Managing your email has become an important part of modern knowledge work. As common as it is for everyone to have email, most people still do not know how to properly manage their inboxes. People often complain that email is one of their largest sources of distractions, and that using email ends up wasting a lot of valuable time.
When we first started Asian Efficiency, we introduced our Asian Efficiency Email Workflow that showed you how to manage your email inbox with a 3-folder system. This was effective back in 2011 but over the last half decade we’ve discovered two things:
- The system worked well if you dealt with fewer than 20 emails a day but as soon as you got more, it would be too overwhelming and the system broke down.
- There is a more effective way to deal with email by using an integrated todo list that is required to keep up with today’s work demands.
This is based on hundreds of emails we’ve received from AE readers and our own experience working with coaching clients.
Based on the feedback we’ve received, we’ve tweaked the workflow that now is more sustainable and effective. Whether you get 20 or 100 daily emails, this new workflow is much more effective and you’ll be able to deal with email in less than an hour a day.
Let’s face it. None of us want to spend time in our email app. We all have more important and fun things to do.
For the sake of this article, I will use Gmail. You can apply this to any other email provider (Yahoo!, Hotmail, and so on) or email clients (Apple Mail, Postbox, Mailplane, Microsoft Outlook, etc). If you use something else than Gmail, don’t panic. You can use the same workflow for your email provider or application.
To ensure you get the most out of this email workflow, there are three simple concepts I need you to understand.
What is Inbox Zero?
The first concept to grasp is Inbox Zero. As the name might imply, it’s an empty email inbox. This is the result we want to shoot for, but when we refer to Inbox Zero we mean the concept.
And that is not just an empty inbox. Inbox Zero is much more than just getting your email inbox unread count down to 0.
We need a way to process inputs efficiently. It’s about tying up all the loose ends that can cause you to stress out because you’re worried about what you might be forgetting to do. It’s about putting a trusted system in place so that you can deal with everything you need to do appropriately.
Thus, Inbox Zero is a state of mind. It’s…
- Being able to trust that the system you’ve decided to use to process email is working efficiently and everything is filed in the appropriate place.
- Having an efficient process for dealing with all the inputs in your life.
- Gathering all the information you want to keep and all the things you have to do in a way that won’t drive you crazy and having systems in place to put things away where they belong.
Imagine this scenario. You just arrived at the office and you’re about to start your day. You’re a smart person because you read our Eat That Frog methodology so you know the first thing you don’t do is check your email. You first work on your Most Important Task (MIT) before you check email. Fast forward an hour and you’re finished with your MIT. You’re now ready to dive into your email client. Instead of feeling anxious what that red unread number might go up to, it doesn’t stress you out anymore. That number doesn’t mean anything to you. It’s a meaningless number.
When you can reach that state, that’s when you have Inbox Zero in place. You have absolutely no anxiety around email and the unread number of emails doesn’t faze you whatsoever. It’s a sign that you have an email system in place that you trust and are competent to use. That’s what the concept of Inbox Zero represents.
This article will be your starting point on getting there. We’re finalizing a course on email management that’s coming out later this year that goes in more depth and reveals a more advanced email system, but this post will show you the simplified version that anyone can use right now to get their email inbox under control.
With Inbox Zero out the of the way, the second concept I need to you to grasp is the Touch-It-Once principle.
What is Touch-It-Once?
You’re smart so you probably already derived what this concept means:
Whenever you have to deal with something, you deal with it right away. You don’t postpone it and come back to it. You touch it once and move on to the next thing.
We have a whole post about the Touch-It-Once (TIO) principle but the above definition will suffice for this post (but definitely read the post for mind expansion).
When you touch something more than once, you’re wasting a lot of time. Have you ever looked at a bill twice? Maybe three times? Sometimes four times before you ended up paying it?
What about that text message you’ve reread multiple times? I’m sometimes guilty of this myself. Sometimes I’ll get a text message, read it and then say “let me reply to it later”. You know what happens? I keep thinking about that text message a bazillion times before I end up replying (if it all, sometimes I completely forget and look like I ignored them). It’s a waste of brainpower, willpower, and attention. What I should do is reply right away (and luckily I do now). With text messages, it should be pretty straightforward because the messages are short.
Can you see how this applies to email? I’d argue that it’s even more important for email because of the volume we have to deal with. Imagine you read 10 emails and you decide at some point to reply to them later. That’s 10 thoughts, reminders and stress points for you to deal with it every second you don’t address it.
That’s a lot of unnecessary stress and that’s why the Touch-It-Once principle is so important when you deal with email. This…combined with the 2-Minute Rule.
What is the 2-Minute Rule?
If you’ve read the book Getting Things Done (GTD) or any material on GTD, you’ve heard of this rule before. It’s simple: Whenever you get something to deal with, if it takes less than 2 minutes to do…do it right away. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, then put it on your todo list and move on to the next item.
This same concept also applies to emails. If you can process an email in less than 2 minutes, do it right away. Otherwise, put it on your todo list.
When you combine the Touch-It-Once principle with the 2 Minute Rule (2MR), you have the 80/20 of handling emails efficiently.
TIO + 2MR = Asian Efficient skills for processing emails
If there’s nothing else you learn from this post, just remember that little formula. Even if you don’t learn the email workflow I’m about to show you and you only apply these two concepts (TIO and 2MR)…you’re still more Asian Efficient than the majority of people out there and you’ll deal with way less email stress.
But let’s now dive into the technical part – the email workflow.
The Asian Efficiency Email Workflow
You now have the 80/20 of email management – 20% of the things you need to know to get 80% of the results. The email workflow will fill in the other gaps that will get you to 95% of the results you’re looking for.
(What’s the remaining 5%? That’s an advanced email workflow we will teach in our email course that shows you automation rules, automated filters, todo list and calendar integration and much more. It’s highly technical and only needed for a small group of people who get hundreds of daily emails and live/die by email for their work/business.)
Here’s a flowchart of how the email workflow works:
Let me walk you through the diagram.
- When you open your email app, you commit to process your email.
- You open an email and now you have to make a decision (next step).
- The 2 Minute Rule kicks in: does it take less than 2 minutes to process this email?
3a. Yes, reply right away, archive it and move on to the next email.
3b. No, put it on your todo list, archive it and move on to the next email.
- Repeat starting at step 2.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Quick note: If you’ve used our previous email workflow, this is an updated version that is quite different. As you can see, we got rid of the folder structure (Reply, Waiting, Archive). The old workflow is still a good workflow but it has a couple disadvantages: 1) it doesn’t work when you get a lot of emails 2) you have to remind yourself to check those folders when you’ve moved emails. Based on our experiences with coaching clients who started to get more than 20 daily emails, they got overwhelmed and often forgot to reply to emails because they were “out of sight, out of mind” due to the folder structure. That’s why in this new email workflow, we got rid of the folder structure and recommend a todo list to use alongside your email client.
One thing I want to mention, that is an advanced concept, is that sometimes you don’t want to reply right away when you open an email. As you can see in step 3 in the diagram, the text says “do I want to reply right now?”. It’s there on purpose. I want to stress that it’s the exception rather than the rule for two reasons.
First, sometimes it’s a good idea not to reply right away so you don’t condition others that you always reply to emails quickly. Sometimes you have people in your life that overwhelm you with (unnecessary email) and this is a subtle way of telling them “call me or come see me if you need me, otherwise I’m too busy creating value”.
Second, there might be times when you can reply within 2 minutes but it might require you to leave your email client. This could kill your productivity so you decide to address it later. I do this sometimes with anything considered easy to do, low value and isn’t time sensitive.
However, if you can reply within 2 minutes do it right away.
As you can see, it’s a really simple workflow. Each time you get an email, you touch it once and use the 2 minute rule to determine what to do with it.
What makes this email workflow work is that you have to set aside time to process your email. In other words, you don’t randomly check email throughout the day and apply this workflow. It still works, but it’s highly inefficient because you miss the power of batching. Processing 25 emails at once is 10x more efficient than processing 5 emails in 5 attempts.
Personally, I check email only once a day which is at 4pm. However, I don’t recommend this for most people because my situation is very unique. For clients and readers like you, I recommend checking email twice a day. Once after you ate your frog and another time before you finish your workday. In between is when you do your high value work.
In the past, I picked 11am and 4pm as my email time slots.
“What about….?” Let me answer common questions people have about this email workflow
At this point, you might have a couple questions about the email workflow. Here are the common questions I get coupled with my answers.
I work in a company where everyone expects a fast response to an email. Does this still work for me?
Yes, it just means that you have to check your email more often. Instead of twice day, maybe it’s 4 or 5 times a day. Maybe it’s every hour.
If you’re in a role where email dictates everything, such as customer service or sales, this workflow works just as well because the key thing is that you have peace of mind knowing that all email is handled properly. You’ve either replied to it right away or it’s on your todo list (and from there you can prioritize).
When you’re in that role it’s important to accept that email dictates your work. Eating your frog first thing in the morning might not apply to you because everything at work is done through email. That’s okay, just accept that you’re the exception. For most people, I still recommend eating your frog first thing in the morning and then check email.
Which email client / app do you recommend?
For Windows…none of us on the AE team use Windows so I don’t know.
Which todo list app do you recommend?
One thing we always take into consideration at Asian Efficiency is that the apps you use have to work together within an ecosystem. Integration between apps is a key factor whenever we make an app recommendation and use apps ourselves.
It’s pointless to use a todo list app that doesn’t integrate with your email client. A lot of tasks come through email so it makes sense that whichever todo list app you use, that it integrates with your email client.
If you’re using a task manager that doesn’t integrate with your email client, you end up copying and moving tasks around all the time. It’s a lot retyping, reorganizing tasks that are out of sync and overall there’s a lot of friction. Does this sound familiar? Then you might want to reconsider which task manager or email client you use.
On the Mac, we recommend OmniFocus. It integrates very well with the majority of email apps. We have a whole course on how to use OmniFocus and we recommend the app to everyone because it’s the most powerful and it works smoothly with almost all email clients on the Mac.
Maybe you hate OmniFocus or you’re already on another app. Are you now doomed? No, absolutely not. Here’s what I would do:
- Find out if your current task manager integrates with your current email client. Just search for “(your todo list app) (your email app)” and see what shows up, e.g. “todoist postbox” or “wunderlist apple mail”.
- If there’s an integration, great! Learn how to use it and you’ll be #AsianEfficient.
- If there’s no integration, reconsider either 1) switching your task manager or 2) switching your email client that works with your task manager. Of the two, switching email clients is the easier option.
Quick note: Sometimes there might be a little hack with Popclip where you can bridge the two but it’s a rare exception.
I have thousands of unread emails right now. How do I get started with this workflow?
I feel your pain! I’m happy that you’re here and committed to getting this addressed. Here’s my recommendation:
- Go through emails that have been sent in the last 30 days. Only process those. Even if it’s in the hundreds, process those emails because they are the most important to deal with.
- Anything older than 30 days, you can safely archive them.
The idea behind it is this: if it’s an important email, it’ll come back to you. Either someone will follow up with you or it’ll somehow catch your attention (which then you can use the search function to find an email). Otherwise, it’s not important enough and it’s too old to deal with so you can safely archive those emails.
I know this might sound scary, but I’ve advised hundreds of people to do this and they had success with it without any repercussions.
What do you do when you’re waiting for a reply from someone?
In the past, we recommended a folder called “Waiting” where you put all emails in that you’re waiting for a reply. This works really well if you’re disciplined and committed to it. I used this approach for many years where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I would go to my Waiting folder at my 4pm and follow up with people.
It’s still a viable option but the problem I’ve seen people have with this is that they forget that folder exists or they forget to check it frequently. It goes back to the whole idea of “out of sight, out of mind”. The reason people leave emails in their inbox is because they can see it. They know that when they login, they will see everything they need in their inbox.
With an extra folder, you have to know and remind yourself that you have to frequently go in there and process emails. For some people that’s not a problem, but based on customer service emails, my experience with clients and tons of people we’ve talked to…that extra folder is often ignored or forgotten.
The solution is to have those emails on your todo list. Preferably you use an app for this because with paper it’s hard to keep track of emails where you are waiting for a reply.
If you use OmniFocus you can use a specific context, i.e. “Waiting For”, to track those emails. If you use another app and it doesn’t use contexts (like most apps), you can change the name of the task to start with something like “Waiting X”. For example, “Waiting for Mike to get back on a proposal” or “Waiting on Kristin’s reply to second date”. You get bonus points if you use TextExpander snippets for this.
In our advanced email workflow inside our upcoming course, we’ll have a more specific tech solution that’s very smooth, automated, integrated and foolproof but the basic idea is the same.
How do you deal with “sent emails” that require a response?
Very simple: it’s another task on your todo list. Whenever you send an email and you’re waiting for a response, create a task and you don’t check it off until the desired outcome has reached.
If you’ve read the answer to my previous question, it’s the same thing. Here’s an example. I’ll send an email to team member Mike with a question on when the next blog post will go live. I’ll then create a task “Waiting for Mike re: next blog post date”. Since I use OmniFocus, I’ll assign the context “Waiting for – Mike” (it’s a sub-context of “Waiting For”) so I can track it. If need a response by a certain date, I’ll set that as a due date. So if I need a response by two days from now, then that becomes the due date.
At this point, Mike and I can have multiple back and forth emails. I might shift the due date anytime based on our conversation. Mike might have said “Let me back to you on that in 3 days” then I could shift my due date based on that answer.
I won’t put a checkmark on the task until the desired outcome has been reached. As soon as I know when the next blog post goes live, then I’ll check it off.
This looks great but I get over a hundred emails a day. Wouldn’t this add too much friction to my workflow? I’m afraid I’ll be spending more time managing email than getting stuff done.
This is a fair concern and it’s something we address in our advanced email workflow that’s in our upcoming course. We’ve worked with people who get so much email that they’re switching back and forth between their email app and task manager all day long.
This will happen but it’s the most secure way of knowing that you have everything handled and taken care of. Does it require a bit more work? Absolutely, but you can also leave work and go to bed knowing that everything has been addressed and is being tracked. There are no open loops in your head such as “Did I reply to that?”, “Did I miss out on an important email?”, “Did she ever follow up with me?”
Is a little extra work worth it to have that peace of mind? Based on our clients’ success, absolutely.
However, I do want to point out that if you get more than 100 emails a day, there’s a big opportunity streamline that. I’ll bet my precious Macbook Pro that most of those emails are automated and low priority. They might be status updates, automated notifications, industry news, newsletters and such. Most of these emails can be filtered out and easily processed in batches with specific filters and rules (something we cover in our course).
I am a “folder person”. Does this mean you don’t recommend using folders in emails?
I used to be a folders person too until I realized the diminshed value they had. Back in the day I had folders for specific clients, receipts, account information and so on.
Nowadays I don’t have any. What’s changed?
This could be a whole blog post by itself but the main thing I’ve realized is that information shouldn’t be stored in your email account. It should be stored in a proper “container” and you must create personal systems around it. Anything that you do need to reference in your inbox can be quickly found with a simple search.
For example, maybe you store username and passwords in your email client (like when you sign up for courses or online stores). I now move them over to 1Password (or Lastpass if it’s AE related) so I can quickly login to websites and not need to find them in my email app.
If you’ve ever had to reference something in your inbox (like a login username/password) multiple times, I’m sure you’ve gotten distracted by other emails. Whenever you open your email client, its sole purpose should be to process email. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted. There’s no such thing as “let me quickly find this piece of information somewhere in my inbox” because what inevitably will happen is that you’ll see other unread emails and you’ll get easily get distracted. Before you know it, you end up wasting an hour just dealing with email while you should have done something else.
That’s why I advocate that you store (frequently used) references outside your email client. Another example of this is receipts. They now get forwarded to our bookkeeper. In the past, I would put it in the receipts folder and then at the end of the year go through it like a stressed out maniac for taxes and such. It was so inefficient that I created a new system where now I hired a bookkeeper so I can just forward any receipt email I get and it’ll be taken care of.
What about attachments? I drop them in Evernote (or Dropbox depending on file size).
When it comes to clients, I deal with them in my task manager. I’ll have folders in my task manager related to the client so I can keep track of them.
Got more questions?
If you have any questions about the email workflow, post them below and I’ll reply.
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