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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 mail.app 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](https://www.dlsweb.rmit.edu.au/bus/public/referencing/), or visit the [Study and learning centre](http://www.rmit.edu.au/studyandlearningcentre).

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.

Woah.

This infographic was originally published on bcg.perspectives