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 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.
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.
The most important productivity tool in my tool belt isn’t the system I use to manage my to-dos. It isn’t the style of notebook I use to capture daily notes. It isn’t the software platform I use to collaboratively manage my projects. All of those are subservient to a single element: my attention. The ability to direct my attention toward the work that I (and hopefully my supervisor) have identified as essential is my greatest productivity “hack.”
It has taken me two decades to realize this: to realize how insidious distraction and, more importantly, distracting productivity tools can be. These tools misled me into thinking that I was being productive by substituting “engagement” and “organization” in place of “focus” and “strategy.”
Over the past two years, I have chipped away at those elements of my work that consistently kept me from making progress, making incremental adjustments to my work-life lifestyle. Here are some of those modifications.
The 3-Meeting Rule
Of all the changes I’ve made, this one is the most important. My job invites meetings. It attracts them like digital moths to the pixelated frames in my Outlook calendar. When I allow things to run their course without intervention, it is not uncommon for me to have 5-6 hours of meetings per day, 4-5 days a week. Between the time necessary to prepare for and debrief from those meetings, I would not even have the time to check my email. (The horror!)
Since last year, I have been blocking out my entire day in Outlook as “busy” once there are three hours of meetings scheduled. This leaves me with 4-5 hours each day to dedicate to work that I need to do outside of meetings: writing and content development, being a manager, communicating with colleagues, assessment, research and service work, and, of course, appropriately preparing for all those meetings!
Though, the way things are going these days, maybe I should drop it down to two meetings per day.
Hard-Shut Downs at 6p (and Hard Starts at 9a)
When I was studying English literature in graduate school, one of my favorite classes was poetry. Specifically, I loved writing poetry. I wasn’t any good at it (trust me: I recently found some of my writing), but I loved the practice of writing within a form. I was at my most creative when I had limits.
The same is true of how I spend my time and direct my attention. When I know I only have X hours at my disposal, I am much more likely to focus on what matters most. I have found this to be even more true when I widen the scope from a single day to a week (more on that below). Add to that the psychological benefit of knowing that there will be a time “after work” to look forward to, creating hard stops well beyond my sleeping hours is a definite productivity- and attention-booster.
When I allowed myself to work whenever (e.g. late into the night; during breakfast), I found I would often end up focusing on the wrong tasks during the workday: what was urgent, what was recently-emailed, or what was easy. I would tell myself, “This is important. So I’ll do it after work when I can focus on it.” Truth is, by that point it was hard to focus on anything, much less work. So oftentimes it wouldn’t get done, or get done poorly.
Having a limited time frame within which to do my work allows me to confidently say, “No, I can’t do this right now. I have something else that needs to be done first.” And being able to say that is incredibly empowering.
No-Work Weekends. Mostly.
Relatedly, I have stopped working on weekends, with two minor exceptions. Similar to what I said above, knowing that I “might” work on the weekend enticed me to take on much more work that I was able. In most cases, I wouldn’t get to it. And again, having “the weekend” to look forward to motivates me to focus on what is most essential during the week.
NB: It’s important to note here that I have been a workaholic for more than two decades. The joy of the weekend is a new concept for me. That said, I would bet that if you work in academia, you likely also think that weekends are “time to get real work done” time. Higher ed should stop encouraging that mentality and restructure its expectations so that it can push back on it. IMHO.
The first minor exception: Despite all this, I still feel a strong pressure to work on weekends. So to satisfy that desire, I will sometimes set aside an hour or two first thing in the mornings on Saturday to focus on a single project, which I determine in advance. Once I’ve spent my allotted time on it, I shut everything down and go enjoy my day. The second minor exception is my weekly review.
The Weekly Review
One of the most essential elements of David Allen’s GTD workflow is the weekly review: a time when you go through all your inboxes (physical, digital, and mental) to refine and organize your tasks. This is meant to be a rigorous sorting exercise during which you look at everything on your plate and break it down to actionable steps. Once you’ve done that, you sort it into buckets. Allen recommends doing this based on context (things to email; things to do when running errands, etc). I take Cal Newport’s approach and time-block: I look at the time I have available in the week and slot each task into a spot on my calendar.
This review is essential to be able to maintain focus throughout my week. I cannot stress that enough. I’ve been doing weekly reviews for almost a decade now and I’ve honed it repeatedly. I don’t simply review my inboxes. I take a cosmic-level view of my entire work universe. Here is a sample of my weekly review routine:
Review tasks completed, meeting notes, and emails sent
Identify whom I need to send a quick thank you or congratulatory email to this week
Reflect on what I learned from the week’s events
Review what’s happening in the next two weeks
Review what’s happening one month from this week
Review my Projects List and Areas of Responsibility list (update if necessary)
Review weekly review files from 11 months ago / 23 months ago / 35 months ago
Review delegated work that I need to follow up on
Determine what updates/information needs to be reported to leadership
Who haven’t I met with recently?
Set task goals for next week
Set calendar for next week
Block out days with 3 hrs of meetings. Move meetings if necessary.
Schedule available work hours based on task goals
Schedule gym or yoga (during non-Covid times)
Schedule time to read professional literature
Schedule time for research projects
Schedule lunch breaks
This whole review process takes about 2 hours to complete. Without it, I tend to let go of important, but non-urgent work, like research projects, long-term goals, and anything that requires mental fortitude to tackle (sticky or wicked problems) and, instead, allow my attention to become vulnerable to the whims of others.
Prior to the pandemic, I would do my weekly review during the work week, usually from 3-5p on Fridays when there were fewer people still in the office. But with each day strained with trying to balance both my work and the needs of my family simultaneously (and often in the same room), I do my weekly reviews on Sunday mornings.
Email Blocks and Processing Rules
Once you stop allowing your email to be the director of your mind and your time, everything suddenly snaps into perspective. What is the most impactful work I can be doing this week? What are the tasks that are most essential to my institution’s mission? The answers to those questions are almost never “doing whatever happens to be in my inbox today.” Your email inbox is more accurately a measure of what others are prioritizing, and though these can sometimes be one and the same, it is not a accurate measure of my priorities. With that in mind, I started limiting my access to my email.
Easy win: I took all the email apps off my phone. I logged out of my accounts in Safari and turned on 2FA to make sure it would be at least somewhat difficult (read: annoying) to access my email from my phone.
More difficult win: I schedule my email work each day on my calendar, limiting it to 30-45 minutes at most, and usually after 4 p.m. I treat my email as if I were an executive assistant to myself: going through the inbox as methodically as possible and identifying action items for later. This I will do tomorrow morning. This I will put off until after I’ve completed this week’s priorities. This I will quietly ignore and see if they send it again later (if it’s really that important, they’ll send it again).
I get through as many emails as I can, without rushing, during those 30 minutes. Do I strive for Inbox Zero (h/t Merlin Mann)? Absolutely not. I receive more email each day than I can process. And my employer is not paying me to process email all afternoon. So I do what I can in the amount of time I’ve allotted myself.
There are days I don’t respond to any email. This doesn’t mean I don’t pop into my inbox to see if there is anything urgent from my boss that needs my attention. But with the exception of them, I don’t respond to emails until the appointed time on my calendar. For a while, I was processing email using a hierarchical method that prioritized my immediate team and project collaborators. But I’ve since moved my team to Microsoft Planner to organize our work, so the need to communicate via email has been greatly diminished. I process mail strictly chronological now.
Now, you may be asking yourself: but what if you need to access information that was in an email you received? Don’t you have to go into your email to get it sometimes? Well, that’s a project I’m working on now: to stop treating email like Box or DropBox.
Email is a terrible file storage system. So when people send me attachments or essential information in an email, I am striving to always move that information to the appropriate place: Box folders, planning notes, future meeting agendas, etc. Just like the old days when we had to watch the file size of our inboxes. 😉
All of this requires slowing down. Taking one task at a time. Taking on fewer projects. When I’m sending off emails and Slack messages all the time it can feel like I’m being productive, but it’s just flicking at the needle. Taking the time to plan things out, to realize what communications will be necessary in advance, to not be the your-lack-of-planning-is-not-my-emergency person to my colleagues: that is the work that moves projects along. This necessitates a more intentional, focused, and slower approach to work.
What I’ve outlined above works for me and my work environment. It’s not a perfect system and I don’t always follow my own rules, but these changes, especially in the past 3-4 months, have made a significant difference in what I’ve been able to accomplish given the limitations on time and attention that this whole pandemic has brought me.
One of the goals I’ve been working on this year has been to gradually reduce the number of systems (read: networks, apps, channels, things-which-need-checking) in which I take an active role. Since my first foray into cobbling together tools like rss and bookmark managers circa 2006, I’ve long been fascinated by productivity-tech hacks. The result is that over the past decade I’ve built and habituated a number of workflows. I’m now beginning to think many of these are no longer necessary. I’m using technology less and less of late, preferring paper and pen to tools like Evernote or Dropbox. I don’t check feeds daily anymore and most of the time simply hit the “mark all as read” button in my rss reader.
With all that in mind, the latest two episodes of Back to Work have been a calming breath to my troubled mind which, despite my best efforts, still gets frequent bouts of fomo.