Archives For productivity

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?

hands writing on a document at a meeting table with text "can shorter meetings improve your library?"

Photo by Olu Eletu via Unsplash


How long is the default meeting time at your library?

There’s a default meeting length in most calendar software. Google and Outlook both start at 30 minutes, though the default can be changed at will.

In practice, a library’s default meeting length for each of us has more to do with internal social standards than software parameters. The standard meeting times for libraries seems to be a little longer than the software defaults.

Based on my extremely scientific poll of 8 library employees on Twitter, 100% of libraries set meetings for an hour.

Why are we meeting for a full hour?

There’s a reason long meetings (and committees, which schedule even longer meetings) are common in libraries. Libraries value harmony, transparency, and consensus. Meetings serve to open communication flows and build consensus.

I have a proposition: communicate and build all that consensus . . . in half the time.

Conversations will inevitably take up the time allotted to them, like a potted plant growing to fit its bowl. Have you ever been in a meeting that ended early?

On the other hand, have you ever been in a meeting that was run efficiently, cut off side conversations, and got to the point quickly? Constraining the time to half an hour can do that. If everyone knows you have limited time for the discussion, attendees will stick to the reason for the meeting.

Peter Bregman talks about the advantage of shorter meetings in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Bregman says that after cutting standard meetings from 60 minutes to 30, he found that everyone was more engaged, focused, and productive during that short time.

Meetings can help us decide what we’re going to do together, but then we need time to do that thing. Bregman says:

The sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself. It’s what happens after that meeting. Save at least the last five minutes to summarize what you learned, articulate what was valuable, commit to what you are going to do as a result of the meeting, and clarify how you will assess the success of your next steps.

Just like time spent on email inbox management, time spent in needlessly long meetings is time that you could spend doing transformative library work.

I like my colleagues, but I didn’t get into libraries to sit around a table with them. I got into libraries in order to help people change their lives through access to information. Here’s a few tips for shortening meetings and using that time effectively:

  • Share relevant readings ahead of time and ask attendees to come prepared.
  • Create an agenda, with time estimates – and stick to it
  • Clarify decisions that will be made together
  • Consider ways for everyone’s voice to be heard efficiently
  • Assign actions as a result of the meeting

By condensing our decision-making, consensus-building meeting time, we can spend more time actually doing. That extra time means we can be better at our jobs, which will make our libraries more effective, which will make us happier in our personal lives (because we’re all in this for the positive change).

I might be getting carried away. 30 minute meetings might not have a direct line to greater personal happiness. It might not even be feasible to cut down all meetings to 30 minutes.

I noticed my monthly, hour-long departmental meetings were always running over 60 minutes, and yet we weren’t all on the same page about what each of us was doing. We weren’t making decisions together – we were just sharing announcements.

In order to facilitate information sharing and keep each other posted, we borrowed an Agile technique and started practicing 15 minute weekly standups. Every Friday, we gather around and stay standing while sharing what we’re up to and what we might need help with. The time limit makes sure we keep things moving.

The 15 minute weekly check ins are awesome and efficient, and now our monthly meetings are more interactive. We use the time to discuss ideas for improvement. We’re still working on getting that meeting time down, but we’re using it more effectively and no longer running over the time limit.

Rethink your default meeting time. If your meetings are more about information sharing than decision-making, try cutting some standard hour meetings down to half an hour (or shorter!) and see if your work life becomes more effective.

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!

pencil in book with text "don't let perfect prevent finished"

Do you find it difficult to make decisions without analyzing every single minute detail? Do you hone in on specific words people say and try to decipher their meaning in a variety of contexts? Do you find that even simple projects take more time than you anticipated because you can’t get past the initial steps? If you said yes to any of those questions, then you, my friend, are an over thinker.

There is a fine balance between being thoughtful and over thinking. You want to consider the bigger picture and put energy and attention into your work, but when the “if x then y” scenarios turn into an unmanageable list of possibilities, you’ve missed the point entirely.

Here’s an example. At a three-day conference I attended recently, we were asked to create a short presentation that creatively outlined the ideas we had learned in the workshop. My group performed a silly infomercial, which was horribly embarrassing, but which was well-received. Another group did a fairy tale skit that was dramatic and hilarious. One group, though, did nothing. They admitted, once they saw what the other groups had come up with, that they had overthought the whole concept. They were either unable to get past their performance hang ups, misunderstood the assignment, or maybe even disagreed on the learning outcomes of the workshop. Whatever it was, they never got past the first step of coming up with an idea to present.

Now think of the things you do at work every day and how you might overthink those projects. I make service desk schedules, and that is definitely an area where I overthink! I spend more time than is probably necessary making sure my co-workers get their favorite shifts at their favorite desks, making sure everyone has a break, making sure there is always backup available for Interns and Reference Assistants, making sure there are always Librarians in Charge in the building, making sure the right desks are double-covered at the right times on the right days…it’s enough to make me twitchy just writing about it! And yet, I know that every person on our reference staff is perfectly capable of working at any desk at any time, that they will fill in for each other if asked, that they will step up when needed, and they don’t really need me to orchestrate to such a degree. It will all be fine. Wow, look at that – I’m cured!

If only it were that easy. When our name is attached to a project, we want it to reflect our standards. Sometimes, though, too much planning is detrimental, and as you can see in the workshop example above nothing ends up getting completed.

Practicing mindfulness is a strategy that over-thinkers can try. Worry less about past mistakes and future possibilities and make decisions that are positive right now. The workshop group could have simply made a poster that reflected their indecision. A crazy Venn diagram or flow chart that imitated their discussion would have been fine. It wouldn’t have been the best presentation, but it would have been honest and productive, and would also have met the parameters of the assignment. It would have been something.

Another idea is to limit your choices. I’ve been on committees that spent hours on chair arrangement for a workshop, or on what to serve for lunch, or on what color the button on a new web site should be. I’ve also been on committees that were given a limited list of choices from which to pick, and they managed to choose a room setup, a lunch menu, and a color scheme all in under an hour. Give yourself limited choices for regular activities and you can simply make a quick decision.

Be creative where it counts. If the choices are buff vs. cream, then even a mistake isn’t that costly. Put your time and energy into the decisions that really matter and let go of the rest. Don’t overthink it.

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!