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Lisa at the Mastermind 1

There is no one way to handle your email – just as there is no one way to get fit, manage your finances or cook your Thanksgiving turkey. But there are terrible ways to do all three.

And unless you have a basic understanding of what creates a healthy body, sound financial plan or a juicy bird, trying to get your health, wealth or dinner in top shape is going to be a losing battle. The same is true with email. Without a fundamental understanding of the tools and how to use them, you are going to experience frustration.

So the question is, do you understand email?

Do you understand email?

That is, do you have a system that lets you read and react appropriately to all of your incoming mail in a reasonable amount of time? Do you have confidence that you can find the information, the:

  • meeting notes
  • task
  • phone number
  • boarding pass
  • gift certificate
  • pdf

When you need it?

Is email a small part of your job or something you live out of?

Because if you don’t have a trusted email system, you are probably leaving a lot of time, energy and money on the table. The money factor is especially true if you are self-employed or own a small business.

Not having a system also means added stress that comes from knowing there are 30, 40, 50 or more decisions waiting to be made. [1]

Email is not your job.

The reality is, unless you work as a customer support agent, email is not your job.

Email is a communication medium that gives you information to help you do your job. It’s not even the best communication tool out there. But it is the most popular and universally accepted way of transferring information in the work world. And, according to recent studies [2], the use of email is only going to grow.

While email isn’t your job, I’d say it is your responsibility to learn how to effectively handle email so it doesn’t get in the way of your work.

To handle email effectively you have to understand more than the basic features.

Knowing how to send, receive, attach and (if you are a real pro) use a few keyboard shortcuts is not enough. Understanding how to use your email client is the equivalent of knowing how to adjust all the knobs on your oven or what a proper squat should look like. Unless you have a system behind your cooking or lifting, you’ve got just enough information to get into trouble.

Lisa during the Mastermind

If you doubt your email prowess, you’re not alone.

Effective email isn’t something that is taught in any schools or on the job. I’ve talked to enough people to know that having an email system you can trust is the exception, not the rule.

That’s why I want to introduce you to fellow Asian Efficiency reader Lisa.

Lisa transformed the way she works by changing the way she deals with email. She made this change alongside 9 other Asian Efficiency Escape Your Email beta testers. For two months we fed this group of 5 to 6 new videos a week (our production speed) that addressed the problems of:

  • too much email
  • fear of missing out
  • poor email culture at work
  • lack of focus
  • using your email as your to-do list

And since we’re Asian Efficiency, we also put a ton of techie workflows using TextExpander, Hazel, Sanebox, OmniFocus, Dropbox and other more advanced productivity tools to speed up the whole process with automation and technical integrations.

Everyone in the beta group started with email different strengths and weaknesses. And no matter where they started, we had a 100% success rate in achieving escape from the tyranny of the inbox.


We had the beta users define what results they wanted up front. Lisa defined success as achieving inbox zero in under an hour every day for a week.

That might not sound all that impressive to you personally. But at her current 6 to 7 hours of daily email… she had a long way to go.

Introducing Lisa

Name: Lisa Dunahoo
Age: 45
Relationship Status: Married to Matt
Family Status: Two kids. A daughter who is a senior at The University of Iowa and son Nathan who is an 18-year-old senior in high school
Location: central Iowa
Education: Bachelor’s Degree in Management, Certified in Human Resources
Job: Senior Executive Compensation Analyst

Lisa is in charge of the executive compensation plans for a fortune a 500 company. Lisa researches and creates financial reports that help stockholders and regulators understand how the company pays its top employees.

She’s good at what she does and sometimes puts in long hours to make it all come together.

I first got on the phone with Lisa in April 2016. I had read her response to a survey Asian Efficiency had sent out and I wanted to dig deeper into the problems she was facing.

Lisa had many email challenges. She:

  • compulsively cleared every email that found it’s way into her inbox [3]
  • worked in an instant response corporate environment
  • used her email as a to-do list manager (flagging)
  • used email folders as her reference system
  • didn’t have an effective email follow up system

Lisa’s email system (or lack thereof), lead to a day full of reactivity. This reactivity made it difficult for her to focus on important tasks that would help her become for effective at her job.

When I asked Lisa to explain how she felt about her work at the time, she used the words:

  • like frazzled
  • stressed
  • disconnected

Lisa’s poor working state came from the constant interruptions that flashed across her second ’email’ monitor.

She freely admitted that, when she wasn’t in meetings, she checked her email every 5-minutes and spent 6 to 7 hours in her email inbox most working days.

I asked her what happened to her inbox when she was in a meeting, I could see a lightbulb go off.

She answered:

“Nothing. Nothing goes wrong. Maybe I could schedule my work the same way I schedule my meetings and I could get to my email after I’ve completed my work.”

I wanted to cry. I’ve never heard better words on a coaching call

Batching email was Lisa’s first big break through.

Scheduling time to be in email and time to be working on more important tasks was a huge victory. This system for working was reinforced by going through the Asian Efficiency Escape Your Email (EYE) course.  The change allowed her to get her work done in less time.

In a post Escape Your Email beta user call, Lisa made sure to emphasize how much less time she was working. The time of year I called her (November) is very busy for her. Her big frog is an 80 page SEC report. This report is due in December and cannot have any errors. Mistakes = million dollar fines and potential jail time. She also has a board meeting and shareholders meeting to present her report to.

For the last few years, this meant working every waking hour of 6 weeks. This year, she stayed about an hour later than usual most nights.

18 hours to 9 hours. That’s huge.

She did get more resources [4] during this year, but she’ll be quick to tell you how the decline in email distraction played a major role in her improved working condition.


“I can’t tell you how transformative this has been for me and-and how much I’ve learned.  I’ve gone from constantly having email open on one monitor and working on the other monitor, to only checking email three times a day at work and then checking my personal email again once more in the evening.  I’m now spending less than one hour per day TOTAL in email.  Wow.  What a difference!  The difference for me was changing how I process email and having an action for every email (delete, archive, reference, task).  I’ve been able to stick with it and now I don’t even think about email.  I’m not worried about what’s in “Waiting” or which emails are still in “Action”.  It’s freeing. :)”

What else changed?

In order for Lisa to unglue herself from her inbox, she had to have a system she could trust. She trusted Asian Efficiency so she was willing to try out ours on for size.

One thing our system requires is a task manager. It’s one of our lines in the sand. We believe everyone needs a task manager.

Using a task manager

Lisa decided on Todoist to replace her email flagging task management system. She chose Todoist because it was easy to use and had a nice integration with Gmail. It didn’t take Lisa much time before she was comfortable sending her email-based tasks to her task manager.

Working with the task manager gave her more control.

Nobody could write on her Todoist to-do list.

It also gave her the ability to prioritize her work by dragging task up and down her list.

A change that did not come as easy to Lisa was how she handled her reference material.

Leaving the email folders behind

Reference material, like pdfs or spreadsheets, were neatly organized in Lisa’s 40+ email folders. Lisa trusted her email folder system. Lisa did not want to give up her trusted folders.

Even after she:

  • saw the studies that proved search was more efficient than filing emails into folders
  • could see how having a separate system for reference material would be safer and easier to use long-term

she didn’t budge on the folders.

As the Escape Your Email beta group organizer, I told her this was fine.

Batching and using a to-do list manager had already slashed her time from 6 hours a day to 50 minutes [5]. This was a phenomenal turnaround.

But Lisa, to her credit, kept an open mind. One day she was listening to an episode of The Productivity Show.


We were casually talking about how our email systems worked when it finally clicked.

Lisa knew right then and there how she was going to download and send reference material to straight to Evernote. After a little legwork, she now has an instant access to her reference archive. Whenever she needs to review a past document, it’s ready for her. She no longer has to click through a number of folders or potentially get sucked into another topic by opening up Gmail to find a work-related file.

There were other wins.

  • overcoming email superhero syndrome
  • avoiding email ping pong
  • taming notifications

They all came together to bolster the system and give her a stronger command of the digital tools.

Life after email

Getting a trusted email system helped Lisa become more effective at work, no doubt.

But that increased efficiency and effectiveness spread to all areas of her life. She has more time with her family. Her father even commented on how calm and happy she seemed. Disconnecting from email allowed her to reconnect with her life.

Lisa was nervous to join the group. She didn’t think she’d be able to escape her inbox. Her situation felt unique. Insurmountable. Yet, she was able to overcome her perceived limitations and put email in its place.

Lisa now understands email. The tools and the systems. This understanding gave her the freedom she never thought she would find. The disconnected, stressed, frazzled cloud lifted.

It takes more than knowing all how to use the tools. It takes knowing how to put those tools together in an effective system.

When those two come together.


You have email nirvana.

Lisa’s inbox at the end of most days.

And consistent, stress-free empty inboxes.


[1] The decisions waiting for you in your email inbox could be about anything from the renewal of your Amazon Prime membership to revising that huge proposal. This problem is compounded if you have the habit of opening and reading an email multiple times before making a decision or taking action on the message.

[2] Radicati 2015-2019 Email Statistics Report

[3] She even had a second monitor on her desk where she kept email up on full screen all day. That monitor is now gone.

[4] An extra staff member to her 4 person team.

[5] She scheduled two 25-minute email Pomodoro sessions. One in the morning. One in the afternoon.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Great post, you guys (whoever wrote it??).

    Congratulations, Lisa, on the life-changing differences you’ve made. This is really inspiring stuff.

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