Category: Adventures in Extreme Productivity

Reaching InboxZero: a take no prisoners approach.

Student Results were released on Monday and this always generates a slew of email. For two days I’ve triaged and responded as quickly as I can to enquiries from students who expect to graduate at the end of the year and who want to understand the impacts of the grade I awarded them. For some, a swift response is required as they might be required to sit a supplementary exam and the results need to be forwarded to the graduations team if they are to attend the graduation ceremony next month. Others are serious but can wait for 24hours or so and some get shifted to the end of the pile as they are not time critical but I still have to action them.

After two days of fighting an incoming tide (and losing), I knew I had to get on top of this once and for all. Here’s what I did….

Step 1: Decamp to a lovely spot in a nearby park where there is no wifi, but lots of birdlife.

[Today’s remote office…]

Step 2: Open and work through the pile of email responding where appropriate or sending to OmniFocus as a task to be completed later. Since I’m not connected to wifi, emails that I respond to are sent to my outbox where they will wait until I’m back on wifi (at which point they will automatically send).
Step 3: Clear the decks entirely before returning to wifi-land.

It took two and a half hours of solid, focused work to wade through all the email and respond or Omnify it. The trick is to not be connected to wifi while processing the inbox, for if I had been responding and replying, potentially my correspondents might answer back. This would mean more email would come into my inbox and it’d take longer to clear.

Severing the connection works. Try it.

Batching email by people and therefore by project – a workflow to solve the email jigsaw puzzle problem


I’m constantly fighting to keep track of the time I’m spending on various projects. I want to spend enough time that they keep moving forward, but I don’t want to spend too much time so that other projects begin to suffer. To be able to effectively forecast how much time I need to allocate to a project or task, I need good data that I can extrapolate from. My latest attempt at tracking my time involves using an app on my mac called Timing.  Mostly it does a good job of tracking where I spend my time and it is reasonably easy to allocate time to particular projects once they are all set up. However, I am conscious that a non-trivial amount of my time is spent inside email and this time is not captured against specific projects. To get around this, I have begun sorting my email by sender and batch processing email.

The email jigsaw puzzle

I think of my email inbox kinda like a large box with lots of little jigsaw pieces in it. The problem is that I’m working on more than one jigsaw puzzle (project) at a time. Every day more and more jigsaw pieces get added to the box, but they are not added in a manner that makes to easy for me to work on one puzzle at a time. The result is that my attention becomes fragmented and the cognitive load increases as I try and bounce from one project to the next.

To get around this, I began to think of my email inbound process, not as a temporal flow of unconnected jigsaw pieces, but as to who was bringing those pieces to my inbox. Usually, people are attached to projects so instead of working my way down through a list of email each of which is likely to be unconnected to the email below it, I sort my email by sender and then batch process all the email from that particular person at the same time. The advantage of this is that when it comes time to review my day, I can quickly allocate chunks of time that I spent on my email to particular projects even though I was working on multiple emails. In this way, the invisible work of email management becomes accountable and I am able to get a more accurate view of how much a particular project is actually costing me in terms of time.

Now that I can visualise the actual time cost of email against specific projects, I can make better judgments about costing my time in the future. This is better for me, but also for others who I am working with. The best bit? If anybody asks, I can justify my time spend.

Below is a review of the Timing app should you be interested.

How I use TextExpander and Omnifocus to force clarity of action.

I have had several sophisticated senior executives tell me that installing “What’s the next action?” as an operational standard in their organisation was transformative in terms of measurable performance output. It changed their culture permanently and significantly for the better.

Why? Because the question forces clarity, accountability, productivity and empowerment.

~ David Allen – Getting Things Done (page 261).

Sometimes it can feel little overwhelming. You know, all the things that one needs to do to manage a knowledge intensive career. There are so many projects to complete, next actions to take, things to DO. It’s relentless and sometimes it gets hard to remember the reasons why these things to do became tasks in the first place.

Keeping clear about why things need to get done is one of the keystone behaviours of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. Here’s how I use two of my favourite pieces of software to keep me on track.

Software number 1: TextExpander.

If you haven’t yet found TextExpander, then I suggest you head over to Smile Software and check it out. In essence, TextExpander allows someone to pre-define some text, or some code, or an image – nearly anything really – that will ‘expand’ when a specific key-combination is entered. It works in nearly any application that accepts ‘text’ as an input and it is cross-platform. So, for example, I have some comments that I frequently use when providing feedback to students. These can be quite lengthy and include links to resources that can help students to improve their assessment performance. Here’s a example  of a predefined feedback comment about referencing that I use quite frequently:

You need to get assistance with your referencing, particularly in understand how, when and why it is important to reference correctly. Please see the available online tools e.g.: [Referencing introduction](, or visit the [Study and learning centre](

To insert this comment in a student’s work, I need only type my pre-defined keyboard combination which in this case is a period followed by the letters ‘href’ (.href). The ability to expand text with only a few keystrokes has literally saved me from typing millions of characters. Here’s my most recent stats on ‘characters saved’ : 2,039,126!

Although I love the fact that TextExpander has saved me all those extra key-strokes, the real value I find in TE is that it produces the same outcome every.single.time that I type an abbreviation. This becomes important when developing a habit, such as clarifying the reason for undertaking a task. I’ll come back to this idea, but first…

Software number 2: OmniFocus

My task manager of choice is OmniFocus2 produced by The Omni Group. OmniFocus2 is a super powerful task management system that leverages the GTD system. Much has been written about how people use this software so I won’t rehash that work, rather I want to focus on a tiny little aspect of the task input window: the notes pane.

The notes pane is where I can add extra detail to a task. This often might be a link to an email that provides context for the task, or it might be a link to a specific file in DropBox, or maybe I’ve jotted a few notes down while I was on a phonecall. And while all of these are legitimate uses of the notes pane, I find I get the most out of it when I use my TextExpander abbreviation of (.tna). .tna is shorthand for The Next Action. When I fire off this abbreviation in the notes pane of an OmniFocus task, it generates the following text and places the cursor at the point at which I need to start entering my reasons for completing the task:

Why is this task being done? :

Outcomes expected :

Next actionable step once completed :

It looks like this:

These three questions force me to consider each and every task that makes it onto my project list.

The first question forces me to link the task to a larger project*. The second question forces me to link the action with an expected outcome – this acts as a check that the action I’m taking will actually lead to an outcome that I want. The third question forces me to think about what the next immediate action is. This helps me to define exactly what the next step is in the project – have I got it down to the smallest possible bit?

Why Clarity Matters

I’ve mentioned before how I have lots of projects on the go at any one time and I admit that when I’m not clear about what the next step is in any of them that I can feel a little anxious. By taking a few seconds to pause and put answers against the three questions in my OmniFocus task notes pane, I can feel a little more comfortable about the reasons for agreeing to take on the tasks in the first place. This is particularly helpful for when I’m scheduling tasks to be completed in the future. When I’m down in the weeds, not always do I remember the exact thinking that was going on when I created the task. Having answers to those three questions embedded in the task helps me to remember why I’m doing it and what the outcome needs to be. That level of clarity leads to motivation to complete the tasks as they become available – I get a real sense of accomplishment.

It’s taken me a while to adapt this process of task management. It can feel a little like overkill when I’m putting these ‘extra’ detail of the task in the notes pane, but that short-term pause, reflect and act process helps me to immediately get clear about what I am doing and why. Over time, this has had enormous positive impacts on my ‘productivity’ and effectiveness.


* It’s worth pausing here to explain that I think of tasks as the smallest piece of a larger nested sequence of actions that move me towards my goal of living a fulfilled life. Not to get too woo-hoo about it, but I have a vision of what I want my life to be and I then set up a series of projects, each with associated tasks to help me move forward to that vision.



How many projects are you on?

I did a count today: I have 52 active projects in my Omnifocus database. Each project has multiple actions associated with it (but I didn’t bother to count them).

Actively filtering all this (planned) activity requires time and commitment. Without the discipline to review what’s active and what needs to be done next, the wheels would quickly fall off.

This is the lot of the modern knowledge worker. Activity has to be self-managed. Having a system helps enormously.

"project management" (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee


Feedback about the feedback

(Click to enlarge)


The problem

There is a lot of time pressure on academics and while some of it can be predicted (#MarkingHell), some of it is less predictable; research projects evolve and require attention; a call to provide a service within the university at short notice, (and/)or a high teaching load. It can lead to academics feeling pulled in all directions feeling as though they are only making slow headway towards their primary goals. Therefore, it’s no surprise that academics look for ways to minimise some of these time pressures so that they can concentrate on those things that they feel are most important in their career. That makes sense: either become hyper-efficient at, say, marking assignments through enlisting the aid of technology, or do the minimum amount possible thereby shortening the time required for that task.

Technology certainly has a role to play in improving efficiencies. Comment ‘libraries’ can provide quick copy-and-paste comments for the more common and frequently used feedback statements (did someone just say ‘needs a reference here’?). Indeed I make good use of a digital marking library that I have developed over the years. In fact, when I opened it up for use by my teaching team I found that we cut marking time by about a third. In itself, this seems like a good thing. Less time marking means more time doing something else.

But faster doesn’t always mean better. If my teaching team and I aren’t providing high quality feedback in the first place, just speeding the process up does not drive better student outcomes. Copy and paste of generic feedback statements isn’t good enough: students need direct, targeted and actionable feedback if they are to improve.

The solution:

Last year I instituted a new requirement in the assessment pieces associated with my strategic management class for the group assignment: Feedback about the feedback. This process works in the context of two, linked group assignments – the first assignment is due about half way through the semester and the second at the end of the semester. Students used theory and the information that they gather for the first assignment to help them make recommendations in the second assignment. The aim here is that students  take the feedback that we give them in the first assignment and use that to improve their performance for the second.

It works like this:

  1. Build an extensive marking library to help with the heavy lifting of the most common and repeated feedback comments – share with marking team;
  2. Provide clear examples of high quality feedback and spend time training the marking team on how to write effective feedback that is targeted, relevant and provides clear advice on how to improve (in addition to the generic feedback comments);
  3. Put a new requirement in the second assessment piece for the students: ‘as an appendix, write a 500 word ‘response’ to the feedback provided by the marker in the first assignment incorporating what strategies the students are going to use when writing the second assessment piece of assessment in order to improve’.
  4. Encourage the students to seek further, targeted clarification if required. To do that, I shot a video explaining how the feedback process works and how it will help.

The results

Frankly, they were astonishing. We saw a dramatic uplift in the performance of students in the second assignment compared to the first, but most importantly, the kinds of improvements we saw were directly linked to feedback that we gave the students in the first assignment. For example, if we pointed out that the students had not read widely enough to have a solid understanding of the theory, we tended to see evidence in the second assignment of a deeper engagement with the readings and also an improved understanding and application of theory. If, in the first assignment, our feedback suggested that students needed to focus more on the implications of the actions that they were recommending, we tended to see students beef up that aspect in their second assignment. We also saw an improvement in final grades compared to previous semesters.

Putting in the 500 word response ‘requirement’ ensured that the students at least read our feedback and it also ensured that the markers provided enough feedback of the correct kind that allowed students to get an idea about how to improve. Win-win.

Now, of course, not all students engaged with this process fully, but the magic of it is that our marking team (which includes me) had no way of knowing prior to reading the second assignment which student groups were going to take our feedback and act on it and which weren’t. This meant that we had to provide excellent feedback for all groups (we should have been doing that anyway).

The upshot of all this is that our marking and feedback process is more thorough and when it comes to allocating grades in the second assignment students can see why they were awarded the grades that they got. If we pointed out in their first assignment that their referencing needed to improve, but there was no attempt to improve it in the second assignment, then the students could not complain that they were given a poor grade in terms of that element. For me this is important because as course-coordinator when students complain about their grades, I can point back to our feedback and show them that despite being told how to improve that they didn’t take up the opportunity. Last semester I had the smallest number of queries and ‘appeals’ against grading than I’ve ever had. Better feedback processes saved me work.

I’ll be using this process again in my new course Management In Practice and tracking the outcomes. If you try something similar, I’d love to hear how it works for you.




The most important 15 minutes of my day

The problem

So much of academia is about administration. It’s a constant swirl of teaching, research, email and meetings.

Oh.My.God. The meetings…

I used to think that most work arrived by email, but after looking closely at it, it’s clear to me now that the critical point at which work gets created is in meetings. Email, as painful as it is, is really about people requesting a response to the fact that work needs to get done; students asking for extensions, colleagues asking about that project you are working on together, program managers asking about that new course design… All this updating can suck the energy out of anyone’s day and make it hard to get things done.

As I see it, there are two main responses that I can take to email: I can react to email, responding and updating as the requests come through, or I can be proactive about the fact that people will want to be updated on progress and I can work to minimise email before it ever gets sent. You might be thinking that the best way to do that is to send the update before it is asked for, but in fact, that only adds more volume to the email problem and really only shifts the timing of the email that I need to write anyway. There’s no net benefit in that.

How I tackle this problem is with my calendar. More specifically, by planning the most important 15 minutes of my day into my day. Here’s how:

  • Work gets generated in meetings.
  • Meetings are where work gets discussed.
  • Most of the time, no work occurs in the meeting, it occurs some time later.
  • Few people get clear about the outcome of the meeting when the meeting is happening.
  • Clarifications of what to do next, (or worse, no clarification ) occurs later by email or in another meeting.

At the end of each meeting, I take 15 minutes to get clear about what was discussed, what the next actions need to be, what success looks like and to put all that into my task management / project management system.

I’m a fan of OmniFocus for this step, but it doesn’t really matter. The key is to make sure that before you do anything else that you have committed it to your system.

The problem in more detail

Modern organisations like universities use software to help people to figure out how to manage their day and to coordinate. The ubiquitous calendar now sits on desktops, mobile devices and, occasionally, in paper diaries <– Yes, this is still a thing. The point is that software (and paper) calendars often pre-suppose how long time slots should be. Usually it is sixty minutes, sometimes half an hour. Rarely is it anything else. The problem here is that people then schedule meetings to fill these 1-hour slots – even if the meeting doesn’t need that long to achieve its purpose.

As a side note: have you ever been in a meeting and watched it slide from focussed discussion down into trivia as the meeting passes its half-way point? People realise that if the meeting concluded ‘early’ but before the time that they had mentally scheduled for it, that they would be in this interstitial space with ‘not enough time to begin something else’ before the next meeting (or teaching, or writing slot…) so instead of going back to their desk, they ‘fill up the time’ with chatter or barely relevant tangents/riffs on the meeting purpose.

Solving the problem in meetings that I organise

I schedule meetings for 45 minutes and then conclude them on time. At the conclusion of the meeting, I get up, leave and go to a private space somewhere to collects my notes, decide on next actions and put everything into relevant projects or as ext action items in my OmniFocus list. This is the most important 15 minutes of my day. It is in this 15 minutes that I can get on top of things. I can plan. I can figure out how the next things I need to do fit into the overall picture of my work and career. Doing it then and there has enormous pay-offs. If I don’t consolidate my thinking into clear actions soon after the meeting has concluded, then I run the risk of forgetting important things, or diving into next actions before I’ve had a chance to understand how it all fits together, making me less effective and less efficient.

I’ve learned over time that for that 15 minutes to be effective, the worst thing I can do is leave the meeting and go directly back to my desk; often colleagues will follow me there for a ‘chat’. On the surface of it, this chat is related to work somehow, but in reality this often little more than them filling in time before the next hour begins. My theory is that because this idea "…any meeting that finishes earlier than an hour suggests that people now have a little bit of ‘free time’ before the next o’clock rolls around has been so thoroughly socialised in the organisation, people will look to fill that ‘free time’ and will not feel guilty about it. I avoid this time-suck by going out and finding a space where I can sit down and collect my thoughts. By the time the next o’clock has come around, I’m clear about what I need to do and have clarified my next steps. I can go into the next meeting not still thinking about the last one.

Solving the problem in meetings that I am invited to

Over time I’ve watched carefully how meetings play out and I’ve noticed how their effectiveness seems to diminish – especially once 80% of the scheduled time has expired. In fact, I’ve noticed the 80/20 rule works pretty well in meetings. Most of the important action in a meeting occurs in the first 20% of it. Depending on the relative importance of the topic that the meeting is about, or who is in it, I have two main options available to me:

  • Leave with 15 minutes of the meeting still to go and go and collect my thoughts/actions, or
  • Stay and turn 80% of my attention to pulling together my thoughts and actions in the meeting while keeping a lazy ear on what is going on as the meeting grinds to a close.

Either way, the outcome I seek is that before the next thing in my calendar rolls around, I am clear about the outcomes of the meeting I’m in/have just left and my head is ready and focussed for the next thing.

I’ve found that this 15 minutes is incredibly important as it allows me to be certain about my next steps and it helps me to structure what may future work looks like. Once it is all in OmniFocus (with due dates associated) it is just a matter of executing my task list.

The last piece of the puzzle is to schedule project updates for relevant stakeholders. I have a TextExpander snippet that I use to pre-format a project update report that I send out on the schedule I’ve established every X weeks (depending on what the requirement is.) This proactive updating mens that I hardly ever get those status update emails from people that I’m working with on projects.

All of this is possible because I slow down after a meeting finishes and take just 15 minutes to consolidate and plan next steps. Running from meeting without taking the time to consolidate is a sure-fire way to end up frazzled at the end of the day and not know what the next steps are.

Take the 15 minutes. Plan for it. You can thank me later.

Resources for curating and sharing information relevant to teaching

Tomorrow I’ve got 10 minutes to show a workshop how to quickly ‘curate’ (find/gather) information that is useful for teaching (e.g. examples relevant to this week’s topic) and the share them across various social platforms.

The point of this is that it can be done when on the train with little more than an iPhone and some automation in the background through services such as Buffer and IFTTT. It takes a little to set up, but once done, the rest is simple and takes almost no time at all.

Getting information In Sign up and use the lists function to pull together a list of people and organisations that are sharing information that is useful to you and your class. – Think of this as a place to send things you want to get to later. A digital ‘catch-all’. Revisit it when you’ve got time to do all that reading…

FlipBoard – A digital platform where you can pull in articles on topics that interest you. Categories such as technology, business, sport, celebrity….

On iOS (iPhones/iPads) – Apple News. A news aggregator that you can set up to show things that are interesting to you. Filter for the best content.

Getting information Out – A scheduling service for sending links that you find on the web to your social media platforms. Schedule updates to go at regular times, or choose a specific time. Works with Twitter, Facebook (profile/page/groups), LinkedIn (profile/page), Google + (profile/page), pinterest, instagram.

Facebook Page – Your professional profile on Facebook. This way you don’t have to be ‘friends’ with anyone. #creepy

LinkedIn – For when you want to share with your professional network. You are working on things that are interesting both in the classroom and to industry, right?

If This Then – Get the internet to work for you. Set up ‘recipes’ that when they trigger, actions get taken. For example, IF I tag something on Pocket with the tag ‘strategy’, POST the article to my twitter account in buffer <— result: the article and link gets shared in my next scheduled tweet via Buffer.

The iPad pro and my future workflow

Yesterday I spent some time in my local Apple store and I had the opportunity to pick up and play with the new iPad Pro. The short version is: I’m *totally* sold. Although it is larger than I thought it would be, it is also much lighter than I expected.

I use tech to get my work done (rather than for entertainment) and it’s rare that I read something online where I don’t want to take notes or in some other way record my thinking about the topic. The smaller iPads have always been too fiddly (at least to my mind) to do this effectively.

If the iPad version of Papers for Mac works as advertised, then the workflow of: Papers>Byword>Wordpress will suddenly become a whole much easier. I can see myself sitting in a beanbag, Apple Pencil in hand, marking up articles, converting them to useful notes and publishing directly to my Quotes and Notes page all on one device and in one sitting.

I can’t wait to get my hands on an iPad Pro. I think it’ll be a game changer for my work.

Papers 3 and PDF Pen – a match made in Heaven (a workflow)


The problem: PDFs as scanned images (the text can’t be ‘selected’)
The workflow: Extracting PDFs from Papers 3 for mac and OCRing them with PDF Pen and replacing the original PDF with the new OCR version in the right spot
The software: Papers 3 for mac (reference management software) and PDF Pen for mac (PDF manipulation)

The Problem

Managing PDFs is the bane of my existence – well at least on the ‘academic’ side. Fortunately there have been some recent improvements made by the developers of my favourite reference manager Papers 3 for Mac that makes things a bit easier. Finally.

For anyone who has been using Papers for any length of time, you will be aware that Papers 2 was awesome… and then they released Papers 3. We don’t talk about the early period of this release except in hushed tones. I think everyone will agree it is best that it was forgotten. However, with the most recent update (v 3.3.2), Papers seems to be back on track again. Many of the features that were so dearly loved in versions 2.x are back and they seem to have sorted out local wifi sync which means that I can sync my library with an iPad without having to use a third party service like Dropbox (which would do weird things to my file directory/naming conventions).

Like most PDF/reference managers Papers allows me to ‘mark up’ the PDF being read – including extracting quotes, highlighting, underlining etc. This works because most PDFs downloaded directly from the publisher have been OCR’d first. However, if I get a PDF from my University Library Document Delivery service, it usually arrives as an image file. This means no OCR. It also means no clicky, selecty, highlighty, extracty goodness.

Enter PDF Pen by the good folk at Smile Software.

PDF Pen is a powerful piece of software that allows me to alter PDFs in many different ways, but the one I rely upon the most is the ability to OCR a scanned PDF.

OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. What this means is that the software will look at an image file (in this case a scanned PDF) and if it recognises words in the image, it can convert those images of the words to actual words that the computer can read[Footnote 1].

The Workflow

How to magically OCR a PDF in Papers 3
In the past it has been a nightmare trying to find the actual image of the PDF file within the (hidden) library of Papers 3, extracting it, opening PDF Pen, OCRing the document, saving it somewhere and then replacing the original image file in Papers 3 with the new OCR version. Papers 3 would see the ‘new’ version of the PDF and add it as a supplementary paper, rather than replacing it as the primary paper. Now, with the latest release of Papers 3, the process is much easier[Footnote 2]:

  1. Import scanned image of PDF into Papers 3
  2. Make sure all the metadata is correct using the inspector
  3. Save as a new record in my Papers 3 library
  4. In the inspector panel within Papers 3 right click on the PDF file (see screenshot below)
  5. Choose the option to “open with PDF Pen”
  6. PDF Pen will recognise the image of the PDF as a scanned image and will offer to OCR it for me. Click yes.
  7. PDF Pen does its OCR magic and when completed, overwrites the original PDF image file in Papers 3 with the new OCR version saving it in the same location as the previous image file.
Right click on the PDF image in the inspector panel and then select "Open with PDF Pen"

[CLICK TO ENLARGE] Right click on the PDF image in the inspector panel and then select “Open with PDF Pen”

It works like magic and the PDF is now searchable; sections of text can be highlighted, direct quotes can be extracted etc. all without the messy business of trying to find the original file and making sure that the delicate file structure that I’ve set up is not screwed up.

The fact that the most recent release of Papers 3 now allows spotlight to index the text of the PDFs within its library, it means that I can search for text within any of my PDFs in Papers 3 right from the desktop.


  1. It doesn’t actually covert the text itself, but rather places another layer on top of the document which mimics the underlying text. This makes the text readable by a machine/software. Crucially, it also means that the PDF now becomes searchable.  ↩
  2. If you already have the image of the PDF within your Papers 3 database, you can ignore steps 1 to 3  ↩

While you were away…

You deserve a break. A real break. Go on leave for a bit. The words can wait.” – Well-meaning supervisor.

So I did. I took time off. Stopped writing and everything. Sure, I knew I had to come back to the words later, but I could defer them a little bit. It’d be ok. And it was. I was on track and had some time up my sleeve before my completion date loomed. I had flexibility.

Flash-forward a couple of years; post PhD.

God. You look knackered. You need a break.” – Well-meaning colleague.

“Yep.” – me.

And so for the last little bit I have been in Far North Queensland attempting to catch some fish and commune with nature in the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Listed Area. With the exception of some spectacularly bad luck with the fishing, it’s been great. I am beginning to feel relaxed. ‘Work’ is fading into the background.

Except, it’s not.

It’s always there, you know? Just in the background. A vague awareness that the emails are piling up and that when I get back I’m going to have to catch up on what I missed. Gah.

It’ll probably take a week, maybe more, this catching up busyness, as I deal with well over a few hundred emails and all the new work that continues to pour in. For a week or so I’ll be in the electronic salt mines trying to piece together what happened and what I should do about it (if anything). And there’s the rub; even if the email doesn’t require action, I still need to read it to know that I never needed to read it in the first place. Catch–22. Gotchya.

So this got me thinking; thinking about the role that email plays in our lives and the power we give it over our thoughts and actions. It doesn’t really matter how you define ‘work’, whether it is working on your thesis or grading papers or whatever it is that you do for most of your waking hours, the fact seems to be that no matter how efficient we are, no matter how many systems we put in place to stem the tide, that there is always more to do.

For me, work seems to mostly arrive by email. Student requests (usually poorly structured and astonishingly short on context), meeting requests (often making the student emails look positively expansive by contrast), FYIs from colleagues (who, apparently, have so little understanding of what I do that they tell me things I just don’t need to know about), and occasionally something important that absolutely, positively demands my attention right then and there. Even when I was PhD student, I had to deal with emails from supervisors, administrators and various others. Email become one of the main ways in which things got done and expectations got managed.

How did we get to the point where email = expectations? How did we get to the point where managing your email = managing others’ expectations? What can be done about it?

And as I sit here in FNQ thinking about this, I realise that I thought I had an effective mechanism in place to manage others’ expectations – the out of office reply on my email. I’ve been thinking that because I had crafted a polite (and not even a little bit passive-aggressive) OOOR that I had bought myself some time. Some time that I can spend doing what I wanted. Like fishing. I’ve been thinking to myself:

“Work. It can wait.”

But it can’t, you see. The OOOR hasn’t so much bought me some time as borrowed it. I still have to pay it back (with interest). The work still needs to get done. It is expected.

Now I’m not pointing fingers at my current workplace – it doesn’t matter who I talk to or from which industry they come, the story is the same – there is a growing (set?) expectation that once someone has sent an email, that their bit is done.

“I sent you an email about this…”

Take for example the recent industrial furore over the shipbuilders who were told – via email – not to turn up to work for their next shift. Since when has email become so core to the way in which we transact work that it is ok to sack people[1] through it?

And so we get closer to the the real problem: email, for all its reply functionality, doesn’t work well when people stop attending to it. In fact, the OOOR does the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it gives comfort to the sender that the email has been received (and so from their point of view: “job done”), but it leaves the responsibility of replying firmly in the recipient’s email court. All those poorly written, half thought-through emails remain in the inbox, waiting for something appropriate to happen to them, something like me working overtime to catch up on what I missed.

The net effect:

I didn’t really get to go on leave. Deep down, I am still at work. Psychologically, I don’t get to have a break. The point of having break to refresh my capacity to do better work is diminished, lost.

So what can be done?

The solution to this problem is not a technological one, but a behavioural one. To truly be able to take advantage of ‘time off’, we need to know that we can come back to our work rested and ready to tackle the work that is coming towards us, not kill ourselves by trying to “catch up.” We need to begin to pay attention to the ‘socio’ part of this socio-technical system we call email/expectations. For that is all it is, a system. A system that we can change, if we choose to.

My solution to this problem is a two-step approach[2].

  • Step 1: When I get back to work, create a special folder in my email client called: While you were away… and then move every email that is in my inbox into that folder. Studiously ignore it from that point on.
  • Step 2: Begin to let people know that I have archived all email that arrived during the period that I was away and will be working from a clean slate. If there they sent anything that they think absolutely needs my attention then they need to let me know. Otherwise, I’ll assume that it’s ok for me to safely ignore. I was, after all, on leave.

I’m willing to bet that very few people will actually re-send those ‘important’ emails or that I’ve missed anything so mission-critical that someone else hasn’t covered for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now, though, I’m off to another World Heritage Listed Area – Mossman Gorge – to soak up the bliss and I promise you I won’t be thinking about work at all.

Maybe you should have a break too? You know, a real break? It’ll do you, and your work, good.

  1. I’m aware that this is still playing out in the courts, but the example is instructive.  ↩

  2. To be fair, when I left to go on leave my email inbox had nothing in it, I was blissfully at “#inboxzero”.  ↩