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Tell me if this feels familiar to you: you get into work full of hopes and dreams of what you’ll accomplish. You sip your coffee, write your to-do list, check email, still full of self-assurance that today will be the most productive day ever. Cut to the end of the day: you’re harried, disheveled, a shell of a person, and you have checked not one thing off your to-do list. What happened?

Just the other day I had the last hour of my day set aside for some good, hard, task driven work. You know what happened? We had a thunderstorm in February in Michigan which knocked our power out for about 10 seconds which subsequently knocked my work plans out for the next hour. There were patrons to help and automatic lights to fix and other sundry issues. I immediately felt that annoyance rise up: “This isn’t supposed to be happening right now! I had a plan!”

Often in library work, our days get away from us and we don’t get a single thing done that we planned on. And spoiler alert, I’m not here to tell you how to get through your to-do list in the face of such adversity. In all of my years (16) of working in libraries and in all of my various positions (eleventy billion/I’m too lazy to count)  in special, public, and academic libraries I have come to believe that the unexpected is just a fact of library life.


If it’s not a power outage, the students you supervise need help or didn’t show up for their shifts. If it’s not student employees, it’s software that crashed or meetings that run long or your boss gives you an urgent task. And at the end of the day, after the inevitable pileup of interruptions, it can feel like you didn’t get anything done.

The key word in that last sentence is “feel like.” Lately, I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that my job is more than my to-do list, although that’s a part of it. My job is also my thoughtful contributions in meetings, my support of patrons in a crisis, my assisting coworkers in a pinch, and sometimes it’s turning on all the lights and making sure no one hurt themselves when the power went out. I’ve learned to shift my narrative a little bit and not tell myself I didn’t get anything done today when, in fact, I got a lot done today, just not what I had planned on. What are the stories you tell yourself at the end of the day? Are you giving yourself enough credit for the things you did, even if it doesn’t match your vision of what you had hoped to do? I’m willing to bet you got a lot done today and the library is better for having you in it.

alarm clock with caption "work with your internal clock to get your best work done"

In my current role, I work from noon until 9 p.m. I hadn’t worked a schedule like that before, and I was a little nervous. Usually, by 7 p.m. I’m in pj’s on the couch with my knitting (the things I willingly reveal on this blog), but I didn’t know if that’s because I’d already done a day of work or whether it was my natural pattern. Would I be able to be a productive employee at 8 p.m.?

The answer is yes, but it has taken a little more intention and self-awareness than working a traditional schedule. First of all, I have to prioritize “business hours” tasks for the first five hours of my work day. If I want to talk to someone else in the library or at the university, I have to make sure I do that before almost everyone goes home at 5 p.m. This also means that the first four to five hours of my day tend to be pretty jam-packed with meetings. The reverse effect of this is that my evenings are fairly quiet. The library itself is hopping, but because most of the staff is gone, I can work on projects that take a little more focus in the evenings.

Secondly, I’ve learned that while the office is quiet and conducive to quiet work, I am tired by 8 p.m. I’m able to work but I like to leave any detailed work I’ve done for myself to look over when I get in the next day and am more fresh. I also try to save projects that won’t take too much motivation for this time of day. If it’s something I’m looking forward to, something that resonates with me, it will actually energize me as I do it and help me focus.

Having a non-traditional work schedule has made me look at this more intentionally. I believe this is a practice I will carry forward in all future positions, even Monday through Friday 8 a.m – 5 p.m. jobs.

Our energy naturally ebbs and flows throughout the day and the exact timing of our more productive hours can be a little different for each of us. Are you most productive when you first get to the office? Do you HATE mornings and don’t really feel focused and energized until after lunch? Take the time to answer these questions about yourself and figure out what work should be focused on when.

Libraries are open many hours to serve our communities, so our employees have a wide variety of unusual schedules. We don’t always have the luxury of picking when we do things at work. Whenever possible, work with your internal clock instead of against it. This will help you perform your work effectively without wasting energy trying to prop your eyes open when you’re tired, or tying yourself to your desk when you’re energized and would rather go out and talk to people.

What do you think? Are you a morning person or do you perk up mid-afternoon? Do you arrange your work in any particular way? If you could have any work schedule, what would it be?

photo of laptop and vase of tulips with text "3 steps to empty your inbox & do work that matters"Decluttering is a popular topic. I’ll be honest: I love it when I do it, but it is not my natural setting. My natural setting is collecting. However, there is one area in my life where I have the cold, dispassionate, ruthless decluttering approach of any home organization maven: emails.

I have hesitated to write this post in case I curse myself, but I bragged to a few friends about my email prowess and so far my email related hubris hasn’t caught up with me, so I’m ready to shout it from the mountain tops: there are only ever about 10 emails in my inbox. At a maximum.

As library professionals we get a lot of emails. As leaders we need to be able to see what’s new information when it’s new and get to old information quickly when we need it. How do you do that when your email inbox is at 100 emails, 200 emails, dare I say, 300 emails?

Sure, new emails rise to the top and sure, you can search, and sure, you can flag things. But all of that is so much easier when there are about ten emails in your inbox. It saves you time and it sets you up nicely for when you are going to be out of the office for an extended period of time.

Here is how I do it:

When I get to work, I do a quick run through of my emails. I go through everything in the inbox and do one of three things:

1) Deal with it right now

If it will take me five minutes or less (a quick “Ok, thanks!” to let someone know I’ve received the email, for example) or if I’m just going to delete it, I do it right now.

2) File it in a folder

I have a few folders for ongoing projects or email I’m going to need to reference sometime in the future. In addition to folders pertaining to certain projects, I have one folder for general future reference, as well as a folder for time off requests, and a folder for job feedback. I try not to keep too many emails, even in these other folders. Really test yourself: can you come up with three examples of times you will really need this information? Is this information stored anywhere else?

3) Flag it

These are the very rare items that stay in my inbox. These are actionable items or information I will need for a specific date in the near future. If I get a confirmation email for a professional development event in two weeks, I flag that email so I have the information at the ready. The flag helps me remember to delete it when the event is over. Or, if I received a message about a sink that needs to be fixed in the building, I’ll flag the email until I have time to put in a work order. Once I’ve dealt with the task (put in the work order), I delete the email.

For the rest of the day, I just deal with new emails in one of those three ways. The flagged emails get incorporated in my byzantine to-do list system (which is very good, but a post for another day. It involves Outlook, sticky notes, dry erase markers, and dance breaks).

I also clean out folders periodically. I have recurring tasks that remind me to clean out my deleted emails (once a week: delete everything older than a week), my sent emails (once a month: delete everything older than six months), and my future reference folders (once a month: delete things that are no longer relevant).

This may sound like it takes a lot of time and the initial set up will take a bit of time, but ultimately you save so much time not having to hunt for things and you save yourself so much embarrassment by not missing out on things! If you have a lot of emails in your inbox right now, don’t feel overwhelmed. If you can carve out some time each day to deal with what’s in your inbox and make folders and delete stuff, great! If you are swamped for time, just deal with the new stuff that comes into your email in the way I’ve described and maybe sort through one or two older emails every day. You’ll catch up before you know it!

I have used this system for something like 8 years and in 4 different positions and it has always been effective. I know some people are more nervous about deleting emails than I am and make a folder for all of their emails and keep them for a month, and then clean out that folder. There are lots of ways to make this system your own but I would really encourage you to keep your inbox between 0 and 10 emails and to regularly clean out your future reference folders in whatever shape they take. Join me in the joyous world of email decluttering!

photo of self-service book return with text: "sustaining human connections in the age of self-service"I was driving home from work the other night, thinking about the new printing system that is going to be installed soon at our branches and all the new services it will offer. It’s very exciting. It will allow our patrons to pay for printing in a much easier way than our current system and they can pay their fines at a kiosk. It is without a doubt the right thing to have to provide better customer service. But as I started to think about how many fewer patrons will need to come to the service desk, I got a little sad.

Let me just get this out of the way: I am not against technology. I have a smart phone, and I like computers. I also like making things easier for library patrons and staff. While I’m all for automation, I want us as a profession and as individuals working in libraries to stop and think for just one moment.

Being a human can be lonely. I am new in my community and during my first trip to my local public library (not the one at which I work) I felt sad that I didn’t get to interact with any of the employees. I had put holds on my books, so I grabbed them from the hold shelf, used the automatic checkout, and left. That was a sad, lonely day for me and I could have used a moment of human connection, a kind word and a smile. Certainly there are other days when I would have been glad for the automation, when I would have been in a hurry and waiting in a line or waiting for a staff member to complete a task would have been irksome. But sometimes, you just want someone to be a little nice to you.

cartoon robot librarian holding a book

Robots aren’t as good at friendly smiles

If you work in a library, I don’t have to tell you that many of our patrons are not lucky enough to have good support systems, resources to turn to in times of need, or even lucky enough to have their health. If a patron comes to the desk to return a book that could have gone in the book drop, or to give you a dollar bill they could have put in a machine to pay a fine, or to ask for help with a printer even if there is a sign clearly explaining the instructions, stop for a moment before you get irritated that they didn’t use the automation you provided. Maybe what that person needs, even if they don’t know they need it, is a kind smile and a patient person willing to help.

The holidays are upon us and this can be a particularly harried, stressful, and lonely time for people. So by all means, provide the express checkouts and the self-serve kiosks! Get those busy people on their way! But think twice before you send someone who has come to the desk to one of the machines. Machines can take money and even check in books, but they can’t tell someone to have a nice day with kind eyes and a genuine voice. That’s a job for a human being.

IMG_4130Do you have something big looming on your to do list? Perhaps it’s been on there for a while and you just can’t seem to face it. Maybe you have even done other things you were dreading just to avoid doing The Big Bad Dreaded Thing?

This is my sad tale more often then I care to admit. I’m a lifelong procrastinator and while I’ve gotten better, I still tend to let certain tasks I don’t want to do fester. I’ve even created a fake productivity strategy around this terrible habit which I call “The Hierarchy of Procrastination” wherein I do somethings I don’t want to do to avoid doing other things I want to do even less. For example, I do the dishes to get out of doing homework, and I do homework to get out of sweeping the floor, and so on and so forth. It is not actually a very helpful strategy, because there’s always The Big Bad Dreaded Thing at the end of the list and there’s nothing I want to do less, so I just…don’t do the thing. So I have recently been putting into practice a much healthier strategy. It doesn’t have an awesome name like The Hierarchy of Procrastination, but we can see how far a fancy name got me, i.e. not very.

The idea for this strategy came from my love/hate relationship with running. I have been running for  three years now. I’m not a naturally athletic person, I never enjoyed sports or gym class as a child, but over the course of the last three years, I’ve come to appreciate and ultimately depend on the benefits running brings to my life. I am healthier, mentally and physically, when I run. I’ve gained self-confidence and a more positive relationship with my body. But, between you and me and the computer screen, I totally hate running. It is THE WORST! It hurts and it takes time out of my day and it is very hard and I get bored, I don’t like running when it’s too hot or too cold outside but I also hate running on a treadmill. Does this make me sound like a giant human mess? Yes, because that is what I am and that is probably what you are too, my friend. How on Earth do I drag my whiney, messy self outside to run when I’d rather slouch on the couch and whine about it and how on Earth do you do that one Thing that’s looming on your to do list?

Here’s how: one step at a time, with some light self-deception.

Basically, I tell myself I don’t have to go for a run I just have to put my running clothes on. Then, if I still don’t want to run, I can just go for a walk instead. 100% of the time I go for a run. That’s because a lifetime of procrastination has taught me that worrying about the Thing and whining about it and putting it off is always worse then facing up to it and doing it. And all the putting off and whining and worrying just builds a massive wall that is dark and scary and the Thing itself probably isn’t even that bad. So what you have to do is put on your metaphorical running shoes and see how you feel. Lie to yourself a little bit and tell yourself you don’t actually have to start working on the project, but you do have to figure out what your first step would be. And as long as you’re figuring out what your first step should be, why don’t you list the next few steps and some deadlines? Maybe outline who you need to communicate with to get the project started. You end up breaking down the task into manageable pieces that don’t seem so bad and before you know it, you’re off and working on your project and I’m off and singing a Beyonce song to myself while I’m running and we’re both the happier for it!