2014 was for me a colossal failure of work-life balance. Between the long commute, evening toddler duties, health complications, and a series of house projects (some unexpected, some planned), my home life has had my work life in a full nelson since Spring. Complete mental head-lock. What little energy I had left in the evening was usually wasted drowsily trying to work on professional projects, catch up on various social media feeds, or (if my to-do list wasn’t pounding the floor mat) reading a few pages from a book.
Of particular note, I began working on a research project in the summer to examine the perceptions and values that undergraduates associate with the threshold concepts outlined in ACRL’s new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. The project was full speed ahead until September when the semester began and day-to-day needs (instruction planning, reference coordination, interlibrary loan processing) completely sucked away any and all free time both in and outside work. Even though I was given the go-ahead to focus on my project during the work day, “on the floor” demands completely prevented that from being possible. Other professional priorities suffered as well: ALA committee work, staying up to date on the latest research, participating in instruction-related communities of practice (see #critlib), and reflecting on my pedagogical approaches to information literacy. Moreover, as you can see from my wordpress archives, I haven’t been writing either.
Aside from the lack of energy (over which, according to my doctor, I have little control… the details aren’t worth getting into here), I take complete ownership of my failure. And after some winter recess reflection, I think I’ve come up with a plan to improve how I use my time both at home and at work. So far, three weeks into the semester, it has been a success. I made significant progress on my research, read an entire book on the history of copyright law, and managed to quickly and successfully oversee the repairs of a broken heating unit. All of this was done without becoming overwhelmed or reaching the end of the work week feeling exhausted and behind. And it only required creating two new habits.
early to bed, early to rise
The only complete cover-to-cover reading I managed to do last year was on my commute using Audible. During the Fall, I read The Organized Mind [library] by Daniel Levitin. In it, Levitin discusses recent research that suggests a connection between sunlight and sleep patterns: namely that within an hour of sunset, melatonin levels begin to rise in the brain, causing drowsiness. The reverse is true of sunrise. So, I thought to myself, perhaps I could get a more restful night’s sleep by going to bed closer to sunset instead of staying up until 11 or 12 trying to get more work done. Related to this, if I could consistently wake up before sunrise, by body would have the opportunity to “naturally” become more alert by the sunrise instead of being jolted to alertness by coffee.
It is also worth noting that at this stage in my daughter’s life, she needs/requests constant attention. So if she is awake, I can forget trying to get any serious work done. Waking up at 4:45 gives me a solid hour or more to focus on a project before it’s time to get her ready for the day.
simplified to-do list
I’ve experimented with a number of to-do lists methods (Covey, GTD) and managers (RTM, Todo.txt, Wunderlist, Outlook, a notebook). In every case, the organizational system eventually failed under the weight of too many tags and inputs. I’ve also never been completely happy with the way email integrates into any of these: either it was too easy to throw an email into the list (quickly surging the number of items) or it required one too many steps.
Since December, I’ve gone completely minimalist and started using individual index cards for my to-do list. It’s a method I first heard about from Merlin Mann (hipster pda) and later rediscovered though Robert Pirsig (Lila). Each morning, I sort my index cards into three piles: things to do today, things to do this week, and things to do after I finish the first two piles.
The beauty of this system is that it is “randomly accessible and infinitely modifiable.” I can quickly rearrange the list, add new entries, and discard completed ones. And there is nothing that quite beats the satisfaction of tossing a completed card in the recycling bin. The physicality of the system also keeps the stack of to-dos short (only actual, necessary tasks make it into the pile) and out of mind when out of sight (unlike the more connected digital task managers I’ve used in the past).
I’m not pledging to do more this year. I’m pledging to do better. To single-task. To listen. To breath. To try to remember that while there are always more things to do, more projects to start, and more progress that could be made, what matters is not how much I get done, but what I choose to focus on in a given space of time and how well I do it. And to remember that there is never a “best” choice between tasks. Here’s to making 2015 the Year of Better.
John, this showed up in my feed next to another post on nearly the same topic: http://calnewport.com/blog/2015/01/18/deep-habits-use-index-cards-to-accelerate-important-projects/
Thanks, Lisa! I had thought of using a similar methodology, but I use a different method to track progress on my various projects.
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