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Eight hours for what you will

Academia’s work hours are weird. So is our approach to work[ing]. So much of our identity is wrapped up in that work. The same could be said of libraries in general; and so I imagine this is doubly problematic for academic librarians. A 2018 study by Tamara Townsend and Kimberly Bugg found that 40% of academic librarian respondents would consider leaving their current position to achieve greater work-life balance, and 31% of respondents would consider leaving the profession as a whole to achieve a greater work-life balance. That is a staggering statistic!

I believe that many of us in academic libraries (for a time, myself included) feel that our work is unique: that it requires us to give up more of ourselves for some “common good” (see also: vocational awe). But the same could be said of a host of other occupations: what makes our work any different?

This thinking is probably why I was so attracted to this opinion piece in the New York Times by Bryce Covert, who writes on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families. As she points out:

Studies show workers’ output falls sharply after about 48 hours a week, and those who put in more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who put in a typical 9 to 5.

Among the participants in the studies Covert cites we find munitions workers, IT professionals, and civil servants. Add to this the negative long-term effects on one’s health, what benefit is there to academic librarians to regularly push work (especially scholarship) into our leisure time? Covert concludes:

We have to demand time off that lasts longer than Saturday and Sunday. We have to reclaim our leisure time to spend as we wish.

For the past few months, I have been consistently limiting my work hours to be as close to a “normal” 40-hour week as possible. This covers not only my performance duties (ie. librarian work), but my scholarship and service as well. Surprisingly to me (though, not surprising to anyone who has studied this phenomenon), I not only feel more accomplished, but I am able to mentally close up shop each day with less of a struggle.

I continuously encourage my team to do the same, and try to set an example for my colleagues by, for example, not responding to emails or sending DMs outside 9-6 hours, or always trying to estimate how much time I am asking of someone before I request support on a project. Even though burnout is as much (if not more) an organizational problem and not entirely the result of individuals’ actions, I still feel I should make personal changes where I am able.

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When trees speak

In his collection of writings, Hermann Hesse said, “Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is” (h/t Brain Pickings). I reflected on this quote as a walked among the California redwoods last week during the first family vacation we had taken in over two years.

Hesse’s words were paired with the ideas I’m currently digesting in Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing. In particular, there is moment when Odell discuses the connection between proponents of a “personal brand” and seeking authenticity within the context of capitalism. After illustrating this nexus using Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist, she notes:

When the language of advertising and personal branding enjoins you to “be yourself,” what it really means is “be more yourself,” where “yourself” is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised to and appropriated, like units of capital. In fact, I don’t know what a personal brand is other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments: “I like this” and “I don’t like this,” with little room for ambiguity or contradiction.

Hiking in northern California didn’t offer me much time for quiet reflection–what with also trying to make sure Mr. 5 didn’t fall down a mine shaft–but it did give me time to be with a version of my self that wasn’t trying to be a specific version of my self. I need these moments more and more these days, as I continue to [re]balance self care and vocational ambition.

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Garden seeds and room

“Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.”

via “The Secret of Happiness: Bronson Alcott on Gardening and Genius

Not all of these elements of “a great estate” may be for everyone, but for me, this reflection rings especially true. Moreover, the more time and attention I give to these things, the less need I seem to have for doom scrolling and social media.

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Randomly accessed memories 2021-04-26

When I need a mind-numbing activity to waste a few minutes of my day, rather than doom scrolling Twitter or needlessly refreshing my inbox, I like to hit the “random” button on some of my personal repositories of knowledge. I enjoy the exercise of thinking about where I was when I saved that webpage or liked that song or posted that quote. Here’s a quick sample from a recent trip down randomly accessed memory lane.

Random book from my library

Book cover showing sheep in a field

Montaillou : the promised land of error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

This is definitely a book I plan to read again. I first encountered it in 2006 while studying medieval literature in grad school. It’s a lovely (albeit disturbing) retelling of heresy in a small, French town based on an abundance of textual, “first-hand” knowledge that shows us more about life in rural Europe than it does about religious deviance.

Random bookmark

I saved this YouTube video back in September 2017. Apparently, by that point I was already on the Cal Newport train.

Random blog post

In 2016, I wrote about #LISMentalHealth, my chronic illness, and my decision to seek professional support to help manage my stress, anxiety, and depression.

Random word from the OED

nash, intransitive. To leave in a hurry, quit; to ‘dash’.

Random song

I don’t remember adding this to my library, but any time a song from this album comes on it makes me smile. Steven was right.

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On showing up for work

The first time I attended a yoga class was at the invitation of a grad school friend in 2006. It was in a small, second-level studio full of dark oak and warm light. I remember feeling shakey, dizzy, and sweaty for most of the time. I remember the instructor gently teasing me about how difficult the first class can be for newbies. I remember I ached for days.

The next time I went to yoga was 10 years later, this time at the invitation of a colleague. This time it was in a spacious gym. This time it stuck. I attended yoga classes weekly (no, zealously!) for about three years. The class occurred during the weekday (at the campus gym) and I never missed a class when I could avoid it. I blocked the time out on my calendar, refused meetings during that time, and even went so far as to store an extra pair of clothes in my office in case I accidentally forgot my gear. Then the pandemic hit and, like many luxuries, I gave it up to focus what little mental and physical bandwidth I had on family, work, and sleep.

A year later, I am back at it. Once again at the invitation of a friend, I started attending a weekly, gentle yoga class. My body and mind are both protesting, but it’s getting easier each week. Easier to let go, to focus and to show up.

I don’t have yoga experience outside these three instructors. I can’t speak for all the various modifications, variations, and approaches to yoga practice. However, all three of these instructors have spoken about the act of showing up. As an act of courage. An act of forgiveness. An act of resistance. An act of letting go. An act of attention. An act of kindness, to oneself and to others. And as an act of community.

This simple act of showing up, of being present for a moment or an idea, can be such a significant action when coupled with attention and receptivity. When I “show up” to yoga, I move with intention layered in waves of attention. Like the breath our instructors repeatedly remind us to center, my attention rises and falls, but never completely subsides. It’s taken me years of sitting meditation to get to that level of focus. I was surprised to find it again so quickly, even while doing Zoom yoga amidst the cacophony that is working while home.

I wonder if there are parallels between this idea and some of my previous thinking about productivity. As I move through my day, constantly racing between the clock and the to-do list, am I really showing up? No, I’m reacting to a plan. Admittedly, it’s a plan I created, but reacting nonetheless. Am I really here for it?

Instead of thinking about what I need to do this week, what if instead I thought about what I need to show up for this week? More importantly as a manager and colleague, who do I need to show up for this week? Would I schedule my week differently with this mindset? Would this give me permission to say no to things that I cannot (regardless of will) be present for? In the past year, I’ve finally realized that I cannot be my best for others when I don’t practice self care, part of which mostly requires setting boundaries between myself and others, but also between myself and my expectations.

I’ve just put a library hold on “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving” by Celeste Headlee. I imagine there will be corollaries to some of this thinking to be found there, and I look forward to it.

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Arlaux Premier Cru Brut

I don’t need a celebratory reason to drink champagne, but drinking champagne always feels celebratory. This bottle, disgorged in 2019 after spending 3 years sur lie, opens with fresh bread crust and vanilla on the nose. With a surprising amount of structure, citrus jolly ranchers hit the tongue with hints of apple. A long, tight finish of cream soda.

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Reclaiming My Attention – Part 2

I have always been a productivity nerd. When I was in junior high, my father would buy books on cassette by authors such as Stephen Covey to listen to on his daily commute and, at some point, I started listening to them as well. I had a Franklin Day Planner in high school. And as I’ve pointed out before, I have long been a practitioner of David Allen’s GTD.

So when Cal Newport’s new book project was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the book. Newport’s approach to productivity is one evolutionary step beyond Covey and Allen. It’s less about how much you get done or how you prioritize your tasks, and more about how you create the space and attention for doing your work.

As the title of his book implies, email is the villain of the work (or our work). It’s important to point out here the somewhat click-baity title. It’s not just email, it’s also Slack, Teams, IMs, text messages, meeting requests, and all the various unstructured, unsolicited communications that come our way at breakneck speeds every day.

The hyperactive hive mind and distraction

To understand why email et al. is so detrimental, Newport asks that we accept two premises: (1) that context/attention switching hurts productivity and creativity; and (2) that the “hyperactive hive mind” is the default mode of internal communication for most workplaces today (though, as he shows later, it is neither inevitable nor the best way to work).

The hyperactive hive mind, another key character in the narrative, is defined as “a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services” (xvii). You need an answer to something? Send that person an email. You need an update on the status of a project? Send a Slack message. Need to schedule a meeting? Send several back and forth emails. Unstructured, unsolicited, unplanned.

The problems with this mode of operating are numerous, as Newport spends much of the first half of the book detailing. For one, it produces anxiety: frequent context switching between tasks, emails, and IMs never allows the brain to fully feel as if a project is completed. There is a mental residue that lingers every time you switch from a project, to an email request, back to a project, to a meeting invite, and so on.

Conversely, long stretches of focused, uninterrupted work allow you to mentally “move on” from one project and make it easier for you to give your full attention to the next. The ability for anyone to email you at any time, regardless of how full your plate may already be or the amount of attention you have available to give makes it impossible to properly focus on doing the work you’ve been hired to do.

This frenetic approach to professional collaboration generates messages faster than you can keep up […] and while you’re at home at night, or over the weekend, or on vacation, you cannot escape the awareness that the missives in your inbox are piling ever thicker in your absence. (p. 43)

With longer stretches of attention, projects will be completed faster and more creatively.

Email/IM is too easy and too frictionless, leading to increased work that would not be necessary with more intentional, careful project management. Asynchronous communication is not more efficient, and it does not scale up against either human biology or the fact that time actually exists (and is not infinite!). We shouldn’t be trying to do things faster, we should be trying to do them better.

Our lack of pre-defined processes for how we do our work, what Newport calls “just rocking and rolling with email,” is not nimbleness: it’s just laziness on the part of managers, directors, and organizational leaders. (Note: As others have pointed out, in most cases, burnout is more likely to be a symptom of failed organizational leadership and not an individual’s inability to manage their work.)

A key takeaway from Newport’s book is understanding the difference between workflow and work execution. Talking about work (which is what usually happens over email and IMs) is not work. We need to create processes that reduce context-switching and the need for constant asynchronous back and forth communications. A project management approach to daily processes would allow us to spend less time talking about creating something, and actually creating something.

“If you design workflows that allow knowledge workers to spend most of their time focusing without distraction on the activities for which they’re trained, you’ll produce more total value that if you instead require these same workers to diffuse their attention among many different activities.” (p. 226)

I’ve only touched on a fraction of Newport’s recommendations and the ones that were most salient for me. I highly recommend checking it out or purchasing a copy for yourself.

Illustration of two women sweeping letters
So that’s where I put those emails…

New practices to try out

I can’t change how others work outside of my own team, but I can change how I process their expectations of how I should work. And perhaps, in doing so, I can encourage others to adopt similar practices. So here are a few practices detailed in Newport’s book that I would like to try and implement.

Office Hours: This is the most radical of the ideas presented that I feel I could adopt. One of the arguments against reducing a team’s reliance on email is “But how will I get your attention when I need you!?” One solution is to set up open office hours: a standing, weekly time when you make yourself available in-person or virtually for drop-in conversation. This is already a common practice in academia so the idea wouldn’t be seen as too far beyond the pale.

I think I could probably set this up 3-4 hours per week. “But, what if I need your input on something and you don’t have office hours until tomorrow!?” Well, then you wait until tomorrow. As Newport points out, greater efficiency comes with a little overhead and inconvenience in the short term, but pays dividends in the long run.

Canned Messages: “Hi X, I would love to hear more about this idea. I have “open office” hours every day from 2-3p. During that time, feel free to drop-in via Teams (DM, phone or video) and we can talk in more detail. Or, if you would rather schedule a meeting (so I can give you my undivided attention!), here is my availability [link to bookings site]. Use the form and book the time that works for you.”

In addition to this simple message, I want to review my inbox for frequent requests that could be converted to forms that collect all the information I need and allow me to more productively use my time, as well as my colleagues. For example: “Thanks for contacting me! My team meets weekly to discuss potential new ideas and programs. Fill out this form and I will add your idea to an upcoming meeting agenda. You’ll be contacted within 2-3 business days about when we plan to discuss your idea. You’ll then be notified before the end of that week about next steps.”

As Newport points out, even though this is a slower response than what might happen if the conversation about the proposed idea happened over email, it sets up a timeline with clear expectations and outcomes. No one has to continuously check their inbox waiting for a response. It’s a scaleable solution regardless of whether I receive one new proposal a week or twenty.

Planning Boards: I didn’t need to be sold on this one. I’ve been using Trello for over 5 years. My team uses Microsoft Planner since our place of work lives in the Office ecosystem. It’s not as versatile or flexible, but even as a “poor man’s Trello,” it has dramatically reduced the amount of email and messaging my team needs to do.

Need an update on where we are in a project timeline? Look at the Planner board. Need to add a link to a project file so we don’t forget it? Add it to a Planner card. Need to assign a task? Add it to the board. Once a week, my team meets to review the board and see where things are at. Almost no email or IM necessary.

Blocking Off Lunch: I’m bad about this, so I’m going to block this time off. Time zones and health restrictions permitting, no one should have to sacrifice lunch for a meeting. As I’ve said before: a working lunch is neither working nor lunch.

Service Quotas: Like many in academia, I spread myself too thin, especially with regard to service work. One way to counter this is to set up (in consultation with your director or department chair) a quota. Ask your director: how much of my time should I be setting aside for service work? Once you both find a number you agree on, you have your quota. This gives you leverage to say no to new projects without the guilt.

For example, I currently chair three committees and serve on six others. If I am consistent in keeping my service load to 10% of my workload, that allows up to 4 hours per week, about 200 hours per year. With this in mind, it’s relatively easy to determine my bandwidth based on meeting frequency and expected workload. My current committees’ meeting schedules amount to 106 hours this year, meaning for every meeting I attend, I can contribute no more than 1 hour of additional work. Any additional service projects will deplete that admittedly small inventory. The same quota system could be applied to other areas as well: research projects, mentorship, speaking gigs, time spent managing vs. creating, etc.

Email and instant messaging aren’t bad and I’m not under any illusion that they will disappear completely from our lives (although, if there is a library or university out there willing do that, please call me). Yet, we need to regulate all this unstructured communications to smaller portions of our attention. As knowledge workers, our greatest skill is what we can make when we give something our full attention. How much latent creativity is being suppressed by the constant ping of our notifications? If Newport’s conjecture is right, our current hyperactive hive mind workflow is simply a phase. I for one am looking forward to the next step.

(Image citation: Okumura Masanobu, Sleeve-Letter Takasago (Sodefumi Takasago), no. 2 from a series of 12 prints depicting parodies of plays, 1711–1740, Clarence Buckingham Collection.)

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We should all be sleeping

I have been a terrible sleeper for most of my adult life. In high school, I stayed up late on ICQ chat and message forums. In college, I joined a fraternity and spent most of my evenings cramming for all the assignments that were due the next day. In grad school, I survived exclusively on coffee and the late night study carrells in Alderman Library. And since pursuing a career as a librarian, I have always burned the candle at both ends as I constantly experimented with new daily schedules to get as much done as possible before passing out with exhaustion (see also: side hustles). I have wasted too many of my waking hours… on waking hours.

In the past year, I’ve started to realize through my own habit-tracking (and a little therapy) the benefits of having a full night’s rest (read: 7.5 hours minimum), which is why reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker has been such a joy. In it, Walker reviews and summarizes numerous sleep studies that collectively present an iron-clad argument for making sleep the most important habit of your health routine.

Whether it’s learning a new skill, improving your memory, lowering your risk of cancer, diabetes, and obesity, or improving your mental health, Walker discusses a seemingly endless number of reasons for enshrining sleep into your 24-hour cycle. Many of these benefits are not surprising (though, the experiments Walker describes certainly are!), but the one section that I want to highlight is Chapter 15: “Sleep and Society,” specifically the part on “Sleep in the Workplace.”

The company cost of sleep deprivation

In academia (and many other areas of knowledge work, I would assume), we do very little to push back on the practice of “the all-nighter.” We accept that losing sleep to finish a project regularly comes with the job. And yet there is every reason to want to make this practice undesirable, especially from a productivity and “value-driven” point of view.

As Walker summarizes, “Under-slept employees are […] less productive, less motivated, less creative, less happy, and lazier. They are also more unethical.” Here are just a few of the studies that he cites:

  • insufficient sleep can cost an organization almost $2000 per employee per year
  • sleep-deprived employees create fewer and less accurate solutions to work-relevant problems [citation]
  • individuals who obtain less sleep select less difficult work tasks to accomplish during the day, delaying progress on high-impact projects [citation]
  • employees who sleep six hours or less are significantly more deviant and likely to lie the following day
  • sleepy employees “social loaf” and choose the more selfish path of least resistance when working in teams [citation]
  • supervisors who get lower quality sleep have poorer self control and are more abusive to employees the next day
  • under-slept managers/leaders are less charismatic

And the most surprising factor for me: “Factoring out many other potential factors and influences (e.g. regional affluence, house prices, cost of living, etc.), [Gibson & Shrader] found that an hour of extra sleep returned significantly higher wages […] in the region of 4 to 5 percent” (p. 303).

Sleep deprivation in higher ed

In higher education, the “life of the mind” is supposed to be paramount: through creativity, innovation, interdisciplinary work, and collaboration, we not only attempt to tackle some of the world’s most wicked problems, but we try to teach students how to do the same. Thus, there is an imperative here for all of us in academia: make it possible for our faculty, staff, and students to get the sleep they need. We need to realistically map out our organization’s goals and expectations in such a way that distributes labor (i.e. the time needed to complete that labor) equitably and in such a manner that allows everyone to obtain adequate sleep (read: 7.5 hours+).

Additionally, we all need to push back on “long shift” boasting. It is not a point of pride to work a 12-hour day: it is a point of failure for the organization. (Note: I don’t put any of the blame on individuals). If it is not possible for faculty and staff to have reasonable work hours, then perhaps the organization should increase staffing or reduce the demands it puts on its employees. In knowledge work sectors that also pride themselves on being a part of “the public good” (see also: schools, colleges, libraries, archives), it can be hard to push back: we’ve been told since grad school that our work is “noble,” and so to suggest that we take time for ourselves, to collectively reduce the scope of our work, can sometimes feel like failure.

When I have this feeling, I will often counter that with the thought: “How can I give my best self to others if I am not the best version of myself?” As organizations dedicated to the public good, how can we settle for anything less than our best selves? And if that reason is not good enough, Walker’s research shows that it’s just good business sense.

Get some sleep. Enable others to do likewise.

(image source: Flickr Commons, Goshen College. Photographs. Library, 1981-82. V-4-11 Box 19 Folder 24. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.)

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Hope Beyond the Attention Economy

The ever-wise Barbara Fister has an article in The Atlantic on meta-literacy, libraries, and a scourge of misinformation. Fister succinctly articulates what many librarians, I suspect, have been feeling for some time now:

[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.

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2015 SonVida Malbec (Mendoza)

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.