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.


Taming the email beast

I get a lot of email. A lot. To the point where it was not only taking up too much of my working day, but becoming a distraction outside of it.

I’ve been working on making how I use email more efficient, here’s a few things I have found that have worked:

1) Gmail filters

A whole load of my email comes from machines. Often useful updates or newsletters that I’d like to read at some point, but not right away. I now run a gmail filter to take any message of this form and skip my inbox, move it to a ‘read it when I have time’ folder.

I also get copied into loads of email. Things I need to read but maybe not right away. Another filter takes any email I’m cc’d in to and skips my inbox, puts it in a folder for when I’m ready to deal with mail.

These two filters mean what ends up in my inbox is actually to me, and is from a person that needs a reply. Helps the important stuff get to the top, and keeps me calmer as the unread message count on the inbox looks far healthier!

2) Five

This is about fixing what I send. I’m finding it hard to be 100% committed to the limit, but I do subscribe to the ‘shorter the better’ ideal.

More importantly, I try to only send for specific reasons. Direct questions or action points are the key. Seems like one of those behaviors you can model in the hope others will copy.

3) Awayfind

In one simple app Awayfind has stopped me feeling I need to check my email every 10 minutes, and has made sure I don’t miss anything that is actually important.

Awayfind is similar to Gmail filters in it lets you create rules, but it adds push alerts into the mix.

If anybody sends an email to me that contains certain keywords (think ‘urgent’) AwayFind sends an alert to my phone immediately. I may not check my mail as often as I used to, but it means if it’s really important I get it immediately.

In addition to the constant rules you set up it also has a really nice ‘waiting for’ feature. Tell Awayfind that you’re waiting for an email from a certain person and it’ll tell you when it arrives. For example, we had some issues with a school trip over the half term break and I needed to see updates immediately. An Awayfind alert for anything from that person the day it was happening meant I avoided constantly pressing the refresh button on my inbox.

4) Gmail meter

This is a free tool that’s helping prove I’ve made a positive change. It watches your inbox and once a month sends you some nice little stats about your email use.

Watching the quantity decrease over the last few months has been interesting, but most importantly the stats show that my response time to the messages I actually need to deal with is improving. Means some of this must actually be working…

Interviewing IT Technicians



We’ve been learning about the best way to interview edu IT staff in various guises for almost 10 years now. In the last couple of weeks we’ve been advising a couple of other organisations on how to approach technician style interviews as well as doing our own hires, and I wanted to share a few quick thoughts.

  1. Don’t just ask for CVs. You’ll get more applications than you think and won’t be able to easily filter.
  2. Don’t get over-obsessed with questions, conversations are more valuable. We gained more in 15 minute informal chats than have done in previous formal technical tests and interviews.**
  3. Communication skills are just as important as technical ability. Our guys are increasingly working with staff and students on using tools rather than sitting in dark rooms fixing them.*
  4. The education element is really important. What do they think about ICT vs. computer science? What exciting new technology would you like to see us add to our classroom practice? Why?
  5. Ethos is another important word. ‘Do you think we should block Facebook’ is a great conversation starter, teaches you a lot about how an individual might fit in with your vision.***
  6. Talk about the bad. These candidates will have researched your organisation in advance, had a tour, met lots of staff, etc. Ask what they would do to improve the school. Ask senior candidates what they would change when they join. The new hire should make you better.

* I’m not suggesting you hire the chatty one that hasn’t heard of unix, but you see the point…
** I read a post ages ago (37signals I think..), they do similar and start by asking candidates what they did yesterday. Perfect.
*** We also do plenty of work on developing that vision if you’re not sure how your conversation about that particular topic would go..

On video conferencing

Having just come out of a video conference tutorial I wanted to briefly reflect on the technology rather than the discussion itself. Over the last few months we have largely been researching web technologies, building towards those that most closely reflect f2f interaction. Video conferencing is the closest we can get to a physical classroom environment while separated by hundreds of miles. Continue…

F2F vs. online chat for learning

I’ve been reading up on studies of how communication is altered, for better or worse, when moving from face to face dialogue to various digital modes.

I don’t take the seemingly standard view that all online communication should be identified as being significantly worse than face to face dialogue.

It’s a wide ranging area, and the technologies vary hugely in their abilities. If we compare f2f with simple text based communication there are clear differences than if we compare it to say, video conferencing. These differences impact communication both in ways that I think can be measured and others that are more about user perception.

It is worth pointing out that the classroom practice examples I have been looking at used online chat (in various forms) in addition to face to face sessions, not as a direct replacement. Using online chat as an enhancement rather than a replacement doesn’t remove the issues I discuss below, but does make them less significant. If, as seems most likely, blended learning is the approach that schools take rather than delivering content entirely online this is going to help course designers a lot.

The most commonly raised issue surrounding text based chat when discussing it with educators seems to be what is lost. Removing the face to face element takes out the important factors of facial expression and body language, and tone is lost from what is being said. Text chat does make use of other methods to attempt to counter this- it is common to see exaggerated punctuation, and emoticons play a large part for example.

Emoticons are an interesting area. At the simple level they are considered to replace facial expressions, but there is more to it than that. The most striking difference for me is about intent. Whereas your facial expressions are not always intentional, use of an emoticon during text based chat is a considered act. This shouldn’t automatically be seen as a negative, but it should be highlighted as a difference. Loads more on this in Functions of the non-verbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary Force. Really interesting article.

Web based discussion impacts on the natural flow of conversation you experience. Even using synchronous online discussion tools the usual turn-taking flow of a conversation is altered (Herring, S. 2010). This doesn’t just apply to text based communication- anybody who has participated in group audio or video chat will have noticed how much harder it is to work out if it is your turn to speak, or how the gaps between speakers tend to be a little longer than with a group sharing the same physical space.

While this produces a different flow compared to face to face discussion, again it is not always bad. The opportunities it presents could allow a wider ranging conversation to take place, or perhaps enable a greater degree of reflection if the pace is slower?

Moving to the asynchronous, Meyer noted that threaded conversation allows students more control over the discussion path whereas a face to face discussion can often switch topics before a student is ready to move on. Different flow, positive outcome.

The implications of language should be mentioned here too. It is important for students to have strong writing skills to enable them to communicate their ideas effectively in text based chat. In addition to the straight forward language barriers, while I haven’t looked into it in a great deal I can appreciate that writing style will vary between countries and cultures, and therefore impact on discussion.

The permanent record of conversation that remains afterwards can be a good thing. The learning that took place in a discussion board still exists, and can be referred back to by the students as part of the reflection process. We see this pattern within our own forums- initial unresearched responses start the dialogue, students go away to look at other articles, finding new questions and answers along the way. This seems to be evidence of higher level thinking taking place in the environment.

That record also helps remove time as a significant factor from the discussion, allowing a larger group to participate at a time convenient to them. Online discussion requires a marked expansion of the time devoted to a particular class and its material (Meyer, 2003), but with a motivated student group and a strong technical set-up gaining time definitely has positive implications for a course. Good for distance learning courses, but also good for schools looking to encourage their students into studying during their free time.

The history of an online discussion also produces a set of reading for others studying the topic in the future. As a learner would looking at the discussion students had on a topic from a previous year help your understanding? Quite possibly. As a teacher would looking at how the learning panned out in a previous class on the same topic help you design your lessons? Probably. This is something that can’t easily be replicated in a face to face discussion in a classroom setting.

Another positive I wanted to cover was about confidence.

“Many researchers note that students perceive online discussion as more equitable and more democratic than traditional classroom discussions” (Swan, K, Shea, P et al, 2000)

It seems that the online environment helps less confident students join the discussion. In the case of more public discussion the content of the response is often more considered and “students consider language structure somewhat more” (Godwin Jones, R. 2003). The suggestion being if you know the audience for your thoughts is large you are more careful about how you present them. Any of us that blog will know this to be true.

For asynchronous chat there is a positive for non-native speakers too, the process allowing more time to consider and prepare answers than in a live classroom situation.

It is also worth mentioning that all the issues mentioned here also apply to the tutor delivering the course. I’m going to separate off my thoughts about monitoring/moderating online chat into another post, but as much care should be taking designing the experience for the tutors as the students. I don’t want to poke the digital native beast just yet, but we should certainly think about whether our teachers are given enough support to build their confidence in an online environment?

Not only did Johnson and co come up with a catchy title in Comparative Analysis of Learner Satisfaction and Learning Outcomes in Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments (Johnson, S, Aragon, S, Shaik, N. 2000), but their research demonstrated that-

“while student satisfaction with a face to face course was marginally higher, there was no difference in the quality of learning that took place.”

This, for me is the most important point here. If we’re just about learning then it seems a simple argument for using the technology as part of the process. The value of ‘student satisfaction’ is so subjective it makes it much harder to measure though. My feeling is that with the correct course design this could be evened out too. It crops up again and again, but it’s all about the correct tools for the job.

There is far more detail (and evidence to back it up…) in the paper and those listed below than my brief ramblings here so do have a read if this is your area. But, in short my reading seems to demonstrate that with the correct course design the issues surrounding text based communication shouldn’t have a negative impact on learning outcomes.

Related Reading:

Dresner, E, Herring, S (2010). Functions of the non-verbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary force

Godwin Jones, R. (2003). Blogs and wikis: Environments for online collaboration

Herring, S (2010). Computer-mediated conversation: Introduction and overview

Hewitt, J. (2003). How habitual online practices affect the development of asynchronous discussion threads

Johnson, S, Aragon, S, et all (2000). Comparative Analysis of Learner Satisfaction and Learning Outcomes in Online and Face-to-Face Learning Environments

Kassop, M (2003). Ten ways online education matches, or surpasses, face to face learning

Meyer, K (2003). Face to face versus threaded discussions: The role of time and higher order thinking

Tiene, D. (2000). Online discussions: a survey of advantages and disadvantages compared to face- to-face discussions

Links to all the articles on this subject and from other parts of the course are also all in my Delicious feed.