One of the downsides of using time-blocking to schedule my week is that my calendar is 90% booked before the week even begins. At the end of each week I review my projects and next actions lists and map out each hour of the day for the coming week. While this ensures that I will spend my time and attention on the projects that are most important to me and my manager, it can make scheduling ad-hoc meetings difficult for my colleagues.
So back in January, I began scheduling daily office hours. Regardless of what else is going on, I block off at least 1 hour every day where I am available for drop-in conversations in-person, via chat, or the phone. I try to keep these hours consistent (MWF 2-3p; TR 1-2p) and will refuse meeting requests during those times when I have the ability to do so. To hold myself to this, I’ve already scheduled my office hours in Outlook through to the end of the year.
For the first few weeks, I mostly sat in silence during office hours. I would use the time to review email, read recently published literature in my field, or catch up on other synchronous communication needs. Lately though, people have started to pop in. Last week alone, five colleagues stopped by and said something to the effect of, “I saw on your Outlook calendar that you have office hours right now…” What followed was either a quick conversation about a question they had or a delightful brainstorm about an idea they wanted to get feedback on.
One colleague expressed their appreciation of how this method makes my availability direct and transparent. Instead of having to wonder “is he available now? is he working on something? if I send a meeting request will it be well received or an annoyance?”, holding office hours offers a bright light that says “I’m here! Talk to me!” Clear and concise.
I feel the benefit of this clarity as well. I host office hours with the expectation of being interrupted. I’m not as anxious as I might otherwise be when someone stops in and I’m “in the flow.” Moreover, it offers me the confidence that I can make myself unavailable at other times, knowing this option is still available to my colleagues. For too often I fall into the trap of thinking that because I’m not in a meeting, I have to make myself available to interruptions. Meetings with yourself (and your priorities) are just as important as meetings with others.
The past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to do less, but to do better, in my work as a librarian. Fewer projects, but more impactful work. Attending fewer conferences, but spending more time writing for publication. Accepting fewer committee appointments, but taking on more substantial roles in committees. I am not doing less in terms of my attention or impact, but only as measured by the number of distinct projects on my plate.
You can see the results of this effort reflected in my annual reviews. At my place of work, librarians are not tenured, but we do have a promotion plan that mimics the tenure review process. In order to progress in rank, we have to show evidence of development and impact in three areas: performance, professional development or research, and service. For each of these areas, we are expected to set annual goals at the beginning of the academic year.
The goals we set each June determine what we’ll be spend our time and attention on in the next twelve months. In June 2016, I set 25 goals for myself. Some of these included things like:
Create a checklist for exhibition partners that outlines specific tasks for which exhibitors are expected to take responsibility when partnering with the library.
Review and update the collection development policy for Music.
These goals did not require much of me and were fairly easy to accomplish. Not all of my goals were similar in scale. For example: “Work with the Office of International Students and Scholars to develop a library outreach plan for international students” required a substantial amount of collaboration and work. However, most of my 2016 goals were similar in scope and impact to the examples above. Here’s how my goals break down in the following years:
In June 2017, I set 15 performance goals (plus 3 research goals and 4 service goals).
In June 2018, I set 18 performance goals (plus 5 research goals and 5 service goals).*
In June 2019, I set 14 performance goals (plus 4 research goals and 3 service goals).
In June 2020, I set 9 performance goals (plus 3 research goals and 2 service goals).
*I was going up for promotion that year, hence the bump in ambition.
In June 2021, I only set 11 total goals (6 performance, 3 research, and 2 service): far less than I’ve done in the past. Goals in this year included things such as:
Complete the development of a 2-3 year library outreach plan that outlines objectives, messaging, and assessment measures for four distinct campus communities: students, faculty, senior leadership, and the LIS community.
Finish the assessment of the data collected from the programming feedback forms and write an article for publication about the process and results.
Moreover, I strategically crafted goals that could be mapped out to specific trimesters, so I was not trying to work on more than 3 goals at the same time. With the exception of one goal that I needed to drop because of an unexpected project than came onto my plate, I am on track to accomplish all my goals by the end of the academic year.
Next year, I am hoping to once again limit myself to no more than 6 performance goals, 3 research goals, and 2 service goals. Ideally, I’ll only be working on 2 high-impact performance projects each semester, plus 1-2 research projects, and 1 service project. Onward and upward.
Recently, a colleague asked me about my daily time management practices. Having had this same conversation a few times already with others, I finally set myself to drafting a “readme” file for my communication and calendaring habits. This doesn’t include all the minutiae of my weekly productivity workflows, but it’s a top-level summary that (I hope) gives just enough detail to help my team understand why (1) my calendar is so booked and (2) why I don’t always respond to email or DMs right away.
My practices are built on the ideas of Cal Newport, Celeste Headlee, and David Allen, all of whom recommend intentional, process- and outcomes-focused modes of work.
Caveat: The following habits won’t work for everyone. It works for me, in my current position, with my current team and projects, etc. I offer it as an example of what one possible readme statement looks like.
How I communicate
Rationale: As much as possible, I try to reduce the need for unstructured, asynchronous communication in my work (what Newport calls the hyperactive hive-mind) and limit the amount of time I spend context-switching between tasks. Studies consistently show that long periods of focused, uninterrupted work produce higher-quality output and reduce the danger of creative fatigue and burnout.
Practice: I set aside 30 minutes each day to process my email inbox. Additionally, I set aside 1 hour each day for drop-in conversations (in-person or online): this time functions like office hours and are first-come first served. I do not keep my email or chat clients open when I am working on a project and my device notifications (except from the Library Administration team, my partner, and my parents) are muted, so don’t use email if you need an immediate response.
What you can do: If your request is not time-sensitive, email me and I will respond to it usually within 2-3 business days. If you would prefer, but don’t necessarily need, a quicker response, send me a message on Teams and I will likely respond within 1-2 business days. If you need a response day-of, stop by or DM me during my office hours (usually MWF 2-3p and TR 1-2p). My Outlook calendar is up-to-date and openly readable.
But what if you’re not available? Then you wait. Unless of course you have a way to create more time in the day. =)
How I schedule my week
Rationale: After working as an academic librarian professionally for almost a decade, I have developed a fairly accurate sense of exactly how much time I need to do various tasks that my job requires of me. For example, I know I can stay on top of my collection development work by dedicating 1.5 hours a week to the task. With this knowledge, I schedule my work week in advance using a “time-blocking” method, thus making sure I have adequate time to accomplish as much as possible within the time allotted to me (i.e., time that isn’t set aside for a meeting) each week.
Practice: At the end of each week, I review my tasks, projects, and annual goals and use them to map out the following week. Every hour of the day is given an assignment, with preference for longer periods of concentrated work (e.g., usually 1.5 hr blocks). In order to make time for focused work, I limit the amount of time I spend in-meetings each day to 3 hours. The first 30 min of each day is dedicated to checking in with my team and reviewing our essential tasks for that day. Additionally, because I often work 9-10 hour days, I schedule longer lunch breaks (1.5 hours max). I do not schedule meetings during that time and use that time to step away and recharge.
What you can do: As noted above, I try to leave 1 hour every day unscheduled as an office hour. Feel free to drop in in-person or virtually during that time. If you want to request a time on my calendar, you can schedule a time with me using Microsoft Bookings (external colleagues) or Outlook (internal colleagues).
But what if you don’t have any free time? It is true that I keep a lot of plates in the air at all times. This often means my calendar is booked for weeks at a time. However, if you send me an email requesting a time to meet (please send me 2-3 available times), I will try to move things around.
The criticism I usually receive about this style of working is that it is “closed door” (as opposed to “open door,” whatever that means*). Yes, it is true that I do more than most people to make myself unavailable to others. My current job requires sustained periods of concentrated work: to write long-form narratives, design graphics, plan out project timelines, run data analyses in spreadsheets, and proof materials. So much proofing. If I am frequently interrupted during these activities, I risk making critical mistakes that are costly to reverse.
All of us have alternating periods of “available” and “not-available” throughout the day. When I am in a meeting with my dean, it’s simple: I’m not available to answer a phone call. If I’m attending a speaker event on campus, I’m not responding to email. If I’m recording a video tutorial, I need to make sure no one knocks on my door! The question we sometimes fail to ask is: are there other moments when I should consider myself to be unavailable? Ones which, though the surrounding external friction/barriers are weaker, still merit an intentional “attention block” from outside influences? How would the quality of my work and, more importantly, the quality of my experience improve with less context-switching and fewer interruptions?
Just because you don’t have a meeting on your Outlook calendar does not mean you are “available.”
Nonetheless, I make a point to always set aside some time each day for drop-in conversations. During those office hour blocks, I don’t schedule any essential work: my only goal is to be open and available to others. If no one needs to chat, I will often use that time to follow up on requests sent via email. My office hours could alternatively be called my “synchronous communication hours.”
Is this convenient to everyone? No, but it provides an intentional space for things that need day-of input (and, in my experience, most things in academia don’t need day-of input… it’s just nice). I can’t offer you all of my time, but what I can offer, I can offer consistently.
*A note about “open door” practices: For me, having an open door management style is not synonymous with literally having your office door open or (in the case of not having a physical door) being always amenable to interruptions. Instead, my open door management style focuses more on whether I am providing consistent and frequent opportunities for team input, whether I am actively listening to that input, and whether I am able to take what I learn from that input and translate it into meaningful ways to support my team. And sometimes, the best way I can support my team is by closing my door and getting shit done.
I did not imagine that I would leave almost half a year between posts. From the evidence of this blog, one might think that I did not succeed at my 2021 goal to write more. However…
Not only did I journal more in 2021 than in previous years, I also wrote three scholarly articles for publication (two of which have already been accepted and/or published) and one case study for a colleague’s monograph. Remarkably, I also read more books last year (25) than I have read in a single year since I was a graduate student more than a decade ago.
So I’m happy with the results from my 2021 future thinking and want to build on that success in 2022. I still plan to set aside time for writing projects– including journaling, blogging, and scholarly articles– and, more generally, working to increase my career capital through intentionally focusing on rare and valuable skills, notably: project management, workplace kindness, and draft-making. As time permits, I also plan to dive deeper into various systems for project management and Excel as a tool for maximizing PM success (I see Gantt charts in my future).
Ultimately, I want to position myself so that I can easily take on high-impact projects: program assessment, strategic planning, and relationship building (ie. with stakeholders), but doing more will at first require doing less, as well as continuing to be intentional about how I use my time (see also: time-blocking). Shutting down all but one of my social media profiles (and minimizing my use of the remaining one) helps, too.
Academia’s work hours are weird. So is our approach to work[ing]. So much of our identity is wrapped up in that work. The same could be said of libraries in general; and so I imagine this is doubly problematic for academic librarians. A 2018 study by Tamara Townsend and Kimberly Bugg found that 40% of academic librarian respondents would consider leaving their current position to achieve greater work-life balance, and 31% of respondents would consider leaving the profession as a whole to achieve a greater work-life balance. That is a staggering statistic!
I believe that many of us in academic libraries (for a time, myself included) feel that our work is unique: that it requires us to give up more of ourselves for some “common good” (see also: vocational awe). But the same could be said of a host of other occupations: what makes our work any different?
This thinking is probably why I was so attracted to this opinion piece in the New York Times by Bryce Covert, who writes on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families. As she points out:
Studies show workers’ output falls sharply after about 48 hours a week, and those who put in more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who put in a typical 9 to 5.
Among the participants in the studies Covert cites we find munitions workers, IT professionals, and civil servants. Add to this the negative long-term effects on one’s health, what benefit is there to academic librarians to regularly push work (especially scholarship) into our leisure time? Covert concludes:
We have to demand time off that lasts longer than Saturday and Sunday. We have to reclaim our leisure time to spend as we wish.
For the past few months, I have been consistently limiting my work hours to be as close to a “normal” 40-hour week as possible. This covers not only my performance duties (ie. librarian work), but my scholarship and service as well. Surprisingly to me (though, not surprising to anyone who has studied this phenomenon), I not only feel more accomplished, but I am able to mentally close up shop each day with less of a struggle.
I continuously encourage my team to do the same, and try to set an example for my colleagues by, for example, not responding to emails or sending DMs outside 9-6 hours, or always trying to estimate how much time I am asking of someone before I request support on a project. Even though burnout is as much (if not more) an organizational problem and not entirely the result of individuals’ actions, I still feel I should make personal changes where I am able.
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 my favorite productivity writers is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University. Before learning about digital minimalism, the perils of email, and “being so good they can’t ignore you,” I had been a struggling, but stubborn user of David Allen’s GTD workflow. But it was Newport’s re-envisioning of Allen’s protocols that helped me finally find a productivty system that worked for me. Like Allen, Newport writes (and talks) about prioritization with a growth mindset: not only what to work on right now, but what to work on this week, this quarter, or this year in order to move toward to the place where you want to be.
In seeking to determine what work is worthy of prioritization (or more importantly, one’s attention), Newport recommends asking questions like: “What are the skills in my area that are considered the most valuable? What skills are the most rare? What skills get people ahead?”
I realize that thinking solely with a growth mindset is problematic and, honestly, there are days I try to resist this (see also: Heather Havrilesky). Nonetheless, I want to grow as a person and as a colleague. The end result of this doesn’t need to be a promotion or a job with greater responsibility. It may in fact include the option to move into a position with a narrower scope. Instead, I like thinking in terms of what Newport describes as developing “career capital”:
So what are the skills considered most valuable and most rare in my work? And how do I cultivate those skills? (which, Newport goes on to tell us, are gained through developing a “craftsman mindset” and “deliberate practice”). In order to answer the first question, it’s important to define the scope: most valuable to whom? If I look just through the lens of my team, I might say “communication” or “trust.” If I expand the lens to include the whole of higher ed, I might say “research output” or “anti-racist work.”
For the purpose of creating reasonable and achievable goals, I’ve limited the scope of my reflection to “at my place of work” and “within the academic LIS profession.”
Growing within MPOW
I have been working in academia for 13 years, about half of that as a full-time librarian. In my experience, the skills that set apart those who succeed are less connected to the nature of their work and more to do with how they do it: kindness, project management expertise, and draft-making. Those who are kind to their colleagues, those who can articulate the entire life-cycle of a project, and those who put pen to page before pitching an idea are those who I judge to be successful. And by “successful” I don’t just mean get promoted or move up in rank: there are plenty of people who do that by being the pinnacle in their field, by being the only person around with a certain set of skills, or by riding on privilege’s coat tails. No, I also mean those who are respected by their colleagues and seen as a vital part of the fabric of a campus community. That is the place to which I aspire. So let’s look at each of these three attributes in more detail:
Kindness: This one is not difficult, but it does require intentionality: checking in with colleagues, regularly giving them shout-outs, sending notes of congratulations on recent projects. All these things are simple, but make a noticeable difference in workplace morale and interpersonal relationships.
Project Management: This one is more difficult and will require some deliberate practice on my part through learning and reflection. People who can outline the entire life-cycle of a project, break it down into manageable steps, and coordinate a team to complete it are rare. I’ve only seen this done well on a few occasions, but it has always left me in awe. People with brilliant ideas in academia are a dime a dozen: that’s why many of us are here! But making those ideas a reality within the context of a university’s infrastructure is not something grad school teaches you.
Draft-Making: Somewhat related to the skill above, the people who first put pen-to-page are often the ones whose ideas make it off the ground. Many times I’ve been in committee meetings where someone recommends a great idea, but it never leaves the discussion phase. The ideas that typically make it off the ground are ones where someone brought a written draft of a proposal. And even when those ideas didn’t immediately make off, they had more potential for coming back because, as a result of using a storage system like Box, it was more likely the file would be discovered again by someone else in the future. Records persist when ideas wither.
These are the three skills that I want to develop most this year. I am still working out a system for how best to track and assess, but I like Newport’s idea of counting the number of hours I spend in “deliberate practice” on any of these three practices. So maybe I’ll do that.
Growing within the LIS Profession
Using Google Scholar, I took a look at the publication track record for some of the LIS scholars that I admire and who write about topics in my field of work. On average, these scholars published 2-3 articles per year. This seems like a reasonable goal to work toward and one that I believe I could manage. It would require some significant changes in my work habits.
In order to make time for this level of research and publication, I estimated needing to set aside approximately 20-30% of my work time, leaving 60-70% for primary job responsibilities, and 10% for service work. That works out to about 10-12 hours per week focusing on research. It would also require more deliberate reading and evaluation of the research in my field to identify new areas for exploration (see also, Newport’s “research bible” idea, p. 113).
After only two months managing my time in this way, I have one article in drafting mode, one already submitted for publication, and another research project in the works. I was even able to quickly write up a case study for a colleague working on their upcoming book publication. Of course, this has meant making some sacrifices in my primary job responsibilities: I took a hard look (read: I time-tracked for 3 weeks) at how I was spending my time and determined a number of projects that were non-essential or could be delegated or dropped.
Which leads to an important point: in order to do any of this, I have to keep identifying ways to do less. I need to be intentional about how I use my time, how and when I allow my attention to be diverted, and honest with how much time a project will take to complete. Once you begin setting strict time limits for yourself, it becomes much easier to say no to new projects or tasks that don’t align with your priorities.
I am very lucky to be in a position where I can make these changes to my work. It’s one of the many reasons I love academia and MPOW in particular: personal responsibility, trust, and autonomy are granted to me and my librarian colleagues. Even though we don’t have tenure, we still have the flexibility to pursue areas of personal and professional growth. Academia fails in many areas related to work-life balance and there is room for improvement, for sure, but I can make this work.
I use an old-school method of tracking my personal goals and habits that I’ve always enjoyed (seen above). This January, I had three goals for the month:
In the morning, go outside and bring in the LA Times before starting breakfast.
Journal or write for me (not for work)
Shut down any work projects by 6 p.m.
As you can see, I did a fairly good job: 31/31 on goal #1; 18/31 on goal #2; and 27/31 on goal #3. I’ve made some notes to remind myself why I didn’t manage to make a goal for some days, such as when my library won the ACRL Excellence in Academic Libraries Award. Those 48 hours were pretty intense!
While it may seem like I performed poorly on my journaling goal, I’ve already written more in the last month than I did in the last year, so I still consider it a win.
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.).