Email is not broken; The solution is triaging

Bill Liao is an Investment Partner with SOSV and the Co-founder of , who ardently practices Inbox Zero, despite an incredibly large influx of emails, everyday.

Bill Liao

Motivation is like a well spring. It flows from deep within you and flows strongest when you are in a mindful flow state during your day. Every incomplete thing in your awareness disturbs your flow which then has the knock on effect of reducing / killing your motivation. The key then, to a powerful flow, is to reduce the number of incomplete things in your life. Most people see external causes for the incomplete things in their lives and thus each new incompletion is doubly disempowering.

Email on the surface looks like the ultimate, uncontrollable, external influence. The truth is different. You have a high level of control over your email if you choose to take hold of it.

I have spent years perfecting my email technique and arguably handle more mails, from more sources, than the vast majority of people in the world. As a venture capitalist, I have an entire portfolio of companies, that I communicate with frequently and, to top it all, I have a geographically dispersed family and three global charities, that I work with daily. I have been practicing Inbox Zero for years now, despite the avalanche of daily emails that I handle, without anyone else having access to my inbox.

The best tools that I use are; my Apple Watch, CloudMagic and SaneBox. My email system is Gmail, but without these tools I would be lost. The good folks at CloudMagic have adapted their product to suit this workflow and the SaneBox crew tell me that I am one among the ten people in the world who handles such a huge email volume, maintaining Inbox Zero every night. I am here to tell you that the secret to this motivation of maintaining Inbox Zero is to reduce the clutter and thereby reduce the number of incomplete things in my consciousness and life. The beauty of working on your inbox, as the first access to decluttering, is that, in reality, you actually have a great amount of control over your email and how you use it. A lot has already been written about how to use email so I am not going to cover much of that ground. I just want to share with you a simple trick that has saved millions of lives on the battlefield and which works wonders for Inbox Zero.

Now, as I mentioned, I use Gmail and SaneBox and they both are key to this working. Incidentally, I use Gmail for another reason too, than what I am going to share with you – Gmail has a fantastic search system. That means, I never ever use folders to manually sort emails – I only use automated tags (thanks to SaneBox) and the best Gmail invention ever; Stars! Also, this system works perfectly well with CloudMagic and the Apple Watch as it allows me to scan and review incoming emails, wherever I am, with minimum clicks and maximum discretion. The objective is to plough through all incoming emails, super quickly, and sort them into relevant categories.

In life there is stuff that you need to handle right away, stuff that depends on something else, before you can handle it and stuff you really just don’t need to do anything about (even if you would like to).

If you can clear your inbox to zero, really fast, you free up your consciousness to be able to stay motivated and tackle what needs to be done right away. I discovered that having an empty inbox is literally an easy access to mindfulness and flow. Email is not broken. We just use it the wrong way because we fail to distinguish between the three types of emails and so, we end up with an every increasing pile of badly sorted emails in our inboxes and likewise, our lives and minds get cluttered.

The trick is triage. Yes, literally treat each incoming email as if it were a wounded soldier on the battlefield. You cannot allow them to accumulate, so they need to be dealt with. Those responsible for the extraction of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards divide the wounded into three categories:
Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, with email too you need to ruthlessly sort each new email into one of the following three categories:

Do – Those emails to which you can make an immediate difference to with an immediate reply – you must answer then and there and then instantly archive. These are the most satisfying emails and often the urgent ones. They include emails that you might delegate to someone else to resolve or those which require a reply at a specific time, in the future. Here SaneBox is invaluable because it allows you to send an email into the future and it also allows you to cc yourself in the future when you delegate.

Archive – Those emails that SaneBox has let slip through that are actually not going to require any further attention are the next best because you can just train SaneBox to filter them and weed them out in the future as they were dead weight anyway and do not really require your action other than to be archived, instead of letting them clutter your inbox and your life.

Star – There are a few rare emails that require more time to process. These are the ones that need the most care, like the ones you need to read or understand a large attachment or to the ones you need to write a carefully crafted or a well researched reply. These are the super important emails as they are the ones that make a real difference. Star them in Gmail and archive them immediately, preferably with CloudMagic on your watch.

That is your triage done!


Hang on a minute, didn’t I just say that the starred ones are the most important emails? Yep! Then why get them out of the inbox straight away?

The answer is that when you do your triage, you do not have time to handle the really important emails. Simply put, you must wait until you can take out the time you need to really engage with these emails. I keep aside one to two hours, at the end of my day, to take care of these and also an hour in the mornings. I wrote this post at such a time when I could focus and make it meaningful. It is a mistake to think that by leaving such an important email in your inbox you will handle it. Actually, what will happen is that, it will get buried in new emails and you will miss out on it, instead.

The important emails must be starred and a special inbox setup is there in Gmail, just for them, so you can see them separately and know exactly how many important things you have to handle, at any given time, on any given day. You see, I have learned over many painful years that there are a small number of super important emails and that getting them right is one of the keys to success and motivation. Finding such emails and handling them in the right way are what your triage is for. Just remember one last rule – never let your starred emails get over 38 because after that they get so uncomfortable that you lose your motivation and they will never get done.

So, there you have it – email triage and stars, your own personal gateway to motivational mindfulness talk about turning lemons into lemonade! :-)

Star users get some love!

Long before ‘Inbox Zero’ became the most fashionable email workflow on the planet, a few Gmail fans like Sabya, Rohit and I followed a not so chic but equally effective and geeky workflow using ‘Stars’.

This is how it works…

  1. We mostly live in the Inbox
  2. Make sure we are unread zero – we read all emails that come in or we ‘mark as read’ the ones we don’t have to read. (We love Gmail’s ‘Mark all as read’ option)
  3. After reading an email, if we think we have to get back to it, at a later time, we star it.
  4. Change the Gmail inbox format to show all the starred emails on top. So when we don’t have unread emails, this is the list we stare at.
  5. Once we have acted on the email, we unstar it and rejoice at the sight of it being removed from the starred list.
  6. Nirvana! Go out to take fresh air.

Basically we create a to-do list out of the emails in the inbox by starring the ones we have to act on; instead of archiving all the emails that we don’t have to act on (duh). Archive has no value for us. And we are lazy to clean our inbox. We aim for the stars.

Recently CloudMagic did us a huge favor – it allowed us to customize the actions on the notification. Now I can switch that damn Archive button to Star, making the notification actions Delete, Mark as read and Star on my Android. Rohit has ‘Mark as read’ and ‘Star’ on his iPhone. Star has also found it’s place in the Apple Watch notification.

Configurable Notification Actions

It doesn’t end here.

Here, at work, we get 2 emails everyday with the iOS and Android ratings and reviews for everyone to read. As they are too long to go through, I don’t read them, first thing in the morning. Instead, I star them and then mark them as read to then go on to look for more important emails. And then there are those emails that I star from the notifications. I have to now make sure to mark them as read as soon as I get to the inbox. What a bummer! But wait a minute…

Multiple actions at once

CloudMagic just amazed me with another setting that would make my life even better. I can now star an email and mark it as read in one shot. Makes a lot of sense. A starred email means I have read it and is part of my to-do list. More than the notification customization, this is my personal favorite.

If you are a CloudMagic user who follows the Starred email workflow like me, you are lucky. These settings are going to make your life better. CloudMagic is the only email app that has shown love to people like us when all the others are busy making Inbox Zero users happy. If you are a Star user who is still not on CloudMagic, now would be a great time as things here are really getting interesting.

Keep reaching for the stars.