Tag: meso-activities

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.



My PhD Toolkit

I get this question asked a lot: “What (digital) tools did you use to do your PhD?

So, here’s my very short answer:

  1. Hardware (part 1): Buy a Mac. Seriously. I used a MacBookPro almost exclusively throughout the whole process and I suspect it would still be going strong if I hadn’t dropped it. I’m now using a 13″ MacBook Air. Heaven.
  2. Hardware (part 2): A mobile phone with a good camera. I use an iPhone and I’ve got Genius Scan+ installed as an app. If I need to take a scan of something (e.g. book page) I can whip out my phone, snap, enhance the image, tag and send to Dropbox (see #8 below) for later use.
  3. For writing: Scrivener. Hands down the best writing tool out there for compiling a large and complex document (like a thesis). Also, it’s relatively inexpensive, has awesome tutorials/help and it plays nicely with most citation software. There’s education pricing, too.
  4. For pdf management and referencing software: Papers 2 (NOT Papers 3). Papers 3 is still in beta and has some bugs that I’m just not happy with. The good news is that Papers also has an iPad app which has a clunky but reasonable sync system. If you read and annotate an article on your iPad/Mac, it can sync back to your Mac/iPad with all the notes/highlights etc intact. Nifty.
  5. For keeping notes and random ideas etc: Evernote. Buy the premium version. It has auto back-up and also makes the content of your notes searchable. You can make individual notebooks (e.g. ‘methodology’ or ‘thesis ideas’) and drop your stuff in there. It also has a robust tagging system. Pair with their mobile version for notes on the go.
  6. For thinking: Moleskine notebooks^. I used a combination of blank and lined depending on what I wanted to do/my mood at the time. For added awesomeness, use the Pilot G–2 pen (for words) or something like a Pentel mechanical pencil and a 2B graphite (I prefer the 0.7mm) for drawing/sketching/mapping ideas. Carry everywhere.
  7. For sharing with others (read: supervisors): MS Word. Eventually you are going to have to share your writing with someone who doesn’t have Scrivener installed. Since most people seem to have access to MS Word, it makes sense to export your work from Scrivener into a Word document and then email it to them.
  8. For accessing your stuff everywhere: Dropbox^^. I bought a subscription that allowed me to boost the amount of storage I could access, but the ‘cloud’ storage market is shifting rapidly. Consider if you really need to upgrade. I suspect that soon you’ll be able to use something like Apple’s iCloud service and get plenty of storage for free (see #1 above).

This should be enough to get you going and I’ll write more about each of these tools individually in upcoming posts – including exactly how I used them. Maybe I’ll even do some screencasts. Let me know if you would like me to do that.

^ Technically, not a digital tool. But the Moleskine ‘marketplace’ is expanding significantly to encompass digital workflows. See, for example, the ways in which Evernote and Moleskine work together.
^^ Be careful about storing sensitive data in a place like Dropbox. The service is hosted in the US and your ethics might prevent you transporting data across national borders. Also, be concerned about data security. Don’t store something in an online, for profit, service if you are concerned about the confidentiality and security of your data. These kinds of services can (and do) get hacked.