Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

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Teacher Workflow - Getting your Inbox to Zero

Note: I am providing training on these principles on April 1 this year (2011) at my school in Sydney. See http://scil.com.au/workshop/a-day-with-steve-collis

Tweet me @steve_collis and let me know your reaction to this:

Since day 1 of my teaching career I found the workload simply overwhelming. I had a gazillion things to get done and tiny amounts of time to do them. Time was soaked up by playground duties, meetings, paperwork, and an avalanche of emails. I had emails coming out of my ears!

In my early years, somehow I found a way to create time to work on passion projects. 2006, in hindsight, was the most intense: on top of a full teaching load, I pioneered the Beyond Borders website (online collaborative student communities), running a dozen projects with 1,000 students, while simultaneously setting up the 4 years of online French courses that launched in 2007 under our new 'HSCOnline' brand. 

Back in those days my motto was "Work smart, and work hard." It was rewarded - I won teacher awards, was invited to speak at conferences, and found myself on the Senior Exec at school. (Picture me, blinking widely, like a possum in headlights).

But this approach to getting work done was not sustainable. Back in those days, my mind was firing on overdrive. There was no method to the madness, and this fostered a sense of panic. As I hit 30 I recognised this and identified an ambition: to sustain work effectiveness but dump the stress and anxiety. I needed to find an 'off' switch. You might find this obvious but I ain't never turned 'off' in my life. 

I made the breakthrough in January 2010, idly picking up the book 'Getting Things Done' by David Allen. He talked so much sense, in such simple terms, and I had one of those epiphanies.

Before I go further - here is a sped-up video of me using his techniques to clear my email inbox from 100 down to ZERO in about 18 minutes. Press play but then read ahead as it plays.



Over a year later, I am still astonished at how many of his suggestions are strongly (very strongly) counter-instinctive, but transform your workflow when applied. I spent the rest of 2010 getting the hang of them.

He addresses all the 'stuff' we have in our life:

- petty jobs we have to do (ring so and so, pick up the milk, get the car registered)

- fiddly work (gathering student data, report-writing, programming)

- broad aims for our life (spend more time with the family, save for a holiday, renovate the house... become a more loving person)

- policy, procedures, how-to guides, and other mountains of information we need to know or adhere too

Every work obligation, appointment, hope, desire, dream, mundane chore, passion project, deadline, at work and at home... we are mentally invested in these things, and it all mushes together in our minds like porridge. Each day we have to wade through this porridge.

Hence my high level of stress and anxiety. Hence my 'work like crazy' panic.

Allen proposes a strategy that is entirely realistic and workable, and makes utter sense out of everything.

Now I won't rewrite his book right here. I recommend it, and I'd love you to come to my training day where we'll work on implementing the principles. 

However, here is a sneak peak of what my workflow now looks like:

I have a complete inventory of every single mental commitment or job or project or event or ambition. Everything is catalogued and organised and is easy to process and action. I maintain this catalogue daily, just like I clean my house and tidy my room. There is no difference. My physical life is tidy, so why should my mental life be a pigsty?

Here are some glances at the system as I personally have implemented it, and I'll say something to conclude:


I use my Outlook Calendar for all events and reminders. My calendar is on my iPhone too. If I have to buy a birthday card this arvo, I set up a reminder to beep on the way home. Each day I can see what time is booked up, and what is free.


I have a reference system for all incoming 'information'. This is my knowledge base, with everything from bus duty procedure to excursion policies, from timetable information to 'history files' on students and colleagues. The biggest two spaces for this information is: my nested email folders (I just drag emails over) and 'One Note', a brilliant application that functions like a paper notebook with reorganisable tabs and subtabs.

This is what my One Note system looks like:


I have big tabs on the left, sub tabs along the top, and sub-sub tabs on the right.


Every single job that I have to do goes into my Outlook task list.

Note, when I say job only mean simple, single step items. If it's fiddly or requires multiple steps then it's a project.

Now, I give every task on my task list a due date, or more likely NO DUE DATE and a category. The category is the sort of task it is rather than what area of responsibility it falls under.

I print out my task list daily:




Each day I sort my task list by DATE (left hand photo) to get an idea of today's and upcoming deadlines - my URGENT stuff.

Then I sort by 'category' (right hand photo) and highlight tasks that suit the shape of my day - depending on my mood, schedule, and what seems important as I scan the entire list. 

Do you see the brilliance of this? One of my categories is 'errands'. I go get a coffee, and on the way check to see if a colleague is at their desk because I want a word, pick up my post from my pigeon hole, drop off three cheque requisition forms to accounts, and count how many Year 9 textbooks are left. I've been accumulating these errands and here they are, at my finger tips, in my task list, nicely ordered.

There is nothing that I have to do in my entire life that does not appear on this list! It is comprehensive. As such, I can trust it. As such, I don't have to make 'mental' notes to do things anymore: I don't _brood_.


I establish project spaces in One Note for any fiddly ambition: rewriting the Year 8 programs, getting fit, establishing a 'lulu' student-published bookstore at my school, writing reports (requires a space for data gathering), broadening the SCIL Associates team, and so on.

These ambitions are too complicated to be jobs. I need space to brainstorm, create a plan, and bring together information and resources relevant to the ambition. This space may need to be large and well categorised if there are multiple people, meetings and documents involved.

I feed specific step by step jobs from my project spaces in One Note, to my tasks list in Outlook.

I am constantly realising that items in my jobs list are actually too complicated and need their own project space.

I review my project spaces regularly. I chip away at them. They are all steadily moving forward.


Finally, I have a 'One Day/Maybe' space, also in One Note for any brainstorming, dreaming, goal setting, or project consideration that I know I cannot realistically act on RIGHT NOW!

It is wonderful to have a space where I can pour out far out dreams and "I wish I could..." notions, in such a way that they are recorded, and catalogued, and I can return to them later, but without them clogging up my system.

I am constantly moving projects and jobs from my task list and project space to my ONE DAY space. I never realised just how much stuff I had made mentally commitments to. Now I have a much better sense of what I should put on my plate and what needs to go into storage for now.


Throughout 2010 faced up to dilemma after dilemma:

Is this a task or a project?

Can I realistically fit this in or is it a 'someday' item?

Does this really have a set-in-concrete deadline or is it just that I really really WANT to get it done this month?

This email to me seems to have reference information, three jobs, and the suggestion I take on a whole new project. WHERE DO I PUT IT? 

Uh oh, I just realised there are 5 items in my head that I didn't put into 'the system'. I had better put them in NOW or it will fall apart.

Uh oh, I have 100 emails and zero time to process! I CAN'T GO BACK TO THE BAD OLD DAYS! I will wake up 30 minutes earlier, process them, and be tired but happy rather than well slept and anxious.

Ooooo that's why I've made no progress on project X - the next step is to recruit so and so, and so and so is busy and I'm reluctant to approach them. Ok decision time - do I approach them or dump the project?


As I have faced these dilemmas I've gained skills in mental processing. I have slowly developed a much more confident, intuitive, clear sense of the landscape of my workflow - a sense of what is optional, what is doable, what is urgent, what is important, what strategies are effective, and what strategies are all talk.

I've realised that most of the time when we send email we don't have the faintest clue what we really want to result from it. Meantime, 20 people have to read our chit-chat, wondering "Where do I put this thing? What am I supposed to do with it?"

Email becomes a mix between a party-line, a to-do list, a thinking-out-loud bin, and most tellingly, a deferral/outsourcing of clarity. i.e. "I don't know what to do, so I'll send an email discussing the issue."

It makes me feel like I've DONE SOMETHING! Really, all I've done is dumped my porridge on someone else's plate. 

As 2011 launches, I am more certain than ever that if I really want to make things happen at my school, I need to form a collaborative alliance, face to face. I need to get off my chair and go and present a concrete proposal to the person in a position to resource me, or approve the idea, or publish the concept, or sign off on the budget, or give me physical space to work in. 

Thanks to the system, my inbox is at zero, my anxiety has all but disappeared, and my creativity is flourishing. Since I have an inventory and tools to measure progress, I am more and more aware of actions that waste time and actions that bring about real concrete progress. 

If you're intrigued, get the book, and let me know how you go. And of course if you can travel to the northern beaches of Sydney, come spend the day with me and we'll explore this and other key skills for thriving rather than surviving at school - http://scil.com.au/workshop/a-day-with-steve-collis