Handle Your Email Like a Ninja Warrior


Some of you may have heard of the fabled “Inbox Zero.” I remember coming across it and thinking what a great idea it was. I immediately logged into my gmail account to find 5,000+ emails in my inbox. I told myself Inbox Zero was good in theory but there was no way I was going to go through my inbox and sort it.

Since then, there’s been a small ecosystem of apps and methodologies for reaching Inbox Zero.

I’ve also started to receive a gross amount of email compared to just 3 years ago. It seems like an endless deluge meant to break the human will. But taking control really isn’t as hard as it may seem.

Some people (myself included at first!) think, “what’s the point of Inbox Zero, you’re just moving the emails around in folders instead of your inbox. Sounds like extra work.” What I’ve found is that having a cluttered inbox taxes your mental energies. Seeing a giant list of emails staring back at you can be intimidating and cause you to expend your “willpower” on something that may be trivial.

There was a scientific experiment that examined how facing an increasing number of decisions throughout the day makes us deplete our willpower faster. This is what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister referred to as “ego depletion.” A great article from the New York Times with results from experiments can be read here.

Essentially we experience decision fatigue throughout the day. That’s why you can resist eating that unhealthy meal early in the day, but after a stressful day at work we so easily eat things we’re not so proud of. Each time we’re faced with a full inbox with a ton of emails, having to make a “decision” for each one and being reminded of each one constantly throughout the day can quickly deplete our willpower.

We all have some varying amount of willpower. Willpower is the most important resource we possess. As we use our willpower we’re expending a resource we won’t renew until we rest, nap, or sleep. We cannot expend willpower indefinitely and still expect to operate at our peak mental level. Willpower is like a muscle, the more we exercise it the stronger it gets and our capacity increases. Let’s agree to not waste our willpower on weekly newsletters, coupon emails, spam, and other unimportant emails.

I want to show you how to reach Inbox Zero

There are two parts to this:

  1. First, a mental shift in how you handle email.
  2. Second, the tools you’ll use to handle email.

Mental Shift

You must obtain the mental discipline of a Ninja Warrior. The first issue we face when dealing with email is that we over-prioritize it. Email should be a utility, not our job. CEO shouldn’t stand for Chief Email Operator, but that’s often how we feel.

But there’s the pressing issue that sometimes email IS extremely important. What if you can secure an entire round of fundraising, but it’s a time-limited offer, set to self destruct in 30 minutes!

This doesn’t happen

If something is extremely time sensitive and the person is important enough in your life, they probably have your phone number and will make sure to contact you over a different channel or in addition to email.

Instead of being at the whim of your inbox notifications, turn them off. Instead set aside specific times during the day that are dedicated to getting through your email.

And as we just learned with willpower depletion throughout the day, it’s a good idea to do the most important tasks first. I know a lot of people start their day with email. The problem is that you end up spending your peak mental energy on email.

By the time you get caught up on email you’re exhausted. The rest of the day becomes a struggle to focus on those important tasks you were trying to “make time for.”

If you are frequently left at the end of the day thinking, “I feel like I didn’t get anything accomplished today,” try starting your day doing the most important things first (and limit it to just two things initially).

If you read my previous post about the 19 Productivity Tools I Use for Maintaining Sanity in a Tech Startup I mentioned I work in a series of pomodoros. That’s working for 25 minutes on a single task and taking a 5 minute break. Sometimes I use that 5 minute break to quickly get through some emails. This also allows me to get back to time-sensitive emails, without constantly checking my inbox.

And if your job requires a little more email then most, there’s no reason why you can’t assign an entire pomodoro to quickly cut down your inbox back to zero.

This takes some practice but you’ll find yourself quickly triaging your inbox faster and faster.

Having previously been a firefighter for 2.5 years, we have a specific protocol for responding to a mass casualty incident (MCI). A mass casualty incident can be defined as any emergency scene that overwhelms the responding emergency personnel. If there’s three of us responding and there’s four victims this could be considered a MCI.

What we’re taught to do is to quickly triage all of our patients. We tag each patient with one of 5 colors.

  • White: given to those with minor or no injury for whom a doctor’s care isn’t required.
  • Green: walking wounded. They will need medical care at some point, but there are more critical issues at hand.
  • Yellow: their condition is stable for now, and they aren’t in immediate danger of dying. They will be observed and possibly re-triaged another color later.
  • Red: these patients will not survive unless given immediate treatment.
  • Black: deceased or injuries so severe emergency medical personnel cannot help with the resources at their disposal.

We help the red tags first, then yellow, and finally green. Black and white tags are ignored because our resources are better spent elsewhere.

My first impression upon learning this system is that it was pretty ruthless. Here we are deciding people’s fate using colored tags. But the truth of the matter is that we all have finite resources, and we have to direct where to spend those resources.

Luckily we’re dealing with email!

But sometimes our inbox can seem like an emergency. In this case we just have to become better at triaging our inbox.

I quickly found that when I only have 30 minutes a day to get through all of my email, I have much shorter responses, get straight to the point, and will prevent myself from receiving more emails from a source that abuses my inbox.

If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey and his 7 Habits for Highly Effective People he created a great and simple diagram to categorize any task we come across.




Now each of your emails will fall into one of these categories.

It’s up to you to triage your inbox.

You can take four actions: do it now, decide when to do it, dump it, or delegate it.

Now that we have the mindset, let’s look at the toolset.

Tools of the trade for reaching Inbox Zero

The greatest challenge is getting started. Staring at 6,000+ emails in your inbox feels a lot like it’s saying, “I dare you.”

Dare accepted, you damn dirty inbox

The key here is to only sort as much as you feel is required. Some people will be fine with just selecting every email and archiving all of them right away. You are the brave ones.

What I did is go sort emails until I found I was running through a lot of unimportant emails. This happened around 150-200 where those emails were mostly outdated. From there if the email is important enough I can search for it later, or that person will email me back.

When you first see your inbox completely empty, it might look like this:




This is not a mistake. It might feel a lot like when you first got on a roller coaster and are slowly being cranked to the apex of the impending drop. You might think, “what did I just do?” It’s okay. This is your new life.

The following tools are your arsenal of weapons you will learn to master in your quest to become an Inbox Ninja Warrior.



There are a lot of email clients out there and surprise surprise, I’ve tried a ton of them. I used Sparrow for the longest time, until they stopped actively supporting it. AirMail is a popular successor to Sparrow, but I’m not a fan of the UI and it crashes and fails for me too often.

I used to dislike…mmm, no I need something a little stronger, despise Gmail. But with an Inbox Zero mentality and these extra plugins and tools you’ll find below, I now find Gmail to be pretty awesome.

The first thing you want to do with Gmail is go in and change your preferences. Click on the cog icon > configure inbox > and deselect all of the “helpful” extra tabs. We’re going to be using our own categories that will separate emails by importance, instead of type. This way if you want to find an important email you don’t have to sift through four different tabs.







Gmail KeyRocket

This plugin only works for Chrome. But it’s really fantastic. The tipping point for me in becoming productive with Gmail and getting a handle on my inbox started with learning the shortcuts for Gmail. KeyRocket helps you learn through constant reinforcement.

I promise you that you will save at least minutes every day while going through email using shortcuts. Constantly switching your hands from the keyboard to the mouse requires you to hunt and click; ultimately wasting time.

Minutes may not sound like much, but it adds up throughout the day. And if you’re only giving yourself 5 minutes to quickly triage your inbox and answer the most important emails, a minute can be a life saver.

Every time you take an action in Gmail without using the keyboard shortcuts KeyRocket will pop up in the upper right corner and tell you the corresponding hotkey.

Being able to use Gmail completely from the keyboard speeds up inbox activity considerably, and I highly recommend making the effort to learn the keyboard shortcuts! KeyRocket makes it easy by reinforcing the proper keystroke every time you miss one.

Get it here: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/keyrocket-for-gmail/dmocchgkijnbjdjkmlglaemjhhdiobbp


This is another Gmail extension that can really help reach Inbox Zero. I have a fear of placing emails into folders or archiving them when they require an action in the future. But at the same time I don’t want all of these emails floating around my inbox. I don’t need to be reminded every day, I just need to be reminded on a certain day. Or maybe the email will become relevant in one week.

This is where Boomerang shines. Just like the iOS application Mail (which I’ll get to!) you can use this to return emails to the top of your inbox in the future. You can also use this to hold and send emails at a certain time. If you’re writing an email for someone a day early, that’s okay, just click on “Send later” and set the appropriate time.



Another useful case is when you send out an important email to someone. You want to be reminded that you sent the email if they don’t reply. You can boomerang the email back to your inbox in three days to follow up with them if they still haven’t replied.

I’d recommend clicking on the Boomerang icon on the top right of your Gmail inbox and going to settings > check Enable keyboard shortcuts. Now you can click “b” on the keyboard, use the arrow keys and choose the time you want the email to return to your inbox, all without leaving the keyboard 🙂




Get it here: http://www.boomeranggmail.com/hp5/index.html

Mail app

This app is really helpful for keeping down the deluge of emails on the go. This became my favorite mail app for the iPhone (also available on Android) once I started to refine my workflow with it. The key is to create meaningful folders to file away each of your emails. If you don’t file them, then you either archive or delete.

My favorite feature of Mail is the built-in defer or “boomerang” like feature of bringing an email back to your inbox in a certain period of time.




The folders that I use (which translates over to the same ones I use for Gmail) are:

  1. Customer Support
  2. Important
  3. Later (items that have been deferred, and will pop back up)
  4. Power Users
  5. PRE Property (a real estate company I started with friends)
  6. Receipts

It takes a little discipline to use these buckets to file away emails as they come in, but with a little practice it becomes second nature and you’ll thank yourself for being so organized when you actually have to look for an email.

Get it here: http://www.mailboxapp.com/


This service is fantastic. It gives you giant list of all of your subscriptions that you may or may not even realize you subscribe to. I had 200+ subscriptions that just seemed to accumulate over the years. Instead of sifting through each email and hitting their unsubscribe link, you can unsubscribe in bulk using their simple interface. You can also unsubscribe without feeling guilty, or afraid you won’t remember the site if you want to subscribe to them again. They give you the option to re-subscribe to all of the services you unsubscribe from.





Another great feature is that you can “roll up” your subscriptions into one giant daily digest. I use this for all of my newsletters for clothes or services that I don’t want to unsubscribe to, but don’t want to see every day/week. You get a daily roll up that you can click on and see small thumbnails of each of the emails, and clicking on one will take you to the full version. This lets you get through a bunch of emails by just skimming.

I’m pretty sure with every daily digest being created, somewhere a baby kitten yawns.




Get it here: https://unroll.me/

Bonus Tools


This is a super helpful gmail plugin. Every time you write someone’s email address into the To: field, you’ll see a pop up with their relevant information. This really helps when you’re doing cold emails or communicating with a lot of customers doing something like customer support.

Now you get to see where they lie in their corporate hierarchy. This is relevant because now we can talk to their specific pain points. Tutum addresses pain points of developers, system administrators, VPs of engineering, or CTOs differently.

Now you’re prepared.

Get it here: http://rapportive.com/


I really like this gmail extension. It lets you create a CRM system within gmail. You do this by creating “boxes.” And within a given box you can assign as many people or emails as you want.

We don’t really have a need for a CRM at the moment, but I’ve been using it to keep track of all of my email outreach efforts. I have two separate boxes: one for current customers that I’m reaching to for feedback and one for those that I’m cold emailing for feedback on Tutum.

As we move into SMB and Enterprise sales, this tool will be indispensable.

They also offer a “Snooze” feature. This acts in a similar manner to Boomerang. You can snooze an email, and have it return to your inbox when you want.


You are now a Ninja Warrior. With great power comes great responsibility. Empower your friends and loved ones by sharing this article with them.

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Posted in General, Productivity, Startup
8 comments on “Handle Your Email Like a Ninja Warrior
  1. Great article. This is something that is near and dear to my heart as well. I’m actually going to do some training on this for a very large corporation in September, so I’ll keep this article in mind.

    I wrote on this a while back on my blog for anyone interested in an approach with slightly different tools.

  2. […] analytics and growth, the tools we use in Tutum to ensure it runs smoothly, for reading/writing, tackling my inbox, and the resources I use to create the overlying framework to pull all of these tools […]

  3. […] as Lee writes in the blog post, there are actually five color codes for firefighters. The color white is assigned to those patients with minor or no injuries and so no further care is […]

  4. […] as Lee writes in the blog post, there are actually five colour codes for firefighters. The colour white is assigned to those patients with minor or no injuries, meaning no further care […]

  5. […] will be tempted to associate an action with your quadrant. For example, Tutum’s Bryan Lee uses the system and has put a specific action for each quadrant, like “Decide when to do it” for “Important […]

  6. Hey there! Quick question that’s completely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly?
    My web site looks weird when browsing from my iphone4.

    I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to fix this problem.

    If you have any recommendations, please share.
    Appreciate it!

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