Tag Archives: Work

On Chasing the Right “Zero”

As usual Merlin Mann is spot on. Rather than trying to attain the arbitrary goals espoused by productivity “gurus” (bit of irony here, as many would consider Mann to be one, but I am referring to folks like Ferris and Allen), we should focus on actions that enable us to do the work that we love. Productivity should focus on being productive in the generative sense—creating. Too often productivity turns into being good at being busy, doing many necessary but meaningless tasks and never producing, generating, creating. I’ve found that the key to gaining anything useful from time management tools or philosophies or systems like Inbox Zero is to keep in mind two important things. First, they are tools and thus should be used towards creating or repairing. In this case, their purpose is to assist me in managing all of the competing interests making demands on my time and energy thus opening up more time and resources for doing work that matters. They are not an end but a means to an end. I say this because it is all too easy to get caught up in the pleasures of accomplishing tasks and (if you’re a geek like me) playing with the toys ehrr, uhm tools of productivity and GTD. This brings me to my second point: don’t let productivity become a substitute for being unproductive. In other words, sometimes engaging in the work you truly love and care about is terrifying and when you finally break down the barriers between yourself and that work, giving you unfettered access, the freedom turns to fear. It’s easy to obsess over perfecting your productivity techniques or getting every single thing done to the extent that you avoid actually doing the work that you love. Sure it sounds counterintuitive, but love makes us do the whacky. And, as it turns out, that bit of Buffy philosophy holds true for platonic as well as romantic love. So, there you have it. I have a pretty intense digital workflow these days and I’m definitely using some fancy toy/tools but at least these days I’m pretty sure I’m chasing the right zero.


Not to be all “Merlin Mann” or anything, but, maybe somebody will find this useful.

I was recently asked to talk about how I think about the infamous Inbox Zero these days, and here’s what I said:

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rules for the work day, or how to work productively from home

Since I work from home, it’s hard to stay focused some days. There are a multitude of distractions that come into play when your office is attached to your home, even when you live alone. As an academic I’ve spent a lot of time working from home before, but I’ve always had days when I had to go to my office on campus. Now that I have no campus office to go to (and sadly not even a coffee shop to use as my office given that I am frequently unable to drive), it’s more and more difficult to work the way that I would if I had a separation between work and home. So, from previous experience, a multitude of blogs and books written by people who work from home, and the little bit of common sense that I can muster, I’ve come up with a set of rules for myself to follow on weekdays. I’m posting them here as a method of holding myself accountable:

  1. By 9 am pajamas are off and “you might be seen in public” clothes are on. No pajama-like clothing allowed between 9 am and 6 pm. (Exception to the rule: lamb skin lined bedroom slippers. Comfy and warm shoes always trump common sense.)
  2. Work will be done in office at desktop computer and not in living room comfy chair with laptop. (Must resist the lure of comfy fireplace.)
  3. No tv as “background noise.” Pandora is acceptable as is other music and NPR, since I did this in my office on campus.
  4. Checking out what’s new on Uncommon Goods and ThinkGeek does not constitute working. Don’t visit these or other sites.
  5. Use David Seah‘s Printable CEO forms to track work time and projects. [Note: these are particularly good for freelance work as they make billing simpler. I’ve also found that they’re useful in keeping track of how much time you spend on academic projects and teaching tasks (e.g., grading, answering student emails, lesson planning, etc.).]

I’m sure that there will be more parts to this post as I come up with new rules and guidelines. Oh, and BTW– blogging is part of my work, so this counts. Sort of.

Getting Things Done: Part One

For some time now I’ve been trying to implement the system known as “GTD” or “Getting Things Done.” Created by productivity expert (isn’t it awesome that we’ve become so incredibly busy that we now need experts in how to get things done productively?) David Allen, GTD has been written about exhaustively in the blogosphere as well as in print and electronic media. In fact, after the publication of Allen’s book Getting Things Done, the concept went viral, moving swiftly from the intended audience–business professionals–to the world of IT and other techno-geeks like me and then continuing to expand outward. Not surprisingly, given its popularity (which has reached almost cult-like status) among the techno-geek population, GTD has inspired a multitude of software programs and GTD-centric blogs. Since I read Allen’s book about three years ago, I have been trying (on and off) to implement the system with limited and certainly sporadic success. Given my research on cognition and writing and given what I’ve read  in the scholarship that explains how we process information in decidedly different ways when writing as opposed to thinking and speaking, I thought that writing about my process might prove helpful. At the same time, it seems that exploring the cognitive value of GTD, which relies primarily on writing to achieve maximum effectiveness, might prove useful in giving me the final push that I need to successfully integrate the system into my life.

To begin, a brief explanation of the system seems in order. GTD relies on the principle that we have limited storage space in our brain and that much of that space is being inefficiently used. Our “wet” hard drives, or brains, are filled with information that could be stored elsewhere. This information could be as mundane as “I need bread” or as significant as “how am I going to get tenure.” (Remember–I am looking at this from the perspective of an academic.) Allen asserts that while we have all of these ideas bouncing in and out of our consciousness and being stored in our subconscious, we are unable to focus and actually accomplish the tasks needed to achieve these task and goals. His solution: write it all down. Sound familiar, fellow academics? And when he says “write it all down,” he means “write it ALL down”–every single thing in your brain no matter how small or large. Once everything is out of your head, it gets processed and organized into simple tasks, projects, goals, etc. Once everything is organized, you set up a system to keep it that way by continuing to collect information and process it on a regularly scheduled basis.  [For a real introduction to GTD, check out Merlin Mann’s Getting Started with “Getting Things Done” (which contains a multitude of other links and posts), David Allen’s definition of GTD, the Business Week excerpt from Getting Things Done, and/or Wikipedia article on Getting Things Done]

Early Attempts to Get Things Done

My firsts attempts at implementing GTD included the filling of pages and pages on a legal pad, creating a set of GTD folders in my email inbox and on my computer desktop, and experimenting with a seemingly endless array of GTD applications. My first crucial error: getting overly absorbed in finding the right GTD software app. I spent so much time searching for, downloading, and experimenting with apps that I totally forgot to implement the system. To be fair, this is not an unusual problem for me. I do get entranced by new technologies and spend an abundance of time finding the “right” one. However, to be equally fair, this inevitably works to my advantage, helping me to better understand user needs and ultimately “hacking” a system so that it works best for me and in the case of teaching technologies, for fellow instructors and our students. Unfortunately, this was not the case with GTD. I couldn’t decide on one application and attempted to use them all simultaneously resulting in a system that I could not depend on. My mind was not at ease. On the contrary, it seemed more confused than ever.

Once I abandoned the quest for the perfect application, the confusion improved and I was able to implement some of the techniques. This is fairly typical for me. I am a self-help junkie (though only for self-help books that focus on organization and time management). I am a naturally disorganized person, which results in an unhealthy fascination with and extreme dedication to being organized. As a result I am an obsessive micromanager and constantly struggling macromanager. In some situations, this is quite beneficial. When it comes to organization as a teacher and in some ways as an academic, my detail-oriented nature is helpful. When it comes to overall peace of mind and organization in other aspects of my world, it results in constant struggle. Still, my continued devotion to learning about organizational strategies has been beneficial; with each system I learn about, I extract at least a few techniques and integrate them into my everyday life. Each system that I read about and attempt to implement improves my level of organization. GTD has been similarly helpful. At the same time it has been more frustrating than the other systems I’ve attempted. Specifically, the other systems seemed in many ways counter-intuitive and ultimately incompatible with my personality and my profession (most systems were created for 9-5 business folks not academics). On the other hand, GTD seems quite intuitive and meshes both with my personality and profession. So, why is it so difficult for me to integrate it into my life?

Unrealistic Expectations

Ultimately, the most difficult part of the implementation process is the “Jesus factor.” I expect the system to save me from all the difficulties of my life if I simply accept it as my savior. (Caveat: I know this isn’t really how Christians believe that people are “saved through Christ” but that it is the misconception, thus it fits well with my own. So, please, no offense to Christians meant.) In other words, the work part of it gets overlooked, especially the reality that it takes time to effectively implement any system. I want to jump straight past the collection of everything and just start using the system. As a result, I still have a lot of brain space filled with unimportant information or at least information that could be more effectively stored elsewhere. One aspect of this relates back to my previous issue–I can’t decide on what tools I should use. So, I just chose one and jumped straight into using it. My most recent attempt follows this model.

Merging Unrealistic Expectations into Software Applications

Now, on the one hand, I seem to have found a fairly good software application and am having some success in using it. Things is a task management/to do/organization application for Mac that is designed using the GTD methodology. Software designed based on an organizational system isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. I know that at the very least software has been designed for the Franklin Covey system.  GTD, however, has gone (as one of my favorite tv characters would say) “crazy viral.” In other words, there are already tons of apps designed specifically for GTD and even more that have been hacked to use the methodology. As with all applications, this has been done to varying degrees of success. Since I’ve tried out quite a few of them, I feel fairly confident in recommending Things.

Ultimately, Things allows me to create tasks on the fly (using a keyboard shortcut), set up projects, tag tasks based on what I need to complete them, include notes for the task, assign due dates, set up recurring tasks, and set areas of focus. So far I’m not utilizing Things to its utmost potential. For example, Things allows you to set up “horizons of focus” –areas of responsibility in your life. Right now I’m using tags to divide tasks by my various roles (e.g., “teaching,” “scholarship,” etc.). I am, however, collecting to do items as they occur to me (at least while I’m at my computer, which is most of the time) and filing them under projects as is appropriate. The projects that I have currently defined might be more accurately represented as “horizons of focus” under the GTD methodology. For example, I have “English 420 Spring 2010” as a project, which is rather broad, as are other projects such as “job search” and “professional development.” Still, for right now these seem to be serving their purpose and since time is an issue, I’ll continue to use them until I have some extra time to learn the other ways of organizing these tasks/projects. One of the functions that I find most useful is the tagging feature. I use David Allen’s “contexts” for these. Specifically, I tag tasks based on where I need to be in order to complete them. “Do laundry,” for instance, would be tagged “@home,” while “pick up dry cleaning” would be tagged “@errands” and “pay credit card bill” would be tagged “@online.” Using those tags, I can sort items that I need to do  when I actually can do them. This keeps me from constantly looking at items like “do laundry” while I’m in my office on campus or at a coffee shop.

So far, so good. More to come… In my next post I’ll discuss how GTD works for academics and is particularly adaptable to organizing writing and research.

blogging and work

Another post from my former New Media class. This one inspired my post on gender and documentation.

So many blogs, so many drupal sites, so little time. Ahem, do you ever have those moments when you realize that you’ve forgotten to do something (for several weeks)? Well, welcome to my moment and the moment finds me thinking about the nature of blogs. Now I know from my various readings and discussions that blogs started as online diaries. From there it was a short walk to social and political commentary, but what I’m wondering is: when did blogs become work? For some of us (myself included) our relationship to work is complicated at best. For example, it’s early Friday evening and my plans are:working on one of my web projects and grading student papers (oh, and writing this blog entry). Coffee and kitty cats are included in this scenario (and probably a little Veronica Mars), which only further complicates the matter. Lots of folks have been writing and talking about the way that work has permeated our personal lives, so that many of us never really leave work behind. I think that this is even more complicated for graduate students, educators, freelancers and other folks without distinctly set work hours. My laptop, my wireless connection, my Blackberry–all of the accoutrements of my postmodern existence enable me to work whenever and wherever I wish. It makes for a beautiful amount of freedom and flexibility while simultaneously altering how those words are defined. Free time isn’t something that has much meaning for me, making me reflect on how others, both current and past, relate(d) to the concept of free time. If I look to my personal, familial past, I cannot remember any time when my mother didn’t seem busy but I discard that as evidence because my mother is a workaholic (thanks for those genes, Mom) and it wasn’t really that long ago. What if I look back a few more decades and think about the lives of my grandparents (or at least the bricolage lives that I have built out of family stories). My grandparents were children of the Depression. Free time connotes a kind of frivolity that they could not afford. Although I don’t agree with Adorno’s assessment of hobbies as necessarily work, in the case of my grandparents the comparison is fairly apt. In her free time my grandmother worked on writing her novel (which under different circumstances might have been her profession). My grandfather hunted, but not for pleasure. He hunted so that they’d have food to eat. Of course later in their lives, when they were financially stable, there was time for leisure.

Financial stability is key to this discussion. Leisure is the luxury of those who have the money to afford it. Even as I talk about how “we” are blurring to boundaries between work and life/leisure, I am aware that “we” constitutes a particular population performing a specific kind of work. It’s easy for me to talk about the effect of technology on work and leisure because I belong to the “we” that constantly appear in the media (okay, I couldn’t resist, but to clarify: in magazines, on the news, in blogs such as this). This “we” is often represented as a totality when in fact those of us for whom the boundaries between work and life have blurred in this particular way, comprise a fairly small percentage of the world’s population.

It’s a truism that categories never really have definition in the sense of clearly defined/delineated differences between one category and the others. Binaries (as Morgan R. mentioned today) are indeed myths but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful as locations of inquiry. The tension that exists between (and around the concept of) binaries provides us with a space for investigation. It’s the only way to approach the world and still retain your sanity: all aspects of life have the potential to faciliate our learning, even (and sometimes especially) those things that cause difficulties in our lives. So, back to binaries. I’d take it even a step farther and say that binaries can be seen as locatable points on a much broader spectrum. I’m sure that the distinction between work and leisure has never been as clear as nostalgia may make it appear to be. I know that this isn’t a new phenomenon but the specifics are a sampling of the already new that when combined seem to create something whose parts may not be new but the whole that they comprise is a new combination of those parts. Can the whole be new even when its parts are not? I guess it all comes down to definitions. If something is only new when all of its parts are also new, then nothing is ever new and the term ceases to have much usefulness. Maybe its time to revise the way that we define “newness.” Or does its usefulness lie in reminding us of the kind of ambiguities that any discussion of “progress” includes?

I’ve been making a big deal about how nothing is really ever new. Even blogs can be seen as a hybrid of diaries, letters and commonplace books. Yet even though these are not new per se, the ways that they have evolved from older technologies and media have significantly affected the way that we experience our world. Our commonplace books can be shared across continents not merely within a household. Still all of the media that I identify as the progenitors of the blog are typically associated with personal lives. Blogs began as personal but have since expanded to include blogs for social commentary as well as those created for business. Companies who enlist bloggers to promote their products are continually increasing, so much so that there are blogs like this one that contain job postings for bloggers. Blogs have even become a source of income for the casual blogger thanks to Google ads and similar. The sales blogs can be clearly categorized as work. The blogger who blogs for personal satisfaction who also uses her blog as a source of income still fits on the leisure/life end of the spectrum. It’s blogs like Donovon Lange’s work blog. Lange identifies himself as a software engineer who works on Microsoft OneNote and he makes a distinction between his work blog and his personal blog; however, his work blog is maintained during his leisure time. (Or at least is not officially part of his work at Microsoft.) He doesn’t have to keep this blog; we can assume that he does so for his own personal reasons. Yet he still feels the need to make the distinction between Donovan the software engineer and Donovan the person.

My blog is blurry at best. When your work is what you love to do, how do you know when work ends and life begins or is it ever that simple? I blog for my own personal satisfaction; I have my students blog as part of their course requirements and my responding to these blogs easily falls into the category of work; I am also required to blog Technically, this is my free time and what I’m doing is work. I’m fulfilling a requirement of my work by writing this but I’m enjoying it too. How important is it that I reify these boundaries and binaries if I’m okay with the blurry edges?