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


Things break ALL THE TIME. What to do about it?

One of the things I’ve becomed accustomed to after owning three Jeeps is the fact that things break. Sometimes it’s expensive and critical (like a throttle control switch) and sometimes it’s minor.

Today it was a little thing: a break-light globe.

As vehicles become more and more sophisticated and as fixing cars becomes more about software and less about hardware, it is getting harder to fix things myself. I’m just not equipped with the required gadgetry.

So today I am thankful that I could actually do something about my brake-light. All it took was a trip to the local Autobarn, a screwdriver, 5 minutes to take the light out, 3 minutes to buy the right globe and two minutes to replace the busted one and reassemble the brake-light housing. I did it all right there in the car park.

I always make a point about trying to repair things myself before I call in the experts. It makes me happy when I can do it myself and get a successful outcome.

Not always is it possible to do the repairs myself and it’s not always convenient either. However it’s worth at least having a go. It’s one of the great lessons that my father taught me at a very young age: chances are it can be done and chances are I’m more than capable of doing it even though I’ve not done it before. It just takes a bit of thought, time and patience. Don’t rush. Be deliberate. Act decisively.

As my students head towards the end of the semester, they are facing a complex task for their final piece of assessment and it is unlikely they have faced something like this before. It will require them to think carefully, work deliberately, and make a series of decisions. The secret to success will be for them to work consistently and collaboratively towards solving the challenge that they’ve been provided while relying on their skills and capabilities that they’ve been developing over the course of their degree.

I know they can do it. They just have to try.

Gobi Quick Release Clamps Installed

This weekend I finally got around to installing the Gobi Quick Release Clamps to my Gobi roof rack. This will make the job of lifting the roof rack and lowering the soft top down MUCH faster and easier. Before these little babies went in, I had to carry around a range of spanners to help partially uninstall the rack to lower the sodttop. Of course, that neant I hardly ever did it.

Now, I can Release to roofrack so it can tilt back out of the way, drop the soft top and reinstate to roofrack all in under 7 minutes. I expect to get faster the more times I do it.

Although we are heading into winter, there’s still going to be the odd day where the weather is nice. Now there’s no excuse for me not to be driving around topless.


#JeepLife #BuiltNotBought 

Engaging industry, students and universities: A workflow

A few years ago I shot a video that explained how we were using digital approaches to engaging industry, universities and students in order to solve ‘real world’ problems. Things have moved on since then and I’ve refined the process considerably, but the fundamentals still persist.

If, through your teaching practice, you are interested  in engaging in these kinds of approaches where multiple stakeholders work together to solve problems, this video might give you some ideas.

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.




Follow the money: edtech

I was googling around looking for some interesting stats to share in our Digital Sprint Workshop when I came across this infographic by Boston Consulting. It shows where the investment has been over the last few years and the SCALE of that investment.


This infographic was originally published on bcg.perspectives

Tentatively hugging the digital tree

Tentatively hugging the digital tree

As I undertake the design and construction of the new capstone subject Management in Practice for the School of Management at RMIT University I’m aware of the opportunity to embrace some newer, digitally delivered, tools and approaches to learning and teaching. But what does that mean in the context of our students? How might I go about doing it? Does it matter which approaches I use, or is the fact that this course is ‘digital’ be enough?

We’ve seen a significant shift at RMIT over the past few years as we begin to move towards a more digitally enabled organisation. The transformation has been going on behind the scenes for some years, but recently it has become increasingly obvious to front-line people that there is a significant transformation underway. For example, RMIT’s ICT strategy to 2020 is organised around five themes:

1. Best in class digital student experience – Invest in new technologies which transform the student experience and underpin the digital strategy
2. Innovative and efficient Service Integrator – Reposition the ICT function to source and manage services more efficiently and to focus on business outcomes through innovation
3. Elegant global service experience and systems – Move to single global systems and processes which enable the global operating model
4. Data to fuel differentiation & decisions – Ensure quality data and integrated systems are available to support data based decision-making, and enable personalised and contextualised services
5. Simple & secure technology foundations – Ensure foundation technology is simplified, free of duplication, and secure

When looking at that document, I was struck by what the authors had framed as ‘RMIT’s Perfect Storm’ (pages 6 and 7) where they framed the challenges that RMIT is facing:

1. Adaptive learning
2. Re-inventing credits
3. Social media
4. Flipped classroom
5. Self-paced learning
7. Digital assessments
8. Massive computing for research data
9. Listening and sensing technologies
10. Ebooks and digital content
11. Open micro-credentials
12. Predictive analytics
13. Advanced classroom technologies
14. Physical virtual presence

There’s a lot there to consider. Lots of moving pieces. It looks complicated. So what does all this mean for me as a teaching academic? The obvious themes in this document that I are ‘Best in class digital student experience’ and ‘Data to fuel differentiation and decisions’. The challenges that stood out included:

  1. Adaptive learning
  2. Re-inventing credits
  3. Social media
  4. Flipped classroom
  5. Self-paced learning
  6. MOOCS
  7. Digital assessments
  8. Ebooks and digital content
  9. Predictive analytics

It appears these are the drivers of much of the technology adoption in RMIT and if I want to remain an effective educator, I’m probably going to have to adapt my approach to teaching. You know, Academic Expectations and all that….

So, in thinking this through, some of the questions that I have are: How do I go about implementing some of these things in my practice? Do students want any of this stuff anyway? What’s the case for all this digital transformation in the L&T space?


The case for adopting a digital approach to teaching and learning

It appears that the case for the move to digital has been made mostly in the UK and in the USA. Australia seems to be following a similar path although a few years behind. Some interesting reading that I came across included an analysis by Delloits on the adoption of digital tools in education in the schooling system (not HE), and the Digital Student Project in the UK. When I dug into this report a little deeper and looked at the student digital experience tracker pilot report I was struck by some of the statistics:

The following comes from page 17 of the report:

With regards to the overall student digital experience:
Approximately seven in ten of students believe that
when technology is used by teaching staff it enhances
their learning experience
Around 6 in 10 students believe that digital
assessments are delivered well

Technology use by teaching staff:
» 72.2% of HE students and 70.1% of FE and skills
students agreed that when technology is used by
teaching staff, it helped their learning experience

And this is what the Higher Ed Students said they wanted (Pages 19–21):

Offer recorded lectures
Make better use of VLEs: standardise use by staff, add
presentations, teach students how to use it effectively,
and improve access (eg mobile friendly)
Improve online services: more online resources/
activities, assessment submissions
Provide access to better / more computers and devices

And this…

Keep providing online 24/7 access to as much content
as possible
Keep providing 24/7 library access
Keep providing as much material as possible (lecture
notes, slides etc) on the VLE, and make it accessible
any time any place
Keep using technology, and embracing new
technology services and resources

And, finally, this…

Stop sending irrelevant emails! (very many students
said this)
Stop early morning lectures
Stop “death by PowerPoint” and other boring lecture
behaviours eg too long, unbroken

The recording of lectures is a no-brainer. As a student, I wouldn’t bother getting up for an 8:30 lecture if I knew it was going to be recorded. It seems, then, the decision on how to do lectures in this ‘new’ environment is going to be a design question I’m going to spend a little time exploring. If, for example, I choose to put all lectures online, what’s the best way to do that? What opportunities do I sacrifice when adopting an online process? What becomes available to me in the digital space that isn’t as easy in the F2F space?

On Monday and Tuesday I’ll be working with Joyce Seitzinger from Academic Tribe as part of a Digital Design Sprint to learn how to think through many of the issues I’ll be facing as I create the new Management In Practice course. I’m going to capture much of that process as I can and publish it here so that others might learn from it as well. I hope you’ll join me.

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.