Stretching is good for you

Athletes are always seen doing stretches before they exercise, and I have to say I have never taken stretching seriously before I go for my run. I’ve always seemed to get on OK.

Today I read something that changed my perspective.

Materials scientist Mark Miodownik in Stuff matters explains that ligaments (which join one bone to another) are viscoelastic: that is to say they will stretch immediately a certain amount, but if you hold the stretch, they will flow and lengthen.

So stretching does actually make a difference to your long-term flexibility. My Pilates teacher is quite right about stretches needing to be slow and needing to hold them for a while. Now I understand what is supposed to be happening, I think I might do it a bit more and a bit better.

Stretch in the workplace

I wonder if it is the same in the workplace. Research says that we learn most deeply and retain best what we learn by attempting stretching new things. I wonder if it is the “stretch immediately” that has the positive effect or the “hold the stretch”?

Top ten ways to stretch yourself

Here’s my top-ten list of ways to stretch yourself. As you look through the list, ask yourself “Are these short-term stretches or stretch-and-hold things”?

  • Stretch assignments – taking on something new and different that will require the new skill forces the learner to activate their learning and build on it. If you are designing learning, think through the personas in the audience you are designing for, and try to imagine realistic things they could look out for in their job situation if they want to learn by doing. Include suggestions that go slightly beyond the level covered in your learning design.
    • Expand the scope of your work – take on managerial responsibilities (e.g. budgeting, interviewing); Fill in for someone else when they are off work.
    • Enter challenging relationships – work with people who have contradictory views, lead a cross-functional team, interact with senior management (get exposure through meetings and presentations)
    • Embrace change and adversity – handle a crisis, work to recover a failing situation, work on new initiatives, take the lead in introducing a business change
    • Persuade senior managers to take a specific action
  • Volunteering – For some subjects there are opportunities outside the workplace to use the new skill – for example by volunteering for a charity.
  • Shadowing – working closely with someone who is already using the skill. Simply observing is rather too passive, so the emphasis is on the need to participate actively in reviews of output etc in order to really gain from the exercise.
  • Job rotation – We don’t have many job rotation schemes, but the ones for graduates and apprentices give them opportunities to learn by trying different job areas. This will be a key part of the learning design for talent development.
  • Career moves – Think about your future career. How can you build the skill profile needed for particular roles on the career pathways defined on the relevant profession sites. Think about what else to put on your personal development plan (PDP) to help them make the next move.
  • Giveback – Particularly at the higher skill intensities, giveback activities are a key way to learn and develop.
  • Take a lead in a subject group – Subject groups (our communities of practice) are an opportunity for leadership outside the functional line management structures. Don’t forget it is also possible to apply some learned skills (especially leadership topics) in the context of almost any subject.
  • After-action review – Take the initiative in reviewing how things are being done in their area of work.
  • Knowledge development – particularly for leading-edge topics, our standard learning resources may cover the basics, but there will be a great need for others to develop and write up (or video-record) deeper knowledge on the subject as a reference for everyone to consult. Taking on the challenge of creating this knowledge is a valuable learning activity in its own right.
  • Teaching – Those who teach, learn. Whether it is one-to-one with another member of their own team, or in a local team meeting, in an informal or formal webinar, people will retain and understand the content much better by trying to pass it on. The learning design should encourage this behaviour. And therefore when we create learning resources, they should be “unlocked” so that they can be easily reused in a presentation to other people along with the person’s own stretch learning. Design your resources to be reusable and to be passed on.

I wonder if you came to the same conclusion as me: the benefits of stretch don’t come from brief work in a new area, it is almost all stretch-and-hold. Not necessarily being ever more stretched for ever (which is very draining) – but effort and persistence is needed.

I’m always surprised after a session of Pilates that I can move noticeably more than I could at the beginning, even though I couldn’t detect the change at the time of doing the held stretches themselves. I wonder if it is the same with work too, a stretch feels unnatural, possibly even painful, but afterwards we are comfortable doing more than before.

How does the metaphor of “stretch” work for you as you think about your own personal development and as you watch others develop?

Subscribe by email

Search all my blog posts


Helping people become ‘learning animals’

The business environment is volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous (VUCA). By the time you have trained people, the content is out of date.

HBR says “most jobs today demand … the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job”

The book How Google Works has a chapter saying that “a major pillar in Google’s recruitment strategy is to hire ‘learning animals'”

Jane Hart says “For me, this is what today’s L&D department should be focusing on … helping their people become learning animals.”

Last week in our Christmas team meeting we had a long discussion about the future of learning, including this idea of helping people become learning animals. This is quite a fundamental shift in thinking for L&D professionals. Just a few thoughts I want to share – and it is hard to remember which came from the group discussion and which were what I thought about afterwards, stimulated by it.

Build skills and appetite for learning

It is common in schools and universities to have seminars on “how to study effectively”. Those seminars from the academic world are only partly relevant to the workplace because they tend to focus on

  • Retaining academic knowledge (whereas in business it is more about skill, information can always be looked up)
  • How to get good grades in the things that are to be tested (in business only some learning is about being tested, mostly it is about doing a job well)
  • And there is a big emphasis on avoiding plagiarism (whereas in business, reuse is seen as a productivity boost).

So it’s slightly different in the business world, with some overlaps. Here are some learning skills that I think we do need to help people with, to help them become learning animals:

  • Search is a key learning skill. The Search like a pro masterclass I helped with recently was extremely popular, and I personally learnt a lot from the other presenters.
  • Reflective practice amplifies learning from experience and helps apply and reinforce learning from other sources. Another masterclass I’ve done a few times.
  • Personal knowledge management – which for me involves using OneNote a lot
  • Knowledge elicitation skills – getting it out of the heads of an expert
  • Strengthening and broadening your own learning by taking a lead in knowledge sharing, mentoring and so on.

And I’m sure there are more topics to include. Please add your own thoughts in the comments.

Embed learning skills into comms and learning design

People can’t possibly retain in their heads all the information they need to do their job. They rely on being able to find information when they need it, based on “half-remembering”. Maybe they take notes, or print out a cheat-sheet, search, or ask someone.

So why do we create learning resources that try to get it all into your head? And why is it almost impossible to use a search engine to “find” something half-remembered from an eLearning course?

Does our approach to comms and learning design need to change to support the way people really get information when they need it. For example, trying to be practical:

  • Include using a cheat-sheet in the learning activity. Even better, embed it in the operational system, and as part of the learning activity, have the learner go through the “normal” steps to get to that job aid.
  • During the learning activity should they read the content in the form they are most likely to find it in the moment of need (e.g. a powerpoint or intranet page) so they recognise it more easily next time?
  • What if the learning resource didn’t include the information but explained how to search for it, and required learners to practise finding it and using information not included in the course to complete the course? Would that equip them for the real world of searching for it in the moment of need.
  • eLearning doesn’t usually identify any real people. So who should people consult when they need it? Shouldn’t we make a point of identifying the people who know about this subject so that people have someone to consult in their moment of need? It could showing the current set of subject specialists in a subject group related to the topic, for example.

All of that means that the learning activity will be much less of a McDonalds ready meal, and much more of a Jamie’s 15-min meal recipe that you have to cook yourself. Some might not like cooking/learning for themselves. Does that mean our school kitchen should just serve chips because “that’s what they want and they complain if they don’t get it”?

We want the person learning to see the prime location of the knowledge as an accessible findable place, which is probably not the course we are designing. That means a different way of thinking about learning design.

Blogging as an excuse to learn

When I write my blog posts I usually read around the subject a bit. Specifically that means googling the main things I’m talking about. I want to get a bit of context and make sure I’m not misinterpreting a sound bite. I want to check the ideas haven’t been completely debunked. That in itself is a learning habit of course. And while doing that I usually come across much more than I can possibly include in my blog post. Here’s some of what I found today while writing this, not necessarily in a logical sequence, but noted here to help my own memory as much as anything:

I found a critical review of “How Google works” in the NY Times, the source of the ‘learning animals’ phrase. It’s useful to see what others think are weaknesses in the argument. When I start finding people who disagree with what I’m looking for, hopefully I have escaped the notorious echo chamber (i.e. the way Google and Facebook present you with things that match your existing point of view).

WebAnywhere on learning animals and staff retention. “the traditional approach to recruitment is to see if the candidate has excelled previously in a similar role. Google mentions that hiring on specialism over intelligence is wrong. Take the internet industry, with the dynamic rate of change, a specialist can be dangerous as they focus too much on ‘what they know today, and, in a previous life’. You need what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

The Harvard Business Review quotes the learning animals concept and says: Select for it, Nurture it, Reward it. Here’s a quote I liked about nurturing it:

Managers who want their employees to learn new things will encourage that behaviour by doing it themselves. We are all time-deprived, but high learnability people make the time to learn new things.

  • What is the last book you read that opened your mind? (Simply reading the articles your Facebook friends share doesn’t count.)
  • When did you last devote time to study another industry?
  • When was the last time you spoke to someone about stuff outside your area of expertise?
  • How hard do you try to break up your default routine at work?
  • How often do you ask “why”?

Paradoxically, instant access to information may suppress our natural curiosity and appetite for knowledge. It is to our learnability what fast food is to our diet: a ubiquitous vice with no nutritional value and the potential to make healthy food tasteless. High learnability enables people to dive deeper to translate information into actual expertise. It is the key intellectual differentiator between those who can go online and those who become smarter in the process.

Your thoughts

As always, I would love your thoughts in response. I hope I have provoked you to think.

  • How do we build skills and appetite for learning?
  • How can our learning resource become more like Jamie’s 15-min meal recipes than Big Macs?

Subscribe by email

Search all my blog posts

Fika: The case for having coffee breaks together

This week, one of the doctors at my wife’s GP practice has suggested that they all take a coffee break at the same time each day. Well on the one hand that sounds very pleasant and sociable, but on the other hand, they all have an enormous list of patients wanting to be seen, plus a pile of prescriptions to sign, lab results to read and interpret, and a business to run. How could these busy people ever persuade themselves to make time for having coffee together each day?

It reminded me of some research published in the Harvard Business Review by Sandy Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics laboratory. I did also look at the academic paper underneath the journalism, and I’ve blogged before some of his ideas about Social Physics – the flow of ideas and knowledge within teams.

Plus I discovered the meaning of the word Fika.

Patterns of communication are significant for success

In a study in a call centre at the Bank of America, they found “patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

Having coffee breaks together is particularly important

To test this, they reorganised the coffee breaks so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. This is not how it’s normally done in call centres! And the results were that Average Handling Time reduced by 8-20%, and employee satisfaction rose by up to 10%. The Bank of America swiftly introduced this into all its call centres, quoting a $15m increase in productivity.

Using Bluetooth data collection badges they were able to show the importance of five factors for successful teams:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. The data reveals that making the tables in the company’s lunchroom longer, so that strangers sat together, had a huge impact.

Having breaks earlier in the day seems to have more of an effect than later in the day.

It doesn’t matter what you talk about, so long as it is face to face

One of the major discoveries is that, at work, the quality of social interaction can be measured independently of its verbal content. The main thing is that, whatever you’re talking about, you’re talking face to face. (The sociometric badges perceive face-to-face talk with tiny infrared sensors, which can tell when two badges are facing each other.) Pentland’s theory is that in person people use all sorts of non-verbal or meta-verbal cues—looking, interrupting, turn-taking, vocal tone, and so on—to establish hierarchies, come to decisions, and generally get in sync. Pentland calls these unconscious actions “honest signals,” because they are hard to fake, and because they reveal the unfakeable: strong emotions, personal affinities, power relations. As he sees it, every workplace conversation is actually a negotiation about our workplace roles. (see the New Yorker review of the Social Physics book)

Emails, instant messages and social media don’t allow those honest signals to happen.

There are other benefits

Other research suggests that coffee breaks help the individuals too

  • Keep people focused: A 2011 study in the journal Cognition found that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to concentrate.
  • Relieve stress: A study in Symbolic Reaction found that having coffee breaks with coworkers helped a group of Denmark employees cope after a large-scale merger.
  • Recharge your energy: The Energy Project, a New York City-based productivity consulting firm, found that without any downtime, people are less efficient, make more mistakes, and are less engaged in what they’re doing.
  • Coffee itself is a stimulant


So what is Fika (fay-ee-KA)? Swedes prefer not to translate the word fika. They don’t want it to lose significance and become a mere coffee break. It’s about sitting down with co-workers and taking a break from what you are doing in a sociable way. And it is full of benefits.

I’m totally convinced. The only problem is… I don’t drink coffee. And I work from home, so who should I drink it with?

How can we help people put learning into practice?

It is very easy for a learning activity to be disconnected from real working life. Head knowledge (e.g. about ways of collaborating) may not be translated into any kind of action or change of behaviour.

What can we do in the learning design to help people to activate their learning, retain it, embed the change and sustain it? I’ve come up with five practical steps in the learning design guide for our organisation which are all about helping people to activate their learning. See what you think, and I would love your thoughts on what I’ve missed (in the comments).

  • Keep it real
  • Remind them
  • Make the full content findable
  • Support the change
  • Plan to gather insight from people who have activated their learning

Keep it real

The learning environment can feel distant from the real working environment. It is important for learners to sense that what they are learning is “real” so they can relate it to their own experiences, understand when the learning could be put into practice, and actually remember to do something about it. How can this be part of the learning design?

  • Put the learning into practice yourself. Practice what you preach (and make sure any other presenters are doing that as well). Incorporate your own personal stories about how it worked for you into what is presented.
  • Include real stories of colleagues – show their faces, give the context, include quotes that convey an emotional impact.
  • Base a course activity on the learner’s own real situation. For example, in a benefits masterclass I ran, the activity was to draw a benefits map for the work each learner was doing at the moment.
  • Include opportunities to practice in a real technical environment (or a “sandbox” which is real except that it is not live data). Ideally the learners will be able to continue using this environment when the official learning activity is over. Simulations, particularly in CBT environments are rarely convincing enough to help actual users, and it is important to overcome all the start-up issues that happen with first use of a new system.

Remind them

After people have used the learning environment you’ve designed, what will remind them to put what they learned into action? Your plan could include:

  • Embedding. Reminders written in to the flow of their work.
  • Favourites. As part of the learning, include a step for the learner to put helpful links where they’ll find them when they need them – eg browser favourites or a page in OneNote.
  • Job aids. Prompts included in the main guides they follow to do their jobs.
  • Pin-up. A summary to pin on their wall.
  • Action learning plan. Ask them to say what they’ll do differently to the group – a public statement gives a sense of commitment (but only if unforced).
  • Survey. After 3 months, ask them whether and how they’ve put the learning into action. The act of asking will prompt activation.
  • Drip-feed reminders. The classic example in BT is the ‘speaking with one voice’ campaign, who send regular emails (eMoments) with an interesting new tip or technique on the subject to everyone who’s taken part in one of their workshops.

Make the full content findable

When the learner starts to put it into practice, they often realise they have forgotten some details and want to refresh their memory on what they learnt. That can be difficult if the event had no supporting materials, or if the replays is too lengthy or if the CBTs are locked away in the Learning Management System, and can only be consumed in sequential order. The learning design needs to make the full content findable in the moment of need.

  • Split up lengthy replay and videos into smaller chunks, store them where they can be easily searched. Make the title and description comprehensive so the search engine will find it by the things the user might search for. If you have a video transcript, store it in the video document set so that it also is indexed.
  • If you have made a CBT, also publish a Powerpoint or Word version of the same content. The search engine will index all the text in the powerpoint, making it findable. Users will find it easier to refresh their memory from a conventional document than by re-doing the CBT. MS-Office documents are better than PDFs because they allow the users to extract useful stuff into their own notes and pass it on to others more easily.
  • Put links to the learning environment in the everyday electronic workplace of those who will need the information.
  • Test the search results on the main corporate search engine and make sure you can explain how to find your content using search.
  • As part of the organised learning activity, include a task which requires them to find information using the same technique that they will use in the workplace.

Support the change

It is totally natural to revert to the old way of doing things. Making a change into a habit needs support. Work with the sponsors of the learning design to consider everything that is needed to support the change this could include

  • Performance support
  • Action learning sets
  • Removing barriers to adoption
  • Incentivising change
  • Making alternatives harder
  • Managing resistance

Plan to gather insight from people who have activated the learning

Learning design is often done by experts or learning professionals. Those are vital roles, but they don’t include the perspective of someone who has recently put things into practice for the first time. First-timers often struggle with some of the basics that are so obvious to the experts that they aren’t mentioned.

Part of the learning design should include an improvement cycle after pilot users have participated in the learning activities and have had time to activate their learning in their normal workplace. Consult with the pilot users after a period of time to find out their experiences of trying to put their learning into practice. From this you may find

  • Authentic human-interest stories that you can include as learning components
  • Basics about getting started that might have been missed or been unclear
  • Suggestions on improving relevance and balance of the content
  • What would have helped them to activate their learning more easily

Consultation will normally need to be in the form of telephone interviews, as it is difficult to get adequate depth of feedback on electronic media.

And now your thoughts…

What else helps people to activate their learning and put it into practice? What has helped you?

Big data has unconscious bias too

We all have unconscious biases – it’s a fascinating subject. But just recently I realised that there is bias in the way we collect and handle data too. Particularly big data.

We all have unconscious bias

In 1952 the Boston Symphony Orchestra initiated blind auditions to help diversify its male-dominated roster, but trials still skewed heavily towards men. After musicians removed their shoes nearly 50 per cent of the women cleared the first audition. It turned out the sound of their high heels was biasing judges subconsciously.

(I read the story in this month’s IET magazine, but it is also in the Guardian, upworthy and even a TED talk)

We all have biases. Our human biases are sometimes hard to foresee and apparently learning that you’re biased doesn’t change your decisions. It needs something more than that. In BT the Diversity and Inclusion subject group in the Academy has some recommendations:

  • Understand different types of bias – the psychology is now very well-known through popular books such as Irrationality
  • Top tips such as avoiding multi-tasking, challenging your own first impressions, being careful with gut instinct and challenging each other
  • Plus lots of resources (including a 1-hour workshop from Google Ventures) and training modules about the key areas of managing recruitment and managing performance without bias

Excellent stuff. But I think there’s a module missing.

Big data has biases too

When the municipal authority in charge of Boston, Massachusetts, was looking for a smarter way to find which roads it needed to repair, it hit on the idea of crowdsourcing the data. The authority released a mobile app called Street Bump in 2011 that employed an elegantly simple idea: use a smartphone’s accelerometer to detect jolts as cars go over potholes and look up the location using the Global Positioning System. Here’s a news item from that time celebrating the innovation. But the approach ran into a pothole of its own.

The system reported a disproportionate number of potholes in wealthier neighbourhoods. It turned out it was oversampling the younger, more affluent citizens who were digitally clued up enough to download and use the app in the first place. The city reacted quickly, but the incident shows how easy it is to develop a system that can handle large quantities of data but which, through its own design, is still unlikely to have enough data to work as planned.

Here’s what the Harvard Business Review said about hidden biases in data in that project in 2013. And it also pointed out the flaws in other projects like the Hurricane Sandy twitter study and Google flu trends. You will have seen its effects in those oddly specific adverts that appear across the internet based on you previously looking at a possible purchase on ebay or amazon. Or Facebook’s attempts to amplify your opinions by showing you content that reinforces what you already believe? They happen because the algorithms see some data and act on it. But of course that data isn’t a complete picture of “you”. It’s a tiny slice. Think what happens if an insurance company bases your premiums on a similar tiny slice of your data. Or if your health-care options were entirely computer-recommended based on the selective history of things you told your GP. Does this affect how we in BT think about digital marketing?

It would seem that there is no such thing as “raw data”. Never mind the bias when statistical techniques are mismatched to the data. Or the deplorable distortions by selective corporate funding of research. Even the collection mechanism introduces unconscious bias.

What about the culture in some organisations which values highly the things that you can count and sometimes performance-manages those numbers to the exclusion of the bigger picture. It’s well-known that as soon as data moves from being insight to a measurable target, gaming behaviours kick in and all attention goes to the numbers with tunnel-vision. We have a bias towards the things that can be counted. Do we really believe “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” and its corollary “so it doesn’t matter”? Much as I value the insight that comes from evidence, I know it always needs interpretation, and it does disproportionately grab our attention.

The IET magazine article that started my interest in this subject has an interesting quote from Jim Adler at Toyota Research Institute (a company famous for data-based performance improvements).

Geeks suits and wonks

“Policymakers will say, ‘there’s a decision here let’s take it’, without really looking at what led to it. Was the data trustworthy, clean?” The “geeks, suits and wonks” have been used to operating sequentially. Geeks create technology, suits make it successful and wonks manage the repercussions. But the pace of progress is pushing their worlds together, he says. “It’s not serial any more. Everyone needs to come together at the same time.”

So I wonder if there could be some synergy between the “geeks, suits and wonks” in our organisations: the growing set of technologists who work on Big Data and the Internet of Things, the management, and the people who work on unconscious bias and diversity policies?

There are obstacles to even talking about this. How do we deal with the embarrassment that comes when noticing that you have been unconsciously biased? Will we get told off for pointing out possible bias? Can we speak openly about our own biases – it feels a bit politically incorrect.

Despite that I am really interested to hear in the comments below your stories about unconscious bias you have noticed – whether it’s in data or human interactions. And if you are really brave, your own biases.

What Google discovered makes a great team

Back in 2012, Google kicked off a study codenamed Project Aristotle to understand what makes a great team. The research team started by reviewing a stack of academic literature on teams, and ideas such as the ones in this graphic from BrilliantTrainingGroup, then applied what they found to 180 Google teams, but they couldn’t find any patterns.

In the past, Google had thought that putting the best people together would simply allow magic to happen. But the researchers’ initial investigation showed that ‘who’ was on the team wasn’t the determining factor regarding performance.

The researchers then started searching the data for anything on group norms: those things that a group does that denote its habits, its patterns of behaviour, its culture. This avenue of inquiry explained the patterns of performance better than the characteristics of the team members.

Then the team uncovered the idea of psychological safety in the literature and it was as if everything fell together. The patterns became clearer, and five factors emerged that have the biggest impact on team performance.

They concluded there were five factors:
1. Psychological safety – people can and do speak up
2. Dependability – you do what you promise to do
3. Structure and clarity – goals are clear and the process for getting there is known
4. Meaning of work – everyone is here for more than just a pay-cheque
5. Impact of work – the team can see how their contribution makes a difference.

Here’s where I got the short version of this story – an article about the role of stories in data analysis. There’s also a longer version of this story in the New York Times.

The internet reveals lots of models for high performing teams, including the image on this page. Are they all saying the same thing? Or are some of them wrong-headed? What’s interesting about the Google story is that they searched to see what the data said.

I remember an initiative a few years ago in BT called High performing teams which said that what was important was these 4 things:

  • Right people
  • Right work
  • Right processes
  • Right engagement

The Google evidence seems to suggest that that was only partly the right focus.

Gallup’s Q12 survey focusses on that last point of engagement. Because there is other evidence that ‘engagement’ correlates with high performance – but that term isn’t specifically used in the Google analysis.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

I bet our BT staff YourSay survey is also based on these ideas.

Anyhow it all made me think about the team I work in.

One thing I did recently was to tell our software suppliers in Bulgaria about how their software was now being used. They normally only see the development stage of the project, and had no idea, for example that we now have 430 subject groups and 87,000 page hits per month. They were noticeably excited and positive when they heard the impact of work they had done for us.

Another thing I’ve been doing (as you might have noticed in this blog) is trying to get really clear on the purpose of everything I’m involved in. Making it meaningful for everyone involved. I think that is also starting to make a difference.

Back from holiday to a mountain of email? How Outlook rules and triage can help sustain Inbox Zero

I just came back from a marvellous holiday on the west coast of Ireland. Sun, sand and surf, great craic with friends and folk music in every local pub. And no internet access. So no temptation to read my work email. And that helped me to break my previous habit of quickly scanning my email every day on my phone even while on holiday. Every day I used to delete insignificant notifications etc, just leaving the ones that needed my attention when I got back.

So of course this time I’ve come back to a mountain of hundreds of emails. Maybe you have the same after your holidays.

How can I deal with them most efficiently? I want to triage them quickly, automate some of that, and perhaps save myself some time every day in future.


Not all emails are equal. My attention is usually grabbed by the most recent rather than the most important. So to get past that well-known cognitive bias, I have since March been using a new system of Email triage: when your Inbox needs more time than you have available. I handle items in the inbox just once. There are only a few options

  • Delete
  • Scan it and archive it (drag to the Academy folder in my case) – no need for complex folder structures because search finds everything easily
  • Deal with it immediately, but only if it can be done inside a minute
  • Drag to For action – core job actions (possibly posting some notes or starting a draft reply, see below. Possibly add to my main To Do list in OneNote)
  • Drag to For action – social and collaborative actions

It works really well, and I’ve been keeping to Inbox Zero for months. Today, just after my holidays I noticed a bit of repetition in what I was doing and added a tiny piece of extra automation to it.

Outlook rules

What are your favourite Outlook rules? I very rarely look at mine, and found a dozen obsolete ones from years ago that I deleted. Here are two I added today that others might find useful:

I participate a lot in social media in BT, so I get notifications when there is new activity. I quite like seeing them, but don’t like them interrupting my flow of work. So I’ve added a new rule to move them automatically to a secondary inbox subfolder which I’ve called Inbox – notifications. Here’s the rule – you might like to copy those email addresses. When I set it up today, it moved all the notifications from my holiday pile. And it will continue to do that for me every day. The rule runs on the server, so it will also stop most of those appearing on my main inbox on my phone.

Having done that, my intention is to only review that folder once a day, and triage it as well, deleting most, and replying online to the ones that I feel I can contribute to. I wonder if I will stick to that?

Now my core favourite folders (part way through processing my holiday backlog) are:

The plan today is to get the two Inboxes to zero, and then work through the core job actions before tackling the social and collaborative actions. OK it might take more than a day.

What rules do you use in Outlook that others might benefit from copying?