So Happy Together: Task Apps and Email

Email smartphone

Email can easily get out of control for school leaders and anyone else who has a lot to deal with. Among the challenges email presents:

  • Anyone can email you
  • It’s easy for other people to create work for you
  • A single email can have several tasks embedded in it
  • The work that needs to be done to handle an email often isn’t stated very clearly
  • Emails are hard to organize in a useful way, so if you have more than a handful, you have little choice but to handle them in the order they showed up

The solution? Use a task app alongside your email app.

Task apps like Remember the Milk, Nozbe, ToDoist (my current favorite), and the dozens of others on the market can make a huge difference.

Old School: Outlook

We’ve known for a long time that we need to handle emails with task management in mind, and for more than a decade, Microsoft Outlook has included a task feature.

Drag an email to the Tasks bar in Outlook, and you’ll create a new task with the email attached. It’s not a bad system.

Unfortunately, in our newly mobile world, that’s not very helpful. I read 90% of my email on my phone first, and only open it on my computer if I need to.

The more I can handle it once and be done with it, the better, and that means I need a solution that works from my iPhone and iPad.

A New Approach for A Mobile World

It’s great to have apps for all the devices we use today, but what if some of those devices don’t give us full control?

What if you use a school computer that you can’t install software on? What if you use an iPhone, and 3rd-party apps can’t integrate with the email client?

Here’s my favorite feature of modern task apps like ToDoist: Email input.

Get an email, decide that it needs to go on your to-do list, and simply forward it to a special address that the app gives you.

The app’s servers will receive the email and put it in your task inbox. (And yes, your to-do list needs an inbox too!)

Even better, you can create a project and get a project-specific email address, so tasks can be forwarded straight into that project.

Where We Live

When we’re working at our computers—which, as school leaders, should only be a small part of the actual school day—where do we “live”?

For too many of us, it’s in our email inbox. Email will consume all of our time if we let it.

If instead we use a smart app like ToDoist to manage our tasks, email becomes simply a communication tool, and we can do the work in a better-designed task management environment.

What’s your favorite task app? How do you use it?

ToDoist Tutorials Coming Soon

This week, I’m filming a detailed set of tutorial videos on ToDoist for my GoingDigital series for members of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. If you’re a member of the Network, expect to receive the first videos later this week.

How to Type On Your Phone, or Why I Can’t Recommend SwiftKey for iOS

Mobile devices are erasing the limits on where we can do our work. Work we once might have done on the desktop can now be done from an iPhone or Android tablet.

We have more ways of interacting with our devices than ever, from dictation to swipes to typing. But typing is still very important, and on a small screen, little tweaks can make a big difference.

But we can also make changes that move us in the wrong direction, changes that look like improvements but are actually wrongheaded.

I’m a fan of tools that improve our productivity as leaders, but not of those that undermine our thinking, decision-making, and purposefulness. Instead, we need to invest time and effort in making our work more purposeful and more efficient, not simply “easier.”

And that’s why I can’t recommend SwiftKey for iOS. Even if you’ve never heard of it or aren’t interested, think through this with me. Ultimately, it’s about how we execute our decisions as leaders.

SwiftKey for iPhone and iPad

SwiftKey has been around for years on Android, where the less-restrictive operating system allows it to integrate deeply other apps, including third-party keyboards (which aren’t even possible on iOS).


On Android, it seems like SwiftKey could be very helpful, especially if you prefer swipe-to-type.

On the iPhone and iPad, I have some concerns. SwiftKey basically works like Drafts—it’s a place for you to type (presumably faster and easier than you could type elsewhere), then send what you type to another app.

The main gimmick is that SwiftKey guesses the three words you’re most likely to type next, and updates those suggestions in real time as you type. If you see the word you’re planning to type, you can just tap it, and it’ll be inserted for you, so you don’t have to type it.

It sounds great, but even in the promo video, check out how slowly the model has to type in order for SwiftKey’s predictions to be useful:

SwiftKey for iPhone

I don’t mean to rag on what looks like a great company with a great Android product, but SwiftKey for iOS is not a professional-grade productivity tool. As the video indicates, it might be good for journaling and writing poetry with one thumb, but that’s not how most of us need to work.

How To Type on iOS

The fastest way to type, as any experienced iPhone user will tell you, is to just bang away as fast as you can, and let AutoCorrect do the rest.

Think, type with two thumbs, proofread, and you’re golden.

Typing should not slow down your thinking, should not take the place of your thinking, and should not misrepresent your thinking.

Why SwiftKey’s Approach is Misguided

SwiftKey’s word prediction is impressive, but here are at least five problems with its approach:

  1. Typing is faster than looking for and selecting the correct word. If we train ourselves to stop after each word so we can look for the next, the time we save will be more than offset by the time we waste. (If you’re typing an exceptionally long word and want some help, AutoCorrect can already finish it for you.)
  2. Muscle memory holds more than one word, so we type in phrases, not single words. Interrupting muscle memory in an attempt to save a few taps is only going to prevent us from getting better at typing, and it’s going to slow us down.
  3. We can proofread a whole sentence much faster than we can verify each word individually.
  4. Choosing from among several words is far more mentally taxing than simply thinking about what to say, then typing it. You should not have to answer a multiple-choice question with two distractor choices for every word you type. You might think “recognition is easier than recall,” which is true, but that’s for remembering facts, not communicating your own thoughts.
  5. We tend to use the same phrases and sentences over and over when typing on our phones. Once we’ve decided what to say, typing it should be at most four keystrokes, even if it’s an entire paragraph.

If you’re new to the iPhone, SwiftKey may be tempting, because it will allow you to type faster. But it will also prevent you from learning to type faster, and from taking an even more powerful approach.

Program the Robot

In my workshops, I teach school leaders to “program the robot.” Briefly, this means we need to make decisions, then encode those decisions into systems we can rely on.

For typing on your iPhone or iPad, this means programming shortcuts into TextExpander, and doing your typing in Drafts.

(If you’re a member of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, I’ll have tutorials for you on both of these apps later this month.)

You probably tend to say the same things over and over again. You have “stock phrases,” bundles of words that contain more complex meanings that serve as shortcuts, so you don’t spend all day wordsmithing what you’re going to say. You can decide what you mean to communicate it, and just say it.

You can type “omw” and have Drafts or AutoCorrect (iOS Settings » General » Keyboard » Shortcuts) replace it with “I’m on my way.”

You can type “Billy Jones,” hit one button, and have Drafts email your secretary with:
Hi Martha,
Could you please call Billy Jones down to the office? We need to talk briefly. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.

One of the key tenets of High-Performance Instructional Leadership is that we should take these stock phrases and use them purposefully—not as clichés that people can use to make fun of us, but as ways of being more purposeful and consistent in our communication.

Once we’ve decided how to deal with a certain type of situation, our decisions and communication can be encoded into our tools, and we can execute them effortlessly each time.

One More Note: Evernope

One cool feature that caught my eye is Evernote integration, which lets SwiftKey scan your notes and base its predictions on what’s already in your Evernote account.

But think about this for a minute: Did you type everything in your Evernote account? Does what you’ve saved to Evernote reflect your writing style?

I would say that only about 10% of what’s in my Evernote notebooks is stuff I’ve actually written. Most is saved emails, observation notes, encrypted data, PDFs, and other stuff that I want to save for future reference.

The Evernote integration may clue SwiftKey into education-specific words I’m likely to use, but it won’t help with understanding how I write or what I might want to say next.

Write With Purpose

This has been a very long post on how we type very small things on very small screens. Over time, the decisions we make about handle the little things add to big things.

I’m convinced that letting your phone tell you what to type, one word at a time, is a bad idea.

Deciding what you want to say—and at another level, how you want to lead—then programming the robot, is a great idea.

What do you need to say, in writing, from your phone? How can you say it more quickly, more purposefully, and more consistently?

Saving Emails in Evernote vs. Your Email App

A Network member emailed me to ask:

Why do you recommend filing emails in Evernote? I am wondering because I have tended to file in inbox folders.

This is a great question, because while I believe that Evernote is generally the best place to keep just about any kind of information, you want to make things as easy on yourself as possible.

Email isn’t our real job; it’s meta-work, and that means we need to set it up right, then let it get out of the way so we can focus on our real work.

Is My Email Searchable?

If you’re using a system other than Google Apps for Education (the private-label version of Gmail), the search feature probably leaves something to be desired. Outlook is OK, but in my experience is fairly slow when searching through tens of thousands of messages.

Evernote’s search is top-notch—it searches inside of file attachments, and even the handwriting in photographs(!).

So if finding something later will be a concern, I’d recommend forwarding it to Evernote. This is easy because Evernote gives you an inbox email address—anything sent to this secret address will be saved to your Evernote account, so you can forward or BCC messages and have them saved.

To find your Evernote email address, look in your account settings. It’ll be something like


Do I Regularly Run Out of Space, and Are My Messages Backed Up?

You may need to periodically drag messages to an offline folder to free up space in your account, especially if you use anything other than Google Apps for Education (though you can do this in Gmail too—which might be a good idea if you’ll be leaving your employer and want to take your emails with you).

With Evernote Premium, you get 2GB of new uploads per month, and there’s no actual storage limit.

Am I Going To Remember I Have Emails About This?

There are a few categories of messages I’d always forward to Evernote:

  • Staff evaluation matters
  • Meeting notes
  • Special education issues

In each of these cases, my documentation is going to be a mix of emails and notes I’ve taken myself in Evernote. If I only have my personal notes in Evernote, I may not recall that I’ve also received emails about the topic, and vice-versa.

True, you can email your Evernote notes into your email account, but I’d rather have things in Evernote. That way, when I type in a teacher or student’s name, I see everything related to that person, regardless of whether it’s a document, an email, or notes I took in a meeting.

There are some things email is just not good at holding—for example, photographs of whiteboards that contain important notes, which are only searchable in Evernote—so that’s why I’d choose Evernote over email.

Will This Require More Decisions?

Whatever you choose to do, set yourself up to have to make as few repeated decisions as possible.

As a leader, your job demands that you make tons of important decisions every day, and each decision you make depletes your willpower a bit.

That’s why I detest filing, because it:

  • Requires tons of decisions
  • Never ends
  • Accomplishes almost nothing of value

So whatever you do, try to minimize the number of decisions you’ll have to make in the future—especially for routine things like saving email.

How To File Email

If you’re going to save email into folders, I recommend just saving it all into one giant folder, so there are no decisions to make about which folder a certain message should go in.

When you’re looking for something, the same thing applies—avoid trying to decide where the message probably is, and instead do a search.

Does It Make Sense To Me?

Ultimately, you have to do what makes the most sense to you, and will create the least friction in your workflow on a daily basis.

If you don’t have an Evernote account, it doesn’t hurt to get a free one.

Do you have a question about Evernote, email, or anything else productivity-related? Get in touch and I may be able to address it in a future article.

How to Keep an Unsatisfactory Teacher Evaluation from Failing

Most teacher evaluations—I’ll conservatively say 98%—are “satisfactory” or better. (Here are some numbers from 2013).

That doesn’t mean that nearly all teachers are doing a great job; it just means that we as administrators very rarely go to the trouble of marking a teacher as unsatisfactory.

Why? Because it’s a lot of work, and it often doesn’t “work.”

What’s A Successful Bad Evaluation?

If you have a teacher who isn’t getting the job done, and hasn’t improved despite being urged and helped to do so, an unsatisfactory evaluation may be in order.

But what is this supposed to accomplish?

(And no, this is not a rhetorical question—we do need to give unsatisfactory evaluations when they’re called for).

We should be looking for one of two outcomes when we give a negative evaluation:

  1. Improvement. It’s a wake-up call, yes, but a negative evaluation should also result in a great deal more attention and support to help the teacher improve.
  2. Termination. If a teacher has repeatedly demonstrated that they aren’t going to improve to an acceptable level any time soon, an unsatisfactory evaluation should lead to that teacher’s termination.
  3. But too many principals rely on a deeply flawed assumption.

    Evaluation Is Not Harassment, and Harassment Is Not Evaluation

    A lot of administrators try to combine a little bit of evaluation with a little bit of meanness, thinking:

    “If I give them a hard enough time, they’ll leave.”

    No, no, and no.

    Time and time again, I’ve seen that backfire on administrators.

    Your options are:

    1. Help the teacher improve to an acceptable level.
    2. Do whatever it takes to have the teacher terminated.

    You cannot cause a voluntary resignation. You just can’t, and if you try, you’ll end up with a mess.

    Do a half-hearted job of documenting and supporting, and throw in a hefty load of meanness for good measure, and you’re going to have your whole staff mad at you, instead of thanking you for holding their underperforming colleague accountable.

    You can only do negative evaluations right if you have your ducks in a row, and far too many negative evaluations “fail” because we, the evaluators, don’t have our stuff together.

    The solution, as any Boy Scout could tell you, is to be prepared.

    What Unprepared Looks Like

    Not Knowing What’s Happening
    Final evaluations are usually due in May or June in the US, and we usually start thinking about them when certain deadlines—for goal-setting, for observations, for written reports, for renewal decisions—are approaching.

    Too often, though, we’re unprepared for these deadlines because we don’t know enough about what’s actually taking place in classrooms.

    We rely on proxies like collegial behavior, orderly students, or a lack of complaints for parents, and we have no idea what’s actually taking place during lessons.

    (If you want to make sure this isn’t the case in your school, join us for the free 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge).

    When we reach the end of the year and realize things aren’t going well in a particular teacher’s classroom, we’re left with a terrible choice: pretend everything is fine (since we don’t have enough evidence to submit a solid negative evaluation), or give an anemic unsat that will neither help the teacher grow nor result in their dismissal.

    Lacking Evidence
    It goes without saying that an unsat requires loads of evidence, and that evidence needs to be in writing (or in some cases, documents, photos, or other artifacts).

    We keep far too much in our heads.

    If you want to help a teacher improve, you need evidence of their current practice so you can identify specific steps for them to take. And you need evidence of their improvement.

    If you want to make sure a teacher doesn’t come back next year, you need evidence of what’s going on, what you’ve done to improve the situation, and how the teacher has responded.

    This evidence needs to be outside of your own head, and it needs to be organized so you can pull it together easily.

    (Keep stuff in Evernote if in doubt.)

    Failing to Decide What Outcome We Want
    The third way we can be unprepared is to be unclear about what we want to happen.

    If you don’t know whether you want the teacher to improve or be fired, your actions to make that happen are going to be scattershot.

    Of course, we should want all teachers to improve. But sometimes we also want people to leave, because we can tell it’s not going to work out, at least not without many more years of sacrificing students’ learning in the faint hope that the teacher will improve.

    (If you want someone to leave because they aren’t a good fit, that’s another issue. Bad evaluations are for bad teaching, period.)

    You never have to be mean, but at a certain point, you do have to decide which way it’s going to go, and proceed accordingly.

    If you’re going to fire someone, you can’t pull any punches. And if you’re going to help them improve and stay on your staff, you have a relationship to maintain—one that involves very clear expectations for continued improvement.

    But let me be very clear on this point: You should never simply hope that someone will leave voluntarily because you gave them a bad evaluation.

    That may well happen—in fact, it probably happens a hundred times more often than an actual termination—but if a voluntary resignation is your goal, you’ll get sloppy about collecting evidence and supporting the teacher’s improvement, and you can’t afford to do that.

    It’s just as likely that it’ll backfire, and you’ll end up with an angry staff, a very angry bad teacher, and nothing to show for it.

    Be Prepared

    Know what’s going on in your classrooms. Gather evidence, even if you’re not sure if you’ll need it. Be nice, but be diligent in preparing for all of your evaluations.

    And especially be prepared for those that might not be positive.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of my workshop on the topic:

    Preparing for Negative Teacher Evaluations Workshop

    I’m currently offering a new workshop (part of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, but registration is open to the public) called Preparing for Negative Teacher Evaluations.

    I’ll share my best strategies for making the sure this painful, but necessary, process accomplishes its goals.

    You’ll learn:

    • How to distinguish between the “coaching hat” and the evaluator role
    • How to prioritize among struggling staff and avoid taking on too much at once
    • How to gain the support of key players such as union representatives and your supervisor
    • How to keep the paperwork straight and get it done on time
    • How to hold teachers accountable for their performance without creating unreasonable demands or causing discouragement
    • How to create and follow through on clear expectations for improved performance

    And more. Learn more or register here »

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail (And How To Fix Them)

The general consensus seems to be that New Year’s resolutions are terrible. We don’t follow through on them, despite making the same resolutions year after year.

Usually goals—maybe even SMART goals—are offered as an alternative. And why not? Goals are what drive all productive human behavior.

New Year's Resolutions

Resolutions are typically a mix of habits and outcomes:

“I resolve to exercise three times a week.”

“This year, I want to read two new books a month.”

“I want to lose 10 pounds by March 15.”

“This year, I want to send a weekly newsletter to my school community.”"Lose 10 pounds” is a goal, whereas “eat better” and “eat three servings of vegetables a day” are behavioral resolutions. Losing weight isn’t something you can do; it’s a result of behavior over time.

If we want to achieve our goals, we need to develop the habits that will produce the results we want.

The problem with resolutions is that too often, they’re either just goals (with no plan to achieve them), or just behaviors, with no goal motivating them. (I’m not going to cut back on my late-night tortilla chip consumption without a good reason.)

The power of goals lies in focusing our attention on outcomes that matter to us.

And the power of resolutions lies in focusing our attention on our actual, day-to-day behaviors.

Both are powerful and essential, but not in isolation. What are the missing pieces?

Putting It All Together

The High Performance Triangle is one way to look at goal-directed action:

High Performance Triangle

One of the habits I’m trying to develop is getting up earlier and getting deep into my work day before my family wakes up.

Now that we have two kids (girls, 8 months and 3 years), it’s harder and less fun to work while they’re awake, so the more I can get my work done while they’re still sleeping, the better for everyone. That way, the late afternoon hours can be family time.

Let’s look at how each component of the High Performance Triangle addresses my goal of rising earlier and working more in the morning.


There was once a time when I could go to bed whenever I wanted and get up, by sheer force of will, whenever my alarm went off. As I get older, my body is telling me I need sleep, which is a good thing. So my days of going to bed at midnight and getting up at 5am are over.

So my strategy is to go to bed early so I can wake up early. Without this strategy in place, I’m going to fail at waking up earlier.


Tools are for efficiency, and while going to bed isn’t something I can do more efficiently per se, my tools can help me solve small problems.

For example, I often work in the evenings after the kids are in bed, and if I didn’t have anything stopping me, I’d easily work till midnight or 1AM. I’d then have to sleep until 7 or 8, shooting my plans for a productive early morning.

My wife is good about reminding me to start winding down, but setting a timer can prevent me from being caught off guard. I can set a timer on my calendar or using my iPhone.

If I’ve resolved to eat fewer tortilla chips, I can use a measuring cup—a very simple tool—to dish out a reasonable proportion instead of taking the whole bag to the couch.

But here’s the thing about tools: they’re just tools. A hammer is not a blueprint. Setting a recurring calendar appointment that says “go to bed” doesn’t work if I never obey it. So tools have to be used in the context of strategy.


Habits stick because they trigger reward loops.

  • Kids play video games because they score points and level up
  • I eat tortilla chips because they’re salty and delicious
  • I stay up late because it lets me get work done in the evenings, after the kids are asleep.

If a new habit is going to stick, I’ll need to figure out the reward loop. And if I’m going to replace a bad habit, I have to ensure that my new reward loop is just as rewarding as the one I’m giving up.

For getting up early, it’s pretty clear: I’m much more productive when I rise early and get some work done before the kids wake up. I’m happy to see them, and it’s not an interruption because I’ve already accomplished something for the day. And I’m tired at bedtime, so I’m eager to stop working and get rested for the next day.

New year goals

Your Resolutions, Goals, Habits, Strategies, and Tools

So if you’ve been resisting creating New Year’s Resolutions because you know they’re not a great setup for success, you’re right. But now you have a more comprehensive framework, and a much greater chance of success.

What goals are you pursuing in this new year? How can tools, strategy, and habits complete the picture? Leave a comment and let me know.

The Stress Equation

Stress isn’t a status symbol, and we have to draw the line somewhere—so that what we commit to doing, we can do successfully.

As a school leader, the number of things you could be doing to improve your school is infinite. There’s always another teacher to coach, another student to check in with, another way to improve.

If we don’t have a benchmark for being satisfied with what we accomplish, we’ll perpetually feel overwhelmed and unsuccessful. We’ll feel stressed.

The Stress Equation

The level of stress we feel is based on a simple formula:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

Simply put, how bad we feel is a function of how much we expect of ourselves, minus how much we’re capable of delivering.

This means stress is largely a choice, because we have some control over the degree to which we internalize other people’s expectations.

Of course, if you’re feeling the pressure of others’ expectations, there’s a good chance it’s because those expectations have power. They can’t just be ignored. They must be managed.

John’s Story

John is a high school principal who’s been on the job for the better part of a decade, and he’s well-respected in his mid-sized town.

Over the past few years, the graduation rate at John’s school has slipped a bit, and he’s feeling the pressure—from his own conscience as well as the community—to turn the tide and help more of his students cross the stage on graduation day.

At the same time, John’s state passed new teacher evaluation requirements, so he’s now required to complete nearly twice as many formal observations, and his final evaluations are several pages longer than they used to be. He likes the new rubric, but it creates a ton of paperwork.

The new evaluation rules, coupled with miscellaneous other district initiatives, on top of the need to improve the graduation rate, is piling the stress on John. He knows he can’t let it continue to build, with his family history of heart trouble.

John Stressed

Both for the good of his school and for his own health, John needs to get things under control.

Where to Start

The stress equation makes it clear that John can do two things (and he should probably do both of them): Reduce the expectations he places on himself in terms of workload, and increase his capacity to manage that work efficiently.

But here John runs into a moral dilemma: How can I expect less of myself and still do right by students? If my responsibilities and paycheck are staying the same, how dare I go easier on myself?

Sure, John can get plenty of mileage out of productivity tools and techniques. And he should. But he’ll also need to work on the expectations piece of the equation, because no level of productivity can help John meet personal standards that have spiraled into infinity.

The Epiphany

One day, John talks to several staff members within a 15-minute span, and realizes that everything he’s passed on to them has been a burden lifted from his mind. He uses an app on his iPad to deal with some data that’s been piling up. And he realizes that a problem area in the halls, which he asked teachers to help supervise during passing period, hasn’t had a flare-up in weeks.

It dawns on John that his work ethic and high expectations can be channelled not into longer hours, but into more purposeful action.

Instead of trying to be the lone warrior and do everything himself, he can think more carefully about how to involve his team, and how to delegate.

He can think about the organizational habits that will solve problems permanently, like seniors who don’t ask for the help they need with their college applications, so he’s not a firefighter scrambling to put out individual fires as they break out.

He realizes that he can build systems—combinations of tools, strategies, and habits—both personally and across his school that will take on the burden that he’s been bearing personally.

And he can go home a happy man—not content with the status quo, but satisfied that he’s done a good day’s work and made a marked difference in students’ lives.

How is your stress equation stacking up? What adjustments could make a difference for you?

Drawing the Line on Stress


Yesterday, I wrote that we shouldn’t see stress as a status symbol, and that stress can come from a mismatch between the situation we face and our level of skill.

But stress can also come from having far too much to do—which probably sounds familiar if you’re a school administrator.

When there’s more on your plate than you can possibly handle, how can you keep it from stressing you out?

Get Everything Straight

Sometimes we’re stressed not because we have too much to do, but because of clutter.

A pile of disorganized work is far more overwhelming than a neat stack, and the same is true when we’re talking about mental clutter.

What does this mental clutter look like?

  • Not being clear on what needs to be done
  • Avoiding decisions about priorities
  • Not marking deadlines on the calendar
  • Not finishing things you could easily finish

and so on.

But after you’ve addressed these issues, you’ll still have too much to deal with. So how do you keep that from stressing you out?

Draw the Line

Once your priorities are clear, you’ll have to make a hard call and draw the line.

Everything above the line gets done. Everything below the line doesn’t.

This one of the hardest decisions to make clearly, because our superhero tendencies make us reluctant to admit that we have limits.

We want to hold out hope that somehow we’ll get to that months-old task, instead of facing reality and admitting it won’t get done.

Efficacy and Efficiency

But if we can muster the courage to admit, to ourselves and others, what we will and won’t be able to accomplish, something remarkable happens:

We can actually fulfill our commitments. We can accomplish what’s above the line.

And this increases our sense of self-efficacy, which in turn increases our productivity.

We’re much more likely to work in the flow state, and to finish what we start, because we believe we can…and because what we’ve committed to is actually doable.

Are you resisting drawing the line? What needs to fall below it so everything else can get done, and so you can leave every day feeling more successful?

Why Zero Emails is a Good Goal for Your Inbox

Email is a communication medium. As my friend Dr. Frank Buck says in his presentations, you’d never take something out of your physical mailbox, look at it, then put it back in.

So why do we do this with email? Why do we let things linger there?

It comes down to not having PEEP: a Place for Everything and Everything in its Place.

We have tasks, decisions, junk, to-file, and all manner of other stuff in our inboxes, so we can never really get the empty.

But none of those emails belong in the inbox, and the more we perfect and use our PEEPs, the more we can actually attain the goal of an empty inbox.

But why should this be a goal? Don’t you have more important things to worry about?

The Power of Awareness

There’s tremendous value in being aware of everything you’re facing, even if it’s a bit overwhelming.

Airplane cockpit

Pilots have all those gauges in the cockpit for a reason: as a leader—of a flight or a school—you need information to make good decisions, and you need to be able to access that information easily.

As a school administrator, you have a wide range of issues, opportunities, crises, and information to deal with, and the first step is making a triage decision: Does this warrant further attention? If so, what should I do with it?

I certainly don’t want to have to keep track of everything in my head, which is why I have tools like my calendar, to-do list, and Evernote database.

But I don’t want those tools to hide information I haven’t seen yet, and the single point at which I should initially see and process that information is my email inbox.

From there, I can dispatch it to an archive folder, Evernote, my calendar, my Remember the Milk to-do list, or wherever else it may need to go.

But for this system to work, I can’t have a backlog. I can’t let the emails pile up in my inbox. I need to get them out quickly, so I can easily deal with whatever comes in next.

The inbox is a bin for collecting emails so it’s efficient for me to process them later. (This is what the CrackBerry addicts of 5 years ago got wrong: they were trying to deal with every email as it arrived, instead of letting things pile up a bit for more efficient batch-processing.)

So the goal needs to be this: an empty inbox, daily. It may not be possible to keep it empty for long, but that’s OK. If you’ve gone through everything and moved it to the right place, you can be clear on what’s on your plate and better able to respond to what happens next.

More importantly, you can proceed with your important-but-not-urgent work, knowing what’s on your plate that you’re not dealing with.

Taking Control of Your Inbox

Tomorrow, I’m offering a workshop called Taking Control of Your Inbox. If your email inbox is out of control, I hope you’ll consider joining me to learn how to make better use of this powerful tool for your leadership.

Learn more here »

I’m offering something unusual that I think will be very powerful: Over-the-shoulder coaching by video. Show me how you deal with your email, and I’ll give you high-impact pointers that will reduce your email time and increase your effectiveness. It’s included with your registration and completely confidential.

Does Some of Your Email Belong in Evernote? 4 Ways to Get It There

Email to evernote

You have lots of information that you need to keep for documentation purposes.

You know, just in case. The kind of information that you hope never comes up again, like that parent who was mad one day and filed a complaint with the state. Or the special education meeting that went south. You know what I mean.

Much of this information arrives via email, and even if it doesn’t, it’s very easy to use email to get it into your Evernote account, where it becomes a magical, searchable cloud of potential usefulness, instead of a pile labeled “to file” that never gets filed.

Here are 4 ways to get information into Evernote using its ability to accept email.

To get started, find your Evernote email address. Look in Account Settings (this has different names in various Evernote apps, but on the web you’ll see it here). It’ll be something like

Add this to your address book with a simple name like “Evernote” or even “EN” and you’re off to the races.

BCC Evernote on an Email You’re Sending

Use when: You’re emailing someone, and you want to make sure you have a copy for future reference, even if it gets deleted from your email or becomes hard to find.

Make sure you: Use BCC, not CC, or else the other person will wonder why you’re sending a confidential message to someone else.

Forward an Email to Evernote

Use when: You’ve received something that you want to keep…and it doesn’t belong in your inbox forever.

Make sure you: Clearly identify any action items, e.g. with a Reminder in Evernote.

Tip: You can make sure a reminder is added to a new note by adding ! to the end of the subject line. For example, an email with the subject “Pick up testing packet at district HQ !” will become a new note with that title, minus the exclamation point, and with a reminder. Add a due date like !tomorrow to set the reminder to a specific date.

Use Rules to Forward Messages to Evernote

Use when: You need to document everything from (or to) a specific person.

In your email program, you can set up rules to automatically forward messages to Evernote based on specific criteria.

For example, let’s say you have a certain parent who emails you daily with, shall we say, unreasonable messages, and you want to make sure you’re covered, without spending all day printing and filing.

Go into your email program (Gmail, Outlook, or whatever you use), and set up a rule (or filter) to automatically forward messages from that person to your Evernote email address. That way, everything is documented effortlessly.

Make sure you: BCC Evernote on your replies (unless you set a rule to run on outgoing messages too, which is a bit trickier).

Have Reports Emailed Directly to Evernote

Use when: You get automated reports sent from various data systems, such as your state or district, or web-based apps your school uses.

If you can, change the email address to which these reports are sent, so they go straight to your Evernote account and bypass your email inbox.

Make sure you: Check your Evernote inbox (or default notebook) frequently, in case other important notifications are sent to you via email.

Tip: If you can’t change the email address these reports are sent to, use a rule as I described above.

Get Started

If you don’t have an Evernote account, get one here.

Taking Control of Your Inbox

Next week, I’ll be offering a new workshop about email called Taking Control of Your Inbox, and one of the best ways to handle your email faster is to get less email in the first place—hence the article above. But I have more for you. Oh, so much more.

If you’re looking for the most powerful ways to stay on top of your email instead of letting it bury you, join me on Thursday, December 5 for this workshop. We’ll spend a jam-packed hour together live, and you’ll get a bunch more helpful resources electronically. I hope you can join me!

Tim the Toolman Taylor Would Love Evernote (but still wouldn’t be a great principal)

We’re producing the Going Digital module on Evernote this week, and the introduction video is now ready:

I think you’ll enjoy this look at high-leverage ways to use Evernote in our line of work, from documenting walkthroughs, to saving whiteboards from PD sessions, to keeping emails for future reference.

But here’s the thing: tools don’t create impact. Leaders who use tools aren’t automatically effective leaders. Tools make you efficient, but what’s the point of being efficient at the wrong things?

Are We Tim the Toolman Taylor?

Remember the 90s sitcom Home Improvement? Tim Taylor was all about the tools, but he’d often use them for their own sake (like when he put a tree branch down his new garbage disposal, just to see if he could).

We could talk about tools like Evernote all day long, but to be effective, we have to start with sound strategy.

From Knowing to Doing

But we can’t stop there, because knowing what to do and having tools to do it efficiently still isn’t enough. We need to actually do it, and not fall into the knowing-doing gap. This means we need to develop habits to consistently perform at a high level.

I call this powerful 1-2-3 combination the high performance triangle:

high performance triangle

This is the basis for everything I teach in the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, which is open to new members for a few more hours.

High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network

In the Network you get:

  • Two 1-hour live workshop sessions each month on high-performance instructional leadership. You will learn the skills, strategies, tools, and techniques that you need to thrive as a high-performance instructional leader.
  • Going Digital: Boot Camp for High-Performance Instructional Leaders, my extensive and growing library of video tutorials to walk you step-by-step through the tools you’ll need for high-performance leadership
  • Recordings of everything for on-demand access
  • My monthly Leadership Letter, an action-oriented guide to the most relevant research and thinking on organizational leadership, to help you lead your school with purpose and strategic focus.
  • A welcome kit, including a Future File system and resources to give your productivity a jumpstart
  • Individual productivity consultations via phone/Skype
  • Complimentary membership for an emerging leader you are mentoring (e.g. teacher-leader, admin intern, dean, etc.)

One More Thing…

Since I’m talking about strategy today, I wanted to announce one more bonus that I’m adding to the Network: The Marshall Memo.

Kim Marshall, author of Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation, has spent the past decade devouring every publication relevant to educational leaders.

Each week, he summarizes the 5 or 10 best articles he encounters in the 64 publications he reads each month. He’s just published the 500th Marshall Memo, creating what I’m certain is the single most powerful source of research and strategic input for school leaders.

You can subscribe to the Memo on your own (and you should), but if you join the Network before midnight tonight, you’ll get the Marshall Memo for free as part of your membership.

We’ll put it all together, week after week, to help you have the greatest possible impact on student learning. I hope you can join me.

Fresh Produce or WIGATI Wack?

In the “olden days” a to-do list was something you wrote in your planner on a daily page. When the day was over, your tasks had better be done, or else you’d be recopying them to the next day.

The FranklinCovey planner I used in high school had a slightly better setup: the to-do list sheets went inside a plastic bookmark sleeve so you could just move the whole list to another day.

Today, using electronic tools to manage our tasks gives us another option: We can have some tasks tied to specific due dates, and others that are due WIGATI.


WIGATI? Nope, it’s not a member of the deer family or part of a 1992 Kris Kross song.

It’s just a humble acronym: Whenever I Get Around To It.

It’s an empowering concept, because it helps us realize that when we think of something often has no bearing on when it needs to be done.

Some of my great ideas from January needed to be acted on immediately. If I didn’t act on them then, they’re irrelevant now. Fresh fruit needs to be eaten immediately, or it’ll spoil.

Other ideas are just as useful in July, when I might actually have time to spend on them. These “canned goods” can go on our WIGATI list.

The key? Know the difference. Keep track of real due dates, as well as self-imposed “fish or cut bait” due dates for opportunities that will pass if you fail to act on them.

For everything else? WIGATI is just fine.

The Productivity Killers (and How to Stop Them)

Piles are deadly to your productivity. Why? because when stuff piles up, it enters a kind of Twilight Zone.

Not a spooky kind of Twilight Zone, but a form of limbo where no work gets done.

Pile of paper

Piles reek of uncomfortable questions:

What’s in there?
Is anything seriously late?
Is there anything that’s going to be awkward to bring up again at this point?

And piles prevent us from asking questions that could be helpful:

  • What should I be working on now?
  • What should I work on later this week or next week?
  • What should I just drop, so it’s no longer on my mind?

Like mucky ponds, piles stink because they’re stagnant. They have no movement, no velocity, no momentum.

3 Kinds of Piles

We get three main types of piles. All three are bad, and all three are avoidable.

Physical piles—actual paper documents on our desk

Email—an inbox full of un-dealt-with messages waiting around for the “someday” when we’ll have time to deal with them all

Tasks—items on our to-do list that we haven’t processed into a useable system (in an app like Remember the Milk)

The electronic piles are just as bad as the physical kind, because they can grow even faster, and it’s easier to stop looking at them.

The Velocity Principle

Say goodbye to piles. Say hello to Inbox Zero, whether the inbox is physical or electronic.

If we want to get our most important work done, we have to put things in motion.

Have email you haven’t dealt with yet? Forward it to NudgeMail or

Have a document that’s been sitting on your desk for a while? Slap a Next Action Sticky on it and throw it in your tickler file. Or pass it on to whomever should be handling it.

Have a bunch of tasks sitting in your to-do app inbox? Process them into your list system so they’ll get the attention they deserve.

But don’t leave any of this in piles. Piles stink. Velocity is the key to getting work done and getting rid of your piles.

Breaking A Bad Email Habit

Have you ever suddenly realized that a habit you’ve been practicing for years—YEARS—is unhelpful or even completely backwards?

Sometimes we just do the only thing we know, until we wake up one day and ask ourselves “Why am I doing this? Is there a better way?”

When it comes to how we typically handle email (and how I handle email if I’m not careful), the answer is “YES!”

The Wrong Way to Deal with Your Email

Open up your inbox…

Stare at it, shocked and overwhelmed…

Pick off the easy messages and deal with them…

Get tired, distracted, or interrupted…

Go deal with something else.

The result? Your inbox grows larger and larger, and the messages in it get tougher and tougher to deal with, because you’ve saved the worst for last. Forever.

Doesn’t sound like much of a plan, does it? Yet it’s totally normal. But there’s a better way to handle your email.

The Right Way

You’ll need an essential tool that a lot of people don’t think about when they’re handling email: your to-do list. If you don’t have a good to-do list app, I recommend Remember the Milk.

You’ll also need your calendar, so you can quickly check your availability and respond to meeting requests in your inbox.

With the right tools in place, the process is pretty simple:

  1. Open the first message in your email app full-screen (don’t even look at the inbox)
  2. Deal with the first message with some combination of these actions:
    • Reply/Forward
    • Archive/Delete/Unsubscribe
    • Add to to-do list & flag for follow-up*
    • Forward to Evernote for safekeeping if necessary
  3. Go on to the next message
  4. Get through every message so your inbox is empty
  5. Close your email program and go do something else!

It’s really that simple. If you can deal with the message on the spot, do it. If it’s more involved, add it to your to-do list.

Then comes the hard part: follow your to-do list. Trust it as the guide to how to spend your time.

* Don’t just use the Flag for Follow-Up feature, because these will tend to be your toughest messages to deal with, and they often don’t articulate what specific action is needed. Actually write the task on your to-do list, and you’ll have a better chance of getting it done soon.

What helps you maintain good email hygiene? Leave a comment and let me know.

How to Be Productive Even When You’re Interrupted Constantly


The boss turns to the secretary and says “Clear my schedule.” With just those three words, the boss turns and retreats to the seclusion of a closed-door office.

I always chuckle when I see this scene repeated in a movie or TV show, because it’s something that’s nearly impossible in our line of work.

It’s tough to shut the door and work without interruption, because so much hinges on our availability.

Even so, we have to be very purposeful about ensuring that we’re able to work on our priorities, and not just deal with other people’s crises all day. 

The 15-Minute Rule

A helpful strategy is to plan your work in 15-minute blocks, four per hour, all day every day.

If you schedule your work in 15-minute blocks…

  • You’ll be able to deal with most interruptions before the next block begins
  • You can get significant work done on most kinds of projects in 15 focused minutes
  • You can easily reshuffle your blocks as needed
  • Anyone who needs to interrupt you can wait till you’re done with your current block, and they’ll never have to wait more than 15 minutes
  • Your attention span can handle 15 minutes, even during the summer

The Interruption Ratio

Try this for a few days, establish a baseline, and determine what’s realistic.

If you know you’ll get interrupted 25% of the time, you’ll soon learn that you need an hour to catch up after every 4 hours of work (One 15-minute block per hour gets interrupted x 4 hours = one hour of catch-up).

If your interruption ratio is 25%, you’ll know you can only realistically schedule 3/4 of your available hours for focused work (not including meetings and other inflexible responsibilities).

Big Blocks

Of course, you’ll need sustained blocks of uninterrupted time to work on more involved projects, and that’s why many administrators find that the early morning is the best time to get this work done.

Before everyone else arrives (or after they leave, if that’s more your cup of tea), you can work without interruption on whatever most needs your attention.

I don’t recommend slicing up this time into 15-minute blocks; work for as long as you need to and can sustain it. When else are you going to have the luxury of working without interruption?

But when others are around, and interruptions are inevitable, 15-minute blocks can make a big difference.

What About Classroom Observations?

How does this strategy fit with the need to get into classrooms? Pretty well, actually. Unless you are doing a formal observation that’s required to be more than 15 minutes, you can learn a lot and provide good feedback in 15 minutes.

You can even fit in two classrooms in 15 minutes, or one classroom plus an interruption. 7 minutes is plenty of time to see what’s going on and provide meaningful feedback if you have the right systems in place.

Get into three or four classrooms and provide feedback, every day, and you’ll be in the top 1% of school leaders anywhere.

Start Today

Don’t wait until the new school year begins. Try this strategy today, even if school is out and you’re unlikely to be interrupted.

Because you know what? I bet that even with four uninterrupted hours, you’ll get bored or distracted without breaking things up a little bit. Sure, take advantage of the big blocks of time when you have them, but also be smart about your own attention span and desire for variety.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Look at your calendar and identify your time that isn’t already spoken for with meetings and other obligations. Let’s say you have four hours today.
  2. Estimate your interruption ratio. Let’s say this is 25% (maybe it’s as high as 50% or 75% if you’re still wrapping up the school year). That means you can get three hours of work done in four hours.
  3. Look at your to-do list and pick out your biggest, most time-consuming project you want to work on today. Estimate how many 15-minute blocks you’ll need to get it done. Let’s say you’ll need five blocks for a big project.
  4. Schedule these blocks on your calendar, non-consecutively but as early in the day as possible. Alternate your blocks so you can do other work that’s sensitive to the time of day.
  5. Look at your to-do list and fill in the other 15-minute blocks with whatever else you need to accomplish. If a task is shorter than 15 minutes, group it in a block with other short tasks. If it’s bigger, give it more than one block.
  6. Throughout the day, drag and drop your blocks to keep your calendar accurate. If you get interrupted, drag the block to a free slot later in the day (you did keep free slots, right?).

One more tip: Assuming you’re using an electronic calendar, you might pick different colors for these work blocks and your actual appointments with other people, so it’s clear what can be easily reshuffled and what can’t.

Let me know how it goes!

Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Instructional leadership is always hard work, but it’s even harder when our plates are overflowing with other responsibilities.

The truth, for a lot of us a lot of the time, is that we can barely even get to the work of leading learning improvement. We squeeze it in, but it’s far from our primary focus.

Sometimes the best intentions can make this even worse: By requiring principals to complete plans, hold meetings, and take other steps aimed at instructional improvement, a lot of districts are making the job of instructional leadership even more un-doable.

I know principals who are required to complete 14, 18, or even 21 written plans a year, leaving very little time for getting into classrooms and talking with teachers.

So whose job is it to make sure the principalship is a “doable” job? My favorite researchers have an answer:

District leaders should acknowledge, and begin to reduce, ways in which secondary school principals are limited in their capacity to exercise instructional leadership by the work required of them in their role as it is currently structured…secondary school principals do not, according to our data, interact with teachers frequently and directly about instructional practice. District leaders need to find ways to help secondary and elementary school principals work with teachers in order to improve. They also need to help principals structure their work schedules in order to find sufficient time to do this…Most districts will need to have honest and in-depth discussions with their principals to develop procedures for systematically and practically monitoring implementation of instructional leadership. The needs and circumstances of elementary and secondary school principals may need to be differently addressed, however the bottom line would have each principal expected to take specific steps to enact instructional leadership in his or her school.

Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning, from the Wallace Foundation Knowledge Center, by Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, and Stephen E. Anderson, p. 92-93

Well-said…but I don’t think we can simply wait for superintendents and central office leaders to dramatically redefine the work of principals.

I think district leaders play a hugely important role in making the job of principals doable—empowering principals to be true instructional leaders—but I also think we need to take matters into our own hands.

I’ve seen what happens when principals wait for the central office to fix things. I’ve heard my colleagues complain, helplessly, that “the district” isn’t spoon-feeding them every tool they need for success.

Guess what? This is a hard job. It demands that we give our all.

But it also demands that we work smarter. It demands that we use technology, and smarter strategies, to get more done and get to the “important but not urgent” work of instructional leadership.

At conferences, I often give a presentation subtitled “Working Smarter with 21st Century Tools.” And you know what’s encouraging? Lots of people always come, which tells me plenty of principals are taking their productivity into their own hands.

Making instructional leadership “doable” is a joint responsibility: district leaders have to make sure they’re not crushing us with work that takes our eyes off the ball, and we have to make sure we’re developing our capacity to handle the ever-growing demands of the job.

What helps you get to the important work?


x How to Handle Every Kind of Email