Garden seeds and room

Starter pots for new plants

“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.

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.

On showing up for work

pub laying on its back

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.

Arlaux Premier Cru Brut

arlaux champagne bottle and small paper dinosaur

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.

Reclaiming My Attention – Part 2

A world without email book

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.)

We should all be sleeping

Student sleeping on desk

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.)

Hope Beyond the Attention Economy

daffodils

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.

2015 SonVida Malbec (Mendoza)

bottle of wine and decanter

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.

Reclaiming My Attention

Clocks in splatters of red

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.

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

View of author's desk including screen, laptop and books.

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.