Laura Sheets is a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, OH and a graduate of the iSchool at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include how instructional design and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can partner with information literacy. In her spare time, she enjoys running slowly, baking, and cheering for the University of Michigan sports teams.
In the spring of 2019, I accepted a tenure-track faculty position at an R2 research university. In my previous position, I was non-tenure-track faculty at a community college. While conducting research was encouraged and always viewed positively, it was not a requirement of my job. I presented multiple times during my three years in that position, mostly due to the publication of an op-ed in the state-wide newspaper about librarians’ role in identifying fake news. Although teaching source evaluation skills as part of the larger goal of information literacy was always of professional importance, this article and subsequent invitations to speak directed me more concretely toward my first thoughts of a research agenda.
“Now that research was a requirement, and not just something I could do when I had time or when it was convenient, I knew I had to get organized and stick to a schedule.”
Though I wasn’t necessarily concerned about producing scholarship in my new role, I was concerned about my ability to produce consistently, and to avoid the necessary crunch before a deadline. I have ideas aplenty but sitting my butt down in a chair and writing without the stress of an impending deadline is not my strong suit. Now that research was a requirement, and not just something I could do when I had time or when it was convenient, I knew I had to get organized and stick to a schedule.
Of course, there is one thing about a tenure-track position that isn’t often discussed: the documentation. So, so much documentation. As probationary faculty, these are the various processes at multiple points in time which require me to document my achievements in librarianship, scholarship, and teaching:
- Departmental Reports: monthly
- Merit Review: annual; calendar = Academic Year (August – August)
- Annual Performance Review: years 1, 2, 4, and 5; calendar = calendar year (January 1 – December 31)
- Enhanced Performance Review (Mid-Probationary): accumulation of years 1-3
- Tenure: accumulation of years 1-6
Research and tenure doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of work and intentionality to be successful. I use three tools to drive my research and stay on track with my documentation schedule: my Outlook calendar, the Pomodoro Technique, and my bullet journal.
During the first semester at my new position, a tenured colleague recommended a webinar called “Aligning Your Time with Your Priorities” from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. (Although you do need a NCFDD membership to view this webinar, many colleges and universities have institutional memberships for faculty.) This webinar proposed a weekly planning strategy to increase productivity, as well as scholarship output. Every week sit down with your calendar (virtual or physical). First, inventory the existing tasks or responsibilities required of you: classes, meetings, reference desk shifts, etc. Second, think about the tasks needed to prepare and/or complete those tasks. You may only be in class for two hours on Tuesday/Thursday but what do you need to do before those classes happen? Do you need to prepare materials, like presentation slides, or grade papers? Do you need to type up meeting minutes prior to a committee meeting? Estimate how much time each task will take (with some cushion time built in) and add those preparation tasks to your calendar.
“…if it’s on my calendar, it’s on my mind.”
At this point, any hours on your calendar are yours! What are your research goals for this year? This semester? This month? This is where they come in. Do you need to research for a literature review? Schedule it. Do you need to write? Schedule it. Do you need to edit? Schedule it. Personally, I try to incorporate at least thirty minutes of research, reading, or writing each workday (depending on where I’m at in a project). Does it always happen? Of course not. But, if it’s on my calendar, it’s on my mind. Scheduling time at the end of the week to finish any catch-up documentation and plan for the week ahead also helps me to stay on track.
Take advantage of the “Categories” in Outlook to organize your tasks. My faculty workload is divided into three categories: 70% librarian effectiveness (my daily duties, such as reference and teaching), 20% research, and 10% service. In addition to those categories, I also include: Instruction, Reference, Meetings, Professional Development, Research, Outreach/Engagement, Personal, and Leave. This makes documentation for my monthly reports easier and helps me align my daily and weekly tasks with my workload expectations. For example, service is only 10% of my work expectations but there is a never-ending supply of service opportunities (at least in my experience). If service is taking up more time than my research, a quick glance at my color-coded calendar makes it easier for me to say no when service opportunities come along, prioritizing my research efforts and librarian effectiveness.
Using Outlook this way makes my departmental monthly report much easier. Our monthly reports are separated into categories (Reference, Teaching, Outreach/Engagement, etc.) and organizing my calendar by color makes separating my appointments, events, and tasks a breeze.
The Pomodoro Technique
I’ve noticed my focus and attention span dwindling over the past few years. It might be my age, but I mostly blame the distraction machine currently in my pocket (i.e. my smartphone). This inability to focus for extended periods of time puts a damper on my productivity, both at work and at home. I was introduced to the Pomodoro Technique early in my library career, but I have used it more consistently in my new position. It has helped increase my focus and complete tasks more quickly, especially when my work doesn’t include hard deadlines.
“Just like chunking information and assignments in a class or course, chunking work into short periods of time has greatly improved my focus.”
Choose a task or project you’re working on. Set a timer for 25 minutes. (I use the Pomodoro Chrome extension. You can also download the timer to your computer or use any timer you have on hand.) Work on the task uninterrupted for 25 minutes. If you’re using a physical timer, note that you have completed the first Pomodoro on a piece of paper. Take a short (5 –10 minute) break. Go to the restroom, make tea, do some desk yoga, check your email. Whatever you want. Just don’t work on the task at hand during that time. Every four Pomodoros (25-minute work session), take a longer break (20 – 30 minutes). Then, if the task isn’t finished, move on to another one or start the process over.
Just like chunking information and assignments in a class or course, chunking work into short periods of time has greatly improved my focus. You can do (almost) anything work-related for 25 minutes, right?
Since Ryder Carroll published The Bullet Journal Method in 2018, bullet journaling has taken over social media, especially Instagram. Although the method has evolved into a creative craft with bullet journal fanatics creating beautiful, intricate, and artistic journals to track and organize their life, at its heart, the Bullet Journal method is extremely simple and does not require artistic skills.
Bulletjournal.com defines bullet journaling as “a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system”. You are intentionally defining the tasks and goals you want to accomplish in a day, week, month, or a lifetime. I tried the “fancy” bullet journaling for my personal life, hoping it would help me be mindful of my choices and externalize some of my internal self-talk and worry. Although it was helpful for a time, I didn’t stick with it. (I think I was more enamored with the shiny stationary tools than the practice itself.)
However, I have adopted the original practice (sans fancy pens and stencils) for my professional life. Using the Bullet Journal systems gives me a straightforward way to document my days and be more productive overall. Each task in your day is represented by a bullet. Tasks have four different states: incomplete, complete, migrated, or irrelevant. Each of those states is represented by a notation. Open circles represent events and dashes represent notes. An index is included at the beginning of your journal so you can locate past tasks or events quickly. The Future Log is organized by month and keeps all future events and tasks at-a-glance. If needed, you can also include a monthly log, with tasks and events for the current month before your daily log. The best thing about the Bullet Journal method is you can customize it for what works for you, using whatever “collections” help you most. If you’re interested, I highly recommend looking at the website or checking out the book from your local library.
Although the purpose of these three methodologies is quite different, they all work in tandem to keep me on task, organized, and productive. Not only do they help me be a productive researcher, they help me be a better librarian and a better team member. How do you keep your research life organized? Does your work life organization need an overhaul? Sometimes, the simplest things can be revolutionary in our work productivity.
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