Last week, we featured Cal Newport’s brilliant piece on how email has adversely affected productivity given our constant need to check our inbox. Here’s a productivity tip from the unlikeliest of places – lessons from Napoleon’s way of information management. Mike Schmitz in this blog refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay on Napoleon:
““He directed Bourrienne to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”
Napoleon believed that by waiting long enough before looking at his mail, the majority of the non-important matters would simply resolve themselves. And if something was truly urgent and important, it would either find its way to him before the three weeks were up or it would still be important when he finally got around to it.
….There’s something to appreciate about someone who knows with absolute clarity what is important to them. We can disagree with the motives of others, but here’s one thing to imitate about Napoleon: he didn’t let other people’s demands dictate how he spent his time. He avoided the non-essential at all costs, which allowed him to focus on the things that really made a difference.
We would do well to learn the same lesson and separate ourselves from our inbox as often as possible.
If we do, we’ll probably find, like Napoleon, that many of the things we would have chosen to deal with have magically resolved themselves. Maybe we can’t avoid email for three weeks at a time, but maybe even a couple of hours in the afternoon would help.
The bottom line is that the more we can filter out the trivial things in our lives, the more time we have for the things that are really important.”
Drawing inspirations from the Triage, Schmitz then goes onto give a practical way of classifying our inbox in a way that we allow us to focus on the really important stuff:
“…[Napolean’s] military surgeon, D.J. Larrey, who created the ambulance transport system….The basic idea of triage was to save as many lives as possible with limited resources by splitting patients into three groups:
  • Those who were likely to live regardless of the urgent care they received.
  • Those who were likely to die regardless of the urgent care they received.
  • Those for which urgent medical treatment would mean the difference between life and death
That may sound a little morbid, and I’m personally glad that we don’t have to make those kinds of medical decisions often anymore. Thankfully, most of us have access to medical care when we need it because resources are no longer scarce.
But when it comes to your time, it is both scarce and incredibly precious. It’s the one thing you can never get more of. It’s therefore important that we protect it all costs, and applying the idea of triage to our email is a great way to do that.
By redefining triage for email, we can break incoming messages into three different categories:
  • Emails that will have a positive outcome regardless of when they are processed.
  • Emails that will have a negative outcome regardless of when they are processed.
  • Emails for which a timely response will make a difference.
Imagine what it would be like to go into your email inbox and only see the messages that truly required your attention. What would it feel like to know that if something really important found its way to your inbox that you would be identified immediately, but otherwise things would just sort themselves out until you eventually took a look at them? It’s not a crazy pipe dream, and you don’t need to run France in order to get there.
All you need to do is understand the value of your time and attention, and start thinking about ways that you can protect it.”

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