My Inbox Caused My Startup Burnout (Yes, Really)

About a month ago I started to feel burnt out.  It had been over three years since I had started the first iteration of Zirtual, and each day I felt like I was just keeping my head above water.

It wasn’t that things were going poorly; like any early stage business we had our challenges—but I had an amazing team and knew I should feel excited to start working each morning instead of dreading the initial boot up of my Mac.

Then it hit me.

It wasn’t work or interactions with my team or even the late hours that I was dreading… it was keeping up with the beast that had become my inbox.

Reactionary Versus Proactive Work

From the moment I woke up, I was checking my inbox. If it wasn’t on my computer, it was on my phone or iPad—and, of course, something was always “urgent.”

I’d say I was getting 100+ emails per day that required some sort of action.

By the end of the day, I was lucky if I had gotten it back to the size I’d found it that morning, pushing important things to the next day because I just couldn’t do it anymore.

As I started to feel the burn-out set in, I realized I had to do something about my reactionary inbox habits—so I started studying how to be more efficient versus carving out more time to devote to emails. Thus, switching from reactivity to proactivity.

The Findings

I spent a weekend and researched how to get started. I didn’t check my inbox for an entire 48 hours, and I could already feel my life changing. Here are some of my findings:

  1. Your best creative work is often done in the morning; thus spending the early hours responding to email is a poor use of that time.

  2. Parkinson’s Law is true for email as well: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

  3. It’s all about managing your energy, not your time (excellent lecture on that here).

I’d also highly recommend Ray Dalio’s “Principles”; it’s 150 pages of very applicable advice on creating routines and becoming disciplined to find success in all aspects of business.


Jump to present day. For the past 3 weeks I’ve been sticking to a strict Monday – Friday routine. From the moment I wake up until noon, I am absolutely forbidden to check my inbox. That 3 to 4 hours is carved out for creative time, which I use to work on important projects within Zirtual, write, and brainstorm future strategies.

Around noon I check my inbox for an hour, and if it goes over 60 minutes I log out and can’t check it again until 5pm, where I spend another 1-2 hours clearing my inbox down to zero.

This has changed my life. I wake up excited to work on creative projects that actually affect how we do business, as well as our team and clients’ lives. By noon, I have drained my proactive resources and am ready to tackle the day—email style.

Inbox Zero

Part of the trick of only checking your inbox at set times each day, is being super efficient when you’re actually in your email.  The way to achieve this mythic goal is to treat your virtual email inbox, like your real life mailbox.

If you want to dig deep into the psyche behind highly optimized organization, read GTD, it’s a tough read—but well worth it and lays a solid foundation for leading a structured business life.

Everyone within Zirtual now knows that if they need something from me asap, they should call or text, which they rarely do.

It’s not that work has gotten less busy, instead, it’s upped the bar for people sending things my way. They know that if they want an immediate answer, it better be important, and often I believe they figure it out for themselves instead.

But don’t take my word for it, a lot of people far smarter than I have wrote extensively on inbox zero here.

About the Author

Maren Kate Donovan is the CEO of Zirtual, an invite-only, highly-personalized virtual assistant service that connects busy people with dedicated executive assistants who are passionate about making their clients’ lives easier. Growing up in Las Vegas, Maren gained a passion for customer service and the world of high-end personal assistance from an early age. Maren has a background that includes biker bars, Chaucer, and has a penchant for science fiction—she’s also never met a cat she doesn’t like.

photo credit: xJason.Rogersx via photopin cc