Handling Email on the iPhone and Other Mobile Devices
Another one of the most common questions I received on email this week was about how to coordinate my email system from “How to Get Your Email Inbox to Zero Every Day” with mobile devices like the iPhone.
Mobile devices provide really useful portability and convenience. But they also create two challenges:
- You can’t (easily, at least) process the longer-than-two-minute emails into the working folders (action, hold, read).
- Even if you could do this easily, the nature of the situation is usually that if you are checking email on your mobile device, you probably don’t have time to process everything anyway.
And of course there are other challenges as well, such as the fact that if an email requires more than a few sentences of response, you probably don’t want to type that up on the small keyboard or screen.
The solution comes from applying a few productivity principles.
The first principle is realism. It truly does not work well to process email on a portable device. So don’t try to do it. Recognize that mobile devices are not intended to serve as your primary tool for email. Instead, see your mobile device as a means for keeping up with important emails when you are on the go. It’s fine to go into your inbox on your mobile device, see what is most important or needs an immediate (quick) response or action, taking care of those, and leaving the rest. This is not ideal, but it is realistic.
After you do deal with an email on your mobile device, delete it right away (unless you need to file it permanently in Documents). Also delete right when you see them any emails that don’t need any attention, such as a newsletter you don’t plan to read.
The result is that you will have an inbox that now contains some half-read emails that you’ve opened, then decided to leave and move on from. This is productivity anarchy. But the key to any productivity system is for it to be flexible enough to handle the fact that things do sometimes get messy.
The important thing is simply not to leave things that way, which is the second principle. What you need to do is just continue to follow the principle of having at least one time each day — back at your computer — when you fully process your email and zero everything out. At this time you will clean up all those loose ends that you left open in your inbox on your mobile device.
You might even do this as soon as you get back to your computer. Or, you could do this first thing the following morning. The key is simply to have at least one time each day where you zero everything out. Which is exactly what I recommended in the article, whether you use a mobile device or not.
In other words, if you follow the system I outlined in the article, you don’t really need to do anything special to adapt to the mobile problem. Simply by processing all of your inbox at least once a day at your computer, you’ll clean up all the open loops left in your inbox from when you checked it on your mobile device.
This is really important, so let me restate this as clearly as I can: Don’t carry your mobile habits over to your computer when you get back. You get to “break the rules” on a mobile device because there is no other way. But once you are at your computer, you need to be right back on the wagon of processing all of your inbox each time that you process any of your inbox. You might wait to do this until the next morning, or you might do it right away when you are back at your computer, but when you go back into your inbox on your computer, process everything down to zero.
Finally, after I have my inbox back down to zero, here’s the last thing I do. I hate having that circle with a number in it show up on the Mail app on my iPhone (it just represents open loops that need to be closed). So I go into my Mail app and allow all of my inboxes on my iPhone to sync up so that my iPhone now reflects the zero inbox.
The Two Sentence Summary
Last week when a friend of mine emailed me this same question, and I sent him back a real quick paragraph summarizing the above. I just took another look at that, and I think I can boil everything down to two sentences.
Here they are: Use your iPhone to get emails that you need to keep up with because of their urgency when you’re away from your computer for the day or afternoon. But then when you’re back at your computer later that day or the next morning, clean everything up and get it to normal (that is, zero).