The Black Hole Inbox: An Incredible Email Productivity Tip I Learned From a Fortune 50 CEO

I got my first office job in my early twenties.

For four months between school years in college I held the sexy job title of “summer intern” at a big consulting company in a downtown high-rise. Casey was my boss and the head of the project I was assigned to for the summer, which was for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

One Monday morning, I was sitting in his glass-windowed corner office with the rising sun beaming onto the desk between us. More than three months of late-night stress and working on weekends had finally rolled up to right now.

We were minutes away from our big presentation.

Casey’s sense of humor had carried me through all the challenges and Chinese take-out boxes leading up to today, but he had just asked me a last-minute question that made me snap. My nerves were frayed. I had no energy left.

“Why do we have an assumption in here instead of an actual figure?” he asked.

“Because Roger didn’t write back to my three emails asking him for the right number and he never gave us a number where we could call him. I tried his assistant twice and never heard back, either. It’s like he forgot we existed. You know that.”

Roger was the highly touted CEO of the oil and gas company who everybody looked up to. He was featured in flashy magazine articles and known as a people leader who espoused work-life balance while nonchalantly beating his numbers every year. Meanwhile, employees at the company told us he ate lunch in the company cafeteria, drove a beat-up truck to work, and had dinner with his kids every night.

The man was a legend.

A CLOUD OF SMOKE 

After our introductory meeting three months back I wrote Roger an email summarizing our meeting and next steps. He didn’t write back. I then took my laptop home every night in case Roger emailed with an urgent question or request. I checked email every half an hour just in case the CEO of the company ever emailed late at night asking for a project update the next morning. Just so if he ever needed something, anything, I’d be ready, I’d be there. 

But… there was nothing.

Roger had seemingly disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

In three months of working for him he didn’t write me a single email. He didn’t write Casey any emails, either. We dropped a few questions along the way but never heard back. And I had just told Casey my messages to his assistant weren’t returned, either. Now suddenly it was time for our big presentation and Casey was questioning why I didn’t have certain numbers.

I steadied my nerves as we stepped into the boardroom where Roger was sitting and chatting with our company president. He smiled and got up to shake our hands and thank us for the work we’d done. “I’m so excited,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You guys are geniuses. I’m going to learn so much from this chat.”

The anger I felt about his unresponsiveness suddenly melted. I felt like a million bucks.

We jumped into the presentation and had a great discussion. It was casual, engaging, and open. He loved it. And I couldn’t believe how relaxed everything felt. He was talking to us like old friends. After the meeting was done there was so much trust between us. So as we were packing up, I thought about it for a split second, and decided to ask him one last question.

I couldn’t help myself.

THE MAGICIAN REVEALS HIS SECRET

“Roger, thanks so much for today. We had trouble checking some numbers by you in advance. And I know we didn’t hear from you on the additional questions we had. So, just for my own learning, can I ask why you don’t write or respond to emails? How do you do that?”

His eyes opened a bit and he seemed surprised by the question. But he wasn’t fazed.

“Neil,” he said, “there’s a problem with email. After you send one the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I nodded, thinking about all the emails I got from Casey and co-workers.

“I do read emails, but the ones looking for something are always much less urgent than they seem. When I don’t respond, one of two things happens:

1.  The person figures it out on their own, or

2.  They email me again because it really was important.

Sure, I send one or two emails a day but they usually say, ‘Give me a call,’ or, ‘Let’s chat about this.’ Unless they’re from my wife. I answer all of those.”

I was very confused.

How was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of employees not emailing?

He paused to look at me and sensed I didn’t get it.

“You know what,” he continued. “Since I don’t write many emails, I don’t receive many either. I probably only get five or ten emails a day.”

THE BLACK HOLE INBOX

Five or ten emails a day?

Here I was working at a consulting company writing emails morning, noon, and night. It was the same for everyone. “My inbox has seven hundred emails,” my coworkers would say and sigh. “I did emails all Sunday afternoon.” There was no way around it. After all, our bosses sent urgent emails at 7:00 a.m. Saturday, late Sunday afternoon, or 11:00 p.m. Friday. I knew this was common in my company and others.

McKinsey had even reported that office workers spend on average 28% of their time answering emails. Almost a third. And Boomerang, one of the world’s largest email productivity services, reports the average person gets 147 emails a day.

We were all attached to our cell phones and computers, firing emails around, working hard to get everything done. Some people did Inbox Zero where the goal was to quickly delete, reply, or sort every email down to a baseline of empty. Others picked and prodded at them more. But everyone did emails. You couldn’t just ignore them. After all, it was part of the job. We all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known for having lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and driving home for dinner with his family every night.

He didn’t respond to hot potatoes.

He didn’t write back to emails and create email chains.

I looked up at Roger again, and he continued.

“Most of the time Neil,” he said, “people really do figure it out on their own. They realize they know the answer, they keep on moving, they develop confidence for next time. They become better themselves. Your assumptions in the slides today weren’t perfect, but they worked perfectly well and you learned by doing them. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes walk over to chat with a person or pick up the phone. But if I wrote back to the email, I’d be sending a hot potato. And nobody wants to be asked by their boss or a Director or a VP or the company CEO to do something… never mind on an evening or weekend. Why? Because people would drop everything to reply. And they would expect me to reply to that. Basically, if I sent an email, it would never end.”

“So I end it.”

The Black Hole Inbox means mentally thinking of your inbox like a black hole.

People may fire emails in there! Here come questions! Here come queries! Here come concerns! And all of them get precisely zero response. The emails never come back. They never see them again. They disappear into the black hole.

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Because the truth is you have only one brain.

And it can only focus deeply on only one thing at one time.

Your brain is the most incredible and complex object in the universe. We have never seen anything like it. We barely understand it. We use it, but we don’t know how we use it. When we kick, we pull our leg back and swing it forward. When we think, we just think. As Cliff once said on Cheers, “Interesting little article here. It says the average human being only uses seventeen percent of his brain. Boy, you realize what that means? We don’t use a full, uh… sixty-four percent.”

In order to focus on deep work, rich work, creative work, we need uninterrupted time. We can read our emails. Sure! Read them. But replying is what kicks off the incessant ping-ponging that never ends. Think of your inbox like a black hole and try hard, very hard, to dramatically reduce your replies. 

This is a scalable idea, too. If you get 100 a day and reply to 0? You're an all-star. Hardcore! But if you're replying to 75 today and you get it down to 50? That's a huge improvement, too. That's 25 more ping-pong balls you're not smacking back. Every single email you blackholify helps.  

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. Rose through the ranks! With huge respect from so many. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. 

I learned a few other things later on about Roger. I learned he was known internally all the way up the corporate ladder for not replying to emails. It infuriated some people! Most stopped emailing him altogether. But he created valuable Untouchable Days for his mind to think and always make sure he was doing the right things… rather than just doing things right. People loved working for him because he didn’t bog them down with micro-management. He empowered them. He grew great teams. And? He got endless promotions.

What else?

In addition to Roger’s Black Hole Inbox, I learned he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. At all.

How can you let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments? 

Start with thinking about your inbox like a black hole.

This article is adapted from my book The Happiness Equation