Falling Off, Getting Back On

I can’t be the only person in academia who heads into summer thinking of new year’s resolutions. I’d guess that the lure of making resolutions at multiple points in the calendar year is kind of an occupational hazard for resolution-inclined folks who work in higher education. Our workload and responsibilities can shift fairly dramatically between the regular semesters and the summer (or other intersessions), and in that transition from one to the other it’s tempting to pause and take stock of how things are going and what we might want to change.

I have once again fallen off my almost-daily-writing-practice wagon, and it is time for me to get back on.

I do have a (mostly) consistent habit of taking about 45 minutes each morning as research time at home before I head into work. That length and timeslot aligns well with my family’s schedule for now — my brain works best on research-related tasks in the morning — though that might change in the fall when school starts up again. While 45 minutes is not an enormous amount of time, applied (week)daily it does move my projects forward. I try my best to protect this time for myself, though during particularly busy times in the semester it’s easy to let other work tasks expand to fill this space, easy to let myself be convinced that it’s more important to use this time to catch up on other work than to focus on my research.

The current state of my research and writing projects typically determines how I use that morning time, so even when I’m consistently spending 45 minutes it’s often not 45 minutes of writing. I might be analyzing data for a research project, reading and taking notes on sources, managing citations, or thinking through an IRB application or research questions. That time is still useful, but it’s not the same as time used specifically for writing. Writing is different. Writing is hard. And the more I write, the slightly-more-easily writing comes to me (though full disclosure: it’s still challenging).

Falling off and getting back on the almost-daily-writing wagon is something I’ve done so many times in the decade plus since I’ve been an academic librarian, and in a way it gets easier every time. It’s true that during busy times it’s easy to fall off — when my day is more meetings than not and ends with a to-do list that’s longer than when the day began, taking any time at all for writing can feel like an insurmountable goal. But it’s also true that it’s getting easier to dust myself off without judging myself too harshly for the fall, and to climb on back up. It’s 100% completely normal to fall off the writing wagon, and that wagon will always stop to let me jump back on and begin again.

Scrolling through Twitter this week I noticed a few fellow academics committing to writing for 15 minutes each day, and that feels like an achievable, worthwhile goal to me as I settle back into my seat on this wagon. There are plenty of seats — consider climbing up with me if you’re so inclined.

How I’m setting my goals for this year

When I started at my job four months ago, one of my first tasks after getting settled was to write out a list of goals for the year. All the librarians here do this as part of the evaluation process, and for me personally I’ve found it very helpful to be able to look back at my written goals in order to figure out what I should be working on during any given day. That said, what with the new year and the new semester fast approaching, it felt like it was time to reevaluate my priorities in order to assess the progress I’ve made so far and to work better next semester.

My first step in this process was thinking about where I want to be at the end of the semester and in a year’s time in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience. For the most part, this has meant figuring out what I need to learn to feel more capable of carrying out my job. For me, this covers all sorts of things: learning more about faculty research interests, learning more about the collection I manage, learning more about South Asia, learning more about LibGuides. Basically, I started out by thinking about where I want to be and what I need to learn to get there.

Then comes the part I’m more excited about. For every goal, I’ve made a list of actions to complete in order to achieve it. For most of these actions, I’ve made them general enough that they can be repeated over and over to build experience or knowledge. For example, in order to learn more about my subject areas, I’ve decided to read at least one monograph per month (that I would not otherwise have set aside time for) and one journal article per week. Or, in order to increase accountability, I’ve decided to update my work journal every Friday. I’m now working on scheduling recurring reminders for these tasks in my to do list so that I can better integrate them into my work week.

Since I’m still new, a lot of my goals have to do with learning and exploring, but so far I’ve found that this method of scheduling repeating tasks works for other goals as well. You can schedule time to review calls for papers or book chapters or time to work on developing instruction skills or working on lesson plans. In the same way that some people schedule every task on their calendar in order to make sure they get done, this method makes sure tasks appear on my to do list consistently. It also helps to establish a routine so I know that, for example, I’ll be reminded at the end of each month to organize my reading for the next month.

For me, this technique also works because (as with so many people before me) I’m still working out how to deal with all the freedom my job affords me. With this method, I’m able to divide up my time based on priorities to make sure things don’t fall by the wayside (as definitely happened sometimes this past semester).


What about you? How do you like to organize your time and goals? What new resolutions do you have for this semester or year?

‘To Meet or Not to Meet?’ That is NOT the question.

A day in the life of a librarian involves a lot of meetings, am I right?  Particularly, as the type-casting goes, academic librarians.  We all complain about this. We all wish we had more time and fewer meetings.  So why haven’t we solved this?  What would we measure in order to do so?  I’ve been grappling with these questions as I work on a chapter about how meetings contribute to an organization’s knowledge management.  There is so much about this that seems impossible to pare down, especially given the various ways we may experience meetings.

An article about what Google has learned from its research on effective teams came across my feed recently.  When Googling  it again (ha!) in order to pull into this post, I noticed Business Insider covered the topic in 2016 and 2015 as well.  Each one builds a little on the last.  The resulting info graphic shows psychological safety as the quality most indicative of effective teams.  Think about that phrase for a minute —  psychological safety.

Top Five Qualities of Effective Teams

This isn’t one of those, “Well of course! That goes without saying, doesn’t it.” kind of things, right?  Especially if reversed to imagine what might be wrong with teams that lack this, it’s no wonder the prevailing attitude about meetings is so fraught and our cats and shushing memes so prevalent.

What’s interesting to me about the image is its constructive approach to the qualities of effectiveness that build from psychological safety.  One of the things I argue in my chapter is that knowledge management assessments, particularly those involving meetings and teams, must similarly be more constructive.  I got to thinking how one measures the quality of psychological safety, specifically, and how that is constructed within meetings in the real (not just academic, not just Google) world.

That means examining how people behave in meetings. How does a meeting actually operate to ensure this quality?

The best example I can think of for a meeting almost completely structured to ensure psychological safety is a 12-step meeting.  You can image how safety manifests through the principle of anonymity, in how members introduce themselves (My name is…and I am a…), even how the space is set up (usually in a circle) and how  sharing takes place (usually turn-taking and no ‘cross talk’). While the 12-step approach may seem over the top in the context of a typical library meeting, I think as librarians, we take for granted the sense of security that simple organizing patterns like these can provide.

My husband shared that his team uses a checklist at every meeting called norms of collaboration, which I think is attributed to Bill Baker’s Seven Norms of Collaborative Work. How the checklist and norms were described sounded similar to a facilitation tool I’ve used called Plus/Delta.  At the end of every meeting you assess what went well (plus) and what could be improved (delta).  In this case, what is being assessed is more constructed to specific norms, rather than what I’ve experienced — mainly just accomplishing the agenda or staying on task.

According to Amy C. Edmondson (Harvard Business School), to whom Google credits the concept of psychological safety, there are three indicators of this quality in teams (and by extension here, meetings):

#1: Frame the work [of the team/meeting] as a learning problem, not an execution problem.  I  work in a mostly strengths-based organization where collectively the Learner strength dominates and the Executing domain does not (it ranks only 3rd of 4).  This should set my organization up fairly well in meeting this one.  Of course, we may need to look at how we frame the work.

#2: Acknowledge your own fallibility.  Libraries’ predominantly female profession probably overdoes this when it comes to apologizing or non-threatening leadership styles.  Although, I think this indicator intends a more authentic approach to one’s owning mistakes.  I personally am a big fan of both vulnerability research and reality-based leadership, which kind of book-end this concept  in my mind.  But, neither have hit the mainstream of library meeting effectiveness.

#3: Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.  OK. Indicator three, check.  Our profession is built on modelling curiosity and asking questions.  In addition to a curious, questioning, and service profession, we are also an organizing profession. So the kinds of structures illustrated in the meetings above should come somewhat naturally as well.   Yet, who hasn’t resisted (or at least felt silly in) facilitation tools like ice-breakers and ground rules?

Surely our organizing talents mean that meetings have an agenda, documented decisions, and assigned action items, right?   Aren’t these the very frames our work need in meetings, making them more than just people in a room talking?

When I asked my husband how one would foster the collaborative norms approach, he replied, “You don’t foster it; it’s required.”  Admittedly it helps to have it codified as a professional standard of practice, as it is in his case.  These kinds of specific norms are not codified in the library profession, if looking to ALA or ACRL for example.   More often such  norms are left to professional discretion.

Section 3. Governing Procedures. Each Community of Practice shall establish written procedures related to its function and governance that shall be adopted by the membership of the group. A current copy shall be provided to the Executive Director. (http://www.ala.org/acrl/aboutacrl/bylaws/bylaws)

The 12-step meeting structure, which has been codified and working for these groups for over 80 years, has another interesting tradition of operating by the principle of “attraction, not promotion”.  This tends to be the approach of adopting new norms in academia as well.  This has its perks, don’t get me wrong.  If you said I must always abide by Roberts Rules of Order (adopted in many an academic governance meeting), I’d certainly run screaming from the building. But must we rebuke all  meeting structure as confining our academic freedoms?

I can’t say that structure is the end all be all for ensuring a foundation of psychological safety. I can’t really say the teams and meetings using it always get psychological safety right.  But I can say those meetings that have foundation of information organizing structures in place are the more attractive in this respect, and its members who use them attract my respect.

This brings to mind one final kind of meeting with something to say on the matter.   I sat in on a choir rehearsal where the director was teaching 5-7th graders, who had only just met to sing together three days ago, about the importance of what they were creating together. “Excellence,” she said, “the excellence and hard work that you bring as you sing together has the power to touch someone in the audience and change lives”.  I had nearly forgotten this truth from my past musical experiences.  This reminder of how our actions can impact others set me up to experience that concert, and even my library meetings, in new ways.  Perhaps it really is just a matter of paying closer attention to our craft — the organizing and the service — with each other.

See also: Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383. doi:10.2307/2666999

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!