Keeping Track of Your Commitments

I’m not the first FYAL blogger to note this, but there are significant differences between professional and student life. Lindsay O’Neill previously wrote about the culture shock of academic life, as well as her techniques for time management, and how the amount of freedom you have to shape your own days is both liberating and overwhelming. I’ve noticed many similar differences. When you’re a student, the semester feels like a sprint towards the finish line. When I became a librarian, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out before me, and it was up to me to figure out how to fill it. As a student, assignments and deadlines are clearly defined for you by somebody else. Now, a lot of the work I do is self-generated and much less defined in its contours.  In this post, I wanted to discuss some of the strategies and tools I’ve used to adjust to this environment.

Last year, I received the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen as a gift (and a subtle hint, perhaps). I’m naturally averse to most things that seem like they’d be found on a CEO’s bookshelf, but this book has actually proved to be helpful as I’ve transitioned into my new job. Although I was able to define some big picture projects and goals for myself when I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish them. When a goal is as loosely-defined as “figure out how to support graduate students” or “plan successful outreach initiatives”, the next steps are not immediately obvious. More than once, I found myself feeling stressed or anxious about projects I was working on outside of work or while I was falling asleep, without making much progress on them while at work because I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward.

Allen posits that the stress most people experience comes from “inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept” (Allen 13). Whether these commitments are with yourself or someone else, they generate “open loops” that need to be attended to. His system for managing commitments requires three basic tasks:

  1. Capture anything that is unfinished in a collection tool.
  2. Clarify your commitment and what you have to do to make progress towards it.
  3. Keep reminders of the actions you need to take in a system you review regularly.

I decided to commit to Allen’s system. I downloaded the task management application Wunderlist, where I keep both a list of ongoing projects and a list of immediate to-do items. For any given project, I spend a few moments thinking about what a successful outcome would look like, what the next actionable step I can take to get there is, and capture it in my to-do list. Allen’s book helped me see that this kind of work — planning, clarifying, and prioritizing — is, actually, work. This was a revelation to me, as I had previously felt that unless I was producing something, I wasn’t really working.

This system makes it much more manageable to keep track of long-term or bigger projects by breaking them into smaller, actionable pieces. If the next step on a project requires action from another person, I can transfer that to-do item into my “waiting for” list, so that I know where the project stands, and that I’m not personally responsible for the next action. It’s helped me keep track of ongoing or informal responsibilities, too. For example, I have a recurring weekly reminder to input my reference and teaching stats, so I don’t forget and try to do them all at the end of the semester. If I say “oh, I’ll email that to you!” to someone, I put it on my to-do list so I don’t forget. I also have a space to keep track of the things that need doing in my personal life, like “schedule dentist appointment” or “oil change” (both real life items from my current to-do list — very glamorous).

Another thing I’ve learned about the pacing of academic life, and working life in general, is that you cannot work at your full capacity all of the time. There are natural dips in energy and motivation, and allowing for those is a necessary part of avoiding burnout. I select items to work on from my to-do list based on how I’m feeling and how much time I have before the next meeting or appointment. On a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling bleary and my brain is turning off, I might choose to update links on a LibGuide. On a Monday afternoon, when I’ve just had my post-lunch coffee, I’ll tackle a writing project or draft a particularly complicated email. Having a list of all the things I’m on the hook for helps me make those decisions more easily.

Breaking bigger projects down into actionable items and writing down what those next steps are has helped me immeasurably. If this is sounding very common sense to you, I imagine you are a more naturally organized person than I am. My personal organizational system prior to reading this book was to keep about five different to-do lists at any time, scattered throughout different notebooks and digital spaces. I generally used to-do lists as a tool to review my commitments in that current moment, but rarely referred back to them. The mental energy I was expending on storing all of the things I had to do in my brain was enormous, and not particularly efficient or effective. Now, I’ve outsourced this memory work, and it’s helped me feel more at ease with long-term or big picture projects. For any given project, I’ve identified a next step, and it’s on my to-do list.

What are your techniques for moving forward with gooey projects? How do you manage your time and stay productive in a less regimented environment?

Works Cited

Allen, David. Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin, 2015.

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