Tag Archives: productivity

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.


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.


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.



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.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Best Time to Write

Occasionally someone will ask me about my writing routine. How do I manage to write regularly? The most immediate thing that comes to mind is having something that really inspires you or gets you thinking, and that you feel compelled to write about it so you can share your ideas with colleagues. Having a steady stream of material to read is also important – and not just library literature, blogs and tweets – but resources from beyond this profession that will expose you to new ideas, stimulate your curiosity and inspire you to apply new ideas to your current situation. The one other thing I’ll usually mention is creating a writing routine and sticking to it as best you can. That usually means identifying both a time slot and a place for your writing. I used to be able to write reasonably well both morning and evening. In the past few years I find myself getting mentally tired by 10 pm, and at that point trying to write is nearly pointless. It may take me 15 minutes to write two sentences, and often I end up changing them in the light of the morning. That’s a huge time waste. So I’ve been shifting more writing to the morning when I have far better productivity. But I didn’t know that research suggests that the morning is the best time for regular writing. Peg Boyle Single, writing for Inside Higher Ed about dissertation writing shared the following:

Experts more often engage in deliberate practice during the morning; research has supported that we have the greatest capacity for sustained, engaged and demanding cognitive activity during the morning.

I agree that it can help to look at writing as a form of deliberate practice where the more frequently we engage in it at a regular time and for a regular duration of time, the more we increase our skill and output over time. It’s always a delight when the research says “you were right all along” (but it’s all right to conveniently ignore when it says you were wrong). I’ve been getting some good ideas from Single’s series of advice columns for dissertation writers. No matter what you are trying to write, you can find some ideas to help you do it better.

We Need One of These For Library Writing

In case you missed it the University of Chicago Writing Program created the academic-sentence generator for those of us too lazy to write our own incomprehensible, pompous academic gibberish. I only wish someone would come up with one of these for library stuff. Here’s an example a random academic sentence I generated:

The emergence of pop culture carries with it the invention of power/knowledge.

Not too shabby. Then again I seem pretty capable of constructing library jargon gibberish quite fine on my own.

Final Word on Neem Essay

Academic librarians have had quite enough to say about this essay, with the majority offering a negative critique or condemning it and a minority suggesting that we are somehow responsible when faculty disrespect us and don’t understand what we actually do. Just two thoughts on this. First, if you or I wrote an essay in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed that communicated a completely contemptible view of the faculty, do you think they would be suggesting on their blogs and discussion lists that faculty needed to do a better job of helping librarians to understand them. Pretty laughable. More likely, you or I could write off ever having any chance of being hired at a college or university in this country ever again. Second, the next time a member of the faculty publishes an essay like the one by Neem I think the best thing we can do as a community is just to ignore it. No comments. No discussion. Just a huge deafening silence. I think that would be the best comment of all.

For the Hacker in You

Last week was the official launch of Prof Hacker, a new website devoted to productivity, technology, and pedagogy in higher education. A link to this group blog first popped up in my Twitterstream a couple of months ago and I immediately became a regular reader. While the main audience for Prof Hacker is college and university faculty teaching semester-length courses, there’s also lots here for academic librarians. (And of course we sometimes teach credit-bearing courses, too.)

Prof Hacker publishes at least one new post every weekday featuring news, advice, and how-tos. Posts are short and accessible, and cover a wide range of topics. Some of my favorites so far include:

  • A couple of posts about using and managing course blogs, including a review of the pros and cons of group vs. individual blogs and thoughtful discussion on evaluating and grading blog posts. Great comments, too.
  • A timely entry on managing stress over the course of semester (timely for me, at least, since it was published on the first day of classes at my college). Great advice that’s worth saving to reread on the first week of every semester.
  • One professor’s report on using iPod Touches in a class he taught over the summer. This one seems especially relevant for librarians as we investigate ebooks and the various ways that they (and other library resources) can be accessed by students.
  • And if you miss something and need to catch up, each week there’s a handy week in review post drawing together all of the previous week’s entries (the week I link to was particularly full of great posts).

Definitely a valuable addition to my feedreader. What blogs/sites are you reading this semester?