Experience – The Teacher

Experience may be a great teacher, but it’s not always a good teacher.

Anonymous

What have you leant from experiences? I suspect that for most of us the list of experiences is long and extensive.

Experiences that built us up.

Experiences that taught us not to go somewhere or do something.

Experiences that showed our limitations.

Experiences that we would happily relive every day.

Experiences that we will do anything to avoid them happening again.

Experiences that have taught us who to trust, and who to avoid.

Each of these experiences have formed a part of our character, parts of our personality and our way of thinking.

I approach a situations differently to you because my experience is different to yours.

Sometimes our experiences give us an intuition into a situation that others don’t have, but there are just as many times when our experience result in unhelpful bias. Our experience has taught us well, but hasn’t always taught us correctly.

It’s always a good time to build new experiences, perhaps it’s time to deliberately seek out experiences that challenge our biases.

Header Image: These are the edges of the paths near where I live – full of life.

The Power of a Ticking Clock

A few months ago I changed the location of my home office, it’s still in my house, it’s just in a different room. There’s now a bookcase behind me, and on that bookcase is a clock. It’s an analogue clock with a small pendulum that used to reside on the mantlepiece at my grandparents. It’s a relatively plain wooden clock, but it carries with it memories.

For years that clock has stood silent in various location around my house, the thought of keeping it wound was somehow daunting and so the pendulum remained still. A busy life and clockwork machinery didn’t feel like companions.

The clock is in a prominent location and visible just over my shoulder when I am on video calls. Several of my colleagues have commented on the clock telling the wrong time to which I would normally joke that it told the correct time twice a day, which is better than many clocks.

Recently the thought occurred to me that, as I was spending more time in my home office, I should give the clock a try and see what happened. Perhaps it would stop the comments.

The first hurdle was that I had the clock but no key to wind it, but that’s no impediment in the age of Amazon and next day delivery. As you would expect, also in the age of Amazon, I now have two keys, because two were cheaper than one.

I opened the clock face and looked at the two keyholes trying to decide which one was the clock and which the chime. My intention was to have the clock working without the chime because I wasn’t sure that I wanted the chimes going in meetings. I couldn’t decide which was which so wound both of them just a couple of turns to see what happened. A quick tap of the pendulum and the familiar tick-tock eased into it’s gentle rhythm as if it had only stopped a couple of days previously. I turned the minute hand around to the top and listened as the chime rang out – bong, bong. The chimes were out of sync by several hours, but that was easily fixed after I referenced YouTube.

The clock continued for the rest of the day and it kept remarkably good time so I left it running.

In just a day of running I started to notice something about the clock, it’s steady continuous tick-tock was having an impact upon me. As my mental state sped-up with stress, the clock acted as a metronome to bring me back to rhythm. The chimes that I had anticipated being annoying interruptions became soothing reminders of the day’s progression. The sounds of the clock were gently easing their way into my daily soundtrack. The constancy become comforting. I suspect it’s also having a positive impact on my productivity.

The clock is still ticking and I’ve become a little bit obsessed about winding it and adjusting it. It’s almost like it is talking to me and asking me to look after it.

The day after I first wound the clock, I was on a call with the colleagues who had commented about my clock and none of them noticed that the clock was now running until it chimed for the time that the meeting was due to finish. These chimes have a secondary benefit, people respond to them and end meetings as they chime. That wasn’t something I was expecting.

(This post has again demonstrated to me the madness of the English language – every time I typed wind, wound or winding I would look at it and have to convince myself again that these were the correct spellings and that I wasn’t talking about the movement of air, an injury or something you do to a baby.)

Header Image: This is the clock, on its shelf, ticking.

Walking into Redemption

The image in the header of this post is from last weekend, during a glorious day walking in the hills.

This following image is taken from a similar place on the same path in September 2020 which was the last time that I was out and about in the fells of Cumbria.

The difference in my feelings between these two days is stark. The scenes are similar, but I was in a different place altogether.

I have been trying to complete a set of 214 hills known as the Wainwrights for several years now, and in 2020 I was down to my last few. At the start of the year it seemed that there would be no reason why I couldn’t tick of the last few and celebrate a goal completed. But this was 2020 and the year of a pandemic and the associated restrictions.

Personally, the impact of the pandemic has been minor, there are things that I’ve wanted to do but not been able, but mostly things have carried on as normal. One of the areas that I’ve found the most difficult, though, has been the restrictions on access to the mountains. I wholeheartedly agreed with the lockdown measures, but that didn’t stop me missing the feeling of walking a path to a summit.

In late 2020 there was a short window when we were allowed to get out and climb. I was so looking forward to parking up, putting on my boots and heading out. I set out early and made the journey to my starting point in good time. As I crossed passes that gave a view of my destination, I was delighted to see that the peaks were free of cloud. Further along the journey the road runs alongside a lake that was mirror flat calm. It was going to be a wonderful day.

I parked up, put on my boots, checked my gear and headed out.

Part way along the path I was starting to warm up and it was time to take a layer off. A feeling of dread gripped me as I opened my backpack to put in the removed layer – where was the blue waterproof bag that had my lunch in it? This was going to be a long day and I was going to need some food at some point. Emptying the contents of the backpack onto the fellside just confirmed, sadly, that the food was back in the car. There was no choice but to return and pick it up.

Yomping back was frustrating and so was opening the boot of the car to see the bright blue lunch bag directly in front of me.

Heading out for a second time my steps took on a frustrated stomp. It was a beautiful day that may well be the only day for months that I would be able to this, and I was still in the car park.

Half a mile or so out of the car park the back of my legs started to feel wet. It took me a little while to realise that this wasn’t a splash of water, or even sweat, it was coming from my backpack, lots of water dripping from the base. For the second time dread washed over me as I reached into my backpack to realise that the drinking bladder had come apart and most of the water was now sploshing around inside. I took the bladder out, fitted it back together, but there was precious little water left. Fortunately, I had some spare clothes in another waterproof bag in my backpack, so I changed, emptied the rest of the water out of the backpack, checked that I was definitely carrying a spare drink in a bottle and, even more frustratedly, head out again.

I few miles further along and only about a half of the way up my back started to spasm. I’ve had this before in my lower back, it’s the result of too much time at a desk, but this was higher up and far more painful. When I get a spasm in my lower back I just need to slow down and walk through it, so I carried on. I slowed down, then I slowed down some more, eventually I was walking ten steps then breathing for ten breaths while I stretched, then walking ten steps. It was pitiful and my head was a swirling mass of frustration. Instead of enjoying an exhilarating walk in the mountains I was walking in treacle with a whirlwind in my head.

Eventually I listened to my body and sat down.

I looked around myself and couldn’t see the beauty because the mist of frustration was too thick.

I felt shame for wasting a glorious opportunity.

As I sat, I wrapped my arms around my legs and wallowed in the emotional and physical pain of failure.

I didn’t post any pictures that day, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had given up.

I’ve carried some of those feelings around for months. Last weekend that all changed.

The first real opportunity for many months arrived and I was determined to revisit and redeem that day of frustration, shame and pain.

I set off from the car park and triple checked that I had my blue lunch bag, I also checked a couple of times more after I’d begun my walk.

I’d replaced my water bladder, which was sitting comfortably, and without leaks, in a new backpack.

After some more research and conscious of my previous back problems I travelled a route which started in a different place.

It was wonderful. A fabulous spring day of blue skies and crystal-clear views across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man, north to Scotland and south as far as Wales. The views from the summits and ridges were spectacular across the Lakeland fells.

Part way down I sat in roughly the place where I had submitted on my failed visit, and took a picture, the one in the header. I reveled in the sense of achievement, of having achieved what had been so frustrating. I felt the shame lifting as I succeeded where once I had failed. The weight I had been carrying for months was gone, I walked into redemption.

Office Speak: Cottage Industry – good or bad?

I have to admit that I use this one quite a bit myself, and generally as a negative term, but is that fair?

Dictionary definitions don’t always match a specific context:

Cottage Industry: a business or manufacturing activity carried on in people’s homes.

It’s worth us getting into a bit of history here.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution nearly all industrial activity was carried out in the context of the house. Cloth was produced on a loom at home. Sword manufacture was done by the Blacksmith in a workshop at home. Cartwrights created wheels in a building at their cottage. Even the Miller was was working from home, it just so happened that their cottage was a windmill, or watermill.

One of the primary reasons that the Industrial Revolution changed all of this was the size, and cost, of the machines. When a loom grew to twenty metres wide, required a huge watermill to work and ten people could operate six of them in huge hall the factory was born. This wasn’t the birth of industry, it was the birth of the factory.

We now have factories that are run by robots and produce goods to a specification that could have only been dreamt of by the local Silversmith in there workshop.

That’s the comparison that is being made when we use cottage industry in the office context – high quality factory manufactured goods versus hand-crafted goods produced by an individual, or small team. The inference being that factory manufactured is good and hand-crafted is not so good. But is that comparison helpful, or even fair?

The cottage industries may have shrunk in size, but they haven’t died out, in some areas they are thriving. Why would that be if factory produced items are so much better than those produced in cottages? One of the reasons is that better is a difficult thing to pin down, it depends on the context, and who is measuring. While items produced in factories may be of a high specification that the cottage industry item, the factory process introduces limitations. Factory produced items can be difficult to service – when was the last time you saw someone change a part in a TV? There are limited ways that you can modify a factory produced item, and you normally can’t purchase part of them if that’s all you want. Cottage industries are far more flexible and adaptable. You get to know the person who created it, so have confidence that they can fix/change/modify it if that’s what you want. You can be specific with a hand-crafted item. A factory may be the best way to get 1,000 wheels that are all the same, but it’s not the best way of creating the wheels for a Mars Rover.

There’s also a comparison on scale – the inference is that a cottage industry can only scale so far. Again, is that comparison helpful, or fair? In some ways it is, factories have been able to produce huge volumes of goods at remarkable prices. But it’s also remarkable what a collection of cottage industries can create, much of the Open Source software that we rely upon each day, without knowing it, is produced by small teams of people who are little more than cottage industries. Wikipedia is similar, thousands of individual contributors working away on their corner of knowledge. Imagine a factory trying to produce all of the content Wikipedia? In the right context the cottage industry can scale a very long way.

There’s also a comparison of cost – like value and scale, cost also depends on context. Setting up a factory to produce millions of identical things makes a lot of sense, but you aren’t going to set up a factory to produce a single item, that’s where you go to a cottage industry.

Back to the office and all of the cottage industry projects that are running within most large organisations – good or bad? I think, as we’ve seen, it depends. There are many cottage industries in organisations that should be fostered and encouraged. They are providing value in a way that no factory approach could. Likewise, though, there are many cottage industry projects that are simply duplicates of other cottage industry projects and together they are creating commodity outcomes that a factory would be far better at producing. Where I’ve seen most organisation struggle is that they have no knowledge of the projects being undertaken and no way of assessing the most appropriate response – whether to continue with a cottage industry approach or whether it’s time to bring things together into a factory. Simon Wardley has some things to say about that.

Is it time to stop using the term cottage industry as a negative and to celebrate them a bit more? I think so.

Header Image: The spring flowers in the local woods are blooming.

Office Speak: “Copying In…”

The other week I was writing about how we describe things in a way that is no longer relevant to what actually happens – like being Out-of-Office.

This is another one a bit like that. Do you know why you cc someone in email? Or, even bcc?

  • cc: Carbon Copy
  • bcc: Blind Carbon Copy

Both of which being from the days of paper when you quite literally sent someone a copy of an original created on a carbon copier. It was convention to put the names of the individuals at the bottom of the front page with the letters cc so that everyone knew who had a copy. No one has to go to the effort of finding a carbon copier anymore, we have email for that and adding people to a distribution list is as easy as hitting reply (or forward) and adding in a few extra names. There’s still plenty of carbon involved, but the carbon copier has become redundant.

This post isn’t just about mechanics and names though, it’s also about office practices.

Here’s the scenario:

You send an email to a colleague asking them a question.

The recipient replies to your email and puts at the bottom – or somewhere else in the email, or sometimes it’s the only content of the email – copying in… followed by a few names.

Then, if it’s really not your day, one of the people who have been copied in sends a reply and again states copying in…

Then some time later you get another reply that says copying in…list of name…for information.

(I could go on, but you get the point. The worst case of this I can remember went through eight iterations of copying in… Imagine how many people that was.)

You still haven’t got the answer to the question you asked at the beginning, you have a list of names, but you’re not any nearer knowing whether any of the people who have received a copy can furnish you with an answer.

Actually, you don’t have a list of names, you have several lists of names. Lists that, over time, become so complicated that people start copying in people who have already been copied in.

There are many times when I’m on the receiving end of a copying in… I’m often completely unaware of what I’ve been copied in to. Looking down the chain of the email doesn’t help my understanding of the question being asked or the issue needing consideration.

The very words copying in… provoke a negative emotional response in me. I’m not sure that I fully understand why, but there’s an odour of dread to every copying in…, a scent of collaboration gone wrong and email overload.

As the people involved escalates there’s also a feeling of guilt at the time being wasted as people church through noisy email chains that mostly says copying in

There’s a point at which I want to say: Stop. But I never do, it’s futile, copying in… has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps it’s my issue and I’m trying to control the conversation too much. I should know better, by now, than to use email for such communication, but old habits and all that.

I know people are just trying to be helpful, but I’d rather they weren’t. If they don’t know the answer that’s fine, I have other ways of finding the answer.

Header image: Sunset above the fields near to where I live. We are still in a lockdown that requires us to stay local.

Office Speak: Out-of-Office (OOO) – is it time for a new name?

One of the things that fascinates me is the etymology of words and phrases – where they have come from. Often the current meaning has little connection with the original meaning. Why do we talk about being in the wheelhouse as an example? In technology we also have a kind of visual etymology where we co-opt visual representations from the real world into the screen world. Why do we talk about files, folders and saving as an example? Below the visual representation that’s not really what’s happening. Ever heard the term skeuomorphism?

One of the phrases that we use is out of office. There was a time when this meant what it says, being out of the office. People would phone your office, speak to someone who would say, “I’m sorry but Mr Chastney is out of the office today, can I leave him a message or find someone else to help you.”

That’s no longer what is happening for most of us. We no longer have an office to be out of, so that part doesn’t make sense. Even when we are away from the place where we normally do work, our office, work isn’t stopping just because our physical location has changed. We talk about setting an out-of-office in our email so that people know that we aren’t in work, although, for many, that’s not what they mean either.

The term is no longer really serving it’s purpose, which is to tell people that you aren’t there for them in quite the same way you normally are. I think we need a new set of terms that say what we really mean. How does these sound, I’ve tried to keep it really simple?

  • Unavailable – unavailable.
    • “Don’t bother contacting me I won’t receive it and you aren’t going to get a response.”
    • “I’ve gone on holiday with my family, or friends. I’m confident enough that while I am away things will be fine.”
  • Limited Availability – I’m not as available as normal.
    • “I am in workshops and focused on that. I’ll contact you in a break if I think it’s important.”
    • “I’m travelling so won’t be my screens at all times, and definitely won’t be looking while I’m driving. I’ll get back to you once I have access to my screen.”
    • “I’ve gone on holiday with my family, or friends, but I don’t believe that the world can survive without me.”

It’s a lot simpler than out-of-office or even OOO, don’t you think?

Header image: I decided to go out of the office to get some fresh air and found these snowdrops in the local wood.

Not Crossing the Flood – Laws, Guidelines and Principles

It has been raining for two days, prior to that we had snow and ice, it’s quite wet out there.

Not only is it wet it is very muddy and the number of routes that I can use for my morning walk has become restricted. Thankfully there are still routes open along bridle paths and paved areas so the walking continues.

This morning, in the dark, I set out on one of the routes that I was expecting to be not too muddy and not too wet.

Part way into my walk I headed down a short hill where the two days of rain had turned the tarmacked path into a very shallow stream flowing in from springs on either side. A couple of days ago this was an sheet of ice. At the bottom of the hill is a stream over which a wooden bridge sits before the path ascends again. Just before the bridge is a path off to the left which is always muddy, even in the summer, but in the spring that path is the route to the best bluebells in the area. Straight ahead, though, the tarmac continues.

As a peered through the pre-sunrise gloom I could see that there was something different about the path this morning. A little further along the path seemed to be moving. As I progressed it became clear that the stream which normally travels under the bridge was no longer constrained by its banks and was now covering the path.

It wasn’t clear in the dark how deep the water was, nor how fast it was flowing, a cautious approach was required. I am aware of the perils of fast flowing water and recognised that being swept of my feet was a possibility that needed to be considered.

A couple of steps into the expanse the water was already half way up my boots and I decided that at was time to explore a different route. This required some rethinking and some retracing but no great loss.

I write this at a time when the rate of COVID-19 infection in the UK is rapidly accelerating and we are in a national lockdown.

Every day our news is filled with two types of COVID-19 story; there are stories about the numbers and the lives impacted by this terrible virus, then there are stories about the lockdown regulations.

We like to talk about the lockdown regulations. In England the rules change almost as often as the weather and the only way of keeping up is to talk about it. It’s almost replaced talking about the weather as a pastime. Our current regulations are defined as things that we should not do (guidelines) and things that we must not do (laws). The news outlets are constantly running stories about people breaking the laws and being fined, and stories of celebrities and politicians breaking the guidelines. The radio debate shows must run at least one phone-in a week for people wanting to discuss what is, and isn’t, against the regulations. Much of the reporting and the discussion hinges on how close to breaking the law can people get without being prosecuted. As an example – the guidelines tell us that we can exercise outside which we should do locally and that we can be joined on our exercise by one other person from a different household. So we endlessly debate the definition of locally. Then the police fine someone for traveling a few miles and the papers are full of it for days, the fine is the retracted. The Prime Minister cycles in a location that is several miles away from his home and the papers are again ignited.

Meanwhile the scientists are telling us that all contact with other people is dangerous and that we should stay at home.

As I was out on my wet daily exercise this morning I was thinking about these discussions when I was struck by the parallel with my flood situation.

The flood was a dangerous situation.

Specifically how dangerous, for me, I don’t know, I didn’t push it that far. I decided that there was a greater principle at play which was one of risk and reward. The risk, though likely moderate, wasn’t worth the risk. There are many things that I could do at the edges of the law and against the COVID guidelines that I choose not to do because the same applies, the risk is not worth the reward and I follow the principle of staying at home.

The law gave me the right to cross the flood, likewise the law gives me the legal right to travel 70 miles to one of my favourite places for a walk. I chose not to cross the flood because my knowledge guides me that it is the low risk thing to do. I am allowed to travel for exercise, staying local is a guideline, and so I choose to stay at home because that’s the low risk answer for me and for everyone else who I might come in to contact with.

We shouldn’t be pushing to the edge of the law, we should be walking in the middle of the principle, using the guidelines as guides.

Header Image: This is a fuzzy nightmode picture of the flood.

I’m reading… “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

Imagine that our universe is just one of many universes, an infinite number of universes even.

Then imagine that if there are multiple universes that you exist in each of those universes, but it’s a different you, a you that has made different decisions and taken different paths.

Now imagine that you could look back through your life and the decisions that you have made and can travel to the universe where that version of you exists – the you that chose to stay at home the day when they were involved in a fatal car accident, the you that chose to invest in that opportunity, the you that took that job offer.

Which of those lives would you choose? What would you do differently if you could?

The Midnight Library is a thoroughly enjoyable book that explores choice, regret, happiness, significance and meaning seen through the life of Nora Seed and her encounters with the librarian Mrs. Elm.

Header Image: This is the shoreline at Silverdale on a frosty day in lockdown.

I’m reading… “English Pastoral: An Inheritance” by James Rebanks

I’ve been following a bit of a theme, focussed on the countryside. This wasn’t initially a deliberate act on my behalf it was something I fell into and then continued. It happened like this; while I was part way through listening to “Wilding” by Isabella Tree, “English Pastoral” by James Rebanks was released, having enjoyed “Wilding” and also having previously enjoyed “The Shepherd’s Life” also by James Rebanks I decided to dive in.

In describing Wilding I talked about learning from the mavericks, the people doing things differently. Rebanks is another maverick, but in a different way. Rebanks farms in the northern fells of the Lake District which is a very different context to that of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, yet both of them are trying to find a different way to treat the land on which they live.

English Pastoral is a biographical commentary on the countryside and the significant changes that have occurred over a relatively short period of time.

I was a boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world. I didn’t know what was coming, or why, and some of it would take years to reach our fields, but I sensed that day might be worth remembering.

This book tells the story of that old world and what it became. It is the story of a global revolution as it played out in the fields of my family’s two small farms.

English Pastoral – James Rebanks

For anyone in doubt, all is not well in the English countryside, and all is not well with farming. In English Pastoral Rebanks talks through the events that led him to the realisation that the ways in which we are currently farming are not sustainable, and that a different path needed to be followed.

The last forty years on the land were revolutionary and disrupted all that had gone before for thousands of years – a radical and ill thought-through experiment that was c0nducted in our fields.

I lived through those years. I was a witness.

English Pastoral – James Rebanks

We have sustainably farmed the English countryside for many generations, but in recent decades the successful farmers have been those who embraced the modern ways of mechanisation, efficient cattle breeds raised in large sheds, large fields, massive farms and extensive use of chemicals. At the same time the rest of us have become “strangers to the fields that feed us” as the supermarket has dominated our buying. Farming is now in the middle of a huge international system of food production in which productivity and efficiency are the measures of success. We each benefit from that system in relatively low cost food, but at what price?

I have come to understand that even good farmers cannot single-handedly determine the fate of their farms. They have to rely on the shopping and voting choices of the rest of us to support and protect nature-friendly sustainable agriculture.

English Pastoral – James Rebanks

Rebanks is trying to learn from the old practices that he was brought up with and to return his farm to something more sustainable. This involves rebuilding some wildness, returning rivers to less straight routes and re-establishing a farming mix that isn’t just focussed on a single product. this inevitably has an impact on productivity, but perhaps not as significant as you might expect, and even if it does perhaps that’s a price worth paying.

We have a tendency to think in terms of blueprints and models. If we see someone doing one thing and being successful at it we try to copy it. What we miss by doing this is the context in which the originator of the idea built their way of doing things. English Pastoral isn’t describing a blueprint, it’s trying to open our minds to the possible.

Having read both Wilding and English Pastoral I am left at a loss as to what to practical steps to take, personally. I am one of those “strangers to the fields that feed us”, but I’m not sure how best to get reacquainted.

Header Image: This is what the northern fells can look like, imagine farming here.

I’m reading… “Wilding” by Isabella Tree

I’m a town boy at heart. I’m not a city boy even though the place I live is called a city, it’s not a very big city and where I live doesn’t feel like a city. I’m not a country boy even though I’ve spent a lot of time in it. All of my life I have lived a town life which, for me, gives a wonderful balance of places and people. I can go to places where there are people (normally) and places where there are few people.

I have what I think is a reasonable understanding of the countryside, I wouldn’t want to claim any expertise, but I have recently been on a bit of a book adventure trying to improve my understanding of what is still the majority of England.

Wilding book cover
Wilding by Isabella Tree

Most of England’s land is cultivated, there is very little that we haven’t dug over or grazed. Having said that, even I have noticed a huge change in the way that we cultivate our land and watched the relative price of our food drop year on year. It was these two thoughts and the third thought of how this had impacted farming that lead me to Wilding by Isabella Tree.

Farming has become increasingly industrialised since the end of the Second World war in the 1940s and this has produced a society that expects food to always be available and there are now generations, including myself, who have never known food shortages. We purchase our food food from large stores and expect it to be affordable. At the same time we’ve seen a huge drop in wildlife and there’s a growing sense that all is not well with farming.

Wilding tells the story of an estate caught in the middle of the pressures of modern farming. One of the best ways to understand how we get out of a problem is to watch the mavericks and to learn from them, that’s where Wilding comes in. Isabella and her husband Charles decided that the industrialisation of farming wasn’t working and went in the opposite direction letting the wildness back in.

Wilding is the biographical story of how the Knepp Wildland was established and the impact that it has had. It’s also a commentary on the many ways in which we drive farmers to do things that aren’t good for the land on which they live and shines a light into a world that each of us are dependent upon.

Without giving too much of the story away the Knepp Wildland shows that an alternative approach for farming can, and needs, to be found. I’m not saying that Wilding can be used as a blueprint for the future of farming but there are many lessons to be learnt.

This book got me thinking and opened my eyes to see different things around me, it also set me reading other books about the British countryside…

Header Image: This farm gate features in several of my walks, either side of it are fields of grass which have recently been ploughed.

Out of Office & Decline All Meetings – Outlook on the Web

As we approach this holiday season I thought I would share with you a productivity trick that you should absolutely use – assuming you are an Office 365 user.

Here’s the scenario.

You are about to take some days off and you want to block out your calendar, you also want to decline all of the meetings that people have decided are important to you, what’s more, you’d like to decline any meeting invitation for those precious days and to cancel any recurring meeting that you have set up.

In Outlook on the web, the Office 365 client that you use through a browser, Microsoft have made this really, really easy to do, right there in the Automatic Replies interface.

Automatic Replies on Outlook on the web

The Automatic Replies interface isn’t the easiest thing to find, so let’s start there.

  • Click on the gear icon in the top right corner.
  • Click on “View All Outlook Settings” at the bottom of this interface.
  • Select the “email” section where you’ll find “Automatic Replies”.

Once you turn on automatic replies and “Send replies only during a time period” it will show you three extra options.

  • “Block my calendar for this period” – is self explanatory and will create an “away” event in your calendar for the dates defined.
  • “Automatically decline new invitations for events that occur during this period” – again, self explanatory, if a little wordy.
  • “Decline and cancel my meetings during this period” – this is where the gold is. Select this and you’ll get another dialogue asking how you would like the meetings declined including the response text. You also get a full list of the scheduled meetings so you can selectively retain some meetings, but why you would want to do that is beyond me.

Be warned though, I’ve found that people aren’t used to others actually declining meetings, so when they get a flood of emails for the 50 meetings that they have scheduled with you it can lead to some frustration.

For anyone wondering why this feature isn’t in the “full client” then it’s worth understanding that Outlook on the web is the target for all of these innovations. Browser based development is quicker and far easier to deploy, the “full client” is always going to be further behind.

Header image: a misty morning walk on one of my regular routes.