The habits this entrepreneur built to cope with email overload

Email overload
iStock/Bogdan Kosanovic
Christopher Goodfellow
Sift Media
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Do you dread opening your email? Are you living your life out of your inbox? Entrepreneurs often reach a crunch point in their business’ growth where they have to step away from email.

For Marc Wileman, the founder behind the rapidly growing Sublime Science, the crux came when he received over 500 emails in a single day; he either had to work out his processes or risk losing sight of building his business.

“Just to read them, not to action anything, took hours,” Wileman told BusinessZone, when recounting the early stages of building his business. “It sounds obvious, but I couldn’t continue. If the business grew like I wanted it to I’d get to a 1,000 and that [just reading emails] would become my day.”

Scaling a business beyond a small operation where the founder(s) wears every hat is a big challenge and requires building in processes, not least around communication.

When you email Wileman you receive an instant response, which says: “Due to an ever increasing workload and having to block out time to focus on the expansion of Sublime Science I’m now only checking my email every couple of days.” Recipients are then asked to contact his team directly if it’s urgent.

Interestingly, the phenomenally successful co-founder of Brewdog, James Watt, uses the same approach (I’ve just finished his book Business for Punks, which I’d thoroughly recommend).

Wileman says that he’s not taking this approach because he thinks he’s “cool or fancy”, it’s a necessary mechanism to enable his business to grow and people generally understand that if he has to explain. If anything, the motive behind his business, and his amiable and enthusiastic personality, make it more difficult to say ‘no’.

It goes back making space to work on a business, to ensuring you’re focusing on its ‘why’, rather than burning out trying to answer every email every day.

As an aside, Sublime Science’s aim was to make science awesome for a million people. Wileman didn’t know about Simon Sinek’s Start With Why philosophy when he started out, but has been relentless on this mission, in spite of initial ridicule from family and friends.

If you’re a business owner to go from 50 tasks to 100, to 200, you reach a point where productivity drops off a cliff.

“If you tell people that [you’re going to reach a million people] when you don’t have a company and are funding things with credit cards everyone laughs, which makes sense,” says Wileman.

Today, through book sales and events, the seven-year-old company is almost halfway to its target.

When should I read emails?

The way that Wileman handles emails ties into a wider philosophy about how to be productive. And, crucially, how to avoid overload under the pressure of being a business owner (check out Caroline Webb's excellent take on the subject to look at the psychology and techniques behind dealing with pressure).

Wileman writes off advice which calls for entrepreneurs to do more things.

“That’s valid if you don’t do much, but if you’re a business owner to go from 50 tasks to 100, to 200, you reach a point where productivity drops off a cliff,” he says. “Doing 200 things in a day is less effective than doing one thing for 30 minutes. It’s comical, but you actually accomplish less, which is a terrible way to go.”

The founder builds his day around blocks of time. That means the first post coffee, post protein shake block is at the start of the day, during which he completes a specific task distraction free.

You need to ensure your creativity and imagination are not suffocated and stifled by perpetual connection.

“My preference is always to do it first, that puts you in a good mind frame and you can enjoy your day more. If something can’t happen then for whatever reason I’ll do it when it has to happen. I don’t like to break the habit,” he says.

After this, there’s an opportunity to get something to eat, check emails and be more flexible while moving through other task/ blocks. Generally, the last block is completed after working hours when suppliers etc. have gone home. He’ll work the weekends too, but for fewer hours and generally only in the morning.

Working in analog

If it’s possible and useful, these blocks can be completed offline and in a different environment. Not only does this increase concentration and, therefore, productivity, it ensures the task is finished.

When working at home, Wileman will go and complete a creative task on the dining room table, with only a journal, notes, pen and a legal pad.

Brewdog’s Watt has the same idea, which is where the conversation with Marc started.

“You need to ensure your creativity and imagination are not suffocated and stifled by perpetual connection. My analog desk has notepads, big blank sheets of paper, pens, pencils and nothing else. The clear distinction between the two workspaces lets my head get into the proper zone for the type of work I’m about to do,” he says in the book.

The necessity to form habits

Whatever works for you, building techniques like these into habits is likely to be crucial to successfully grow a business while maintaining a healthy mental outlook.

Wileman’s says he becomes “fairly obsessed” with maintaining habits that work for him, even beyond what most people think would be reasonable. Workload aside, this attitude is formed from the difficulty in building habits and improving workflow.

None of these solutions are magic, as Wileman’s quick to point out, and the pressures of running a business aren’t going to disappear in their entirety. But, if the discussion provides potential opportunities to alleviate stress and be more productive it’s one that’s worth having.

What do you think? How do you deal with the stress of building a business? Leave us a comment below.


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22nd Jul 2016 16:26

Interesting views, but even by taking the approach of only checking your emails once every couple of days, you'll still have just as many emails to work through which would take the same amount of time.

I've heard of people setting up filters to send emails containing certain words directly to the rubbish folder. This was in the journalism industry for bad pitches, but I can imagine the same could be applied to other industries such as emails containing sales pitches.

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