[T]he present moment demands serious inquiry into why decades of trying to make information literacy a universal educational outcome hasn’t prevented a significant portion of the population from embracing disinformation while rejecting credible journalistic institutions.
Information literacy instruction was a core element of my masters in library and information science program back in 2012 and has been a recognized essential of the academic librarian’s work since at least 2000. However, as Fister points out, we are struggling against entities with immense power and resources: the attention economy. Combine that with the unintended consequence of teaching an over-reliance on one’s personal exegetical abilities lacking any connection to shared authoritative framework, and here we are. We, the education complex, have done such a thorough job teaching bias that it is now the primary lens through which students see the entire information economy. At some point, though, we have to trust in something other than ourselves.
I do find hope in Fister’s piece. Hope that we still have room to grow as educators. Hope that our students are already savvy to the ideas we want them to internalize. Hope that teaching information literacy can still be engaging, useful to a democratic society, and worth spending resources on in colleges and universities. I especially love Fister’s suggestion that “students could be asked to describe their own practices online, their personal “code of ethics” as they navigate their social networks, and discuss those in comparison with codes of ethics from […] other disciplinary or professional societies.”
In another life, one which I am not middle management, I would set aside the time to create an open course or OER textbook on meta-literacy, using the knowledge and experience I’ve gained being a netizen these past 2+ decades. At one point, I began outlining such a course, but life and new job opportunities got in the way.
With its luscious rosewood red color, this 2015 malbec from Argentina was just what I needed after an arduous, but successful week. As soon as I opened the bottle, this wine exploded with plum and oak on the nose. Seriously… you could smell it from 4 feet away. On the mouth, tight pepper and strong cherry (both fruit and stem). With its smooth, blueberry (or maybe boysenberry?) finish, this vintage leaves you feeling silky and smooth.
The most important productivity tool in my tool belt isn’t the system I use to manage my to-dos. It isn’t the style of notebook I use to capture daily notes. It isn’t the software platform I use to collaboratively manage my projects. All of those are subservient to a single element: my attention. The ability to direct my attention toward the work that I (and hopefully my supervisor) have identified as essential is my greatest productivity “hack.”
It has taken me two decades to realize this: to realize how insidious distraction and, more importantly, distracting productivity tools can be. These tools misled me into thinking that I was being productive by substituting “engagement” and “organization” in place of “focus” and “strategy.”
Over the past two years, I have chipped away at those elements of my work that consistently kept me from making progress, making incremental adjustments to my work-life lifestyle. Here are some of those modifications.
The 3-Meeting Rule
Of all the changes I’ve made, this one is the most important. My job invites meetings. It attracts them like digital moths to the pixelated frames in my Outlook calendar. When I allow things to run their course without intervention, it is not uncommon for me to have 5-6 hours of meetings per day, 4-5 days a week. Between the time necessary to prepare for and debrief from those meetings, I would not even have the time to check my email. (The horror!)
Since last year, I have been blocking out my entire day in Outlook as “busy” once there are three hours of meetings scheduled. This leaves me with 4-5 hours each day to dedicate to work that I need to do outside of meetings: writing and content development, being a manager, communicating with colleagues, assessment, research and service work, and, of course, appropriately preparing for all those meetings!
Though, the way things are going these days, maybe I should drop it down to two meetings per day.
Hard-Shut Downs at 6p (and Hard Starts at 9a)
When I was studying English literature in graduate school, one of my favorite classes was poetry. Specifically, I loved writing poetry. I wasn’t any good at it (trust me: I recently found some of my writing), but I loved the practice of writing within a form. I was at my most creative when I had limits.
The same is true of how I spend my time and direct my attention. When I know I only have X hours at my disposal, I am much more likely to focus on what matters most. I have found this to be even more true when I widen the scope from a single day to a week (more on that below). Add to that the psychological benefit of knowing that there will be a time “after work” to look forward to, creating hard stops well beyond my sleeping hours is a definite productivity- and attention-booster.
When I allowed myself to work whenever (e.g. late into the night; during breakfast), I found I would often end up focusing on the wrong tasks during the workday: what was urgent, what was recently-emailed, or what was easy. I would tell myself, “This is important. So I’ll do it after work when I can focus on it.” Truth is, by that point it was hard to focus on anything, much less work. So oftentimes it wouldn’t get done, or get done poorly.
Having a limited time frame within which to do my work allows me to confidently say, “No, I can’t do this right now. I have something else that needs to be done first.” And being able to say that is incredibly empowering.
No-Work Weekends. Mostly.
Relatedly, I have stopped working on weekends, with two minor exceptions. Similar to what I said above, knowing that I “might” work on the weekend enticed me to take on much more work that I was able. In most cases, I wouldn’t get to it. And again, having “the weekend” to look forward to motivates me to focus on what is most essential during the week.
NB: It’s important to note here that I have been a workaholic for more than two decades. The joy of the weekend is a new concept for me. That said, I would bet that if you work in academia, you likely also think that weekends are “time to get real work done” time. Higher ed should stop encouraging that mentality and restructure its expectations so that it can push back on it. IMHO.
The first minor exception: Despite all this, I still feel a strong pressure to work on weekends. So to satisfy that desire, I will sometimes set aside an hour or two first thing in the mornings on Saturday to focus on a single project, which I determine in advance. Once I’ve spent my allotted time on it, I shut everything down and go enjoy my day. The second minor exception is my weekly review.
The Weekly Review
One of the most essential elements of David Allen’s GTD workflow is the weekly review: a time when you go through all your inboxes (physical, digital, and mental) to refine and organize your tasks. This is meant to be a rigorous sorting exercise during which you look at everything on your plate and break it down to actionable steps. Once you’ve done that, you sort it into buckets. Allen recommends doing this based on context (things to email; things to do when running errands, etc). I take Cal Newport’s approach and time-block: I look at the time I have available in the week and slot each task into a spot on my calendar.
This review is essential to be able to maintain focus throughout my week. I cannot stress that enough. I’ve been doing weekly reviews for almost a decade now and I’ve honed it repeatedly. I don’t simply review my inboxes. I take a cosmic-level view of my entire work universe. Here is a sample of my weekly review routine:
Review tasks completed, meeting notes, and emails sent
Identify whom I need to send a quick thank you or congratulatory email to this week
Reflect on what I learned from the week’s events
Review what’s happening in the next two weeks
Review what’s happening one month from this week
Review my Projects List and Areas of Responsibility list (update if necessary)
Review weekly review files from 11 months ago / 23 months ago / 35 months ago
Review delegated work that I need to follow up on
Determine what updates/information needs to be reported to leadership
Who haven’t I met with recently?
Set task goals for next week
Set calendar for next week
Block out days with 3 hrs of meetings. Move meetings if necessary.
Schedule available work hours based on task goals
Schedule gym or yoga (during non-Covid times)
Schedule time to read professional literature
Schedule time for research projects
Schedule lunch breaks
This whole review process takes about 2 hours to complete. Without it, I tend to let go of important, but non-urgent work, like research projects, long-term goals, and anything that requires mental fortitude to tackle (sticky or wicked problems) and, instead, allow my attention to become vulnerable to the whims of others.
Prior to the pandemic, I would do my weekly review during the work week, usually from 3-5p on Fridays when there were fewer people still in the office. But with each day strained with trying to balance both my work and the needs of my family simultaneously (and often in the same room), I do my weekly reviews on Sunday mornings.
Email Blocks and Processing Rules
Once you stop allowing your email to be the director of your mind and your time, everything suddenly snaps into perspective. What is the most impactful work I can be doing this week? What are the tasks that are most essential to my institution’s mission? The answers to those questions are almost never “doing whatever happens to be in my inbox today.” Your email inbox is more accurately a measure of what others are prioritizing, and though these can sometimes be one and the same, it is not a accurate measure of my priorities. With that in mind, I started limiting my access to my email.
Easy win: I took all the email apps off my phone. I logged out of my accounts in Safari and turned on 2FA to make sure it would be at least somewhat difficult (read: annoying) to access my email from my phone.
More difficult win: I schedule my email work each day on my calendar, limiting it to 30-45 minutes at most, and usually after 4 p.m. I treat my email as if I were an executive assistant to myself: going through the inbox as methodically as possible and identifying action items for later. This I will do tomorrow morning. This I will put off until after I’ve completed this week’s priorities. This I will quietly ignore and see if they send it again later (if it’s really that important, they’ll send it again).
I get through as many emails as I can, without rushing, during those 30 minutes. Do I strive for Inbox Zero (h/t Merlin Mann)? Absolutely not. I receive more email each day than I can process. And my employer is not paying me to process email all afternoon. So I do what I can in the amount of time I’ve allotted myself.
There are days I don’t respond to any email. This doesn’t mean I don’t pop into my inbox to see if there is anything urgent from my boss that needs my attention. But with the exception of them, I don’t respond to emails until the appointed time on my calendar. For a while, I was processing email using a hierarchical method that prioritized my immediate team and project collaborators. But I’ve since moved my team to Microsoft Planner to organize our work, so the need to communicate via email has been greatly diminished. I process mail strictly chronological now.
Now, you may be asking yourself: but what if you need to access information that was in an email you received? Don’t you have to go into your email to get it sometimes? Well, that’s a project I’m working on now: to stop treating email like Box or DropBox.
Email is a terrible file storage system. So when people send me attachments or essential information in an email, I am striving to always move that information to the appropriate place: Box folders, planning notes, future meeting agendas, etc. Just like the old days when we had to watch the file size of our inboxes. 😉
All of this requires slowing down. Taking one task at a time. Taking on fewer projects. When I’m sending off emails and Slack messages all the time it can feel like I’m being productive, but it’s just flicking at the needle. Taking the time to plan things out, to realize what communications will be necessary in advance, to not be the your-lack-of-planning-is-not-my-emergency person to my colleagues: that is the work that moves projects along. This necessitates a more intentional, focused, and slower approach to work.
What I’ve outlined above works for me and my work environment. It’s not a perfect system and I don’t always follow my own rules, but these changes, especially in the past 3-4 months, have made a significant difference in what I’ve been able to accomplish given the limitations on time and attention that this whole pandemic has brought me.
One of my favorite productivity writers is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University. Before learning about digital minimalism, the perils of email, and “being so good they can’t ignore you,” I had been a struggling, but stubborn user of David Allen’s GTD workflow. But it was Newport’s re-envisioning of Allen’s protocols that helped me finally find a productivty system that worked for me. Like Allen, Newport writes (and talks) about prioritization with a growth mindset: not only what to work on right now, but what to work on this week, this quarter, or this year in order to move toward to the place where you want to be.
In seeking to determine what work is worthy of prioritization (or more importantly, one’s attention), Newport recommends asking questions like: “What are the skills in my area that are considered the most valuable? What skills are the most rare? What skills get people ahead?”
I realize that thinking solely with a growth mindset is problematic and, honestly, there are days I try to resist this (see also: Heather Havrilesky). Nonetheless, I want to grow as a person and as a colleague. The end result of this doesn’t need to be a promotion or a job with greater responsibility. It may in fact include the option to move into a position with a narrower scope. Instead, I like thinking in terms of what Newport describes as developing “career capital”:
So what are the skills considered most valuable and most rare in my work? And how do I cultivate those skills? (which, Newport goes on to tell us, are gained through developing a “craftsman mindset” and “deliberate practice”). In order to answer the first question, it’s important to define the scope: most valuable to whom? If I look just through the lens of my team, I might say “communication” or “trust.” If I expand the lens to include the whole of higher ed, I might say “research output” or “anti-racist work.”
For the purpose of creating reasonable and achievable goals, I’ve limited the scope of my reflection to “at my place of work” and “within the academic LIS profession.”
Growing within MPOW
I have been working in academia for 13 years, about half of that as a full-time librarian. In my experience, the skills that set apart those who succeed are less connected to the nature of their work and more to do with how they do it: kindness, project management expertise, and draft-making. Those who are kind to their colleagues, those who can articulate the entire life-cycle of a project, and those who put pen to page before pitching an idea are those who I judge to be successful. And by “successful” I don’t just mean get promoted or move up in rank: there are plenty of people who do that by being the pinnacle in their field, by being the only person around with a certain set of skills, or by riding on privilege’s coat tails. No, I also mean those who are respected by their colleagues and seen as a vital part of the fabric of a campus community. That is the place to which I aspire. So let’s look at each of these three attributes in more detail:
Kindness: This one is not difficult, but it does require intentionality: checking in with colleagues, regularly giving them shout-outs, sending notes of congratulations on recent projects. All these things are simple, but make a noticeable difference in workplace morale and interpersonal relationships.
Project Management: This one is more difficult and will require some deliberate practice on my part through learning and reflection. People who can outline the entire life-cycle of a project, break it down into manageable steps, and coordinate a team to complete it are rare. I’ve only seen this done well on a few occasions, but it has always left me in awe. People with brilliant ideas in academia are a dime a dozen: that’s why many of us are here! But making those ideas a reality within the context of a university’s infrastructure is not something grad school teaches you.
Draft-Making: Somewhat related to the skill above, the people who first put pen-to-page are often the ones whose ideas make it off the ground. Many times I’ve been in committee meetings where someone recommends a great idea, but it never leaves the discussion phase. The ideas that typically make it off the ground are ones where someone brought a written draft of a proposal. And even when those ideas didn’t immediately make off, they had more potential for coming back because, as a result of using a storage system like Box, it was more likely the file would be discovered again by someone else in the future. Records persist when ideas wither.
These are the three skills that I want to develop most this year. I am still working out a system for how best to track and assess, but I like Newport’s idea of counting the number of hours I spend in “deliberate practice” on any of these three practices. So maybe I’ll do that.
Growing within the LIS Profession
Using Google Scholar, I took a look at the publication track record for some of the LIS scholars that I admire and who write about topics in my field of work. On average, these scholars published 2-3 articles per year. This seems like a reasonable goal to work toward and one that I believe I could manage. It would require some significant changes in my work habits.
In order to make time for this level of research and publication, I estimated needing to set aside approximately 20-30% of my work time, leaving 60-70% for primary job responsibilities, and 10% for service work. That works out to about 10-12 hours per week focusing on research. It would also require more deliberate reading and evaluation of the research in my field to identify new areas for exploration (see also, Newport’s “research bible” idea, p. 113).
After only two months managing my time in this way, I have one article in drafting mode, one already submitted for publication, and another research project in the works. I was even able to quickly write up a case study for a colleague working on their upcoming book publication. Of course, this has meant making some sacrifices in my primary job responsibilities: I took a hard look (read: I time-tracked for 3 weeks) at how I was spending my time and determined a number of projects that were non-essential or could be delegated or dropped.
Which leads to an important point: in order to do any of this, I have to keep identifying ways to do less. I need to be intentional about how I use my time, how and when I allow my attention to be diverted, and honest with how much time a project will take to complete. Once you begin setting strict time limits for yourself, it becomes much easier to say no to new projects or tasks that don’t align with your priorities.
I am very lucky to be in a position where I can make these changes to my work. It’s one of the many reasons I love academia and MPOW in particular: personal responsibility, trust, and autonomy are granted to me and my librarian colleagues. Even though we don’t have tenure, we still have the flexibility to pursue areas of personal and professional growth. Academia fails in many areas related to work-life balance and there is room for improvement, for sure, but I can make this work.
I use an old-school method of tracking my personal goals and habits that I’ve always enjoyed (seen above). This January, I had three goals for the month:
In the morning, go outside and bring in the LA Times before starting breakfast.
Journal or write for me (not for work)
Shut down any work projects by 6 p.m.
As you can see, I did a fairly good job: 31/31 on goal #1; 18/31 on goal #2; and 27/31 on goal #3. I’ve made some notes to remind myself why I didn’t manage to make a goal for some days, such as when my library won the ACRL Excellence in Academic Libraries Award. Those 48 hours were pretty intense!
While it may seem like I performed poorly on my journaling goal, I’ve already written more in the last month than I did in the last year, so I still consider it a win.