Rather than ignore my hundreds of messages, I decided to try a productivity hack pioneered by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The man is worth almost $30 billion, so his advice is at least worth trying.
His technique is simple: respond as quickly as possible.
“Most of the best – and busiest – people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone,” he wrote in his 2014 book “How Google Works.”
Even if this is just with an emoji or two-word answer, Schmidt believes it’s better to respond quickly, rather than leave people waiting for a response. If an email requires greater thought, he’ll respond with a short reply letting them know that he’ll follow up.
Schmidt’s reply all-approach seemed like a way that I could kill both birds with the same stone, so I decided to spend a couple of hours putting it to the test.
1. I got through more than 100 emails an hour
After two hours, my unread total stood at 508 – I got through 260. How quickly you get through your inbox probably depends on who’s emailing you, and how important they are.
I gave most emails a one-sentence reply, thanking the sender, and saying I’d either follow up later or deal with their request there and then.
Few of the emails I answered required deep thinking or a lengthy response so I was able to cut through them fairly quickly. I also found it helpful to sort them into folders straight away.
2. I cheated, a little
I receive a lot of irrelevant pitches and approaches out of the blue from companies and PRs – some of these leave a lot to be desired.
If an email wasn’t addressed only to me, or would open a can of worms, I would ignore it. This made them easier to cut through.
This shortcut doesn’t follow Schmidt’s law to the letter but helped me cut through the deluge.
3. It made me feel productive, but maybe this is a con
The other benefit was in alleviating my inbox anxiety.
I could see the total steadily dropping and I felt like I was being productive. Whether I actually was or not is a matter for discussion, but I no longer had a perpetual dread that people might think I’m rude for not replying.
It would be hard to argue that an hour spent responding largely to non-urgent emails represented meaningful work. It helped me jot down a couple of potential feature ideas, but – were it not for this story – left me with little in terms of real output.
4. Emails beget more emails
It did nothing to relieve the fact that emails remain incredibly distracting. In fact, by replying to some that I otherwise would have ignored, it encouraged more emails to pop into my inbox.
Something else strange happened: I found myself subconsciously cutting punctuation, capitalization, and space from my emails in an effort to economize my time. I even pressed send on a couple that I knew contained spelling errors.
That’s OK for a quick thank you but not for a thoughtful reply.
Overall, it’s a good method for chomping through daily emails, but probably doesn’t work as a specific technique for cutting through a backlog that has accumulated over a week. It was intense and ultimately led to more work.
If you’re chasing inbox zero, it’s helpful. If you’re after a productivity boost, my conclusion is that it’s best to just let them accumulate.
If 2020 has made anything clear, it’s that billionaires aren’t going to save us — and that goes for all the millions they spend on philanthropy.
Philanthropy is currently dominated by high-net-worth individuals, and philanthropy was already serving an outsized role in American life even before the inconsistent government response to the pandemic.
Anand Giridharadas, the author whose book “Winners Take All” criticizes this overreliance, told Business Insider that instead of funneling money into causes they’re passionate about, billionaires should instead be taking less from workers.
The reliance on high-net-worth individuals for philanthropy also leaves a gap that the government needs to step in and fill.
There’s an apt metaphor for the rhetoric of “billionaires will save us” in beloved children’s cartoon “Finding Nemo.”
Our protagonists – both fish – come across sharks who paradoxically claim to be vegetarian. The sharks, to their credit, seem pretty nice. They’re trying to reform, and don’t want the fish to be scared of them. Their refrain? “Fish are friends, not food.”
They seem to be holding strong until Dory gets a nosebleed. There’s literally blood in the water; primordial instincts win out, and the sharks attack. The fish were right to be scared.
“We don’t need them to make a difference. We need them to stop making a killing at the society’s expense. We don’t need them to increase their generosity. We need them to reduce their complicity and injustice.”
Giving is still dominated by high-net-worth individuals
This week, nonprofit organizations and foundations observed Giving Tuesday. It’s a day that a grassroots movement has been increasingly successful in connecting to charitable giving after the consumer blitzes of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Giridharadas said there’s an important distinction between everyday Americans donating to causes they support and the ultrawealthy pouring huge donations into various causes. Someone donating $100 to a beloved cause is, as Giridharadas notes, “for the good” and worthy of celebration.
But ultrawealthy philanthropy is a different beast entirely, he said, because it’s “engaging in giving at a scale that is quasi-governmental in ways that often seek to erase and obscure” the ultrawealthy’s role in causing many of the social problems that they laterally become interested in solving.
Even though “Winners Take All” was published in 2018, it remains a hot-button publication, and still comes up in interviews with billionaires. In December 2020, one such billionaire, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, was asked by TIME magazine to comment on the book.
Schmidt said he hasn’t read the book, that it has been described to him, and that he thinks there’s plenty of examples to both prove and disprove its thesis. Schmidt also said that Giridharadas’ main argument, that billionaires use philanthropy to alleviate social pressure while shaping change in a way to benefit themselves, “is certainly not my goal.”
A notable Democratic donor, with close ties to the Obama White House, Schmidt acknowledged that “the American Dream is in trouble,” as the average person hasn’t been doing much better over the last decade, while “the elite, obviously including myself, have done super well.”
A representative for Schmidt declined to comment to Business Insider.
A U-shaped philanthropy curve
Research has shown there’s a “U” shape of giving, with lower-income people – particularly those making under $30,000 a year – and higher-income people giving the most.
Jacob Harold is the executive vice president of Candid, a nonprofit that helps connect people with information and data on giving. He said when looking at the numbers of how much people are giving, it’s important to recognize the distinction between giving as a percentage of income or as a percentage of wealth.
“You have folks at the lower end of the spectrum who really don’t have a lot of wealth,” Harold said. “And you also have people at the upper end of the spectrum, who are giving a lot as a percentage of their income, but actually aren’t touching their wealth, and so from that perspective are actually being less generous.”
Dianne Chipps Bailey, managing director, National Philanthropic Strategy Executive at Bank of America, said the gap is “huge,” but grassroots initiatives like Giving Tuesday can help bridge it.
Among Bailey’s clients, she said she’s seen a “significant increase in interest” in giving “to achieve racial equity.” Her team has created a four-part starting plan for impactful giving towards racial equity.
Jacqui Valouch, head of philanthropy at Deutsche Bank Wealth Management, works with high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. She told Business Insider that giving came to a halt in March, but was boosted “enormously” in the second half of the year.
Some high-net-worth individuals are calling for stricter regulations on that giving
A subset of potential megadonors have even started to call for their own power to be curtailed.
Scott Wallace is the co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, a member of the Patriotic Millionaires. This group of self-described “proud traitors to their class” wants all Americans to hold the same power as millionaires – and for its own taxes to be raised.
Wallace, who ran for Congress in 2018, told Business Insider, “if I have a choice between annoying some of the wealthiest dynasties in America by making them spend more” and “helping the people in my district be served by nonprofits,” the decision is “a total no-brainer.”
Another reform? Deductions for donor-advised funds (DAFs). Currently, someone can put assets into a DAF and deduct that full amount from their taxes immediately; all of that money is earmarked for nonprofit causes, but it could sit there for a while.
Under a related reform proposed by Wallace, DAF users would only get their tax breaks once the money leaves their account, instead of when it enters. Per Wallace, the reforms could unlock $200 billion for nonprofits – which could certainly need it this year.
But while reforms in giving could help, ultimately the government – and not billionaires – can provide the relief we need
Even if billionaires are donating meaningfully, they’re still individuals with their own interests.
Most importantly, they’re also not a replacement for the government – and that’s only become clearer with the lack of structural support in fighting coronavirus and racial inequities. A nonprofit can’t singlehandedly fend off the devastating effects of a global pandemic.
“We only will succeed with deep government involvement,” Harold said. “Even though it sounds like billionaires have a lot of money, in some ways it’s quite small compared to the trillions that the US government is able to bring to bear.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a role for billionaires. Rather than giving toward individual causes, or putting black squares on Instagram in support of racial equity, Giridharadas said they can fund programs that would benefit not just Black people, but all people – if they pay “proper taxes.”
“Are any of the wealthiest and most powerful people in our society serious about bending the arc toward justice?” Giridharadas asked. “And if so, are they willing to do the only thing that is actually going to get us there, which is fighting for the kind of systemic change that would reduce their own power?”
“And the good news is if they don’t want to do that, that’s fine. That’s sort of what I expect,” he said. “The rest of us have a way to do that – which is called democracy.”
[Editor’s note: The fifth paragraph was amended after publication to clarify that billionaires’ net worths grew by nearly $1 trillion amid the pandemic, per a report by the Institute for Policy Studies.]