statistics, Rank for Business Prospect and JV Opportunities
- Deadlines are extremely important. Be Aware of them, and Be Punctual!
- If Tim says “Call me back”. CALL HIM BACK, do not send an e-mail. This is an important point; as Tim has lost thousands of dollars because someone e-mailed him instead of calling him and he does not always have e-mail access because he is traveling a lot.
[See this post to understand why I practice this inaccessibility regardless]
- Even if it is late in the evening, he is up late, if he does not want to answer his phone, he will not. But PLEASE call him back when he asks you to. He much prefers a phone call instead of an e-mail.
- Purchase and read “The Elements of Style” regarding proper grammar and punctuation. We are dealing with high-profile clients on Tim’s behalf and the proper writing techniques and message says a lot about his team.
- Become as familiar as you can with his book and his website as to answer questions accordingly.
Tim Cell (your use only): [private cell]
Number to give others: [Grand Central number]
Billing ADDRESS (Private)
ASK [Head VA], for his AMEX NUMBER, SHE WILL ADVISE WHETHER PURCHASES CAN BE APPROVED.
QUESTION & ANSWER (Preferences):
(1) How do you feel about Joint Ventures?
I’m open to them, but my brand and respectability is #1. I will not do anything with anyone who comes off as deceptive or amateur. “Make millions while you sleep in our super-insane foreclosure program!” on the website disqualifies someone. I cannot be associated with anyone who might be seen as a liar or snake-oil salesman. Just ask yourself: if the CEO of a well-known company saw this, would he lose interest in speaking with me? If so, it won’t work.
For those who pass that criteria, what have they done already? I’m not looking for first-timers, generally, unless they have an excellent track record and reputation elsewhere.
(2) Do you focus solely on Profit Generating Tasks (I can explain further on the call)
No. I also look for prestige (Harvard, government, etc.), wide exposure, as well as building networks with people who have world-class skills in some area.
(3) How do you handle spam?
SpamArrest and Gmail. I have no problem with spam at this point.
(4) What is your optimal response rate? (i.e. respond to all e-mails no later than 48-72 hours after received)
Same day. I’m bringing you on to respond quickly.
(5) Do you respond to any e-mails?
Yes, plenty, but I’ll want you to filter them first, respond to all you can, then mark the ones I should look at with the label “TIM” in Gmail
[Note earlier in this article how I’m using now having VAs leave to-do’s via voicemail]
(6) Do you put in any events in your calendar?
Yes, but I expect I will move more and more to having you do it.
[I use a Palm Z22 without Internet connectivity to add events to my calendar, which are then syched to iCal on my Mac with Missing Sync for Palm OS. iCal is syched with Gmail calendar, which my assistant uses to manage my calendar, with Spanning Sync. See links earlier in this post]
(7) Do we “manage” your items, or do you delegate? We are cool with both, but prefer to manage.
I’ll try and give the list to you to take care of. I NEED confirmations that you received the task (“on it — will be done at Xpm” is enough) and like status updates on larger projects with milestones.
(8) Who is on your team?
Me, the publishing team, and some PR folk at this point. I might have you get involved with my other businesses later, but that’s it for now.
(9) Who do we have to collaborate with on a regular basis?
See above. 90% me, then possibly my publicist(s), tech support and web staff, and my book agent. More will come, I’m sure, but that’s it for now.
(10) Who calls the shots for you?
You can decide anything under $100. Use your judgment and report the decisions.
(11) Do you have ‘days’ off (as in no business appts.)?
Let’s shoot for no appointments on Fridays, but let’s play it by ear.
(12) Who has been handling your appts. up until now?
Me. I haven’t had any in-person meetings for close to four years. Things have changed with the book
(13) Explain to us your ‘optimal’ work week? (i.e. how long between phone calls, how many meetings per week, travel preferences, etc.)
-I go to bed late, so try and avoid calls before 10am PST when possible.
-Try and “cluster” phone calls and meetings so that I can bang them out at the same time, as opposed to having on at 10am, another at 1pm, and another at 4pm. Have them all in a row with 15-20 minutes in between whenever possible. I’d like to do phone calls before 1pm PST when possible (so 10am-1pm). Calls should be kept 15-30 minutes, always with a defined end time. If someone asks to “jump on the phone” with me, send them something like: “To make the best use of every one’s time, Tim likes to have a well-defined agenda with objectives for a call before jumping on the phone. Can you please send over some bullet points with what you’d like to cover and decide on the call?” Something like that.
(14) Do you like us to schedule personal items in with your business calendar? (i.e. order your mother flowers for mother’s day, etc.).
(15) What are ‘all’ the e-mail addresses we respond to for you?
(16) Do you like us to respond as ‘you’ or something like ‘client support for Timothy Ferriss’.
The latter, probably something like “Executive Assistant to Tim Ferriss” below your name — I’m open to suggestions.
(17) How many times a day do you want e-mail checked?
Twice should be fine to start. Let’s aim for minimum of at 11am and 3pm in your timezone.
(18) What are your working hours?
10am – 6pm PST, then often 11pm – 2am PST
[Before you cry, "What happened to the four-hour workweek?!", realize that "work hours" here could be replaced with "active and available-by-phone hours." I have lots of projects and do not preach idleness. I am VERY active. More on this in the 6th comment on this post.]
(19) Do you like using IM?
Not really, unless it’s a scheduled discussion. Just leave yourself logged in, and I’ll log in if I need something. [I tend to use Skype chat these days, as I can then avoid a separate IM program]
(20) Do you prefer a phone call or an e-mail to answer a quick question?
PHONE CALL, absolutely. DO NOT email me for anything urgent. I really follow my own advice and don’t check email that often.
(21) What is your favourite colour?
Green like cedar leaves in July.
(22) Call at the end of every day (if) there is something that Tim needs to respond to in his e-mail.
(23) E-books: tell them they can download the e-book from www.powells.com
(24) If Tim says “Call me back”. CALL HIM BACK, do not send an e-mail. This is an important point; as Tim has lost thousands of dollars because someone e-mailed him instead of calling him and he does not always have e-mail access because he is travelling a lot.
(25) Even if it is late in the evening, he is up late, if he does not want to answer his phone, he will not. But PLEASE call him back when he asks you too. He much prefers a phone call instead of an e-mail.
(28) Label all e-mails from “Expert Click” for Tim. No need to respond or forward.
(29) All Linked-In E-mails can be archived or deleted as Tim receives notification of invites as soon as he logs into his Linked-In Account.
(30) For start-up Inquiries in the Health & Wellness Industry (or BrainQuicken Start-up Inquiries) please see the templates in G-mail titled: Congratulations and General Business Questions — Brain Quicken Templates
(31) For Language Inquiries, please see the templates in G-mail titled: Reader Question on Language Resources — Language Templates
(32) When Tim types ‘dictate’ in the e-mail response; this means that we can say to the recipient: As Tim is traveling at the moment and not able to personally respond to your e-mail, I mentioned your message while on the phone to him, and he asked me to dictate:
[This is to avoid having an assistant convert my 1st-person “Please tell him that I…” to 3rd-person “Tim says that he…” – providing shorthand for “cut and paste” save hours of assistant time.]
(33) If someone email blasts a bunch of people and I am one of them, usually safe to ignore or delete. Read them carefully, of course, but if it says for example “a few influential people I know” or something like that then if someone can’t take the time to personalize for me, forget them. If Tim is CCd, of course, that’s a different story.
(34) Tim’s address is XXXX. THIS E-MAIL IS NOT TO BE DISTRIBUTED OR GIVEN TO ANYONE. If you want to copy Tim on an e-mail, please use the BCC field, so that it remains private.
(35) Mark anyone from St. Paul’s or Princeton for me to look at (TIM label). [Note: I’ve since had to modify this due to volume]
(36) If I decline someone and they persist, give them one more reply — “Tim appreciates the persistence, but he really can’t…” etc. — and then archive future requests. Use your judgment, of course, but that’s the general rule. Some people don’t know when persistent turns into plain irritating.
(37) Please also create a rule to respond with “scheduled” for all items I send to be put in the calendar (when they’re put in the calendar). [Missing calendar items can cause big problems, so this is a check and balance to confirm]
(38) No need to follow up with someone after a call has taken place. Unless Tim instructs otherwise, or they request something from us.
(39) Send all Speaking Requests to XXXX and ensure that he confirms receipt. (However, also see items 42 & 48)
(40) Foreign language requests (i.e. purchasing rights, if the book is available in particular language, etc.) send to [the appropriate person at my publisher].
(41) XXXX’s replacement at Random House is: XXXX
(42) Inquire with Tim first before booking any speaking gigs on a specific date, as he may be travelling.
(43) When booking appointments in the calendar, be sure to also ask which topics they would like to discuss, and put in the calendar description for Tim so he can prepare. Also be sure to ask for a back up phone number in case they are not able to reach Tim. [I almost always have people call me unless I am abroad, as this is another safeguard against missing appointments]
(44) Put initials in the subject line of calendar events so we know who [which virtual assistant] put the item in the calendar.
(45) Prepare inquiries for Tim before sending to him for his review. I.E. Get their Alexa ranking, possible dates of the event, a link to past events they have held, their budget, other confirmed speakers, etc. Then send this info to Tim for his review.
(46) Respond to PX Method Inquires with the following response:
Thanks for your inquiry about the PX Method, however the PX method page is designed as just a template others can look at as a reference for testing their own product ideas.
We are not sure if or when Tim will offer the PX Method for sale, but there are no plans at this time. We appreciate your inquiry none-the-less. Thanks!
[I get quite a few emails from readers who do not see the disclaimer on the PX Method mock-up page and thus attempt to order a product that isn’t ready to ship]
(47) Download eFAX viewer to view Tim’s faxes. His fax number is: XXXX
(48) Event or Speaking Inquiries can be responded to as such:
Thanks for your e-mail and for your invitation to Tim. In looking at the event online, I see that the event is April Xth and Xth, 2008 in Portland, Oregon [for example]. Before I present this Tim, could you answer a few questions for me, so we can make a more informed decision?
– Would you like Tim to be at the entire event?
– How long would the keynote presentation be? Or would it be a Q & A Panel?
– Do you cover travel and accommodation along with a speaker’s fee?
– What is your budget for keynote presentations?
– Have any other speakers confirmed to present?
As soon as I hear back, I can speak with Tim about the possibilities of making this happen. Thanks again!
this email is: [ ] blogable [x] ask first [ ] private
Executive Assistant to Timothy Ferriss
Author: The 4-Hour Workweek (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com)
(Random House/Crown Publishing)
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Posted on January 21st, 2008