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Make it happen: 6 Strategies to improve productivity

Like many members of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association, I hold a tenure-track position which includes—for the most part—the usual expectations. Scholarship is particularly important, with peer-reviewed publication the expected outcome of my research. Service to the profession is important, but less so. In my current position (Director of Public Services, Evans Library, Texas A&M University), I do not teach, but I am expected to demonstrate excellence in the performance of my duties. These duties, in my case, include leading about thirty-five employees who staff three service desks in two buildings (one of which is open twenty-four hours, five days per week). It is very challenging to oversee a busy public services unit and maintain a research agenda that will result in a sufficient number of publications to satisfy the University Libraries’ Committee on Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure.

Over the last several years I have read a great deal about getting ‘stuff’ done—and I have tested many of the recommendations that I found. There is a lot of good advice out there, as well as a few things that just didn’t seem to work for me. What follows are six recommendations based on my experience of what has consistently worked well for me—and may help you become more productive.

1) Plan It

One would assume that if you’re reading a publication like The Academic Author, you have some goals, presumably one or more of which include writing with the intent to publish. I find it helpful to get my goals down on paper and to prioritize those goals. Working in higher education, I have found it useful to make a semester plan. A simple plan works best for me. I list the various writing projects, presentations, service commitments, conferences, books I am reading, as well as work-related projects and commitments that I anticipate working on in the coming months. I have been doing this for number of years varying the level of detail from semester to semester. I have in the past tried to assign dates to the various pieces of each project I plan to accomplish. My most recent semester plans are less detailed. Just making a list, and getting it down on paper is crucial.

Once I have completed my semester plan, I then list these projects on the whiteboard in my office, along with due dates, as appropriate. I leave plenty of space between each significant item so as to have room to make a list of the component parts. For example, I have been working on the last stages of an article, so on my whiteboard I listed the pieces that needed to be finished: results, conclusion, references, appendices, final read-through, and submission. For a monthly online meeting that I participate in, I listed days, dates, and times—and what it is I have due for that particular meeting. For an upcoming conference I will be attending, I have listed registration, hotel, flight, ground transportation, and so forth, so I can track which parts of the travel arrangements have been made.

The best part of using a whiteboard to keep track of my projects is crossing out each element as it is completed. By the end of each semester, the whiteboard is full—and the majority of items listed on the board have a line drawn through them indicating that they have been completed.

2) Schedule It

I work from my semester plan—made visible on my whiteboard—to populate my online calendar. I schedule my own research and writing time on my calendar just as I would appointments with others. At the beginning of the semester (or—better yet—at the end of the previous semester), I set aside some time to create a series of recurring appointments that essentially block out parts of my day to work on my priority projects. I am a daily writer and I subscribe to the “pay yourself first” philosophy. I am committed to scheduling my highest priority work—research and writing—for the first part of the day. This is the best assurance that my most important work will not be crowded out by urgent, but seemingly important work. I block out time every morning for research and writing; projects requiring less focus get scheduled in the afternoon.

Once a week, on Friday afternoons, I set aside a half-hour to review my calendar for the coming week. Although I make an effort to protect my most productive writing times, inevitably others have scheduled meetings during the various times that I have blocked out at the beginning of the semester. I do accommodate those meeting requests; I then adjust my research and writing times to the next available spaces in the calendar. In those cases where I am the convener of the meeting, I choose a time in the afternoon to meet, not in the morning.

3) Time It

When it is time for me to work on a project, I use a timer to keep me on task. Some of you—those of you who have not yet tried it—may think this is a little over the top. I would have thought so at one time as well, but I have found the use of the timer to be enormously helpful. I work in twenty-five minute sessions, setting a timer at the beginning of the session. This approach to getting things done is known as the “Pomodoro Technique”. During each twenty-five minute session, I don’t do anything but the task at hand. I don’t check my email, answer the phone, check the weather, shop, or engage in social media. Having recently begun work on a dissertation, I decided to participate in the Dissertation Success Program offered by the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. The Dissertation Success Program—in addition to providing a writing coach, a chat function to communicate with other participants in the program, and a system for setting daily and weekly goals—has a built-in writing and research timer. It’s an excellent tool for staying on task.

4) Track It

Almost ten years ago, I started using a spreadsheet to keep track of my progress for all of my projects. I use a separate spreadsheet for each project. I record the day, month, date, year, a time goal (twenty-five minute work sessions), a start and finish time, and the number of minutes worked on that particular day. There have been studies of academic writing that indicates that tracking progress is one effective tool used by academic writers to improve their productivity (see, for example, the work of Robert Boice). I am an advocate of working in brief sessions, usually one or two 25-minute sessions—and then moving on to another project. When I share this approach with colleagues, I am often told why this would not work for them. It usually has something to do with figuring out where they left off and then getting back up to speed. In addition to keeping a record of time spent on each project, I use the spreadsheet to make notes of where I am in each project—what task I am working on, and what needs to be done next. This is done in a note field adjacent to the other information. When I open up the spreadsheet the following day to record my time, I can see where I left off in what I need to work on next. This fulfills the need for what is known sometimes as a “next task” list—a way to remind myself of the next task to be completed for any given project.

5) Report It

I have found that accountability is central to achieving both my personal and professional goals. For several years I have worked with two accountability partners, both of whom work at other universities. I send them a weekly email on Friday afternoon, right after I plan the upcoming week (described above). The weekly check-in with my accountability partners has four parts: (1) I remind them what my goals were for the week that is ending; (2) I report whether I did or did not meet my goals; (3) if I did not meet my goals, I explain why; and (4) I list my writing goals for the coming week. This is a mutual exchange; I usually receive some version of the same from my two partners. We also share with one another challenges, successes, and other news. The idea of having committed my plan to another person is intended to help me stay on task throughout the week —and I suppose it does. However, the fact that I am committed to sending my plan for the coming week to someone else, motivates me to actually create that plan.

In addition to having accountability partners, I also make myself accountable by listing my projects (and progress) on the whiteboard in my office, as described above. Using a whiteboard is one aspect of what I think of as ‘going public.’ I am, in effect committing to others what it is that I intend to do. If I have communicated to you that I am going to get something done, I feel obligated to do so.

6) Do It

The five strategies outlined above are a set of recommendations describing the framework I’ve constructed around productive writing. This last recommendation is to practice those strategies. In other words, just do it.

The desire to write regularly has made it necessary for me to create new habits. I am not good at breaking bad habits (it’s impossible, I think), but I learned that I can build new habits—good habits. As mentioned above, I write every day—usually in brief daily sessions. This is an excellent habit and is one of the chief reasons that I get anything done at all. When the alert pops up on my online calendar indicating that it’s time to start the next project, it is entirely up to me to stop whatever it is I’m doing, close that window (usually email), and open up the project spreadsheet and the appropriate documents, and begin.

I write at work—and my workplace is full of distractions. It is my responsibility to shut my door, close my email program, and exercise control over any other external distractions. For some, this means that it’s time to close Facebook, stop adding stuff to your Amazon cart, and quit looking at the cute kitty videos. I have also found that I need to address the internal distractions, especially the voice that reminds me of all the other things that I need to get done. Similarly, I must overcome negative thinking. There is the voice that suggests that my ‘real work’ (whatever that is) needs to get done first, the critical voice that tells me that I am not a very good writer anyway, and on a really bad day, the hypercritical voice that claims that I am fraud and I have no business being in a tenure-track position (imposter syndrome once again rears its ugly head). It is absolutely my responsibility to ignore all that and get busy on the particular writing task is in front of me. Addressing the internal distractions and negativity is hard work, but has become easier as I have completed projects resulting in publication.

A Final Word

As success guru Brian Tracy has written in several of his books, when you are at work, work.

Have a plan, adhere to a schedule, use a timer, keep track of progress, be accountable—and write when it’s time to write.

William H. Weare, Jr.Contributing Author: William H. Weare, Jr., is the Director of Public Services, Evans Library at Texas A&M University. He has written articles on library leadership, policy, services, and technology; conference papers addressing library instruction, peer review of teaching, and focus group research; and a book chapter on time management for academic librarians.