Brave or Stupid? Abandoning email #workflow #teacher5aday #wellbeing #productivity
There are plenty of articles out there about email productivity, labelling, filtering. Colour stars abound. Branching labels grow unchecked. I won’t link to them here.

My workflow – for years – has almost always been manually controlled: Interesting / useful email message? Forward to Evernote for archiving and tagging. An action from an email message? Add it to my To-Do list. An email bulletin from a website or solution provider with an interesting article to read? Forward to my Pocket address so I can read it on my Kobo later.

But the email pile grows ever bigger, even with archiving, and searching for an email is just as frustrating as it was before. Add to that the 24-7 nature of email and the “respond now” culture that has evolved over the past few years and you have very little chance of switching off. France are making headway with this issue (but not banning after work email) as they realise this seriously impacts staff wellbeing.

It has got to the point where I want to abandon email altogether and work with a system that helps organise and track tasks for me and others in my department. I have a feeling this is a simultaneously brave and incredibly stupid action but want to explain my reasons behind the decision:

Last weekend (yes, weekend – I’m such a hypocrite) I introduced Trello to my team. You may already know about it but for those who don’t it is a collaborative system where you can have discussions within a card. These cards can be organised on a board. Those boards can be private or public. After a week or use we have reduced our department email to a whimper of what it was previously. Within a week. The boards are evolving and we are communicating almost entirely within Trello cards. It has been so successful at channelling and tracking our asynchronous communication that I’ve put on hold the plan to introduce Slack (which I thought would be an essential component) for the time being.

However my non-department school email continued to pile in. I realised that most of these were being actioned then archived to Evernote. I use Evernote for its tagging and have been archiving web pages, resources and documents of interest since 2010. I have a nice labelling system set up and had previously attempted a productivity system within Evernote without much success. The main issue then was that I had to manually forward actions from email to Evernote, then manually tag them in Evernote appropriately, then remember to manually check the saved searches, etc. It was adding to my workload, not improving it. By removing my department email threads I realised that I had an opportunity to automate some of my workflow for the benefit of me, my team and perhaps the rest of the school.


I looked again at email filters. I created two new ones: The first to file department mail into a “Computer Science Department” label, the other to file all other emails from within my school into a “Whole School” label. I’m working on the simple premise that, if I know who sent it, I know (roughly) what area of my school it relates to.

Then I used the IFTTT service to detect when unread emails with either label appear in my inbox and forward the email text (not attachment) to Evernote. The IFTTT applet files them in my Action Pending notebook and tags them as department or whole school.

At this point I have some manual intervention. I read the messages within Evernote and decide if they need actioning. If urgent I tag them as “1 – Now”. Other levels of urgency are available but none are automated as yet. I realise this is just moving an email to another system however Evernote does not notify me of new notes so removes the “respond now” demand and allows me to schedule a time to check messages every day.

I created another IFTTT applet that looks for a note in Evernote being tagged as “1 – Now”. When this happens it automatically creates a Trello card with the message text and puts it on a private board called “From Evernote”.

From Trello I can now move this from my board to public department boards if it requires action or input from my department.

Other emails from suppliers or subscriptions remain in my email for the moment but this now allows me to take time to purge what is spam (I’ll bet most of it) and what I can automate into Pocket articles in the future.

Potential issues:

I realise that the emails that have attachments will still have to be manually viewed in my email. If I need to forward emails to Evernote instead of using IFTTT in the future it is a minor change as I already have an automated workflow which archives scanned student work for marking within Notability. At present I can upload attachments up to 25MB into Trello cards if required.

There is a daily cover email which is important to read and action if necessary. This one cannot be delayed until a quiet moment of Evernote contemplation. At present I’m not sure how best to filter this – perhaps a separate private Trello board for cover is required (at least until I can convince the school that this is the way forward)….

So my questions are: Brave or stupid? Do you think this will work? Do you have any workflow suggestions to share?

And now I’m going to spend the rest of my day with my family…

A return to blogging – iPad & WordPress app #RGCdevicetrial

The blog has been a bit sparse this year, something I desperately want to rectify.

Time has been an issue due to work and personal commitments but, really, what’s new with that? I have a lot (an awful lot!) that has gone un-blogged in the past two months.

Two weeks ago Robert Gordon’s College began a fairly comprehensive mobile device trial, something I was (and remain) heavily involved in setting up. More on that in future posts but an outcome was that, for a few weeks, I have an iPad and a clear focus – to see if it improves my learning and teaching methods and productivity.

I aim to post four blog entries this week, inspired not only by Dr Doug Belshaw’s frenetic activity, but also his brevity. Less is indeed more.

Using Excel, Macros and @Evernote for Course Planning

I use Evernote a lot. I store interesting tweets, grab sections of web pages for later, have a form of GTD in there (The Secret Weapon) to keep me focussed. I took part in the 30-day paperless challenge in September and had a lot of fun seeing what was possible. I’ve even started to get my colleagues interested in using Evernote. And last month I was very happy to discover my work opened up access to the web version of Evernote.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now: There has been a distinct disconnect in my workflow. Found an interesting link? Send it to Evernote. Got a unit to develop? Plan it up in Evernote and assign a task in my GTD stack. Plan my weekly lessons? A paper desktop planner with scribbled notes on which resources I need to have ready?! It’s really daft but, up until recently, it was the most accessible way to work. I’ve even found myself taking pictures of my planner pages and sending them to Evernote so I can check I’m ready for the coming week!

Two weeks ago I attempted to set up an electronic planner in Evernote from my workplace. The web version didn’t really like being pasted into from a Word document and screwed up all the formatting and numbering so I figured I needed a few hours investigation time and a desktop version of Evernote to make progress. This weekend I made time.

Firstly I wanted to be able to create a template with the correct number of rows for each particular class for each term, so I created a simple macro that took values (class name, start date, end date, number of periods per week) and used them to populate a new Excel worksheet. Here’s the VBA if you want to use it yourself:

Sub btnCreateTermPlanner()
Dim AddSheetQuestion As Variant
Dim StartDate As String
Dim EndDate As String
Dim noPeriods As Integer
Dim noPPW As Integer

StartDate = Worksheets(“Start”).Cells(1, 2)
EndDate = Worksheets(“Start”).Cells(2, 2)
noPeriods = Worksheets(“Start”).Cells(5, 2)
noPPW = Worksheets(“Start”).Cells(4, 2)

AddSheetQuestion = Application.InputBox(“Please enter the name of the sheet you want to add,” & vbCrLf & _
“or click the Cancel button to cancel the addition:”, _
“What sheet do you want to add?”)
‘ create new workbook
ActiveSheet.Name = AddSheetQuestion
ActiveSheet.Move After:=Worksheets(Worksheets.Count)
‘ add header text
Cells(2, 2) = AddSheetQuestion
Cells(3, 2) = StartDate & ” – ” & EndDate & “, ” & noPPW & ” periods per week.”
Cells(5, 2) = “#”
Cells(5, 3) = “wb.”
Cells(5, 4) = “Topic”
Cells(5, 5) = “Learning Objectives”
Cells(5, 6) = “Resources”
‘ number rows
Call NumberPlanner(noPeriods)

‘ date rows
Call DatePlanner(noPeriods, StartDate, noPPW)

Worksheets(AddSheetQuestion).Columns(4).ColumnWidth = 30
Worksheets(AddSheetQuestion).Columns(5).ColumnWidth = 30
Worksheets(AddSheetQuestion).Columns(6).ColumnWidth = 30
End Sub

Sub NumberPlanner(ByVal noPeriods As Integer)
Dim count1 As Integer
For count1 = 1 To noPeriods
Cells(count1 + 5, 2) = count1
Next count1
End Sub
Sub DatePlanner(ByVal noPeriods As Integer, ByVal StartDate As Date, ByVal noPPW As Integer)
‘ One date at the start of every week
Dim date1 As Integer
Dim wb As Boolean
Dim daycounter As Integer
Dim weekcounter As Integer
wb = True
daycounter = noPPW
weekcounter = -1
For date1 = 0 To noPeriods – 1
If daycounter = noPPW Then
wb = True
daycounter = 0
weekcounter = weekcounter + 1
End If
If wb Then
Cells(date1 + 6, 3) = StartDate + (weekcounter * 7)
wb = False
End If
daycounter = daycounter + 1

Next date1

End Sub

It’s not refined and I have to admit I can’t remember how to make the macro populate a Word document directly yet but the code above generates something a little (ok, exactly) like this:

A little manual formatting after copying and pasting into Word resulted in this:

Finally, copying and pasting into the desktop version of Evernote was a breeze. It even took in the document header and footer (I’d recommend removing the footer as an Evernote note does not have a page break!).

The time consuming part will be linking Evernote notes into the resources column for each lesson, but I’m happy the structure is there. The aim is that, once completed, these plans will not only be synchronised between home and work (reducing the need for those photographs of paper planners!) but that revising them will be much more efficient as I can immediately add in a new resource or interesting news article link when I find it (because they always appear three months before or after you actually need them). If my colleagues need to look at them for any reason I can send it quickly via email.

The ultimate goal? No paper planner at all for my lessons. These folk have already managed it and, if the web version can handle editing the newly created notes, it won’t take long until I manage it too.