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Reclaiming My Attention

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.

Twitter post from the author showing scene from The Big Lebowski that reads "This aggression will not stand, man."

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. 😉

Slowing Down

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.

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Future Thinking for 2021 (Part 2) – Developing Personal and Career Capital

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”:

“The traits that define great work require that you have something rare and valuable to offer in return” (So Good They Can’t Ignore You, p. 48).

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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January 2021 habit tracking

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:

  1. In the morning, go outside and bring in the LA Times before starting breakfast.
  2. Journal or write for me (not for work)
  3. 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.

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Chateau Mangot 2016 (Saint-Émilion)

This Bordeaux-style red blend is mostly merlot, with a touch of cab franc and cab sauvignon, giving it a smooth, fruit-focused character. Drinking this bottle in 2021 found the tannins almost entirely subdued. A shy berry slowly gives way to cedar and spice making this extremely drinkable right now.

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Future Thinking for 2021 (Part 1) – The Year of Journaling*

Making new year’s resolutions seems more precarious than ever right now. And while I’m always reluctant to set goals that I know I’m likely to drop by February, the imperative to do better seems stronger for me than usual in 2021. I’ve been thinking about where I would like to be both in my career and personal life five years from now; and the path forward in both instances is through writing. So 2021 will be the year of journaling, *though writing, more generally, will be my focus.

I’ve set a personal goal to write in a paper journal each day. I’ve also set a professional goal to put aside time each M-F/9-5 for writing-focused projects: either writing that needs to be done on behalf of the library or writing for the publication of my own research in professional journals.[1] To meet this goal, I’ve time-blocked at least 1 hour of writing time each day in addition to time-blocking for research work.

I don’t have any restrictions on what I write: the goal isn’t to produce anything in particular. Simply, the goal is to put pen to page. Pixel to screen. Make the clackity noise.

[1] I’ve surveyed the LIS field and discovered that many of the scholars that I admire most publish approximately 2-3 articles a year. With that in mind, I have set myself to the same goal.

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I, consumer (July 4, 2020)

Reading

An active, critical approach to engaging with community needs that explicitly acknowledges the influence of social, cultural, financial, and political power on information access and information behavior is necessary for librarianship to confront limitations to freedom of speech and informed citizenship (especially in Black communities).

Park Dahlen, S., Chancellor, R., Lee, S., Gibson, A., Shorish, Y., & Cooke, N. (2017). “Libraries on the frontlines: Neutrality and social justice.” https://doi.org/10.17615/pyyv-r646

Whatever the nature of the ultimate sources, Arthur symbolizes a deeply rooted factor in human nature. […] He still strikes a chord to which literal belief is irrelevant, and which reverberates far outside his own legend.

King Arthur, The Dream of a Golden Age, Geoffrey Ashe

Listening

Donald Trump is a white supremacist. Full stop. If you vote for him again you’re a white supremacist. Full stop.

“Chapter 319” by clipping.

Watching

Hamilton, of course. I’ve watched it twice in 24 hours (but I’m working on three. Oh!)

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2018 Fritz Haag Riesling (Mosel)

Riesling is one of those wines that I rarely think about or crave, but when I find a good one, I will easily grab 2-3 bottles.

This riesling comes from the steep slopes of the Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr region in Germany. It has a dense, lemon chiffon color in the glass. The nose offers strong melon rind and floral notes. On the mouth, the slate earth of Mosel really comes through, along with a citrus that is both creamy and tart. Lingering lemon finish.

The sourness in this vintage is really fascinating. It almost stretches the taste profile out of “riesling-ness” but the wine stubbornly hangs on the spectrum.

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The supposed pleasures of the chase

Me helping my daughter with her homework during COVID-19

Cal Newport, computer scientist at Georgetown University, talks about how one successful college coach has survived (until now) without using email.

“We might notice that our current commitment to unrelenting, uncontrolled, attention-devouring incoming communication is not necessarily the sine qua non of digital age productivity.”

Nick Saban Just Got Email” by Cal Newport

Most of us don’t have a personal assistant, much less an entire staff, dedicated to managing our incoming requests, but I think the thought practice is useful here.

It has been six weeks since I started working from home. In that time, I have had to make some adjustments not just to how I work, but also to how I define productivity. At the start of each day, I identify 1-2 tasks that I want to accomplish. If I can manage to complete those tasks by the end of the day, I call it a win.

By focusing on only one or two projects, I not only increase my success rate, but I also give myself permission to let go of other things: email, busy work, less essential projects. For on average, I am only able to focus on my job for five-six hours per day, half of which are usually spent in Zoom meetings. I mean really focus. The remaining hours of my day are dedicated to childcare (e.g. helping my kids with their homework and to stay engaged with their community) and home needs (cooking, cleaning, etc.).

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2006 Insignia Red (Oakville/Napa)

2006 Insignia Red

There are many factors that determine a great bottle of wine, but one of the most important is “occasion”: when did you open it, why, and with whom. Sharing this bottle with my family during COVID-19 on the occasion of my birthday certainly made it memorable. It also helped that it was a remarkable vintage that, truth be told, could have survived another 10-15 years in the bottle.

With pepper and flowers on the nose, this Bordeaux-style red (95% cabernet sauvignon and 5% petit verdot) immediately draws you in. At first, it seems balanced but quickly tilts towards the tannins (again, my bad for opening it early). Big, silky mouth feel, with charcoal and plum, and a cherry finish.

This wine comes from the Oakville region of Napa, an area of deep gravelly and sandy clay loam soil. Most cabernet sauvignons from this region are not 100% cab grapes. The addition of 5% petit verdot (or merlot, cab franc, or malbec) is common and adds to the wine’s complexity.

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The shattered remains of a supernova

NASA’s website allows you to see what image Hubble took on your birthday. Here is one from my annual year around the sun celebration, taken in 2015.

“Continuous as the stars that shine

and twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretched in never-ending line

along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
“In this small piece of the Veil Nebula, wisps of gas are part of what remains of a star that was once 20 times more massive than our Sun. A fast-moving blast wave from the star’s explosion is plowing into a wall of interstellar gas, causing it to glow.” (nasa.gov)