This is one of the most common questions I get and something that took me literally over 6 years to figure out.
I thought I had a good system for 3 years until one day it broke down and it cost me dearly.
Here’s what happened. If I got an email that required a lengthy response or needed me to do something else, I would turn it back to unread so I could deal with it again on my computer.
It goes against the touch-it-once principle but back then I didn’t know any better. This was when task manager integrations didn’t exist and that was the best thing I could do. It worked fine…until one day I missed a crucial email.
That was an email from a bank.
My credit card payment was due in a couple days. I saw the email in the backseat of a cab but I somehow got distracted and forgot to turn the email back to unread.
A couple days later I got a call. It was the bank.
The rep told me that I was overdue and that I needed to pay my credit card bill. My mind was racing because it wasn’t that the money was an issue. It was that I was late and that it would affect my credit score.
Having a late payment on the record would spike all sorts of rates and look bad on all fronts. That was the part that was freaking me out.
I begged the rep to remove the late payment record and not report it. Luckily, she did.
This all happened because I forgot to turn one email back to unread.
Since then, I was determined to never let that happen again. First, I set up automated payments.
Second, I had to rethink my email strategy. Whenever there’s pain, there’s change. This experience was painful enough that I didn’t want to go through this again.
This dark period that lasted almost a year because all sorts of productivity workflows started to come into the scene. Back then I also hadn’t figured out my task manager workflow (that eventually turned out to be what’s now in OmniFocus Premium Posts). There was no integration between email and todo lists so it was really challenging to figure out a better workflow.
Fast forward today and the landscape has changed. Integration with task managers is rising but still at its early stages on mobile devices. It’s looking promising but it’s nowhere near what we see on the desktop.
So how then do you deal effectively with email on a phone?
The answer is actually something Napoleon Bonaparte figured out.
A Lesson from Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte was an emperor during the French Revolution in the 19th century. He rallied thousands of soldiers to fight alongside him and ruled large parts of Europe thanks to his swift strategy and tactics.
One of Napoleon’s tricks of the trade was how he (and his medical staff) dealt with wounded soldiers. Whenever a wounded soldier was sent to the medical staff, they would quickly assess what to do. Every soldier would fall in one of three categories:
- The soldier will die no matter what we do.
- Regardless of what we do, the soldier will survive.
- An immediate intervention is needed if we want this soldier to survive.
This 3-step process allowed them to effectively and efficiently deal with soldiers.
For the first group, they would make their pain go away as much as possible while caring for them with very little attention. The second group of soldiers would usually be waiting for hours and hours until they got any form of treatment because…the last category of soldiers would always get first priority of the medical staff.
This simple process became known as triaging. Think of it as a process to quickly determine the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition.
It turns out that this approach also translates to how you best manage email on your mobile device.
The Email Triage Workflow
When you’re dealing with email on the phone, you can categorize emails in three buckets:
- Emails that aren’t important and can be archived/deleted.
- Emails that need a response but can be arranged at a later time
- Emails that are urgent and need your reply right away
Just like the medical staff would do a quick assessment, so should you. When you fire up your email app on your phone, the first thing you want to do is to assess the situation.
1. Assess the Situation
Your goal shouldn’t be to have inbox zero. It’s to be in control and get an idea of what is going on in your inbox.
The easiest thing to do is to trim the fat. Delete emails that aren’t important like that newsletter you keep forgetting to unsubscribe from. Some examples from my own inbox would include:
- Flash deals from clothing websites I recently purchased from (they always assume you want more emails after you bought from them)
- Surveys and feedback forms from airlines I’ve recently flown
- Reminders for me to finish downloading or using an app
These are the kind of emails I usually archive right away without thinking about it. If it’s annoying enough, I might unsubscribe from it on my phone.
In short, any email that falls under category 1 is archived or deleted without much thought.
2. Prioritize The Remaining Emails
Once the fat is gone and you have an idea of what’s going on…now you can prioritize. This requires a bit of skill but what you’re doing is you’re reading every subject line and distinguish which emails are urgent and which ones aren’t.
In most situations, you don’t have much time to deal with every remaining email so you have to carefully select which you think are urgent emails. Be prepared to deal with them as you open them one by one, but keep in mind that the small software keyboard is inefficient for anything more than quick responses. Anything that requires a longer reply but can wait should go to your task manager so you can deal with it later.
3. Take Care of the Urgent First
Just like Napoleon’s doctors would address the heavily wounded soldiers first, so will we when it comes to urgent emails.
Open the urgent ones and deal with it right away. This doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily replying to everything. It simply means that you’ll process them as you need to.
You might reply briefly but still need to properly deal with it later again. For example, someone might ask you for you to review a time-sensitive contract. You could reply saying “I got it and will review it later in the afternoon when I’m at my desk”.
This is where touching it once becomes important. The mistake I made in the past is that I would open emails and turn them back to unread. Don’t make this mistake. Touch it once.
After you’ve replied, immediately move it over to your todo list. This is where an app such as Dispatch shines. It integrates with OmniFocus and other task managers so you can immediately put the email as a task on your todo list.
By the time you get the office, your todo list is ready to rock and roll.
This is where default email apps on most phones fall short. They don’t integrate with task managers so you either have to star/flag the email, turn it back to unread or do something else creative to revisit the email. It violates the touch it once principle and it’s less efficient than it should be. It’s also more prone to mistakes (like I forgot to turn it back to unread). To some people, if you flag or star it, it might feel like another list you have to remember and manage.
For this exact reason, we always recommend that whichever email app you choose, desktop and mobile, always pick the one that works together with your todo list app. If you miss this integration, you’re really shooting yourself in the foot.
4. Keep the Rest for Later
Remember the second category of soldiers? They were the ones that would survive no matter what.
After you’ve prioritized your emails and took care of the urgent ones, you’re still left with a bunch of emails that need your attention at some point. It’s fine to keep those unread and for you to deal with later when it’s convenient.
At this point, you should be on top of your inbox. Remember, the goal isn’t to get to inbox zero but to be aware of what’s going on in your inbox and addressing the urgent.
This is what I, and other Asian Efficiency team members, have found to be the most Asian Efficient way to deal with email on your mobile devices. This is our recommended Email Triage approach.
Advanced Email Triaging Tips and Tricks
Since I’ve had the advantage of triaging tens of thousands of emails at this point, I want to share a couple advanced tips and tricks. These are things I wish I knew earlier and I hope these will save you a lot of time.
In no particular order:
- In my ideal world, I don’t look at email on my phone at all. I try to be present and engaged with what’s going on in front of me. Kill the need to check email all the time. It’s not that important, really. When you have a trusted system, you don’t have to deal with email on your phone.
- Only triage emails if you have the time and focus for it. If you know that no interruption is coming up, it’s okay to triage. This should be the exception rather than the rule. The only times I personally do it is when I’m waiting at the gate for a plane or I’m really bored. The rest of the time I try to not check email and just live life.
- For the iPhone, get Dispatch. It’s the best email client out there. It integrates with OmniFocus and other todo list apps.
More Email Tips
If you want more tips and hacks for dealing with email, make sure you subscribe for updates on the Escape Your Email. We have an email system that allows you to spend only 30 minutes a day on email. Sign up here and we’ll let you know when it’s available.
Here’s a sneak peek of what we’ve been working hard on the last several months (this is the actual FULL triaging video from the course):
You’re probably already doing some variation of triaging but now that you have a better understanding of it, I hope that it shows you how you can make it even better. It’s not rocket science but one tweak can save you hours of time and frustration. What’s the tweak you’re making based on this? Let me know in the comments.
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