Our event meant bringing together some 45 people. They all know at least one of us two, but mostly don’t know each other. Some type of introduction is therefore useful, but you don’t want to take much time out of the day itself for it, as often intro-rounds are dreary and meaningless exercises that sap energy and of which you don’t remember much immediately after. So we’ve aimed for our events to have a first activity that is also an intro-round, but serves a bigger purpose for the event.

Previously we’ve done 1-on-1 intro conversations that also produced a hand drawn map of connections or of skills and experiences in the group, to be re-used to find the right people for subsequent sessions. We’ve done groups of 5 to 6 to create Personas, as the first step of the design process to make something yourself. This time we settled on an idea of Elmine, to do what can best be described as Anecdote Circles Lite. Anecdote circles are a process to elicit experiences and stories from a group as they reveal implicit knowledge and insights about a certain topic (PDF). You group people together and prompt them with one or more questions that ask about specific occasions that have strong feelings attached to it. Others listen and can write down what stands out for them in the anecdote shared.

The starting point of the unconference theme ‘Smart Stuff That Matters’ was our move to Amersfoort last year. It means getting to know, find your way in, and relate to a new house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. And do that in the light of what you need to fulfill your needs to be at home and feel supported in the new environment. But in a broader light you can use the same questions to take a fresh look at your own environment, and make it ‘smarter’ in being at home and feeling supported. Our opening exercise was shaped to nudge the participants along the same path.

In my opening remarks, after singing a birthday song together for Elmine, I sketched our vision for the event much as in the previous paragraph. Then I asked all participants to find 3 or 4 others that you preferrably do not know, and find a spot in the house or garden (inviting them to explore the house/garden on their own that way too, giving them permission to do so as it were). The question to prompt conversation was “Think back to the last time you moved house, and arrived in a new environment. What was most disappointing to you about your new place/live? What was pleasantly surprising to you about your new place/live?” With those questions and pen & paper everybody was off to their first conversations.

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The thoughts and observations resulting from the intro-round

Judging by Peter’s description of it, it went well. It’s quoted here in full as it describes both the motivation for and the layeredness of the experience quite well. I take Peter’s words as proof the process worked as intended.

The second highlight is an event that preceded Oliver’s talk, the “icebreaker” part of the day that led things off. I have always dreaded the “everybody introduce yourself” part of meetings, especially meetings of diverse people whose lives inevitably seem much more interesting than my own; this, thankfully, was dispensed with, and instead we were prompted to gather with people we didn’t yet know and to talk about our best and worst moves in life.

What proceeded from this simple prompt was a rich discussion of what it’s like to live as an expat, how difficult it is to make friends as an adult, and the power of neighbourhood connections. Oliver and I were in a group with Heinz and Elja and Martyn, and we talked for almost an hour. I have no idea what any of the others in our group do for a living, but I know that Martyn mowed his lawn this week in preparation for a neighbourhood party, that Heinz lives in an apartment block where it’s hard to get to know his neighbours, and that Elja has lived in Hungary, the USA and Turkey, and has the most popular Dutch blog post on making friends.

During the event Elja shared her adagio that the best way to get to know people after moving to a new environment is to do something together (as opposed to just sitting down for coffee and conversation). It’s pleasantly recursive to see a statement like that as the result of a process designed to follow that adagio in the first place.

I will transscribe all the post-its and post (some of) it later.

Some images from previous activities-as-intro-rounds we used in previous editions:

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Persona creation / Using the hand drawn skills cards

Drawing the Sociogram

Drawing a map of connections, dubbed sociogram, between participants

Last week I have made changes in the way I process email. Adapting it more towards ‘Getting Things Done’, which I had avoided doing for years, and making some changes in daily habits around it. Now that I made the change, I can’t quite understand what kept me from doing it, even though before I thought my needs would not be met with a new routine.

Resisting change
As I use Gmail and have the notion I really shouldn’t, I mentally postponed changing my routines until ‘after replacing Gmail’, assuming I would otherwise either increase the cost of leaving Gmail (by having routines more deeply connected to its functionalities), or I’d find a replacement that already contained a better flow by default, making designing change now a waste of time. I know, neither make much sense upon closer consideration. Likely the real reason I made the change now, is having come back from a long vacation, and not many obligations yet as most clients are still away themselves. That, and receiving an external trigger right at that moment.

The trigger
That trigger was getting a message from Martin Roell, that one of his colleagues, Rob van den Brand, is offering a free download of how to deal with email. I downloaded it ouf of curiosity to see if it contained anything new in terms of suggestions. At first glance it didn’t, it was the GTD style approach I already knew (using the 2 minute rule, sorting into piles to reply, read, do and other etc.). Then a few days later a follow-up arrived with a few behavioral tactics to help make the mechanism work. The first one was unsubscribe to a lot of stuff, which led me to review my automated filtering, which led to re-evaluating the original GTD method, which led to implementing it……

The old routine
Over the years I kept all my e-mail in my inbox, always. Piling, never filing (tagging I do). The original reason for that was that my first mobile e-mail app would not let me easily access and search archived mail, only what was in my inbox would be readily available. The first step of my mail process is usually on my mobile.

From the newly arrived mail, I would ‘star’ those I thought would need some sort of follow-up. Things that don’t interest me I would leave unread but not throw out. This would be my basic triage method. I also have various filtering rules that label incoming mail (apart from ‘starred’) according to what part of my professional activities they represent (my company, my fablab stuff etc.) Using Gmail’s multiple inbox feature, those stars and labels were presented on my laptop screen as separate lists next to the main inbox.

At some point during the day I would open my mail (Gmail’s web interface) on my laptop and:

  • mark all remaining unread mail as read
  • work through the starred items
  • look at/answer mail while working on a specific professional context (1 of the inboxes)

The problem with this was that a starred mail could still mean many things (migh be interesting, immediate action, little or lots of work, read, keep in mind etc.) I basically needed to reevaluate every single mail, every time I opened up the ‘starred’ list. Over time that list would grow with unprocessed items from the past, becoming a ineffective mental drag, except for the recently starred messages. Also some of the multiple inboxes had survived beyond their waned usefulness due to changing focus and activities, and I had difficulty putting them to new good use.

The new routine
My current mobile app (the place where I do my first mail triage) fully supports labeling messages and accessing archived mails. Functionality I wasn’t putting to good use. So that makes it possible to do more detailed and better triage on incoming mail. I now, following the GTD material I mentioned above:

  • use many more filtering rules to automatically process and label incoming mails, alerts, mailers etc.
  • have unsubscribed a wide range of mailers connected to long time ago interests
  • have moved some quarter million mail exchanges of the past years from the inbox to the archive
  • label the remaining few mails that still reach my inbox with 1_reply, 2_todo, 3_toread, 4_waiting and other assorted relevant labels (such as ‘bookkeeping’, ‘opendata’, ‘acquisition’ etc.) so they can be more easily found back when needed
  • create new filtering rules when a mail arrives that warrants a filter
  • empty the inbox by moving all labeled and remaining unlabeled mail into the archive

The original multiple inboxes I now show below new mail, in stead of to the right where I had them for the past years. The multiple inboxes now show the reply/todo/read/waiting labels. That looks like this:

mailinbox

Key take-aways and needs
Changing my mail process and method of triage turned out to be easy. It moved the decision what to do with an e-mail forward 1 step, and made it part of the triage. (Before I would only star a mail and then decide later). This makes my normal daily time slot for mail sufficient to actually deal with the contents of that mail.

Main ‘win’ is that my mail interface is much less noisy, both due to heavier automated filtering and removing processed messages from the inbox. Before I would see whatever was left over from ‘before’ and always have a full page of messages in front of me. That clutter is now 5 short lists, with only one of those lists needing attention at any given time. All other stuff from mailing lists are available under a label/tag, when I decide I want to catch up but never clog up the inbox.

My main demand, being able to do triage ‘on the go’, is still being met (and more automated than before). The reduced clutter also feels like it might be a benefit when I move out of Gmail.

The only thing to still do is to much better connect the list of mails labeled to-do to my actual task management tool (Things, by Cultured Code) and making sure they get the right follow-up that way. I could probably automate that, but haven’t figured out how to do that yet. This may mean that the to-do part of the mail flow will actually disappear from my gmail altogether.