Shoot yeah - I use paper

When I was a kid, we were forbidden to use curse-words - but mom also forbade us to use euphemisms for curse-words (e.g. darn, heck, gosh). Even to this day, I know that if I were to use salty-language, my mom would find a way to force me to the floor and wash my mouth out with soap.

But at some point in my childhood, I discovered that my mom uses a euphemism as well - she says "shoot" all the time. When I called this to her attention, she told me to "Shut up!" We're not supposed to say "shut up" either ;-)

For all of my exhortation to going paperless, and leveraging technology to improve workflows, paper is my "shoot" - I still use paper to navigate my way through the day. I think it's a great way to keep my shoot together, and I think you should give a shoot as well.

The Problem

As I've mentioned before, OmniFocus is the nerve-center of all my projects and tasks. But having a task-managing database in electronic form does present several problems that a hybrid approach can address:

  1. Capture: I am all thumbs when it comes to typing on a smartphone. It takes me a great deal of focus and time to get things typed correctly. I frankly thought that this was a problem unique to people my age and older, but I've begun asking my students about phone-typing. They tell me that, while they can type quickly, they also have to edit a great deal. Sometimes writing things down can be a lot faster.
  2. Distraction: When I grab my phone to check for the "next action," I'm actually presented with a wide-range of well-meaning distractions. I don't mean Facebook; in fact, some of the distractions are really important. I may discover that students have submitted work in the LMS, and I want to see how they did. I may have an important email from the Provost. I may have even come into some money from a Nigerian prince. My phone is a lot like my fridge - I can go there looking for carrots, and come away with chocolate pudding.
  3. Face-to-which-face: I do capture tasks into my OmniFocus while in conversation with others, but that does mean that I need to stop the conversation and enter information. There are a lot of times where this distraction actually damages the conversation; I'm looking at my phone (or talking to my phone) instead of the person. Writing things down is not only faster, but more conducive to keeping discussion going.
  4. Microtasks: I have a heater under my desk to keep my feet warm. When I turn it on, I need to remember to turn it off before I leave work. I'm not sure whether that task really requires that I open OmniFocus, create a task, schedule a reminder, and figure out its context. It's a little thing that I want to complete, but not something that really warrants the time to create the task.

The Solution

Each morning, during my morning planning routine, I open OmniFocus, my calendar, and my Moleskine. I process any tasks that are in my inbox, clean up the calendar, and decide what tasks need to be done for the day. For those who follow a GTD-like method, this should be familiar. But I also write the tasks (on the left page) and the appointments (on the right page) in my notebook, and identify two or three big tasks that will result in a successful day.

When new tasks emerge throughout the day, I log those on the task list in the notebook. If I finish them before the end of the day, they may never show in my OmniFocus. If I don't finish them by the end of the day, I usually capture them and process them in OmniFocus. Every once in a while, I'll migrate a task to a following day without logging it in OmniFocus, especially if it's a micro-task that I'll do tomorrow.

I have discovered several keys to doing this effectively and efficiently:

  • Morning Routine - Open the task manager and choose tasks that need to be done today. I mark the ones that came from my OmniFocus with an O so that I know they need to be marked off in OmniFocus (later). I also scratch out my calendar for the day.
  • During the day - New tasks are added in the notebook. Any chicken-scratch that I need to scribble down (e.g. a phone number) goes under the schedule portion of the notebook.
  • End of the Day - When I'm ready to wind down, I migrate incomplete tasks into OmniFocus, and process my inboxes. By the time I have processed my in-boxes, the notebook is closed for the day.

I use a notation system for tasks that help me track not only priority, but also which tasks need to be checked off in OmniFocus, or added to OmniFocus.

✓ = Done
→ = Moved forward, not in OmniFocus
O ← = Migrated into OmniFocus to be done someday later
! = "Big Important Things To Do" (I try to have several of these each day)
X = Deleted task
D ← = Delegated task migrated into OmniFocus

Tips and Tricks

  1. Nothing Fancy - I don't spend a great deal of time with making my notebook pretty or fancy. These pages need to simply help me make it through the day. I've seen some very elegant Bullet Journals that look remarkable - but if I spent half the time doing that, I'd miss out on doing some things that are really important and valuable for me.
  2. Waste Pages - Some days have finished with almost nothing on them. I recently spent an entire day working on a data-set, so I had three tasks and no appointments. I still started the next day on the next page.
  3. Daily Planning - At a minimum, this approach will only work if one plans at least once a day. I finish my day by processing any captured and incomplete tasks back into OmniFocus. 
  4. Note-Taking - I still keep notes in Evernote as often as I possibly can. When I capture something in the notebook that really needs to be in Evernote, I'll scan it with Scannable and send it to Evernote. Usually, though, these are scratches that don't need to go anywhere. For example, I was trying to call Anthony, but I couldn't reach him. I scratched his phone number down so that I wouldn't have to go back to my contact manager every time I wanted to try again.
  5. Specialty Lists - I have a few running lists in the back of the notebook. These eventually find their way into Evernote, but I can quickly capture items that relate to one another. For example, I have a running list of research questions that pop up when I'm working with others. I also have a Netflix list, a reading list, and a list of people I promised I'd have lunch with some day.

Image Credit:

Posted on February 5, 2016 and filed under General, Task Management, GTD.

I'm Baaaack

I ended up taking a long break from a lot of projects over Christmas - this site being one of them. What did I do, instead of pontificating on workflows in higher ed? I went to Costa Rica for about three weeks, I went into the deep-end on a dataset I've been holding on to, and I endured the first-weeks of a new semester.

I also have the dubious honor of starting a new program from scratch - which means that I've sat in way too many meetings where we repeat the same information, describe the same problems, and imagine the same solutions. 

But my head is back above water, and I've some new thoughts and suggestions for workflows for the coming year. So here we go :-)

Image Credit:

Posted on February 5, 2016 and filed under General.

Helping Students Manage Part 3: Common Pitfalls

It can be frustrating for faculty who try to help students manage tasks and commitments, particularly when students seem to "shut down" during the mentoring process. Often, students will ask me to help them to develop a system, but give me the infamous "blank stare" as we get into developing a process. The easiest, and least helpful, way to respond to the student is to is assume that he is lazy or unmotivated - that may be true, but there are other possibilities as well. I've found that it helps to parse the reasons why students shut down during this process, and to think about mitigating the approach based upon these challenges. Frankly, I've seen these same processes at play for my colleagues who have asked for help in developing workflows as well!

1. The "Silver Bullet" Problem

Somewhere between "I want to use your system" and "That doesn't work for me" lies a vast landscape of different options and approaches to time/task management.  Helping students discover a system sometimes means choosing between thirty different methods, and then an overwhelming number of options within each system. I've used the Franklin Quest, the Covey, and the GTD methods in my own career: I don't even know what I would call my current method. And how many apps on the iTunes store claim to be the "perfect GTD solution?" Students can face a choice-paralysis paradigm - I first have to spend all this time finding the perfect system, just so that I can get around to completing all of the work that I needed a system for in the first place. This is, in my experience, the primary reason for the "shut down." I can almost see the language on the student's face; "I'll just work on getting my current assignments done and maybe pick something during the next break." 

Solution: Start really small. I will often ask the student to bring her syllabi to the meeting, and we will go through the assignments and get them into a single list. No software, no fancy system, no clever methodology. Presenting students with software options may be overwhelming, as may the introduction of your own methodology. If a student has NO system, start with paper. If a student has a paper system then needs to be managed by a database, I will often introduce her to Wunderlist, and then encourage her to use that database for a semester. If a student has used several options, I will help her explore the strengths and weaknesses of different software options. If there was a silver bullet for time and task management, we'd all use it - but there isn't. Start small - VERY small. 

2. The "Emotional Intelligence" Problem

When I attended Hyrum Smith's workshop on time management, he encouraged us to write down EVERYTHING we did on a legal pad for a week. That turned out to be a difficult task. I didn't mind writing down things I was proud of doing; "10:15-12:00 - Graded papers." I did, however, find it emotionally difficult to be honest about how I spent other chunks of time in my day; "1:15-2:00 - Stood at the coffee machine describing "Weekend at Bernie's" scene-by-scene with Larry." Having the emotional honesty to write EVERYTHING down can be a difficult, partly because we start to see places where we are less productive. It's much easier to lie to ourselves about what we do with our time, and build a narrative that makes us feel better about our productivity. When a student says, "I've been working on this paper for three weeks," what he actually means is that he worked on the paper for about four hours over the span of the last three weeks. But this emotional honesty is super-important in developing plans that will be productive and effective.

Solution: I encourage students to put "time wasters" on their calendar (XBox, NetFlix binges, Facebook) when they are longer than 15 minutes. If these activities are going to happen, then they are important to the student - regardless of how important they are to other people. The reasons this is valuable for students is that they have the opportunity to make micro-commitments to themselves that they will keep, and also deal rationally with the work that they find less attractive or enjoyable than Candy Crush. If a student unwinds each day with a couple hours of xbox, why not put that on his calendar? He can schedule an appointment with himself to play xbox from 6:30-8:30 p.m., set a timer to remind him to quit at 8:30, and go on to the next commitment. 

Naps are an excellent, and extremely necessary, part of this exercise. I've only known of one student who didn't like naps - and he was a weirdo. Students have infamously poor sleep-hygiene, and will often discount the importance of a good nap in the afternoon. Frankly, I find that the promise of a nap is the only GOOD reason to get up in the morning. I recommend to students that they schedule 90-minute naps as part of the plan, and be good to themselves an follow through with those commitments.

3. The "False Expectation" Problem

I worked with a student several years ago who put everything into a system, and gave a lot of time and energy into crafting what eventually developed into an elegant task and time management solution. I confess that I was surprised when he didn't turn in his major paper in my class. When we met to figure out what went wrong, he launched an interesting complaint - "I did all this planning, but stuff still doesn't get done." Yep - stuff doesn't get done. The passive voice of that verb is really important. Planning doesn't mean that stuff gets done, it merely shows me what needs to be accomplished.

As I reflected on his choice of phrase, I realized that my language contributes to this passive position. I often try to make things sound easy so that students will not feel overwhelmed by the many options (see Problem #1). But things on my task list don't "get done" - I do things. It is possible that my own language in helping him contributed to some magical thinking, deemphasizing the doing, and emphasizing the benefits.

Solution: There are two approaches that I believe help with this problem. First, I changed the way I use language when discussing productivity. I used to tell students that "When I put something on my task list, it gets done." Now I tell my students, "When I put something on my task list, I DO IT." The change from passive to active helps mitigate the false expectation that making lists is productive work.

Second, I help students focus less on "capture" and more on "doing." I read and followed some advice years ago that has paid off immensely (for the life of me, I can't find it to give credit). The author suggested that one start small. My first "task" was "to put my socks on tomorrow morning." I wrote it down the night before, and checked off the next morning when I put my socks on. This was a genius suggestion - because I discovered the joy of crossing things off my list. It also resulted in an awareness and intentionality in completing tasks, even the ones that might get done without planning. It focussed attention on planning and doing - not just planning. I always grin when a student starts putting things on his task list that he already did, and then checks them off. That's the moment when he is focussed more on what gets DONE than what gets captured. Besides, I do that for myself ALL the time (wink).

Image Credit:

Posted on December 5, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management, Calendar Management, General.

Helping Students Manage Part 2: Developing a Task Manager

Students are often unaware of how overrun they really are, and how deeply they need a system for managing the vastness of tasks they need to manage. I've discovered that the best way to help students find peace is by showing them how overwhelmed they are, and then offering a solution to mitigate the mess.

Step 1: List out the assignments

I encourage my students to bring their syllabi to a meeting with me, and we go through them listing all of the assignments that are due in the semester. When we've exhausted those, we'll discuss the other tasks that are looming in their futures (pay the cable bill, purchase plane tickets for break, register for the next semester, etc.). This list should precede any discussion of which tool they will use to manage tasks. In fact, I don't discuss tools until they have a an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of tasks to freak out about.

Step 2: Identify the Projects

Students will often times list "Write English Paper" as a task. We discuss the steps that will need to go into that project, and list them accordingly (with due dates). It's a great time to discuss the difference between a task and a project, and help the student identify which is which.

Step 3: Find a Tool

Once the tasks are laid out in on paper, the student can clearly see the need for a tool to manage tasks. I have found that students typically like Wunderlist, in part because it is free, and in part because it seems to make sense to them. Asana and Todoist are also great options. In spite of the fact that I LOVE my OmniFocus, it is simply overwhelming to a student who is trying to navigate task management for the first time. If they are willing to pay for it, I think Nozbe is another excellent choice.

Other Tips

  1. Be Vulnerable - I think it is very helpful to students when they can see that we also have a lot of tasks on our plate. It is also useful to show students that things happen best when they are planned for. I show my students my task list, and share problem areas with them in keeping things managed. To date, every student I have helped has said something like, "Oh, I get it!" when I've shared my own task list with them.
  2. Be Transparent - I mentioned this in a previous post, but I will oftentimes ask a student to wait while I enter a task into my OmniFocus. I believe that this is a necessary teaching moment, but it also communicates to the student that she is important enough to me that I keep track of my promises. Being transparent to allow students to see my process has proven VERY valuable.
  3. Be Strategic - I don't scaffold assignments for upperclassmen. I figure that they need to have the ability to scaffold assignments on their own. I do, however, give suggestions for how major assignments can be broken down. In recent years, I've even started doing this with my freshmen - instead of grading scaffolded assignments, I share with them a plan for breaking the major assignment down. Many are initially confused - "You mean I don't have to turn this in?" But it's a great way to reinforce learner-centered instruction while showing them a path to self scaffolding.
  4. Be Helpful - I recently had a student ask me, after class, "When is that assignment due?" As you might imagine, I had stated three different times in class that day that the assignment was due on Friday by 5:00. My initial reaction was to dress him down - "Didn't you listen during class?" I caught myself in time to ask him a different question - "Are you having a hard time keeping track of assignments?" As it turned out, he was overwhelmed. The question he asked was not so much a problem of listening, but that he was trying to hold all of his due-dates in his head. We met after class, and he is using Wunderlist to keep all of his assignments and due-dates managed.
  5. Be Available - Research indicates that students the more time students have contact with faculty, the better their chances of academic success. I have a text-expander snippet for all of my class emails that states that I am available if they need any help managing their tasks or calendar. Some students wait until they are overwhelmed to take advantage of the offer, but it gives me the chance to help find solutions when they are overwhelmed. And as much as we are likely to forget this, students are never quite sure whether it is appropriate to spend time with us in the office.

Image Credit:

Posted on October 26, 2015 and filed under Task Management, GTD.

Helping Students Manage Part 1: Using iCal for Task Management

I've elected to start a series of posts on helping students manage time and tasks effectively. I have learned that when students see their faculty using good methodology, they ask for help. That said, setting a student up for OmniFocus is not always a good first step.

Several weeks ago, a student asked me whether he could just use his iCal to manage tasks.  My first reaction was, "Probably not." But as I looked into it, I found a way to make that happen.

The key to this method is to use the "All Day" banner section of the calendar to create tasks. This really only works when a person has a few tasks to manage, but it can be done. It's not REALLY a GTD approach, but the students with whom I've shared this have found it to be a great entry-level approach to managing tasks. Time will tell whether they let me help them navigate thicker weeds ;-)

Below is a screencast I created to help my students use the method. Feel free to share it with any students who need a quick and easy solution.

Image credit:

Posted on October 2, 2015 and filed under Calendar Management, Task Management.

Zotero for Literature Reviews

If you've ever tried working with several different PDFs simultaneously, you may have discovered a significant frustration. Even on a relatively large screen, one can only look at a couple of PDFs at a time. This can make comparing information in disparate journal articles somewhat frustrating.  More than once, I have found myself reverting to printing the articles I want to compare, and then spreading the papers out on my desk.

If that's what I need to do, I'll still do it. But I've discovered a quick and easy way to make that a little less necessary. I found that one of the reasons I print PDFs is because I need to keep track of which article is written by whom. When capturing journal articles from EBSCO, for example, the filename for the PDF can be nonsensical.

This is one of the many places where Zotero can bring a lot of sanity into the process. I've discovered that Zotero is especially useful in managing annotations, keeping track of PDF names, and making life a little easier in the analysis of journal articles.


I've mentioned this before, but I've grown quite fond of collecting my annotations for sources in Zotero. I keep these in the "Notes" section of each source. I find that I prefer to arrange my notations in the following order...

  1. Copy and pasted quotations - I really dislike opening a PDF just to see if I can find a highlighted quote. If I am going to highlight something on a PDF, it makes just as much sense to copy and past the quotation into the Notes section of the annotation. I follow each paste with the page number from the source.
  2. Summary - I tend to write a paragraph listing the primary thesis, methodology, and findings for each source I'm evaluating. I find that this summary annotation makes sifting through lots of PDFs a little more efficient, since I don't need to open each one to remember what was in the article.
  3. Reflection - These are notes I write to myself, usually in the form of observations, evaluations, or questions I have of the source. Sometimes a scholar will use a methodology that I want more clarity about. Other times, I'll note limitations to a study that are not clear in the article. Very often, when I am reflecting on the source, I will add a final line of how this source fits with my own research question.

Here's an example of an annotated source for a project I worked on this last summer. Note that the reflection is really specific to the thesis of the literature review and research question of the project I was working on.

Renaming PDFs

When I capture PDFs from EBSCO, the file names are often different from the bibliographic information. This can make it difficult to sort through various PDFs when several are open at the same time (they have names like EBSCO134561). I choose to rename the PDFs from the metadata, which can be a pretty easy task if the metadata is already in Zotero. Here's an example...

The PDF name for this source is "untitled - EJ966132.pdf" When it is open with other PDFs, it can be very difficult to remember which source is which.

By right clicking the PDF, and choosing "Rename File from Parent Metadata," the file is renamed to match the source...

As long as the metadata is available in Zotero, this renaming is extremely easy, and makes searching the desktop for the open file a bit easier as well...

Tags and Folders

Zotero allows the user to organize sources into folders, which can be useful for smaller projects. When the project is much larger, these sources can be difficult to navigate. Consider using tags attached to sources for faster sorting. Zotero assigns the publisher's key-words as tags in the metadata, but you are free to add additional tags as well.

When searching for sources, list the tags that are preferred in the search tool. This kind of search can narrow the field significantly, and allow you to work from a subset of sources with relative ease.

I've found that keeping things centralized in Zotero not only makes reviewing scholarly literature more manageable in the electronic format, it has become preferable to printing the literature off and spreading it out over my desk. Even though reading on the screen can be limiting, a few tweaks makes the process more productive than the old-fashioned methods I used to use.

Image Credit:

Posted on September 13, 2015 and filed under Writing, General.

Processing Email Faster with Mail Act-On

Gates 2.001.jpg

I love how Jim Gaffigan describes how lazy we are...

You ever find yourself being lazy for no reason at all? Like you pick up your mail, you go in your house, you realize you have a letter for a neighbor -- you ever just look at the letter and go, 'Hm, looks like they're never getting this. Takes too much energy to go outside.'*

I wonder whether he has a point when I get SO excited about turning three mouse-clicks into one single key-stroke. Perhaps it's not so much that I am lazy [nervous throat-clearing], but that I am so easily distractible. This is especially true reading emails. I have found that I often read an email, decide it's something that needs action, agree with myself to do something about it, and then (before doing anything), move on to a shinier email object. I lose tasks this way, which can be very frustrating.

Mail Act-On** has really streamlined the way I manage emails. It's an Apple Mail add-on that allows the user to create additional rules for mail, some of which are executable by hot-key commands. For example, I like to forward all tasks to my OmniFocus inbox, all reference material to Evernote, and some items to both. Until recently, I did this by

  1. opening the email,
  2. clicking "redirect" 
  3. entering text in the "To:" field, and then clicking send

If I have twenty tasks in my email inbox to process, that can result in many opportunities for distraction.

Using Mail Act-On, I created several rules that run on Hotkeys (btw, I am CERTAIN that this could be done with KeyboardMaestro, but I just don't know how). When an email is highlighted that needs to go to OmniFocus, I click "control-O", which

  1. redirects the email to OmniFocus
  2. colors the email blue (for task) 
  3. marks the email as "read" 
  4. sends the email to my Archive folder

Similarly, I have a hot-key for Evernote that does the same (turning those emails green), and one that sends to both Evernote and OmniFocus. I like having the color of the emails coded, so that I can quickly look through my archive and see what's been sent to Evernote or to OmniFocus (or both). I have a number of hot-keys set up at this point (forwarding to my staff, or to common collaborators), each doing a different task. 

One other feature of Mail Act-On is that you can highlight a number of emails and perform the same task on all of them at once. I recently needed to forward a bunch of different emails to a colleague to catch her up on a conversation. Since she was already in my Mail Act-On rules, I highlighted all of the emails I wanted to send her, clicked the keyboard short-cut, and all of them went to her (individually forwarded).

As a result, I am processing email WAY faster. Even better, I'm not nearly so distracted by shinier emails that draw my attention from moving tasks out of my email Inbox. There are other, more complex, rule-options as well, and I am playing around with those. Frankly, I downloaded the free trial version because I was dubious whether this was worth the $15. Mail Act-On is available for a trial at They have some other products I'm trying on for size - but I have found that Mail Act-On is worth the $15 price-tag.

Image Credit: 


** I have no affiliation or financial arrangement with Indev, other than I gave them some of my money ;-)

Posted on September 2, 2015 and filed under General.

Crisis Cleanup

I was in Prague this last July to present a paper at a conference, when my summer pretty much devolved in a few short hours. It started when my wife called to tell me that a member of our family had died in an accident. Within an hour of that call, I learned that one of my grants was unexpectedly defunded. Additionally, my step-daughter and her family moved in with us for the month of August as they prepared for a move to Costa Rica, I took two classes, and tried to get ready for the new semester.

In short, I've been in a constant crisis-state for about a month-and-a-half. I breathed a little sigh of relief last Thursday when, for the first time, I started to see some regularly coming back into my schedule and task list.  

In some ways, working in Higher Ed is similar to running one's own business. We have the freedom to choose many of our priorities, but we can also feel like the weight of an enterprise rests on our shoulders. And when crisis comes, the whole system can feel like it's falling down around us. 

I took some important lessons away from the last six weeks...

1.  Crisis tests priorities - One evening, my wife came into our make-shift bedroom (the kids and grandkids were in our bedroom) and said, "I just need to get away with you for a little while." My first reaction was, "I've got too much to do," but I knew she was right - I needed the same thing. We drove around town for about an hour, just spending the time talking to one another. Crises test our ability to make good decisions on the best use of our time - and spending time with those most important to me is the best use of MY time. In GTD terms, many of my current projects became "Someday Maybe." 

2.  Crisis tests our independence - I was overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and colleagues over the last six weeks. When the grant was defunded, several of my colleagues helped me scramble to find institutional funds and draft an interim plan. A family friend took us all to a resort for a day of rest. I am rarely comfortable with giving my plans over to others, but crises are times where we can discover our need for interdependence.

3.  Crisis can redefine success - It is tempting (at least for me) to feel like we are failing to meet our goals and objectives when we are constantly sweeping up the messes around us. I had to spend some time reminding myself that, at least for a while, "sweeping up" is success. In time, the messes will accumulate at a slower pace, and we can start to plan again. 

4.  Crisis is exhausting - I only made it to the gym a couple of times over the last six weeks. I run on the treadmill with a heart-rate monitor. Usually, I can run at 4.5 MPH with my heart rate at a steady 140 - but lately, my heart rate has been at 160 at the same speed. I shared this with one of my colleagues in the Exercise Science dept. He looked at me incredulously, and asked, "Ever hear of stress?" We just don't have the same energy under the stresses of crises that we do in calmer times. Feeling tired and run-down is not exclusively emotional - it's physical as well.

I was able to make a pretty good list of future posts during the last six weeks, so I am hoping that I'll be back to regular updates. Meanwhile, if you find yourself in crisis, be sure to cut yourself some breaks!

Image Credit -

Posted on August 29, 2015 and filed under GTD, General.

Wrangling the Email Inbox

Lots of folks address the problem of wrangling email with great efficacy (Merlin Mann, David Sparks, and Mike Vardy to name a few). And while I wonder whether I sound like a scratched-record when I say this, things are slightly unique for the Higher Ed context. Sometimes our email needs run on a full 24-hour cycle. I often get emails from students the night before a major assignment is due with specific questions. I could be Mr. McGruff and refuse to answer those late-night questions, but many of them are good questions from good students. And to be honest, I'm a educator, not a policy-enforcer.

I also think that part of the challenge with email centers upon the bad email-citizenship of others. My step-daughter used to work in admissions. She showed me an email that her boss sent at 3:00 a.m., wanting some information "as soon as possible." There's a possibility that the bad habits of others can condition us (subconsciously?) to adapt to their habits. I often discover that tendency within myself.

One of the biggest problems with email is that the "important" email can potentially get lost among all of the other "cruft" that accumulates in our email. In fact, we might be tempted to hold everything in our inbox, just in case there is a gem that needs attention; We herd all of the cows for fear that we'll lose the one we really want. This temptation is understandable, but not necessarily effective. Here are some tips to get that email inbox sufficiently wrangled...

Use "Archive"

One of the easiest and most effective ways to get that inbox under control is to "select all" and "archive." In gmail, iCould, exchange, and most other email services, there is a folder or label called "Archive." This function saves the email, but gets it out of the inbox. I find that I rarely delete an email - even it seems unimportant at the time, I never know whether it might become important later. Archiving email gives me the security that I still have all the email I received, but gets it out from under my nose. It also makes email applications (like Apple Mail and Airmail) run really fast!

Tip: If you're just getting started, and there are 12,586 emails in your inbox, go ahead and archive everything at once. It's all still there, and waiting for that one day when you're free to read all 12,586 of them ;-) From there, other habits can be added as they are useful to your workflow.

Get tasks out of Email

As I mentioned previously, many task managers have a method for capturing tasks out of email. For me, I forward email that requires action to my OmniFocus secret email address, and then archive the email. That process can even be automated using or if some tasks have a predictive terms. If a student requests a letter of reference, for example, I almost always see that task in my OmniFocus before I've even read the email.

Tip: If you send an email to someone that includes a promise to do a task, you can "BCC" your special email address so that the task is captured there.

Be "SMART" about Folders

This actually has two meanings: A) use folders sparingly, and B) use smart folders.

A. Use Folders Sparingly - This is in direct reference to a nightmare I once created for myself where I decided to file every email in a specific folder. I had something like 50 folders listed in my mail app, and really never knew how to find what I was looking for. Searching for email by using the search feature of your mail program is SO much faster than browsing through folders. I do use a folder for each course that I am teaching, as I really like being able to browse those emails (I find common questions or common learning opportunities when I browse the emails). If there is value in browsing through a set of emails, folders make sense. Otherwise, ARCHIVE.

B. Smart Folders - Smart folders are really nothing more than "saved searches." For example, I have created a smart folder that searches for email from our Provost's office. The emails themselves are stored in the archive, but the smart folder is a saved search of those archived emails. If there are searches that you do on a regular basis, a smart folder can be a real boost to your efficiency!

Check Email at Scheduled Times

Ok, even as I write this, I have to confess that I am NOT good at it. In fact, this morning I opened my email to look for some information from a vendor, and realized that I had a new message from one of my friends. I spent about 10 minutes drafting a clever response to his email and sent it off before I realized that I had forgotten about the original reason I opened email. A habit of checking email at certain times of day can create a lot of space to get other things accomplished. Here's how I TRY to do that in my own schedule:

  • 8:00 a.m. - Check email for the first time. Process the inbox. In this case, I forward any tasks that need to be sent to my OmniFocus or Evernote, and I archive everything so that my inbox is empty - there's a caveat to this that I'll describe below.
  • 10:00 a.m. - Check email for any new important items, tasks or vital information.
  • 12:00 p.m. - Process the inbox. 
  • 3:00 p.m. - Check email for any new important items, tasks or vital information.
  • 5:00 p.m. - Process the inbox. 
  • 8:00 p.m. - This is SUPPOSED to be my final look at email. If someone sends me an email after 8:00 p.m. that needs immediate attention, they probably should have called. Seriously, I do tend to check later in the evening when I know my students are working on a project and may have last-minute questions.

Tools to Help Wrangling Email

Sanebox - So many people I read and listen to have suggested Sanebox, and I really didn't think that I actually needed it. But when I started receiving a great deal of spam in my personal email account, I decided it would be worth the investment. WOW! Sanebox took care of the spam stuff on my personal email, but it REALLY took over my work email. I wish that I had started using it a long time ago. Sanebox actually creates several folders in your email (I know, but bear with me) where email can eventually be processed automatically.

  • @SaneLater - one of the most commonly used features is the "SaneLater" folder, which will train itself over time to move email that you don't need to see immediately (like newsletters, or advertisements for Harley parts).  More than half of the email that gets sent to my inbox never actually shows up in my inbox - SaneLater has it, and I can read it whenever I feel like I have the time to catch up on new offers from
  • @SaneBlackHole - I mentioned that my personal email had a lot of spam. Things went crazy when, on one occasion, I "unsubscribed" from an illegitimate link. I guess the spammers found a real-live-person, and sent me every unsavory form of spam. @SaneBlackHole unsubscribes from spam by swallowing the email from your inbox without ever communicating with the sender. It's effectively blocking those emails from reaching your inbox. Very nice, although I am a little worried that I haven't heard from the Nigerian Prince in a while - hope he's ok.

Slack - Email within a workgroup is quite possibly the worst use of email, and also the most common. We've started using Slack for all of our interoffice communication, which has also obviated the dated "Group Text." Slack allows the group to create different "channels" which can be arranged in terms of projects or specific areas of concern, sharing messages and files. In fact, we have a channel where "fun" stuff goes - it's a virtual water-cooler of goofy gifs, memes, and inside jokes. More importantly, that stuff is not in my email.

IFTTT - There are some pretty cool "recipe" ideas already shared in, some of which can really boost one's efforts toward "inbox-zero." 

There's a special kind of peace in knowing that my email inbox has less than 10 messages at a time waiting to be processed. By archiving, processing, and checking email on a consistent basis, I've discovered that I really don't feel the anxiety related to email that I once did. 

Note: To be honest, while I was working on this post, Bonni Stachowiak published a podcast that does a GREAT job of describing a functional process for managing the email inbox (check email at certain times, get tasks into a task manager, etc.) . I highly recommend that you consider giving Episode 56 a listen - it's well worth the 11:00 minutes!

Image Credit:











Posted on July 21, 2015 .

Capture - 3. Tasks

I feel a little under-equipped to describe the process of capturing tasks - there’s a LOT of information out there on getting this done. I do think that Higher Ed presents some special challenges when it comes to capturing tasks. We don’t just sit at a desk, promises are made in the hallways, and important ideas emerge in the strangest situations.

As a means of comparison, before I worked in Higher Ed, tasks almost always came in the form of emails or phone calls. I was oftentimes at my desk when promises were being made. I always seemed to have my Franklin Planner open and ready for inputs whenever the need arose. Nowadays I find that tasks emerge in very disorganized ways. I’ve lost track of the number of times I finish class, pack my back, and head to the door when a student asks me for something that will result in a task. Collaboration with colleagues many times finds its genesis as we walk between buildings. We’re on the move, and that means that capturing tasks can be a moving target.

Here are some ways that I’ve found to make capturing tasks just a little easier…

Low Tech

The easiest, and perhaps most effective, method I’ve found for capturing tasks on the go is an index card in my pocket. I will often grab one at the beginning of the day, and write short notes about tasks that I’ve gathered on the fly. I tend not to use my low-tech method when I have a way to input the task directly (like when I’ve got my computer open, or can easily enter one on my mobile device), but I do like to use a notecard for capture when I’m moving around campus.

Once I’ve entered a task into my task manager from a notecard, I simply draw a line through the task so that I know it’s been captured. There have been times when I filled a 3x5 notecard on both sides before the day was over. This low-tech method has been one of the best solutions I’ve found thus far.

Medium Tech

Siri - Many task management apps will talk to Siri. I use OmniFocus, and it will grab tasks from a specific list in the iOS Reminders app. This means that I can ask Siri to “Remind me to change Larry’s grade to an A,” and it will capture into my OmniFocus Inbox. I’ve mentioned this before, but I find that it models good productivity-habits for students when I take a moment to capture something in Siri. Many times, my students will ask, “Can you help ME set up something like that?” I am always happy to get that question ;-) If you use OmniFocus, HERE is how to set it up. 

Email Drop - Many task managers have a dedicated email address that will send tasks to your Inbox. I actually entered this address in my contacts list, and nick-named it zzz. When I need to send myself an email (or forward an email) from my mobile device, I just type zzz in the “TO:” field, and it populates my OmniFocus email address. Another REALLY cool idea is to share that email address with people you trust (colleagues, staff, wife). My staff have my task email address, and can send me tasks into my OmniFocus Inbox. I was nervous initially, but I am now extremely happy that others have my task-inbox address. I’m even a little sore when those same people send me an email with a request - I’d rather it just go to my task manager.

Drafts - I can’t say enough about this app for iOS. It is an extremely well-designed text editor. The geniuses at AgileTortoise put a great deal of thought into how one would USE a text-editor on iOS. When you open the app, you get a cursor on a blank note. It opens VERY quickly, and one can just start typing. But the power of Drafts is found when you decide what you want to DO with that piece of text - you can turn it into an email, or a text message, or send it to Evernote, or html. If you use OmniFocus, you can also send the text as a task to the Inbox. This app is reaching the point of replacing my pocket notecard entirely. Drafts has become one of the most important apps in my entire workflow.

A Little Nerdier

There are some ways to automate tasks into your task manager. I use several that I find so useful that it was well-worth the time it took to set it up.

IFTTT - If This Then That is a simple script developer to help manage the “internet of things” (take it from a linguist, that’s becoming a term). I have a couple of recipes that rummage through my gmail inbox looking for key words. When those key words are present, the emails are forwarded to my OmniFocus Mail Drop. For example, some of my student workers accidentally send my messages to my email, rather than my OmniFocus email. I have a “recipe” (that’s what IFTTT calls these scripts) that finds the key word VMS and forwards it to my OmniFocus Inbox. More recently, our finance department asks us to submit a report monthly - but the start-date and due-dates are always changing, so they send us a reminder every month with updated details (uggghhhh). IFTTT looks for the key word, and forwards that to OmniFocus.

Hot-Spot - If I receive a file in an email that needs action, I will usually forward the email (with the attached file) to my OmniFocus Mail Drop. But there are times when I need to act on downloaded files. THIS script has been shared around the internet a few times - it uses Hazel to convert a file into an action in OmniFocus. Joe Buhlig’s instructions are the clearest version I’ve found. He has a GREAT site, BTW!

Capturing tasks is only the beginning - they must be organized and ultimately done (or NOT done), but having ways to ensure that they get captured so that they don’t have to be remembered is key to getting them done. If you’ve any tips for capturing tasks, please feel free to share them!

Image Credit:

Posted on July 8, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management.