The Conundrum of Email

I’ve just spent a month in Maker Mode. It’s been a powerful month and prompted a few posts like Have You Fallen Into The Busy Trap? which generated lots of feedback as well as deeper responses from posts like Do We All Work Too Much? And Do We Really Have a Choice? Amy and I are talking about this almost every day as we work on our book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship With An Entrepreneur. The topic of how we work, what’s important, and what we get done is very much on my mind these days.

Email is a big part of this. Once a month I get an email from the Gmail Meter that tells me about my email behavior. Here’s June’s summary.

The daily average is 233 conversations, 411 received emails, and 140 sent emails. Remember that this includes weekends where the volume is much lower.

If you assume a 10 hour day (short for me), that’s 23 conversations an hour, 41 received emails an hour, and 14 sent emails an hour.


It’s easy to imagine that I could easily spent my entire life doing email.

Let’s look at the next batch of data – % traffic sent / received each day.

While the daily email pattern is relentless from Monday to Friday, you can see that I spend Saturday getting caught up or working on stuff that generates a bunch of sent emails but doesn’t have responses received until Monday. But the simple conclusion from this chart is that email is relentless.

Next up is Time Before Response.

Here you can see Maker Mode in action. When I’m on email, I respond almost immediately. When I’m writing, between 1 hour and a day pass – my guess is if this was a more granular chart, it’d center around four hours which is my maximum time period for real writing. Most people respond quickly to me, so if I respond quickly, I generate the endless back and forth of email. When this doesn’t necessarily show it, I know that when I slow down, there’s less email coming back my way.

Let’s finish up with Word Count.

If you’ve ever exchanged emails with me, you know that my answers are generally short. 35% are less than 10 words. 70% are less than 30 words. But look at what I’m getting back. 50% are more than 100 words. Fortunately, I read very quickly – much faster than most people can type.

Ok – that’s plenty of data to play around with. I have a simple goal of responding to all of my email so I find the patterns curious and the data super interesting. This month has been a different kind of month given Maker Mode, but when I look at the patterns I realize I’m still spending too much time “email is on and I’m responding mode.”

In contrast, I wrote for eight hours yesterday. I closed Chrome and didn’t have email up. I was on it for a few hours mid day when I did a few hours of calls and then again at night when Amy and I watched The Recruit. Other than that, I wrote.

This morning my brain was tired. I decided I wasn’t going to write until this afternoon. So I’ve spent the morning responding to email and writing this blog post. I’ll go offline (or off email) from 1pm – 5pm this afternoon and do the writing I planned to do today. I’ve got a Thursday deadline so I can imagine that I’ll fire things back up after dinner and write for a few more hours.

My goal in July is to shift my modality even further into Maker Mode. I’ve gotten comfortable with the four hour writing stretch and want to make sure I do at least one a day with two on the days that I can handle it. Like running, I have to vary my tempo for it to be sustainable. I’ll compare the July data to the June data when it comes in.

I realize this post was more for me than for you, but hopefully you got some interesting insights out of it if you hung in to the end.

  • A terrific and very useful post. It is always better when you can include numbers to backup the actual time you spend on email. The use of the word conundrum in your title is very fitting. Managing email response is a problem for people across the board – it looks like you found a way to do it without feeling too busy but it still is in actual fact taking up too much time!!

  • Great post per usual.
    Would love to see a Feld vs. ‘worlds fastest typer’ competition. Would Brad read faster than the typer? on your productivity. #getshitdone

  • i’m moving more and more into a routine where I answer all emails in the morning just after breakfast.

    anything that is mission critical gets answered immediately of course, but other than that, things get processed, responded to, and archived in the mornings.

    i don’t get nearly the volume you do though.

    one question I have though is if it all comes into the same inbox for you?

    I keep it all separate in different email addresses which keeps it neatly sorted and gets my mind in the right mode.

    • I use one inbox. I learned long ago that it is much faster for me.

  • Over time, I’ve noticed two aspects of email contact w/ you that you’ve expressly pointed out – 1.) your short replies, often 1 – 3 words and 2.) how the quickness of replies tends to generate an ongoing “conversation” of email.

    I do that too, especially with Eric. We’ll have rapid-fire email convos that generate 15+ messages in 5 mins. It’s like a phone call, only over email.

    • Afzal

      Firstly what a great post from Brad, backed by solid data and so so relevant! Not sure if anyone may be interested in looking at a very interesting blog by Prof Stephen Wolfram, who analyzed his own email output but over a much longer period. Interesting stats.

      John your point is also very pertinent, the rapid fire email convos… just wondering whether you have a personal limit before you decide to talk to the person? And if one assesses time/efficiency is 15+ messages good use of time?

      • in cases where this happens, it’s with friends who prefer email over the phone, so yes – it is more efficient by definition.

        We’ll use the phone in some cases, but it’s become the exception rather than the rule.

        • I just started using Google Chat more in these rapid-fire conversations. Less intrusive than phone and more immediate than email. And I get a transcript of the convo automatically.

  • waldr

    Would you be interested in Alpha testing a app to help manage your inbox and maker mode! We are looking at providing indepth analytics and suggesting tasks that will make you more productive via our product Tray. At the risk of comment spam you really do need to check us out (featured on ‘this week in startups’) –

  • This post stuck home one the things we all have learned.

    If you want to have a connection with someone…don’t send an email.

    Get to know them first. Like through comments.

  • Ben Glatter

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. Brad you definitely know how to work “smart.”

  • I’ll be curious to know if you can do more than one four hour writing block in a day. I can rarely do it, even when I have the time. After 4 to 5 hours, I’m drained.

    • I can do two of them if I take a break in between. But I can’t do two days in a row. And I’m totally fried – like go downstairs and watch TV and eat ice cream fried after two of them in one day.

  • dinda
  • Holy shit

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