Email like a CEO: How I get through 500+ emails a day (without going crazy)

If you’re anything like me, there are few moments you dread more than the first time you check your inbox each day. As a CEO, I often receive 500+ emails a day (not counting spam, which Gmail is pretty good about making sure I never see). I’m able to filter about half of those into folders that I’ll check as-needed. But that still leaves me with about 250 emails that need to be read, processed, and dealt with. (To put that in context, studies say the average knowledge worker gets about 126 emails a day, total).

That’s a lot to process throughout the day.

Setting aside the actual content of the email, the sender name and subject line alone contains around 7 words on average. Doing a bit of back-of-the-napkin math, that means even if I never open one email, I’m parsing at least 1,750 words per day. And that’s just to decide if I need to take action on an email.

Email can take over your life if you let it. And while there are a ton of tweaks and hacks you can use to optimize your inbox time (we even published our own exhaustive guide for Gmail here), they don’t work for everyone. You’ll probably reach a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly if you try to optimize for everything.

Here are a few of my favorite “hacks” from my personal email routine that really work for me.

Create a “Processing” list to step outside the flow of incoming emails

There’s so much advice out there telling you to work on your email in “batches” throughout the day. While that sounds good in theory, it’s really hard in practice. Especially when new emails are piling up in your inbox as you’re trying to work through it.

Inbox zero is a fleeting satisfaction for me. When I actually reach an empty inbox, it’s full again within minutes. I’m not careful, I can let that game of new-email whack-a-mole drag out across my entire day.

However, after finding out that most knowledge workers check their inbox every 6 minutes, I definitely understand the importance of limiting how much time you spend in your inbox.

The approach that lets me actually batch emails effectively is to create a separate inbox—one where I control what gets into it. The inbox in Gmail can be configured to show a block of messages with a certain label above the normal flow of incoming messages. The best part is, you can collapse the incoming messages section so you won’t be distracted by it.

I call this the “Processing” list and once or twice a day I go through this routine:

  • Quickly scan my regular inbox, adding the label @processing to any messages I need to give attention to
  • Collapse my normal inbox so I can’t see new incoming emails
  • Focus only on the @processing list without worrying that it will keep filling itself up

This approach really helps me protect the rest of my time to do non-email work.

I make a habit of moving emails that need attention into a special list, then ignore the flow of new emails in my inbox.

How to set up a Processing list in Gmail:

  • Go to Gear Icon > Settings > Inbox and set Inbox Type to ‘Priority Inbox’
  • In the ‘Inbox Sections’ area, set the sections like the screenshot below.
  • Under Section 1 ‘All @processing’: Choose ‘more options’, then ‘Show all from label: @processing’ (substitute a different label if you like
  • Save Changes and return to your inbox
  • Minimize the ‘Everything else’ section (Gmail should remember this and keep it minimized in the future)

The ‘weed whacker’ search filter

This one is a pain to set up—and something I only revisit it about once a year—but I get a lot of mileage out of it.

Of the hundreds of emails I get a day, often don’t need a response. I don’t filter them out of my inbox because they’re important to see (for example, emails about server errors that need immediate attention when they come in). For these, I can process them really quickly, because I rarely ever need to click into them. I can just scan the subject lines and get a sense of everything.

The problem is, they gum up everything else when they’re mixed in with the rest of my email.

To deal with these emails quickly, I have a long, complicated search string bookmarked that will select the predictable, automated stuff. When I need to clear out 30% of my inbox immediately, I just run the search, give the results a quick glance, then archive the whole lot.

I wish this was easier to set up, but the only way I’ve found is to use a long and messy boolean logic search string. It’s not pretty, but it works when I need it. I usually only update this list once every six months or so, because it’s a bit of an ordeal.

How to set up your own ‘weed whacker’ filter:

Keyboard shortcut: I only use one. The ‘j’ key.

Keyboard shortcuts in Gmail theoretically give you magical powers to do all sorts of stuff. There are lots of articles talking about all the options and how they can help.

But I can’t keep up with all that.

There’s really only one keyboard shortcut that I remember because I use it all the time. It’s the “next conversation” shortcut, which by default is just typing “j” (ok, occasionally I use “k” to back up to a previous conversation).

When you’re rifling through a long list of emails, the ability to quickly move linearly through it is so much faster than always having to back up to the main inbox view.

To use keyboard shortcuts in Gmail head to Settings > General > Keyboard Shortcuts, and make sure they’re enabled. Then use however you’d like.

Use delayed responses on evenings and weekends so I keep the team sane

Sometimes I just can’t get through my inbox during the day.

It’s important to me that our team doesn’t feel the need to be responsive at night and on the weekends. (If I’m honest, I really don’t want people emailing me at night either!) But sometimes, late at night is the only time I have to process my inbox.

I work around this by delaying emails until the following morning. You can’t do this with Gmail on its own, but there are several add-ins that will make it really easy. I use Streak, but Boomerang is another good option.

I don’t want to feel stressed out when I deal with my emails. Each one is usually something important or exciting, whether that’s a team member updating me on a project or someone getting in touch about a potential partnership or study. But the truth is, like most people, my inbox gets a little overwhelming.

These “hacks” are what work best for me. They help me automatically filter, clean up, and organize my inbox so I’m not always struggling to get through it.

The key is to experiment and try different methods until you find what works for you. So give these a shot and if you need more inspiration, check out our full Guide to Optimizing Gmail.

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