Tag Archives: time management

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.

Meta Top Ten: An Infinitely Regressive New Year to You!

infinitergression_fractal_stuartpilbrow_flickr
stuartpilbrow CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite things to do as a kid while my mother practiced the organ was play in the church’s bridal suite.  It had this closet of two large mirrored doors opening to a floor-to-ceiling mirror.  I’d close the mirrors on my leg or arm, slide around in there and watch my appendages travel into infinity.  As a librarian this has always been my go-to symbol of all things meta —  metadata and (my favorite) the you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know problem.  Answering the New Year’s call for reflection, I thought I’d put a meta twist on the top ten themes from my 2016 and some 2017 resolutions in response to the same.

10. Death – The 10 Best and Worst things to say to someone in grief

It feels like 2016 brought a lot of death.  Maybe I’m just becoming more aware of it as I age. Then again, the first of the year marks the death anniversary of a dear friend and my first experience of losing someone very close to me.  So, loss and grief have since then been particularly acute themes this time of year.  In 2016, I experienced death in my professional life as well. Navigating this brought to mind the list above and an American Libraries article on death cafes in libraries. Knowing firsthand the physical effect of stress on one’s health, and the reverse benefits of de-stressing, death can be a brutal reminder of the stakes involved.  So, I’ve resolved to relearn and practice coping skills for anxiety and stress at work this coming year.

9. Happiness 15 Things Incredibly Happy People Do

I first learned some of this list’s tips during my involvement in organizational and staff development work at my institution — #1 through Brene Brown’s vulnerability research and #3 through mindfulness.  I have since put many more to use during stresses like the tenure review process and reorganizations.  One of my 2016 resolutions was to do more perfectly reasonable travel (#4 on this list), which I did to two neighboring states this year. Less reasonably, I was even able to get all the way to Hawaii!  In 2017 my focus will be going offline, building relationships, and taking more chances, all helping me with meta list items 5, 3, and 2 below.

8. Reduce Stress De-Stress at Your Desk

After a back injury two years ago, I’ve made fits and starts at keeping up an exercise practice.  The stretches my chiropractor recommended were a lot like these, but not nearly as fashionable or fun.  This year I finally have a morning yoga routine down, and hope to kick it up a notch in 2017 by adding these moves back in during the day.

7.  Time Management How to Design Your Time Rather…

One of the professional colleagues who passed this year, Shane Lopez, was the author of Making Hope Happen.  His work is one among many built upon positivity research.  Similarly, this 5-minute read from Fast Company gives a positive strengths-based approach to time management.  But you should really check out the time research of Dawna Ballard who was the 2016 ER&L conference opening keynote speaker.

6. The Election Behind the Lens: 2016 in Photographs

The presidential election was certainly was a significant marker of 2016, and the issue of fake news cycles signaled renewed attention to digital information literacy for libraries.  White House photographer, Pete Souza, reflects on the Obama presidency in one of my favorite list mediums, a photo series.  And to healthy resolutions (laughter being the best medicine), I’ll just leave this bonus list right here.

5. TechnologyHere’s What Happens to Tech in 2017 (Unless 2016 Was All a Dream)

The election cycle had me enmeshed in social media, leading me to consider some serious de-teching resolutions in 2017. So far that’s meant removing Facebook from my phone and an online password management overhaul.  The former took two seconds, the latter the better part of an entire day.  This year also brought a number of new technologies to my work — VoIP phones, among others.  WIRED magazine is great for keeping up to date on such things, even if it does sometimes cause me existential dread.

4. DESJ Recommended Readings in Critical Librarianship

My university welcomed both a new dean of libraries and a new provost in 2016.  Both have shared a strong commitment to action on issues of diversity, equity, and social justice (DESJ).  My 2016 reading, limited as it was, occurred mostly in this vein.  Since exploring this in my first ACRLog post, I’ve been learning about the use of gender pronouns, my own biases, and microagressions.  My resolution in the new year is to facilitate conversations about how these issue play out beyond the service desk in our daily work.

3. More Reading and WritingThe Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors

Feeding my recurring resolution to read more, here’s another recommended reading list by one of my favorite sources. In 2016 I took to writing about the changes in my work for traditional publishing venues.  But joining the team of bloggers ACRLog in 2016 has been an amazing opportunity to learn from other academic librarians and (hopefully) become a better and more habitual writer in my profession.  Still a newbie, I confess that each post so far has been met with part inspired anticipation and part crippling anxiety.  I know reading and writing more are the surest ways to improve each skill.  Surely with such practice (and above lists 9, 8, 7) the intensity of it all will ease.

2. Ask for help5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help

I also know the benefits of asking for help.  Unfortunately this is also the hardest for me to put into to practice, so much so I considered leaving it off the meta list altogether!  Interestingly, these suggestions for improving that ask mirror some approaches I’d like to take in my research this year.  Ultimately, I want to take what the reference interview did for patrons asking librarians for research help at the desk and apply it in other, different kinds of information needs in the library.  How do patrons ask for help differently when troubleshooting access to digital resources?  How do we ask help of our colleagues when needing their assistance to change workflow? How do we ask for help when power dynamics change from patron and librarian to staff and supervisor?  A big resolution will be getting this research question out there (no, really, this time) and asking for help.

1. Cats The most popular cats on YouTube

Really nothing at all to do with the old or new year, but what library meta list would be complete without cats?

Do you have another list, resource, or comment to add on these themes?  Please share!

 

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.

strengths1sm

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.

strengths3sm

strengths2sm

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.

Focus and Spring Fevers

It always seems so unfair that people tend to get sick in the springtime. Just as the weeks of perfect temperatures and sunshine get underway and you want to be outside all the time just soaking in the gorgeous weather along come allergies, and sinus infections, colds and flu, etc. This year I was lucky enough to get sick twice in rapid succession so for the last week or so I have had a hard time focusing on anything more complicated than what time of day to take my next dose of decongestant and how many packages of tissues I need for any given event. And of course remembering to never forget to take hand sanitizer everywhere so as to avoid infecting others. I’m finally starting to feel human again which means now I’m realizing how quickly my task list grows when I’m not functioning at normal capacity. Basically, if you can’t focus you can’t get much done.

texastulips

I did an informal poll of my coworkers to find out what helps them focus and learned that what works for one person might not be helpful for another. For example, headphones were mentioned by several people but there was disagreement as to whether they foster concentration or create distraction. One of my colleagues mentioned that she gets distracted by new music but familiar tunes become a sort of background noise that help her focus on tasks. When she said that, I realized that I have the opposite experience. When I listen to music I know well, I start humming along and even dancing around (obviously it’s an understated nerdy seated dance only performed when nobody is looking). For me it’s often better to listen to music without lyrics.

Another colleague mentioned the value of white noise, which I have not yet tried but is an excellent idea. It’s the workplace equivalent of sleeping with a fan running to drown out noisy neighbors. I downloaded an app called White Noise Lite. It not only offers lots of sound choices, from box fan to rain forest, but also says users can “record and loop additional new sounds with total ease”. That is a really cool idea if there is something specific that you enjoy hearing. I’m thinking that the fountain and wind chimes on my patio would be perfect for relaxation; every time I hear these sounds I will picture myself lounging in the hammock (note: this may or may not be ideal for workplace productivity).

Another tip offered by several of my coworkers was to remove distractions. Put away your cell phone, turn off email notifications, log out of social media, etc.. You can employ a plug in like LeechBlock (for FireFox) or StayFocusd (for Chrome) that will limit the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites if that is an issue for you. Know the best time to perform certain tasks and organize your workday accordingly. Is the office noisy between 11am and 1pm? Schedule menial tasks that only require short attention span or get caught up on your emails during that time. If certain distractions are too much, you might even change the location of your desk. I recently moved to a new cubicle for reasons unrelated to concentration and was surprised to learn how much easier it was to focus in my new location – even though my former desk had been fine, this one was an improvement.

Another suggestion involved switching from a regular desk chair to a stability ball. Giving your body the ability to be positioned in a comfortable way makes it easier to keep your mind on task. A similar strategy is used successfully with students who have ADHD. I, too, find my stability ball conducive to getting things done efficiently. Something about staying physically engaged instead of slouching into my chair keeps my mind active as well. A stability ball might not be the best solution for everyone; finding a more comfortable chair that improves your posture could be just as beneficial. The key is finding what works for you, not settling for whatever dusty old seat was assigned when you got hired.

The most valuable and interesting advice came from one of our student assistants, Jessica. I was especially interested to hear from our students because their desks are in the most highly travelled area of our department, right out in the open without even cubicle walls to keep distractions at bay. Surprisingly, her first tip was not to avoid distractions but to “get comfortable with the distractions”. In other words, don’t get frustrated with them or try to pretend like they don’t exist – accept them and get over it. This fits in generally with the concept of mindfulness that has been proven in countless studies to boost productivity. Be present; focus on the here-and-now; be totally aware of where you are, what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is a key aspect of many meditation practices but can also be as simple as taking a few seconds during a stressful time to focus on your breathing, notice your posture and get centered in your surroundings.

So, to summarize: the best tip to stay focused is to not get sick, ever. If that proves impossible, try some of these tips to get back and stay on track — especially practicing mindfulness.

Further Reading

Schilling, D. L., K. Washington, F. F. Billingsley, and J. Deitz. “Classroom Seating for Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Therapy Balls Versus Chairs.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.5 (2003): 534-41. Web.

Shao, Ruodan, and Daniel P. Skarlicki. “The Role of Mindfulness in Predicting Individual Performance.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 41.4 (2009): 195-201. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

 

 

 

 

A Day (or 3) in the Life

Yesterday I spent an hour going through my inbox, turning each email that needs attention into a task, saving the ones that I need into relevant folders on a shared drive, deleting some, categorizing some and then dropping some into an inbox folder so that I can keyword search them if I ever need them again. It was so satisfying. Now my inbox has exactly one (ONE!!) message in it and that message has been in my inbox since my first week here at UNT. I guess I’m saving it for a rainy day. Of course, now my task list is longer than it was before I started doing inbox organizing so…

Anyway, looking at my ever-evolving task list made me realize how varied my days really are. I am preparing for a presentation at the Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference at the end of this month. For the introduction to my presentation I am writing a description of a “day in the life” of an Electronic Resources Librarian in an academic library. I am struggling a bit to do so, however, simply because no two days are alike. That is one of the really great things about my job as an academic librarian, actually! There is very little down time and things are different every day, always interesting. Seriously, if you get bored doing this job then you are not doing it right!

Instead of writing about ONE typical day I thought I would do three days. That way I can summarize a “typical” (really, though, there is not a “typical”) day spent mostly at my computer, a “typical” day that involves more collaboration/meetings with members of my division and a “typical” day that involves more work outside of the division. I would say that a majority of my time is spent working fairly independently or interacting with others mainly online. Interspersed with that, though, are days where I go from one meeting to the next. And one day a week I office in the main library at a desk in Research and Instruction instead of at my official desk in the Collection Management building off campus. So here are my never-typical three days:

Day One: Let’s pretend that this is a Monday. Actually, I just looked at my calendar and completed-task list to see what I did last Monday. (So: Last Monday):
•   Pulled a list of ebooks that were recently added to one of our online reference collections; created a spreadsheet to organize the titles by subject areas and subject librarians; emailed each subject librarian to let them know about our new acquisitions.
•   Spent 30 minutes trying to answer a seemingly-simple question from a professor about ebooks that, as ebook questions usually do, got complicated and involved emails between myself and, eventually, five other librarians before the question “How much of an ebook can be put on course reserve and in what format?” was finally answered.
•   Spent another hour or so trying to answer more seemingly-simple questions, these from a student who was having trouble understanding how our ebooks work and how to interact with the various ebook platforms. The question “How do you check out an ebook from the UNT Library?” seems so simple…but, trust, it is not simple to answer.
•   Learned that one of my collaborators on a presentation for the upcoming ER&L Conference is not attending the conference or interested in participating in the presentation at all. Began working on a new outline to restructure the presentation to include content from two instead of three presenters. (Sigh).
•   Fielded some random promotional emails from vendors, decided which products being promoted might be of benefit to various people or departments in the library, emailed various people in various departments to determine if there was interest. Saved all feedback in appropriate files for future product evaluations.
•   Pulled usage statistics for a Graduate Library Assistant to add to our ever-growing database of statistics.
•   Updated the Promotions Workflow. Part of my job is promoting our electronic resources – because what is the point of buying them if nobody knows about them. Another important part of my job is creating workflows for what I do because, in some ways, I’m creating my job every day. I document processes for everything and I keep these updated constantly.

Day Two (What I Did on Wednesday):
•   On Wednesdays I office in the main library with some of the Research & Instruction Librarians. This gives me an opportunity to have some face time with colleagues that I otherwise only communicate with by email and/or phone.
•   Established an inter-departmental workflow for cataloging, maintaining and promoting electronic resources purchased by a faculty support department.
•   Spent a frustrating amount of time trying to figure out if IP authentication was working for a new database and, if not, why not.
•   Chatted with several subject librarians about various ER-related issues including how to get access to the images in a specific journal when the digital access we have only includes text, a possible future research/publication collaboration, and several upcoming trials that were requested by faculty.
•   Created a LibGuide modules for a database trial that went live and communicated the availability and parameters of that trial to various subject librarians.
•   Did some last-minute confirmations and planning with a vendor who spent the day at UNT on Thursday.
•   Emailed my student mentees to check in with them, see how their spring semester is going.
•   Attended a meeting of the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee of which I am a member. Was surprised and pleased to see that there were pastries!

Day Three (Finally Friday):
•   Spent a fair amount of time on email communicating with vendors (got set up for a trial of several interdisciplinary databases we are looking at, followed up on some invoicing issues, etc).
•   Checked in with librarians in my department to determine how close we are to completing recent orders for electronic resources. It is my job to ensure that once an order is begun the process is completed within a reasonable amount of time. Orders involve, at minimum, two other librarians in the division. Noted expected dates of availability and scheduled times to follow up if necessary.
•   Typed up notes from vendor demonstrations I participated in on Thursday.
•   Meeting before lunch to talk about how our budget plan is being implemented and plan for future communications, purchases, reporting, etc.
•   Lunch at a restaurant with librarians from a part of the UNT library world that I don’t typically work closely with: new connections, yay!.
•   Meeting after lunch to coordinate a comprehensive evaluation of one of our largest electronic resources, one that we rely on heavily in our day-to-day collection management tasks.
•   Weekly Friday activity of going through my task list in Outlook to make sure I didn’t miss anything, finishing up tasks as possible and marking them complete, changing dates or adding reminders to upcoming tasks as needed.

Obviously, there are many, many details that I did not mention about these days – phone calls, conversations, emails, the unceasing attempt to keep the massive amount of electronic resource information and data organized in a useful fashion, etc. But you get the idea. A day in the life of an Electronic Resources Librarian is a bit unpredictable. Even more interesting is the fact that no two ERLs seem to have the same job descriptions but that may be a topic for another post.