Dillon Carter

Entrepreneur, Hacker and Future Mad Scientist 🚀☕

Inbox Zero and How to Hit It Daily

Hitting the elusive Inbox Zero with email has always been an interesting topic for me. On one hand, email is a fantastic tool. On the other hand, literally nobody seems to understand the rules of the game

When email was first created, we didn’t have an “email problem”. It wasn’t until advertising dug into email marketing and Crackberries becoming as common as your toothbrush did things start to spiral out of control. 

As is with most technologies, understanding how they are designed is important. 

Personally, I’ve never had a terrible time achieving Inbox Zero on a daily basis. My methodology has certainly evolved over time as new tools became available. 

Below I’ll share what tools I use to make life easier and the methodology that will put email back in its place; a simple tool with a simple job. 

Deciding What App to Use

Simply put, there is no one email app or tool that will solve all of your problems. Email is a human behavior problem, not a technology problem. Once we can accept this as reality, our views on email quickly change. 

With that being said, I personally use and love Gmail for the backbone of my email system and use the Spark email app on all of my devices to interact with emails. 

Inbox Zero

Simply using the default Gmail application is plenty in most cases, including mine. I choose to use Spark because of a few small features like Snoozing an email and having multiple inboxes in one view.

When faced with the massive decision fatigue that is choosing an email application you should focus on a few variables:

1. Is the application free?  

Applications that have a cost are not bad by any means, but you need something you can quickly jump in and out of for testing. You never want to find yourself stuck in a paid application only to realize it’s missing a major feature. 

2. Does it have basic features?

By basic features, I don’t mean sending and receiving emails. I mean the ability to Snooze emails, Add comments (mainly for work related emails), and “Template” responses, which we’ll talk more about later. 

3. Is it cross-platform?

We are a multi-device species. In a given day I may handle emails on my iPhone, my Macbook Pro or my iPad Pro. Regardless of the device, I want to easily apply my methodology without fail. 

If you’re still dealing with decision fatigue, give Spark a try as it hits all of the criteria above and even works with Siri Shortcuts for added automation features. 

My Inbox Zero Methodology

It’s a bold claim to say that I have a methodology that will allow you to hit Inbox Zero daily but the reality is that’s easier than you would think. In fact, I hit Inbox Zero within 10-15 minutes most days

As a quick aside, this is not my original work. I’m pulling from different mentors and frameworks that I’ve learned from over the years and I’ll mention them within each applicable section as a reference if you want to dive deeper into any area. 

1. Your inbox is not a task list

At some point in the last 10-15 years we decided that other people could walk into our lives and tell us what to do. I’m not talking about our bosses or clients but literally anyone. It’s as if we’ve given a key to our home to anyone who asks. That’s a brief description of how humans subconsciously view email and it’s terribly wrong. 

Your Inbox is a waiting room where other people bid for your attention. Your first task is to quickly decide who is worth your attention and who isn’t. 

By shifting your view of email as a waiting room, rather than a task list, you’ll begin to view each email more critically. 

2. It’s an Inheritance Problem  

To continue on point one, not only do we view each email as a task but we also view it as a task that should be completed immediately. At what point did we agree that email is above all sacred? 

Like any other task item that comes into your life, email needs to be prioritized relative to every other task and project currently on your list. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. If an email takes less than 2-minutes to respond to, do it. Otherwise, add it to your task list. I personally use the Todoist integration with Spark, which allows me to add a new task item to Todoist without leaving Spark, including a link to the email. 

Overall, I follow the Getting Things Done methodology by David Allen, using my Todoist “Inbox” to dump anything that comes my way. Once there, I can then add each task to its appropriate Project, decide if it’s a high or medium priority, and when it should get done. 

I would highly recommend that you watch a video by Tiago Forte to better understand how I clear my inbox and add emails as tasks. 

Fun fact, emails do not require you to respond within 24 hours unless previously agreed upon by both parties, such as a client as an example. 

Here’s another guide on how I use Todoist in my Nerdy Planning System.

3. Cutting the Garbage Out

Most emails (90%+) hitting your Inbox are not worth your time. We all know this but it’s time to revoke access. A simple method is to unsubscribe from newsletters. 

I use three methods (in order) for handling newsletters:

  1. Create a Gmail filter that moves any email whose body contains the word “unsubscribe” to a new Folder, skipping the Inbox entirely of course, named “Optional”
  2. Actually unsubscribe from newsletters you want to stop receiving by clicking the unsubscribe link one-by-one or forwarding them to Unsubscribe Robot to do it for you
  3. Lastly, use a tool like Unroll.me to receive just one email per day containing all of the newsletters you do what to see. 

The above process quickly frees up your Inbox, deletes the crap, continues to do so over time, and allows you to check one email per day for the X number you still want to view. 

That is how you quickly streamline your Inbox and begin focusing on the emails that truly require your attention. 

4. Applying the 3 D’s 

What’s left over from step 3 are emails worth our attention. Or, more precisely, they are from actual humans wanting our specific attention.

As mentioned in step 2, we shouldn’t simply start replying to each email one-by-one. For many this may sound odd. Rather than scheduling time to sit down, filtering my emails, and then reply to each one, I only do the filtering step. 

Simply put, I move from one email to the next and make a single decision; Do, Delegate or Delete. By Do I mean there is an action to be taken. 

If an email can be deleted, I quickly do that. 

If an email needs to be delegated to a team member, I quickly forward the email to that person. 

If an email requires me to respond in-full, review something or take an action of any kind, I add it to my Todoist Inbox to be prioritized relative to every other task. When an email is added to my Todoist Inbox, I also Archive that email. It’s not deleted but it’s out of my sight and will be reopened using the link that Todoist added to the task. 

I see too many people leaving emails in their Inbox as a reminder to do something or as a task list. Your email Inbox is not a task list. A task list is a task list. 

I first learned about the 3 D’s from Ari Meisel. 

5. Using Templates for Standard Responses

I’m naturally an automation dork but sometimes you need a third party to validate your thoughts on a given topic. I’m a firm believer in SOPs and standardizing your work to streamline the entire process. 

Most emails seem to follow a pattern. It’s a common question you get from clients or team members. It’s a family member asking for your address or your girlfriends name for the 14th time in a row. Either way, creating Template responses can save you a large amount of time when it comes to handling your email. 

A Template Response is a well thought out response to a specific question that is saved and used repeatedly. 

Template Responses have been around for a while now, including the Canned Responses in the Gmail application, but one book really put this into perspective for me. Here’s a brief excerpt…  

I get requests like this practically every day, and for every one, I would have no time left to do anything else. Of course, I could hire an assistant just to handle all of those incoming requests, but why? Instead, for each one of these things, I spend a little time crafting the perfect response, and then I use that response over and over again.

Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt

In other words, stop repeating yourself. Solve the problem once and put your solution to good use.

Your time is far more important than rewriting the same email over and over again. Only for the quality of that response to go down with each rewrite, losing valuable quality. Instead, take time to write a thoughtful response and use it each time, putting your email partly on auto-pilot. 

6. Stop Manually Scheduling Meetings

One thing that is a major pet-peeve is wasting time going back and forth to schedule a meeting. Believe it or not, there are tools that are very cheap, if not free, that allow you to hand off this task to a computer. 

One I apply very heavily is Calendly, which uses a single link for easy scheduling. You send your link to the person you want to schedule a meeting with and they will only see the time slots available on your calendar, ensuring no back-and-forth and no double-booking, and on days/slots you want to make available. 

With this type of scheduling system, you not only put scheduling on auto-pilot, you take control of it. 

Where things start to get really fun is through combining a Template Response with a scheduling link to save even more time. I personally have 15, and 30 minute meeting links, each saved as a Template Response that can be fired off with two little clicks. 

Here’s an example of what that scheduling email looks like:

7. Setting Barriers for Your Email

Unless dealing with clients or generating revenue, emails are not something that needs to be handled now. Instead, create barriers for who can and cannot get through the gates. Being a startup founder means a massive increase of emails from marketing companies, business development people, and many others. Just because someone sent you an email does not mean you’re required to respond back. 

Be ruthless in your pursuit for finding emails that actually add value. As the founder of Superhuman said, “A fun little game I like to play is where is the work?” This wonderfully illustrates how insane email can become.

8. You Do Not Need an Assistant to Manage Your Email

If you need to hire another human to manage your email, you’re only shifting the problem to them. First Principles would dictate that you solve the actual problem first. I know it makes you feel more important to have an Executive Assistant managing your email but it’s an utter waste of human potential. Instead, solve the real problem and hire someone for a more important role, something worthy of human hours. 

What’s the Future of Email?

I obviously cannot tell you what the future holds for email. What I can tell you is how it’s evolving. Companies like Superhuman and Heyy are wanting to shift how we interact with email as a communication tool. 

Rather than solving the problem with new features, Superhuman applies game design and theory to its users, teaching them better email habits. Heyy has specifically attempted to  redesign the email experience as a whole, hoping to create email 2.0. 

Will any of this catch on? I’m not sure. However, I am very confident that we have the necessary mechanics and methodologies to negate the Email Problem now.  

my nerdy productivity system using Airtable and Todoist

My Nerdy Planning System: Airtable + Todoist + Zapier

Recently I was asked how I manage so many projects (started two successful companies, graduated college full-time with a 3.49 GPA, and still have a girlfriend). What I’ve designed is taken from a few different people and put together. I’ll link to each resource that I used while piecing this wonderful system together. 

my personal productivity stack

A high-level overview of my system is that I reverse-engineer what I want to accomplish each year into daily tasks that are easy to execute. 

Let’s Dive Into the Details

The below structure was adopted (read: totally stolen) from the incredible Nat Eliason’s blog post on setting goals using Airtable

Like I mentioned above, I like to reverse-engineer what I want to accomplish for every aspect of my life that I personally find important. By doing so, I’m able to easily see my life as one large picture and how one thing may relate to another. 

First, I start with my Annual Goals, broken down by category (Business, Personal, Health, Class, etc). For each category, I like to have 2-3 massive outcomes planned. Keep in mind that these are not tasks but massive goals that I’ll need to turn into projects or tasks throughout the year. 

To make this concrete, let’s use an annual goal of Aura (my SaaS company) hitting $1.5m in ARR. 

Second, I sit down each quarter and review my Annual goals to determine what would need to be accomplished to achieve them. These new ideas become my Quarterly Goals. 

What should I accomplish this quarter to be on track to hit my annual goal of doing $1.5m in ARR? Based on current bottlenecks I would say hiring a second full-time engineer would have the highest positive impact. 

Third, I’ll sit down each month and do the same for my Monthly Goals as I did with my Quarterly Goals above. 

Now that I have a good idea of what I need to accomplish for the quarter, I can break that down into just what I can do this month; conduct 20+ cultural interviews and at least 10 technical interviews. 

Lastly, I set down each Sunday afternoon to break down my Monthly Goals into Daily Tasks that can be accomplished this week. I try to have 2-3 critical tasks for each day across all of my goals. 

To easily hit my monthly goal, I’ll most likely need to do the following:

Monday – Create job requirements

Tuesday – Post job listing on 5 remote working job boards

Thursday – Filter through initial candidates and schedule 30-minute cultural interviews for the following week

Friday – Ask my network for any potential candidates that would be a great fit and looking for a new role.

What we’ve essentially done is take a very large goal of doing $1.5m in annual revenue and broken it down into actionable tasks that can be done starting Monday. 

In other words: Annual Goals -> Quarterly Goals -> Monthly Goals -> Daily Tasks to complete. 

The point here is that each of the tasks assigned to this week relates to my Monthly Goals and so on. 

It may seem like a lot at once but I’m only looking at my Weekly breakdown throughout each week. When put into practice It’s oddly calming to know that if you just accomplish this week’s tasks everything else will settle into place with ease. 

using Airtable as a productivity tool

Creating a Routine

It’s essential to create a routine of reverse-engineering your goals. Otherwise, how do you know that you’re on track? Just as important, basing your weekly tasks off your Monthly/Quarterly/Annual goals keeps you on track. It’s easy to get “shiny object syndrome” being an entrepreneur. We all know how important focus is in the long-term. Why not make that easier on ourselves? 

For my routine, I’ve developed what I call Maintenance Day, which is a set group of tasks that when completed each Sunday ensure the following week is a massive success. Essentially, I’m “maintaining” my life to stay on track. 

Finding the Nerdy Glue 

Let’s get this out of the way… It’s actually super hard for me to not automate something these days. Being very busy means that I never want to waste a second of my time if I don’t have to. 

Part of my nerdy obsession is connecting my Airtable base with Todoist. Why? Because I work from Todoist in my day-to-day life. That’s right, even the Daily tasks in my Airtable are pushed over to Todoist. The reason for this is that I obviously have more tasks than just the 2-3 critical few that need to be accomplished. Why jump between tools when I’m getting deep work accomplished? 

my amazing Todoist task list set up

To streamline my daily execution, I have a Zapier “Zap” created that triggers every time I “complete’ a task in Todoist. It then searches my Airtable and checks off any found tasks. In doing so, the Airtable becomes “self-updating/correcting”. 

You can copy my Zapier Zap here

To clarify, I use Airtable mainly for planning and Todoist for the actual execution of things. Because Todoist is incredibly fast at adding new tasks throughout the day, I work from there 90% of the time. 

A final change I could make is to have Zapier create new Todoist tasks when a new Weekly Task is added to the Airtable to further streamline my process. Either way, What Nat has put together is fantastic alone. This is simply my nerdy adjustment and how I take such a framework and execute on it daily using Todoist. 

How to Successfully Use Defaults to Streamline Your Life

Defaults are an amazing limitation one can easily apply to their personal life. A default (like the name implies) is your go-to choice for anything from the airline you always fly with (unless you’re a travel hacker) to the brand of t-shirts you always wear. 

Usually, the process is the following: problem -> consideration -> decision -> solution. 

If we take a little time upfront to determine what our default should be in any given situation (the consideration and decision phases), we can easily eliminate half of the equation. 

Here’s a shortlist of my current defaults:

To further streamline my life, I’ve created a List within my Amazon Prime account named “Defaults” so that anyone could jump into the list without thought and replace or reorder something that I routinely use. Even better, I can use a tool like CamelCamelCamel to easily alert me of massive price drops to stock up or take advantage if wanted. 

Although not holistic, the above list should give you an easy idea of where defaults could fit into your own life. I urge you to not stop at just physical products but to expand your defaults into other aspects of your life; the same lunch during the workweek (this alone is a game-changer), only wearing Omega brand watches, only getting a Grande White Chocolate Mocha from Starbucks (don’t judge me) or only holding work meetings on Mondays. 

Regardless of the aspect of your life, you can easily find defaults that better serve you than having to continually make the same decision every single day. Now, let’s talk about Decision Fatigue for a quick moment. 

The Problem With Decision Fatigue 

Decision fatigue is a plague that leads to unproductive time throughout each day. What should we eat for lunch? Where should we go to replace our favorite t-shirt? What airline should we book our flight on for an upcoming trip? These endless decisions create an overwhelming mountain of mental fatigue that further takes away from what’s actually important. 

Not only are these decisions fatiguing but they’re also repetitive – leading to daily overwhelming and task decay. In a blog post from Rescue Time, they found “the average user switches between tasks more than 300 times per day (and this was only during working hours!)”

That’s a single day. Imagine what negative compounding is happening after just a few weeks of this. 

Defaults Lead to Automation/Streamlining 

I first started learning about defaults thanks to my rather (un)healthy obsession with automating the majority of my personal and professional life. When it comes to automation, standardizing your inputs is paramount to achieve consistency of quality and execution. If we replace the word standardize with default, it’s relatively the same thing. From this perspective, better defaults lead to a streamlining or automation of your life in the areas that drain you the most.

Tools like Instacart are only as good as the inputs they’re given. When you eat the same breakfast and lunch during the week, it’s much easier to completely automate your grocery shopping or have a bot quickly replace your favorite t-shirt via a Slack message. 

Deploying Explore / Exploit Algorithms

Another fantastic outcome of using defaults is that it ensures quality. I’m not sure about you but I have the biggest buyers regret when it comes to shopping for clothes. If I don’t already own the specific item, I’ve got a roughly 60% chance of regretting my buying decision within the following hour of the transaction. 

One method I can deploy to easily handle buyers’ regret is an algorithmic approach I learned from reading Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. The book looks at various algorithms that can easily apply to general life. One that I found most applicable is the idea of Explore / Exploit. This algorithm states that you should take a period of time (perhaps using an Optimal Stopping algorithm) to explore various options. In this first phase, you’re simply “tasting” a bunch of different options. Next, you would “Exploit” the best option found from the Explore phase. 

A great example of this could be purchasing t-shirts from 5 different brands (the Explore phase). Once you’ve tested all 5 you would then choose the best option as your new default (Exploit). 

You can also do this with restaurants (sometimes you want to Explore new options but when you’re not feeling adventurous, you should Exploit the best options using a tool like FourSquare to easily track your previous reviews). 

This is a very interesting perspective to view the mechanics of your life. A perspective that could lead to a better life altogether. I’ve found that the reduction of things, whether personal or professional, leads to more success. This seems to be the opposite of my assumption that a successful life requires more complexity. Rather, a simplified life leads to more success. 

The Homeless Millionaire: When having nothing means having everything and the Four Pillar Equation

The final domino fell. My family had been running an entertainment business for quite a while (I don’t mean like strippers but weddings) and decided it was time for them to expand. Like true moguls, they found a local rental company that was for sale. They went through all of the due diligence required and bought the company.

 

They immediately went to work to grow it and use both companies to influence the other. The only bad thing about this seemingly successful story was timing. It was 2008 and the US economy quickly slid into a financial gutter, waiting for the dust to settle before coming back out to play.

 

Like most when buying a company, they used leverage. A smart move in most situations and you couldn’t blame them for using that financial strategy, but when a bank calls your $750,000 loan, things become complicated.

 

They quickly realized we would lose our home and would have to file bankruptcy. Losing your home, at least when you still have an income really isn’t as bad as it sounds. We just went from homeowners to renters and my parents needed to rebuild their lives. Fortunately, we still owned the initial, still profitable but struggling first business.

 

It was a tough time financially, but we recovered fairly well. I learned a lot from that time. We’ve always moved frequently. Not for any reason other than my parents wanting to try a new place out. Always in the same city and within the same ten-mile radius. With each move, I began to loathe the process. Realizing how much shit (literally providing zero value) I, a then nineteen-year-old owned, was appalling, to say the least. How had I actually had enough life to hoard this amount of useless junk?

 

Eventually, I found myself removing a lot of my belongings that simply sat in my room and in my closet to avoid having to physically move it and re-clutter my next room. I donated what I could and trashed what wasn’t salvageable. I felt lighter. A weight was lifted that I didn’t even know was there the whole time. In essence, I found minimalism. Not the spiritual minimalism, but the Stoic, Spartan and ultimately practical minimalism.

 

Over time I became more content with less and my spending habits began to reflect that shift. If I had $100, I found something that I wanted and spent it. It wasn’t until I found a small book in my step father’s office called “The Richest Man In Babylon” that I took things a step further.

 

In one chapter of the book a rich man sends his heir-to-be son to another city with two things; a bag a gold and a clay tablet holding the “laws of gold”. Foolishly the boy loses the gold quicker than he could imagine. Unable to return to his father, as it would be shameful to do so he remembers the clay tablet. Immediately implementing the gold laws his financial life changes.

 

At a coming home feast put on for the son, he tells his story. The important lesson I took away from his story was in his return. Not only did he return the amount of gold his father gave him but did so with interest. Instead of the one bag, he gave his father three. He had something to show for his time and effort. After my time, granted a short period, I had nothing to show from my meager earnings. I had truly built nothing from my hard work and could show little of it.

 

Sure, I had all of this stuff, but what of financial security?

 

This lesson made me shift my perspective on value. Things can only provide so much value. I’m not a minimalist in a traditional sense, I wear $14,000 watches for god’s sake. I decided a new view on value needed to be created. A new perspective on a modern life. Instead of having a ton of things in our home, what if we were minimalist in the things that provide small amounts of value and invest more in things that provided more value? In essence, only paying the appropriate value in regards to the value we receive from what we own.

 

My Panerai 213 that I’ll get paid $800 to wear for a month

 

From this new perspective, I would argue a One Bag lifestyle while also using value to create more value. What the hell does that even mean…..

 

Instead of raising my expenses to consume, I would spend my money on things that would yield more value in my life in either time, new money or even income. I’ll wear the same thirty pieces of clothing that provide a minimal amount of value to my life, but then briefly own a $14,000 watch because it provides a short period of enjoyment (because I really enjoy horology), but can also sell that watch at a profit. Therefore getting my cake and eating it too.

 

Everything I took to Paris for a week fit into the small weekender bag above….Including a suit.

 

This idea had me coin the homeless millionaire idea. The old view of wealthy people held strong the idea of grand estates, closets filled with things you’d wear once a year and sheer wastefulness. The view on money should be that of someone who USES things to get more value instead of consuming them. There’s nothing wrong with owning a home, assuming it provides cash flow or pays for itself (like house-hacking). There’s nothing wrong with driving an Aston Martin, assuming you can enjoy it long enough for the excitement to wear off and then get out for what you put it. This idea would shift your perspective on what you own, turning your liabilities or expenses into actual assets.

 

You can afford anything you want, as long as it’s profitable.

 

If any statement in Today’s time could ever change your life, it’s the one above. Changing your perspective on value, ownership, wealth and on HOW you can do something versus IF you can do something is the key to an amazing life.

 

So could all of your belongings (besides furniture of course) fitting into a single bag, you driving an exotic car, wearing $14,000 watches and even traveling frequently lead to a more financially wealthy life?

 

Yea, I think so…

 

I know this isn’t the most clearly laid out podcast and the idea needs some work, but the meat is there. I’ve been working on this “new modern life”, the Four Pillar Equation financial idea for the last year and testing what I can to prove the concept and as time moves forward I’ll share more clearly laid out concepts for you to better understand this awesomeness that is positively plaguing my mind each day.

Goal Completed: Company That Generates $100,000 In Revenue Per Year

Last year was a total let down starting this Amazon business. The learning curve seemed bigger for me than most, but I suffered through that curve and made some very key changes going into 2017.

 

One of those key changes was shifting to 100% wholesale based sourcing for inventory. It allowed me to make larger purchases in a fraction of the time and also allowed me to work/run my business from anywhere in the world, which I tested in Paris and Oregon earlier this year.

 

I went from struggling to spend $5,000 a month on decent inventory to spending $25,000+ each month on inventory that is consistently selling month after month with stable margins and profits.

 

Although the margins aren’t the best compared to another business model like Private Label, It’s super scalable and easy to get started with minimal risk involved.

 

Last year I did roughly $40,000 in sales, netting only a few thousand in profit. I basically made a dollar an hour. This year on the other hand, I find it a waste of time to work more than 20 hours a week on the business, mainly due to spending restraints that I am addressing actively, routinely do $25,000+ in sales each month and make enough to easily live off of and save while completing my Finance degree.

 

Don’t mind the MASSIVE drop in sales this past month. You can thank hurricane Irma, Chinese factories shutting down and backorders…. Such is the life of an Amazon seller.

 

So what does six-figures look like with a wholesale based Amazon account? Not that exciting actually. Sure you can make enough to live off of and you technically have the freedom to travel and live wherever, but It’s not enough to really do some financial damage.

 

Getting passed the $500,000 a year level in sales would allow you to easily live off your business’ earnings, save a great deal each month and live just about anywhere. Not to mention, if you’re reinvesting say 30% of your profits back into the business each month, you’re able to grow quite a bit month over month.

 

This is my next goal, although I’m actually aiming for $1MM in annual sales for 2018, which is a massive jump from where I intend on ending 2017 ($200k in sales).

 

Either way, I’ve accomplished a massive personal goal: starting and owning a company that does six-figures. It’s obviously not as fruitful as I would have hoped, but many companies fail a lot sooner. I’m proven the business model, now I just need to scale it ever higher, each and every month moving forward.

 

Moving forward I plan on routinely spending $100,000 a month on inventory, mainly restock rather than new, untested inventory. I’m currently able to spend $32,000 moving into Q4 with the addition and scale of some newer, high-volume inventory. Again, a massive jump, but totally doable over the next year.

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