Refocusing with Daily Themes: A Strategy for Summer Productivity

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Julia Feerrar, Learning Services Librarian at Virginia Tech.

I’m currently experiencing my first summer as a full-time academic librarian and it has taken me a while to adjust to the academic “offseason.” As Jennifer Jarson points out in her recent post on summer doldrums, we might expect summer to be slower-paced, but it can often be just as demanding as the regular semester. With fewer students on campus, a handful of workshops to plan and teach, and only occasional reference desk hours, my time for long-term projects is more flexible, but still quite full. Although campus is quieter, there’s still a lot going on as we develop our infrastructure and programs. If anything, my to-do list has lengthened, not shortened.

But instead of systematically working through my lengthy list, as I transitioned to summer I found myself switching between projects and tasks without committing to making substantial progress on any one thing. Prioritizing and focusing felt more challenging than it had during the regular school year. This change in my sense of productivity spurred some reflection on my approach to daily scheduling and for the past few weeks I’ve been developing a strategy to better manage my time and focus my attention.

A Thematic Approach

In mid-June I revisited my to-do list, annual goals, and calendar, trying to find a way to refocus. As I reflected, I remembered a productivity approach I had heard about in passing: setting a theme to focus on during each workday. As Twitter founder Jack Dorsey explains, theming your days can help you to manage time and attention. A daily theme gives you something to come back to whenever you’re distracted or interrupted. The idea of theming also appealed to me as a way to take some of the uncertainty out of prioritizing daily tasks. If Monday is X day, I can focus on X without feeling guilty about not making progress on Y.

To establish themes, Kate Erickson of Entrepreneur on Fire suggests first listing the kinds of things you do on a regular basis. For me, these are things like lesson planning, teaching workshops, consulting with faculty and students, writing emails, planning, committee work, and research. With your recurring activities in mind, you can choose four or five that you do most often or group tasks together into broader areas. Due to the nature of my schedule and the way I split up my tasks, the latter made more sense to me. However, when I tried to group my tasks into themes, I kept falling back into wanting to do everything every day. I had trouble distancing myself enough to see a pattern that would work.

The Strength Connection

My next breakthrough came when I considered my results from Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment, which I had taken along with colleagues in my department last winter. I had been trying, since then, to incorporate my Strength areas into goal-setting, but had gotten stuck on translating things like empathy and reflection into concrete goals. When I thought about using these strengths as a frame for my workdays, the patterns fell into place. Mondays and Tuesdays are now my Achiever days and I focus on teaching and planning. On Wednesdays I work on connecting, keeping Empathy in mind. Thursdays are Learning and Input days. And on Fridays I keep Intellection in mind, focusing on reflection and writing tasks.

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StrengthsFinder works well for me as an organizing framework, but many other frames could serve a similar purpose. Maybe there are areas of your strategic plan, yearly goals, or job description that you want to keep in mind as you set themes for each day. Whatever larger framing you use, I think the most powerful potential in setting themes is making an explicit connection between daily (even mundane) tasks and the bigger picture impact of your work. For example, when I catch up on emails to teaching faculty on Wednesdays, I can be a little more mindful of the relationships and connections I’m trying to build.

Implementation

Once I chose my themes, I did two things to put them into action. First, I set reminders on my calendar with the theme for each day of the work week. Then, I adjusted my to-do list so that it would align with my themes. I recently started using TeuxDeux, which lets you assign yourself daily tasks as well as keep track of long-term to-dos in multiple categories. Organizing my long-term to-do list around my themes has made it much easier for me to prioritize my daily tasks and to keep my work varied. I spend less time deciding what to work on when. Of course there are often time-sensitive, off-theme things that I need to take care of or participate in; I address these as they come up and then check back in with my main theme when I can.

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Setting themes is a flexible approach with a lot of room for creative applications. I plan to use my current workflow throughout the summer and then reasses at the beginning of the new semester. When my teaching and consults pick up again, I may want to reset my themes each week, instead of repeating them. I may want to use more specific themes or maybe even broader ones. I’ll continue to adapt my overall strategy, but I think the central idea of setting an intention for each day that helps me to clarify what I’m doing and why will continue to push me forward.

How have you worked on staying focused and engaged this summer? How do you approach time management and prioritizing? I’d love to hear about your methods.

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