Task blocking to get things done

my week, january 25 2016

I have long been a proponent of the GTD method for managing my to-dos, but recently I’ve been finding that it does very little to help me stay on top of my constantly growing project list and shrinking free time.

problem #1: contexts

The use of “contexts” has always helped me to prioritize what I ought to work on first: do what you can, when you can, and only if you have the right tools and resources on hand. But in my current position, I am always in the right context. I can work on almost any task regardless of where I am using my tablet or smartphone since so much of what I do happens via email, on social media, in a text file, or using web-based design tools. Prioritizing by context is no longer effective.

problem #2: calendaring

I have always been religious about my calendar. I never put anything on it unless it is date and time specific. Unfortunately, this leaves my time wide open for commandeering since anyone at MPOW can view my calendar and request a meeting. Granted, one of my main responsibilities as an Outreach & Communications Librarian is to make connections with people and the best way to do that is face-to-face, but I still have other projects that need attention. Spending all day in meetings only to bring solitary work home every night is just begging for burnout.

solution: task blocks

So for the next few weeks I’m trying something new. On Sundays while I’m doing my weekly review, I plan to block out times on my calendar to focus on specific, prioritized projects. I’m setting aside time each day to focus solely on email (so that I don’t have to worry about it at other times of the day) and leaving up to 20% of each day unscheduled for things that may come up unexpectedly. I’m also adding a three weekly “productivity and creative” sessions:

  1. Discover & Imaging: a time to think creatively about a problem or project (usually over coffee).
  2. Research & Writing: a time to focus on whatever research project I’m working on at the time.
  3. Weekly Roundup: a time to review all my email, tasks, and notes from the past week, reflect on what I’ve learned, and begin prioritizing projects for the next week.

From another Outlook user’s perspective, it looks like my calendar is completely booked. On the one hand, I’m worried this will make my colleagues less likely to request a meeting. On the other hand, I know that if someone really wants to request a meeting, they will contact me before trying to do so, and in most cases, I will be the one setting up the meeting so it shouldn’t be a problem.

Ultimately, I am responsible for my time. I need to ensure that my projects get the attention they deserve.

#lismentalhealth: taking the first step

This is my small contribution to #lismentalhealth week. On Thursday, I met with a therapist for the first time. The good news: she doesn’t recommend long term therapy. The bad news: I probably could have used it years ago.

In 2012, I discovered I had a chronic illness. I had been told by my doctor that there is a strong link between the illness and depression, but I ignored his suggestion that I should seek out a therapist. What I didn’t realize was that I was slowing slipping into a perverse apathy for all the things that used to give me joy: professional development, networking, technology, wine, food, gardening… I had no desire for any of that. I wanted silence and solitude and sleep.

Then something remarkable happened. In fall of 2015, the medication (mercaptopurine) that I had been taking for almost 3 years stopped working. My immune system started to shut down. I received one of those late night phone calls from my doctor shortly after some blood work. Stop taking the medication, he said. Right now. My blood had turned, in his words, “toxic.”

I was immediately given steroids and within a few days my personality completely changed. I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My family noted the change as well. I suddenly had the desire to do things. I wanted to get up early, exercise, cook a decent meal, talk with my wife, play with my children, work on research projects, read professional literature, and explore new areas of study. Since that time I’ve started a new medication (Humira) and while some of the old physical side effects have returned (fatigue especially), I haven’t lost the boost in motivation.

It wasn’t until I stopped taking the mercaptopurine that I realized how dark my outlook had become. So as a preventative measure, I reached out to a therapist and set up an appointment. We talked about managing stress (a primary cause of regression), the connection between the illness and my job performance, how it’s affected my personal life, etc. The therapist did not recommend long term care, but we are planning to meet again in month to re-assess. After all, this new medication is intense (lots of needles) and I don’t know what the long-term affects will be. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to where I was last year. It’s very likely that I’ll continue to live with this illness for another decade and that is far too long to live a passionless life.

 

“Working at the weekend is a “badge of honour” for academics. And because knowledge workers, be they academics or bankers, are constantly competing against each other, their hours keep ratcheting up.” (Source: Times Higher Education)

An academic librarian through and through

The get-more-done, put-off-leisure mindset that is common to American work culture can easily be found in the library professional as well.

Hi, my name is John, and I’m a workaholic. 

I love what I do and get immeasurable fulfillment from my work as an academic librarian, but I also realize the need to step outside Libraryland to recharge.

Liz Danzico has good advice for people like me. From “Banking time“:

“While we’re taught the value of saving money, we’re never really taught the value of saving time. Not saving time so we are more efficient elsewhere, but actually banking time. Saving it for later.”

Danzico briefly offers five recommendations:

Max out your vacation days: I’ve already put in a request for a day off in Febrary “just because” and I’m planning a family road trip for the summer.

Keep 10-20% of your day, every day, free: This is more difficult. I have a rule that nothing goes on my calendar unless it must be accomplished at a specific time. Blocking off free time works against that philosophy, but I could do a better job of saying no to meetings that phone calls could easily replace.

Schedule make-up events on a monthly basis: If it’s an important event/meeting, I should do this. I may start making this part of my weekly review on Sundays.

Pay attention to recurring meetings: I have 24 hours of recurring  meetings each month. It’s hard to figure out what I could ignore. I could certainly reduce some of those down to 30 minutes, especially if I did a better job of planning what I want to accomplish ahead of time.

Promote your time of: Last year, I detailed my work week. I’m planning to do that again in my new position but I also want to do a librarian anti-day in the life during which I record everything I do during the week that isn’t work related. It’s not much, but it’s worth celebrating.

When it comes to my relationship with the profession, “work-life balance” is not an ideal to which I aspire. Instead, I try to focus on the creative benefits that time off, reflection, and distance can bring to my work. I also try to remind myself that stress in any portion of my life can negatively affect my productivity, my relationships with others, and my health. There are some portions of my life, mostly family related, that I keep separate from my work, but for the most part I am an academic librarian through and through.

A formal ACRL document

The ACRL Board wants to make it clear that the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education is “a formal ACRL document” and that a decision on what to do with the previous standards will be discussed at the 2016 Annual ALA Conference.

I am admittedly a fan of the new framework: not so much of its content but its form. However, I’m still not sure what we mean when we say that it will be “a living document.” Will the threshold concepts be expanded as libraries research and publish new information about their use? Will we add additional concepts to the original list? I understand the need for standards, especially in our current assessment-driven higher ed environment, but I don’t believe we should let another decade go by before we revisit how we as a profession define info lit.

Still, I am happy to know that many, many people far more experienced and intelligent than me are working on and thinking about these issues.

January giving 2016: Radiolab

radiolab logoFor 2016, I pledged to give to something I like every month. This month, I am making a donation to my long-time favorite radio program, Radiolab.

Radiolab was the first podcast I subscribed to after purchasing an mp3 player in 2005. It has been a staple of my morning commute ever since. Of the 20 programs currently in my podcast queue, it is the only one that I have prioritized to always play first once a new episode is available. Radiolab has been a constant source of joy in my private life. I hope that my gift will help develop and sustain future programming so others can share in that same joy.