A quick Google search will reveal that, you’re not alone if you struggle to keep New Year’s resolutions. Many statistics suggest, most people do. For my friends in education, how about those new school-year resolutions? <Ouch.> Even worse?
After launching this website and blog last June, I had a spurt of blogable productivity to end out my year-long sabbatical. Then, almost humorously, I posted a blog the first week of classes, then… crickets. I kept wondering, how did I ever juggle all this before the sabbatical?
Consequently, 2020 warranted a new vision, if not resolutions. This year was (is!) a year to reclaim some of the essentials that I’d let slide when I returned to the classroom. For my professional responsibilities and personal fulfillment, I must read and write consistently. (And it can’t be just the reading I’ve asked students to do by Friday or the writing that is required before my next conference.) Do you ever feel like there are just too many things to do, even really good things that would all be worth doing? Or do urgent, even low-priority, tasks fall in your lap distracting you from longer term but higher priority objectives? I suspect many of the basic challenges I face, you do too, and so perhaps one of my new strategies will spark a fresh outlook for you, too.
Distinguish Making from Managing
On January 1, Stephanie Slade of Reason Magazine tweeted the link to an article saying it might contain “the key to happiness in this life.” Compelling! Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You starts with the idea that “different types of work require different types of schedules.” The two jobs:
- “A manager’s job is to, well, manage other people and systems. The point is that their job revolves around organizing other people and making decisions.”
- “A maker’s job is to create some form of tangible value.”
Managers, therefore, requires a schedule that allows for a fast past, quick bursts of effort toward specific problems, and flexibility. Makers, on the other hand, need longer windows of focused time. Most of us play at least a little of both of these roles in some area of our lives.
For me, my teaching duties as a professor require me to be responsive to some kinds of student needs and concerns without haste. But my research and own learning requires some periods of longer, focused effort.
My Strategy: I’ve blocked off time in my calendar with one word “Make!” and I’ve also made a rule that I will not work at home after 5 p.m. to force myself to remain extremely focused and consider tradeoffs during the work day.
My Grade (so far): I’m earning a solid D on the “Make!” front but I’m proud of my A- in setting work aside most evenings. My husband and I have used the new downtime to cook healthy meals, enjoy a cup of tea and a little British TV, and pack lunches and gym bags the night before, all of which make the start of the next day much rosier.
Get ‘Er Done
A couple years ago a friend introduced me to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and my life was changed. I am not a fan of self-help or motivational books, and sometimes productivity systems are presented in this way. But I found very quickly that some of the basic strategies of GTD work extremely well and naturally for me. Here are a few, but I recommend you check out the book to see what resonates most with you. Even if you just read the first chapter, you will likely find at least one trick or new perspective that will be helpful.
- Record every task/ to-do item immediately. Everything, big or small, that crosses your mind as an outstanding task – whether it is to be done, thought about, or passed along – write it down . The most significant benefit of this, for me, has been that tasks no longer sap my mental energy as my mind would work to make sure I didn’t forget something. My mind now implicitly trusts my external memory (I use Wunderlist) and so all my mental effort can go toward what I’m actually doing in the present, not making sure I don’t forget that one thing I better remember a week from Tuesday.
- Maintain a zero inbox. I do this by processing emails (probably still too frequently for real productivity gurus) with a few rules of thumb in mind. If it’s trash, I delete it. If there is a quick action required – a short response, forwarding it to someone or delegating it, filing it away as information only – I do it immediately. If more that a few minutes is required to address the email, it’s a task and it belongs on my task list. I think file the email away to come back to when that task comes up on my to do list. (For those who prefer not to maintain extensive email files, you can do something simpler with just archiving emails that are processed, marking emails associated with tasks with a flag or leaving them unread, and making good use of the search functions of your email system.)
- Conduct a GTD weekly review. Friday afternoons before I leave work, I look at the week ahead on my calendar. As that brings to mind task items, I add them to my Wunderlist. I then organize my task list, giving myself a rough outline of deadlines I might want to impose on myself. But again, just having everything recorded is a main goal. I know what needs to be addressed in the short term, and so my mind doesn’t need to worry that something is going to sneak up on me.
My Grade: On these, I think I deserve an A. I’ve been using these strategies consistently for years. Now the trick is to use the time and energy saved for something really worthy of my time.
Just Set the Phone Down –or – Step Away from the Screen
This one is new for me this year: I’m going to break my iPhone habit. I’ve never played Angry Birds or any other game, and I’m not much for cat videos, but I can engage even my scholarly curiosities for many hours on my phone. I can also respond to student and colleague emails in record time, type long social media posts (that should have been blog posts) in response to current events, or read the latest think piece on some interdisciplinary treatment of the latest debate bubbling up among public intellectuals… If I can spend hours following rabbit trails that started with a tweet, I have just let my intellectual curiosity make me into a manager of information, not a maker, and the habit has to stop.
So I turned to my trusty iPhone (the irony!) and found some articles with tips for breaking the addiction. Here’s what I committed to.
- Don’t look at your phone in bed and definitely not in the middle of the night.
- Before you pick up your phone, think about what your purpose is for doing so.
- Move apps off the home screen where they’re less tempting and turn of notifications, especially for social media apps built to make you crave the reinforcement of likes or retweets.
- Delete apps that are time sinks and reference those, only as necessary, on your computer at set times of the day. (Sadly, for me, this had to be Twitter and so I might miss something like Slade’s tweet above in the future.)
My Grade: I should get an A+ for deleting Twitter (and no longer seeing the world through the lens of the dumpster fire). But when it comes to mindless (even if nerdy) Google searches, social media rabbit trails, etc. on hectic days, I have a hard time not “decompressing” with iPhone in hand. Some people “Netflix and chill” or grab a video game controller. I’d love to grab a book, maybe my Bible or get to the gym, but my iPhone is still too tempting. Thankfully, all sorts of articles on my iPhone (argh!) suggest a “Monday reset” is a good way to not break a resolution but restart it. And so, Monday I begin again!
What strategies for time management, personal productivity, work/life balance, etc. do you find most effective?