Productivity Tip #5: The Power of One

Productivity Tip #5: The Power of One

Posted on December 9, 2010


Here is a simple concept.  In many aspects of life, “do it once and do it right” is a very powerful concept.  This saves a lot of time. That is the “Power of One”.  Here is one example where the “Power of One” can be demonstrated pretty easily.

How many times have you read an e-mail multiple times?  You read an e-mail, did not do anything with it because you were in the middle of something, or didn’t have the time to understand what you needed to do or simply did not want to deal with that e-mail.  You read the same e-mail again maybe an hour or two later and do exactly what you did earlier, which is nothing.  If you happen to do nothing once or more times today then yes, you have a problem.  Your problem is a good example for the “power of one” concept.

Its one thing to get so much e-mail and it is a whole different thing to read some of it again and again.  So, if you read my productivity tip # 4: learn to read faster then you know how many pages just the everyday e-mail translates into.  Then, here’s a simple solution based on the concept of “Power of One”.


The solution is two-fold.  First, a mindset change is needed.  Lets imagine for a minute that consumption of e-mail is similar to food.  Over  a period of time, maybe in hundreds or thousands of years, we have learnt to eat a limited number of times.  This maybe because of many reasons like non-availability of fresh food, other things to do beside eating or thats how our digestive system was designed.  Whatever maybe the case we eat a limited number of times per day.

Lets look at how we consume e-mail.  We consume e-mail as though we are hungry all the time.  The moment e-mail pops up, we consume it.  Sometimes we consume it just a little bit which in terms of food is smell it or take a bite at it or chew on it and put it back.  Lets take this analogy one step further and imagine our e-mail inbox to be a refrigerator .  Every time someone drops an e-mail, we open our refrigerator to consume just a little bit and put it back.  In these days of smart phones, we are carrying our refrigerator everywhere.  The probability of consuming the e-mail without taking any action with it is more because of the smart phones.

If we do with our food exactly what we do with our e-mail then our refrigerator will overflow and stink up the whole place.  That is exactly what is happening to our inboxes.  The in-boxes are overflowing and more stuff keeps getting added.  The only system that we have in place that is automatic is the limit on the size of the inbox.  Once we get in “e-mail jail”  where we cannot send out an e-mail because our inbox has taken more space than is allocated to us, that’s when we start deleting.  Deleting just enough to send that e-mail out.

So, the first step is to change our mindset.  Just like it is effective for our digestive system to eat only a limited number of times so is it for our e-mail system.  Lets make a new mental model that says “consume e-mail exactly like we consume food”: A limited number of times and at set times.

The second step is to decide to read e-mail only once.  How is this possible?

Eliminate Blackberry use for e-mail.  Most of the time, we do nothing when we check our e-mail in the blackberry.  It stays back in the inbox.  Also, we get interrupted irrespective of the importance of the e-mail when we check the blackberry.

Once we get in the habit of reading and responding to e-mail at set times during the day then it will get easier to read any e-mail only once.  The next habit to develop is when we read the e-mail we do something with it by following the GTD workflow of Do it, Delegate it, Defer it or Delete it.  (For more information on the GTD workflow, please google or read my earlier posts).


Use the “Power of One” concept of “Do it once and Do it Right” to save time by reading your e-mail only once.  This can be done,

  1. By learning to relate the consumption of e-mail with that of food and consuming it only a limited number of times and at set times.
  2. By following a system like that of GTD where you do something about that e-mail once you read it.

(Note:  I will try to explore the concept of Power of One in some more day-to-day examples in later posts)

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