Using Gmail filters to get to inbox zero

inbox zero

I’ve been working at (or very close to) inbox zero for about a year now. Anything more than about 10 emails in my inbox and I get twitchy.

In the main I achieve this following an action / hold / waiting labelling strategy that sits well with the GTD approach to productivity.

I also use the filter settings in Gmail to make sure my inbox only contains email I actually need to review now.

Google have a quick intro to filters here, this is how I have mine set up:

1) Any email that contains the word ‘unsubscribe’ should skip the inbox and go straight to a label called ‘newsletters’

This rule takes any email that gives me an option to unsubscribe, stops it appearing in my inbox and places it in a folder for review when I have time.

It catches all the newsletters and sales blah that I never need to see urgently and hides it until I’m ready. Obviously it’s not foolproof, but I tend to review it at least weekly so I’m never too far from an email from someone who inadvertently used my trigger word.

You should use this alongside actually clicking the unsubscribe link in those that you never read.

2) Any email logs skip the inbox and go to a label called ‘logs’

This is probably a bit specific to the IT admin part of my role. I use the same technique to archive all the various email status notifications I get of successful backups, WordPress updates, etc.

I do a bit of fine tuning on these filters to make sure logs containing errors (that I need to deal with quickly) do hit my inbox.

3) Any email receipts skip the inbox and go to archive

I like to keep a record of purchases in my archive, but I don’t need to see them when they arrive. If I need to find them in future for any reason I can just search.

Beyond these three I have a few custom rules in place to catch more specific cases, but for most cases this keeps my inbox nice and calm.

 

IFTTT Do & the slow death of the digital camera

I’ve been playing with the new IFTTT camera app and it got me thinking about how the original camera app on my iPhone isn’t as useful as it used to be. After all, it’s just a camera app. If I want it to actually do anything with the photo I’ve taken I have to tell it what to do. By pressing more buttons. How very 2014.

If you haven’t already seen it, IFTTT Do is a set of apps that extend the original IFTTT idea where you provide some simple rules and the software automates them. For example, if I take a photo of a receipt it automatically puts it into my expenses folder in GDrive, a photo of the little monster doing will end up in a shared album for my family. It does what computers do well and automates repetitive manual tasks.

This made me wonder what the market for old school digital cameras was looking like. According to the Camera and Imaging Products Association sales are looking pretty much as you’d expect. Heading down:

Total shipment

Looking at our internal logging we see the same with equipment our staff and students are using for taking photos. Data here is for every booking made to our central equipment pool for activities related to photography:

bookings

And, on a more anecdotal note the images on the SD card inside my digital camera have been there for months. There are things from October last year that are really nice but I just haven’t got round to getting them imported.

The reason why I haven’t taken the photos off my camera, why staff & students are borrowing increasingly more iPod Touch, and (I guess) why IFTTT Do exists is that in the main we don’t like the middle steps in the process.

Does that mean our ever smarter ways of working are great because we’re streamlining our processes? We’re more efficiently arriving at our goal with less time wasted on the unnecessary.

Or should we worry about what we’re losing?

By using a smartphone rather than a digital SLR I’m thinking less about shot composition, learning nothing about all the variables that go in to creating a good shot.

Not doing any edits on those pictures takes away a whole load of graphics skills that are easily transferrable to other projects. I might not have learned Photoshop if all I ever did was share pictures from a smartphone.

If the photos never leave the camera roll of your smart device are you sure you know where they are? Are they backed up? Who can see them? Do you even own them? Maybe you’re the next poster family for the anti-gay marriage lobby.

Automating the distribution process seems like it could take the personal touch out, remove an element of control, maybe even proper consideration of the how/what/why of sharing.

Personally I’m finding the IFTTT apps really useful. They’re time savers and fit nicely into my work style. But in our drive for efficiency I wonder what learning opportunities we’re taking away.

I like that I can spend less time faffing with low value pictures and leisure time with my SLR but is that a reflection of the market? Sales don’t suggest it. Will this be the usual routine of sales drop, prices rise, less people can take part in the hobby? Feels like a potentially risky time for the field.

GTD on Mac and iOS

I’ve just got back from a couple of weeks of holiday with the family in France. While over there I spent some time implementing a full GTD system (read this book by David Allen if you’re unfamiliar).

I’ve run my email inbox in this style for some time, but as I seem to be getting busier both personally and professionally (and older so worse at keeping things in my head) it seemed to be a good idea to switch fully. The ‘mind like water‘ concept is really appealing- I want to keep on top of everything I have going on, but I also want to be able to relax & not be worrying about it all.

The book is much better at explaining what/why than I would be and is really worth a read if you want to feel more productive. I did want to share a few quick notes on iOS and macOS tools I have found to work well though:

  1. Omnifocus. It’s not cheap (& I got it for macOS and iOS), but it is perfect for collection, organisation and review of projects. Takes a bit of work to set up your projects and contexts but it’s really worth it, I promise. They also have some great GTD specific tutorials to get you started.
  2. Siri. There’s a nice setting in Omnifocus that syncs iOS reminders. Simply shouting at your phone ‘Hey Siri, remind me to do X’ will get the job to your inbox ready for processing.
  3. Captio. I don’t always want to dictate tasks (shouting at my phone on the train seems weird..) so I use Captio on iOS connected to my Omnifocus address gives me the quickest route to get something into my inbox.

I really like the look of Omnifocus on the Apple Watch too. Task alerts on the wrist is another reason not to get the phone out which seems like another step closer towards ‘mind like water’.

If you’re a Mac/iOS user also trying to GTD let me know if you have any other tips to add here :)

How to restore the Moodle frontpage forum

In versions of Moodle before 2.9 it’s not possible to use the Moodle interface to simply restore a backup of your front page course, or activities within it.

I’ve found a route around this problem which enabled me to restore my front page ‘site news’ forum. It involved a little database poking so find yourself a tame sysadmin if you’re not confident.

Make sure you backup before you start. Really.

1) Restore your forum backup. Use the usual moodle routine to restore a backup, creating a new course.
2) In the database, look for the mdl_forum table and find the ID of your site news forum, and the ID of the new forum you have just created.
3) Now, look at the mdl_forum_discussions table. Run a quick search for the IDs you found in step 2 and you’ll see posts to each of the forums. To move a discussion from your newly restored forum and add it to the front page site news forum, simply change the ID field.
4)A simple SQL query will move all discussions from the restored forum to the front page. Something like:

UPDATE `mdl_forum_discussions` SET `forum` =(frontpage forum id) WHERE `forum` = (your new forum id)

And, that’s it.

 

Deploying class sets of Chromebooks

chromebooks

This is the first in a few posts I plan to write documenting our process for deploying various devices into school. It’s an area I get asked about frequently so thought that a post that gets updated with latest practice could be helpful. Do add to the comments if you do something different / have questions.

With the Chromebooks it’s simple. If you’ve been doing similar with iOS devices you’ll notice how much shorter this job list is. With the right preparation it only takes a few minutes to go from unboxing to classroom use.

Before purchasing

There are two pretty critical steps here.

You’ll want your school to have a Google Apps for Education setup. You can log on to a Chromebook with any Google account, but you don’t get the device management features if you’re not part of GApps.

Make sure you get the Management Licenses. Your reseller will be able to provide them (when we purchased £19.99 / device), and it gives you all the admin functions you’ll need.

In our experience this took longer to activate than expected. We had the Chromebooks but had to wait a few days before they could connect to our apps installation. Not a huge problem, but do be aware of this is you have tight timescales – chase your reseller when you order.

Unboxing

With your management licenses in place you’re good to go. We labelled our devices and powered them up. Join a wireless network (& add your proxy settings), but when you get to the login screen don’t log in.

Instead, hit ctrl-alt-E and you’ll be get the enterprise login screen. Enter your GApps admin credentials.

Once logged in your Chromebook joins your apps installation. You can log out and it’s ready to go. From now on it will default to the enterprise login so your users don’t need to remember the key combination.

MDM

management

With all the Chromebooks added to your domain you can have a look at the Google management tools.

Log in to your Apps domain and go to the admin area (the ‘manage this domain’ option in settings). Pick ‘device management’ and you should see your devices.

You can drill down to an individual device level and get useful data like recent active times and users. ‘Last policy fetch time’ is a useful piece of information for when you start to deploy apps/settings.

You can assign Chromebooks to different ‘Organisations’ within your setup. You could assign them all to the top level org, but using sub-organisations such as staff/students/yeargroups/etc will allow you to set up groups of devices in slightly different ways. Different permissions/apps for teachers compared to students seems like an obvious way to use this.

Back on the device management page the network & chrome management settings are useful. On these pages you can control settings for your devices, based on those organisations mentioned above. Google have full docs on these, but some key settings are:

  • Preconfigured wireless networks (and proxy settings)
  • Wallpaper
  • Allowed app types
  • Homepage
  • Bookmarks
  • Privacy

Possible trip hazards

Couple of things to watch out for that when setting up your Chromebooks. Nothing major:

  • The Chromebook has a guest account that gives Internet access without a login. We had trouble getting this to work reliably on networks with a proxy as it doesn’t remember the ‘allow proxy on shared networks’ preference between sessions. Our current options on this are either disable guest account or setup transparent proxy. Working on a better idea…
  • Be careful with your management settings. Make a typo in the network settings and save them and they’ll deploy. If that results in the devices not being able to connect it gets a bit harder to deploy a correction.

And that’s it, you’re good to go. In the next post on the topic I’ll cover deploying apps, and how you could delegate app deployment to your teaching staff.