Whether you are a CEO, student, or freelancer, email is something that we all have to deal with. But practice obviously does not make perfect as many people still struggle mightily to get to an empty inbox. Email is one one of the largest sources of distraction, and ends up wasting a lot of valuable time.
Which is why we are so passionate about email. For many, email is a constant source of stress that prevents them from doing their best work. It is a major problem that needs to be solved before they can feel good about what they should be doing.
If you’ve been following Asian Efficiency for awhile, you may remember the first version of our AE Email workflow which used a 3-folder system. This was effective back in 2011 when we introduced it, but email has changed a lot since then. Over the last half decade, we’ve discovered two things:
- The system worked well but quickly became overwhelming with high volumes of email, and
- There is a more effective way required to keep up with today’s increased email demands.
We received tons of feedback and we worked with dozens people one-on-one to update the workflow and and solve these problems. The result is an updated workflow that is more sustainable and effective. This new workflow is much more effective, making it easier to stay on top of your email inbox. Whether you get 20 email per day or 200, this workflow will help you escape your inbox and regain your time.
The best part about this workflow is that it will work with just about any email client or operating system. So whether you use Outlook on a PC, the default email client on your smartphone, or something like Postbox for the Mac, you can use this workflow to take back your inbox and reclaim hours from your day.
To ensure you get the most out of this email workflow, there are three simple concepts you need to understand.
What is Inbox Zero?
The first concept to grasp is called Inbox Zero. You may have heard the term inbox zero before, but it’s not just an empty inbox. This is the end result we want to shoot for, but Inbox Zero is much more than just emptying your inbox. Just because you have 0 messages in your inbox right now doesn’t mean you can stay there with any sort of consistency. You might have spent all day cleaning things out to get there, or maybe you just nuked your inbox because you were so overwhelmed. Both of these scenarios may provide temporary relief, but you haven’t solved the real problem. So we have to dig a little bit deeper if we really want to understand what Inbox Zero really looks like.
Inbox Zero is really a state of mind. It’s a sense of control and calm that comes from knowing that you are ready for whatever life throws at you. 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. Email is a todo list other people can write on, but when you achieve Inbox Zero you feel ready for anything someone might request of you. You don’t get rattled when your boss or coworker asks you to do something because you have a trusted system in place so that you can deal with everything you need to do appropriately.
In short, Inbox Zero is:
- 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 don’t want to get distracted, so you work on your Most Important Task (MIT) before you check your email. Fast forward an hour and you’re finished with your MIT. You’re now ready to dive into your email client and see what other people need from you. Instead of feeling anxious what might be waiting for you, it doesn’t stress you out anymore. That unread badge doesn’t intimidate you – it’s just a meaningless number.
This state of mind is proof that you’ve really reached Inbox Zero. You have no anxiety around email, the number of emails you have to process doesn’t faze you whatsoever. It’s a sign that you have an email system in place that you trust and that you feel confident using it. That’s really what the concept of Inbox Zero represents.
This article will be your starting point on getting there. We have short video course which will show you exactly how to implement this if you want to go even deeper, but this post will get you started right now if you want to get email inbox under control.
With Inbox Zero out the of the way, the second concept you need to understand is the Touch-It-Once principle.
What is Touch-It-Once?
You can probably guess what the Touch-It-Once principle is all about: whenever you have to make a decision about something, you make it right away. You don’t put it off and come back to it later. You touch it once, take the appropriate action (even if it’s just moving the email message to the appropriate container), and move on to the next thing.
When you touch something more than once, you end up wasting a lot of time. Have you ever looked at a bill more than once and thinking you should pay it before you forget again? 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, “I’ll reply to it later.” You know what happens? I keep thinking about that text message over and over until I finally end up replying (if at all, sometimes I completely forget and it looks like I’ve ignored them). This approach though is a waste of brainpower, willpower, and attention. What I should do is reply right away. With text messages, it should be pretty straightforward because the messages are short.
But it’s a little more complicated when it comes to email because we feel like we’re supposed to reply to it later. But it’s even more important that we apply this mindset to email because of the sheer volume of email that we have to deal with every day. 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 do something with them.
That’s a lot of unnecessary stress, and that’s why the Touch-It-Once principle is so important when you deal with email. To take this even further, let me introduce you to the 2-Minute Rule.
What is the 2-Minute Rule?
If you’ve read the book Getting Things Done (or any material on GTD), you’ve probably heard of this rule before. It’s simple: whenever you have to do something, if it takes less than 2 minutes to do, you should do it right away. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, then you should put it on your todo list (or into your task manager) and move on to the next thing.
This concept is especially important when it comes to dealing with email. If you can process an email in less than 2 minutes, it’s generally better to do it right away. Otherwise, you should put it in your task manager to deal with later. But no matter what action you take, the next step is to get it out of your inbox so you don’t have to make this decision about what to do with it more than once.
This is really important. When you combine the Touch-It-Once principle with the 2 Minute Rule (2MR), you have the 80/20 of handling emails efficiently.
If there’s nothing else you learn from this post, just remember this simple formula. Even if you don’t implement the email workflow I’m about to show you and you only apply these two concepts (TIO and 2MR) you’ll still have much less email-related stress to deal with.
This is where the idea of email triage comes in. The word “triage” is actually a medical term that originated in the Napoleonic War. It is used to define the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on their severity of their current health condition. Wounded soldiers were quickly classified into one of 3 categories:
- Those who were likely to live, regardless of what care they received,
- Those who were unlikely to live, regardless of what care they received, and
- Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in the outcome.
The basic takeaway as it applies to email is this: we want to create a system that allows us to deal with the truly urgent and important emails efficiently, and everything else we want to put into the appropriate container to deal with it later. And that container to deal with it later should NEVER be your inbox! Your email inbox is completely incapable of telling you when something is supposed to be done (like a task manager) and it’s not made for locating files and attachments easily (like a reference file). That means that if you leave it in your inbox, you have to go through the whole decision process and figure out what the message is and what you’re supposed to do with it by when every time you look at it.
So let’s look at how to do that with the email workflow itself.
The Email Triage 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%? It’s the process that we teach in our email course that will help you locate emails faster when you need to do something with them and the tips & tricks you need to really help you trust your system if you get a lot of email. If you really want to take your email processing to the next level, you’ll want to check out the course. But what I’m about to show you is the majority of what you need to know to get and keep inbox zero for most people.)
Here’s how to handle an email that requires you to do something with it:
Let me walk you through the diagram.
- When you open your email app, you commit to processing your email.
- You open each email and ask, “Do I need to do something?”
- If you do need to take action, the 2 Minute Rule kicks in and you ask yourself, “does it take less than 2 minutes to process this email?”
- If “Yes,” it’s best to reply right away, archive the message, and move on to the next email
- If “No,” then put it on your todo list, archive it and move on to the next email.
Now let’s go talk about a different kind of email message – one you don’t need to take action on:
Here’s how to handle something you don’t need to take action on right now:
- Again, you open the email and ask, “Do I need to do something?”
- If the answer is “No,” the next question is, “Will I need this later?”
- If the answer to this question is “No,” then feel free to just delete it.
- If the answer is “Yes,” then put the message in a reference file so you can find it later when you need it, archive it and move on to the next email.
Pretty straightforward, right? But there is one more type of email that we need to define here that falls somewhere in between…
This is the thing we discovered from working with people one-on-one to help them get control of their email. We discovered that while Getting Things Done or GTD gave us a solid framework for the first 2 types of email, this third one is the one that caused email to back up in people’s inboxes more than any other. So what is it? It’s an email that you want to read later (many newsletters fall into this category).
So how do you deal with this type of email? It’s actually quite easy.
Here’s how to handle information you want to read later so it doesn’t pile up in your inbox:
- Again, you open the email and ask, “Do I need to do something?”
- If the answer is “Read it Later,” then you need to send it to a Read-It-Later service so you can read it later when you want to, archive it and move on to the next email.
So which Read-It-Later service should you use? We recommend Instapaper because it gives you an “email drop” address that you can forward emails to if you want them to appear in your queue for later. Pocket, the other popular Read-It-Later service, doesn’t have this feature, which makes it impossible for this email workflow.
Here’s the whole thing:
Brooks and I recorded a podcast episode on this new workflow if you want to learn more about it:
One thing worth mentioning here is that sometimes you don’t want to reply right away when you open an email – even if it will take you less than 2 minutes to do so. That’s ok, you can modify the workflow above by replacing the question, “will it take less than 2 minutes to process this email?” with the question, “do I want to reply right now?” The rest of the workflow can stay exactly the same.
As you can see, this isn’t a complicated workflow. Each time you get an email, you touch it once and use the 2-minute rule to determine what to do with it.
But what makes this email workflow work is setting aside time to process your email. In other words, you can’t randomly check email throughout the day and apply this workflow correctly. It might still work, 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. When you do check your email often, you’ll find yourself cheating on this workflow instead of processing things completely and breaking both the Touch-It-Once principle and 2 Minute Rule it’s built upon.
Ideally, you’d only check your email once per day. However, this won’t work for many people and instead we recommend checking email twice a day – once after you eat your frog, and another time before you finish your workday. In between is when you do your high-value work.
In the past, I’ve picked 11 am and 4 pm as my email time slots.
“What about…?” – Frequently Asked Email Questions
At this point, you might have a couple questions about the email workflow. Here are the answers to the common questions we get asked all the time about this workflow.
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 daily, 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 understand that you’re the exception. For most people, I still recommend eating your frog first thing in the morning and then checking your email.
Which email client / app do you recommend?
This a topic that comes up in our productivity community, The Dojo, all the time. There are many email programs out there, but here are some favorites.
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 the apps ourselves.
Our personal belief is that it’s pointless to use a todo list app that doesn’t integrate with your email client. A lot of things you have to do will come through email so it makes sense that whichever todo list app or task manager you decide to 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’s the most powerful and it works smoothly with almost all email clients on the Mac.
Maybe you hate OmniFocus or you’re already using another task manager. Are you now doomed? No, absolutely not. Here’s what we recommend:
- 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”.
- If there’s an integration, great! Learn how to use it and you’ll be #AsianEfficient.
- If there isn’t an 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 probably the easier option.
I have thousands of unread emails right now. How do I get started with this workflow?
I feel your pain! But don’t freak out. Here’s our 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.
- Just archive anything older than 30 days.
You may feel uncomfortable with this advice, but here’s the reasoning behind this recommendation: you aren’t getting to those emails anyway! The bottom line is that 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 to warrant your attention and it’s too old to deal with so you can safely archive those emails.
What do you do when you’re waiting for a reply from someone?
In the first version of this workflow, we recommended a folder called “Waiting” where you put all emails in that you’re waiting for a reply. This works really well, but only if you’re disciplined and committed to using it. The problem we’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. 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 the idea of contexts (like most apps), you can change the name of the task to start with something like “Waiting For”. For example, “Waiting for Brooks to get back on a proposal” or “Waiting for Thanh to confirm Q4 Dates.” You get bonus points if you use TextExpander snippets for this.
How do you deal with “sent emails” that require a response?
It’s very simple: it’s really just another task on your todo list. Whenever you send an email and you’re waiting for a response, you should create a task and don’t check it off until the desired outcome has reached.
If you’ve read the answer to the previous question, the same principle applies here. Here’s an example. I’ll send an email to team member Brooks with a question on when the next blog post will go live. I’ll then create a task “Waiting for Brooks 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 within two days from now, then that becomes the due date.
At this point, Brooks and I can have multiple back and forth emails. I might shift the due date anytime based on our conversation. Brooks 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.
However, there’s an ever better way to do this with a SaneBox subscription.
SaneBox has a special folder called “SaneNoReplies” which shows you all the emails that never got a response in one place. And if you wanted the email to pop into your inbox automatically after a set period with no reply, you can use the SaneReminders feature instead. All you have to do is add something like “[email protected]” in the BCC field and SaneBox will bring the message back to your inbox in 1 week, but only if you don’t receive a reply. If the person does reply, the reminder goes away.
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.
The best way to speed up processing a large number of emails is to set up email rules or filters. The process is different depending on the application and service you decide to use, but the basic principle is this: Let your email server or client automatically pre-sort your emails into piles so you can go through them more quickly. For example, you could set up an email rule or filter that collected all the messages that you are CC’d on (that you probably don’t need to read very thoroughly). Or you could set up a filter for all the messages that contain the word “Unsubscribe” so that you can trim down the number of newsletters and offers you get.
Also keep in mind that the more email you receive, the more important the concept of triage becomes. Since you won’t be able to spend a considerable amount of time with every message you receive, you need to quickly identify the ones that will require your attention and be ok with getting rid of everything else that isn’t important.
How do you feel about checking email on your phone?
If you can get away with, don’t do it. The smartphone is not a good tool for reading or replying to message. The small keyboard makes it easy to mistype, which makes you look unprofessional at best and like a fool at worst. Your computer is much more efficient.
If you must use your smartphone for email, it’s best to use it for triaging. We explained triaging up above, but we can modify this approach slightly and use swipe gestures to quickly send messages to the appropriate place. When checking email on your mobile device, you should divide your messages into one of three categories:
- Messages that will have a positive outcome no matter when we respond,
- Messages that will have a negative outcome no matter when we respond, and
- Messages that with an immediate response might make a positive difference in the outcome.
Your mobile device fits into this triage analogy perfectly because it allows you to take action when needed at any time. So in a perfect world, you would only get notifications on your mobile device for something that was absolutely urgent. You could send a quick reply, then go back to what you were doing. You would be able to feel confident that every notification you got was important because you would have them set up so that you were NEVER notified of anything non-important. The problem for most people is that they never bother to tame their notifications on their mobile device. This makes them feel like they need to check it all the time. Because even one missed notification or important email could have a negative impact, there is pressure to look at every single thing that comes in. This is the real reason why the average American to unlocks their smartphone over 180 times per day, and opens the door to a barrage of potential distractions and interruptions. Therefore, you want to turn off notifications for everything except the most important messages you receive.
I am a “folder person”. Does this mean you don’t recommend using folders in emails?
That’s correct – we don’t recommend that you use folders to store your emails. anymore. Here’s why:
If you have traditionally filed everything strategically into folders based on client or project, this may be difficult. It can take a little while to get to the point where you really trust your ability to find that needle in the haystack. But with the technology-based tools available to us today, searching is definitely the most efficient way to find what you’re looking for. In fact, IBM did a study where they found that people who searched for messages found them more quickly than those who found them via folder-based filing systems by about 15s on average, and that didn’t even take into account the additional decisions you have to make when filing the messages in the first place. You’re definitely going to want to get good at searching and there are some basic search principles that will help you find what you’re looking for even faster.
And if you want suggestions and tips for crafting more efficient searches to find your emails even faster, we cover that in our email course.
If you want to take your email processing to the next-level, check out Inbox Detox. In this 5-Step video course series we will show you how to manage, maintain, and clean up your inbox…and stay there…without worrying or missing out on any important emails…in just one afternoon. We will show you how to confidently and quickly process your emails in under 30 minutes a day, so that you will always have peace of mind knowing you’re on top everything.
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