Inbox Exposed: Sol Orwell, Entrepreneur and Blogger

Email is a non-negotiable part of everyday life. For some, it’s an unruly time suck, but enlightened email users have systems to ensure they’re not a slave to the inbox. We’re asking smart thinkers to give us a peek inside their inboxes, share tips, ideas, gripes, and everything in between.

Read on to glean insights from our chat with Sol Orwell, co-founder of the nutrition and supplement website Examine.com, who says email is just like social media.

Interview by Jaclyn Schiff. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you have a system for how you manage your inbox?

To me, email is a triage situation because I have employees that deal with specific tasks. My email is mostly about sending it to the correct person who can then deal with what needs to be done. I generally subscribe to Inbox Zero [mentality]– if there’s an email in my inbox, it’s something to be dealt with. Otherwise, I use something like Boomerang to get it out of my inbox until I am ready to deal with it.

I am decently protective about my email address; it’s not listed anywhere. There are contact forms in front of it, and that helps minimize spam. It also seems like I change my email or I add a new email every couple of years, which then kind of resets a lot of the incoming junk. Finally, I’m very, very, very fastidious about reporting stuff as spam, unsubscribing, and going to the ends of the earth to make sure people stop emailing me.

You’re really changing your address every couple years?

Yes. I’m always developing new projects, so the older emails become less functional just because my priority moves on to a new one.

So you don’t have them all filtering to one inbox?

No, no. I keep them all separate. For example, I have only one email that’s attached to my phone, and I only use that for movie tickets or whatnot — otherwise each email address to me is for a specific function. So the examine.com email address is for anything that’s related to nutrition or supplement research, SJO email is related to anything about entrepreneurship or productivity … stuff like that.

I mean, is it not a pain to deal with multiple inboxes like that?

I find it’s almost like a level of sorting or filtration. I mean, they’re all through Google Apps so I can just open them all up at one time.

I think email is a huge distraction to people (just like social media is), so I prefer to check email maybe two, three, four times a day — and that’s it. So I just check all of them at once and then I’m done with email for the next couple of hours.

Say more about that – do you restrict when you check email to certain times of the day? Do you have a routine about that?

I don’t restrict to a specific number of times per day. I have my top tasks for the day; I know roughly how much time each is going to take. I split my day usually before and after 12:30 (after which is usually when I work out), so I just do my tasks. Email to me is in between these large tasks.

Part of it is because I don’t have it on my phone; I’m only checking it on my computer, so it’s not something that’s omnipresent in my life as it is for a lot of other people.

For real? You don’t have any email inboxes on your phone?

I just have one which is like my personal, private one which is just for calendar invites and movie tickets or anything like that. Also, I may read email, I may check it, but I do not respond to emails on weekends. Unless it’s like a super emergency, I do not respond to emails.

It seems like you feel you have the email thing pretty under control, is that a fair statement?

I feel pretty comfortable with email, yeah — I have an [executive assistant] and I don’t even need her for it. For me, like I said, it’s mostly just triage. To be honest, I’m getting a lot more inbound emails from people asking me for help, so I just have templates ready. I don’t do any coaching, I don’t do any consulting, I don’t do any services — so it’s much easier for me to decline and just say as a matter of policy, I can’t answer this or I don’t have time for this. Since I don’t offer any services, people don’t take it as a personal affront.

As a Gmail user, what do you find limiting? If you could add a dream feature to Gmail, what would it be?

One thing that might make my life easier is if the integration with calendar was a bit tighter. It would be a lot nicer to be able to do it within Gmail instead of having to open up my calendar.

Do you have email influences? Who or what has shaped your approach?

The one thing I do — that I believe I got from Dan Martell — is any newsletter subscriptions, I send automatically to another folder. I don’t want them to get stuck in spam. I don’t know if you’ve heard actually — just in the past few days, there’s been a lot of hullaballoo about how Gmail has been filtering out newsletter emails a lot more aggressively. A lot of people have reported their open rates have gone down by as much as 50 percent. I just push them all into one folder, so that if I have some down time, let’s say five minutes before a meeting, or if I’m really burned out and I just need a mental break (I’m doing the Pomodoro Technique, for example) — then I’ll just cruise those newsletters.So [those newsletters] are almost like my distractions

​For the most part, I’ve structured my approach on a personal level.

Any final email thoughts for inquiring minds?

I mean honestly, just simplify — that’s it essentially. [Email] is like social media now. It’s a distraction, it’s always trying to get your attention — and just like social media, you need to put it in its place. You need to make it work for you.

Too many people become almost enslaved to emails; whereas for me, I see it as something that has to be done and if I’m done with it, I move on to the next thing. I can’t remember the last time someone said, “Oh, I’m so glad I had email on my phone and could respond to this very important email.” No, it’s just a distraction, and I would suggest people treat it as something that needs to be done — not something that needs to be consumed all the time.