Life Hacking for Librarians: Pulling the Plug on Digital Distractions

Are you tech-savvy, but suffer from information overload as a result? Thanks to IM accounts, RSS feed, PDAs, calendar software, listservs, cell phones, and email we are more connected at work then ever before. …often more than we want to be. Ironically, these time-saving devices can easily become distractions and keep you from getting your work done. This presentation focuses on “life hacks”, or tips on how to reclaim your time at work from information overload.

A Jeffersonian Life Hack

Feeling overwhelmed by piles of paperwork engulfing your desk and the hundreds of unanswered emails populating your work inbox? You’re not alone.

It appears that even the Founding Fathers needed a bit of help getting organized. Thomas Jefferson carried around this ivory PDA.

Even modern day technophiles are turning to decidedly low-tech solutions to stay on top of their workload. Some have ditched electronic time management devices for stacks of index cards that are very similar to Jefferson’s 18th century system. For tips on how to make your own, check out 43 Folders.

What is a lifehack? The term has evolved from the technical hacks that programmers created for themselves to make their lives easier to a term that encompasses solutions to everyday problems - which can be just about anything.

Those Pesky Time Wasters

According to a recent study The Hidden Costs of Information at Work the average information worker spends:

13.3 hours per week creating documents
6.8 hours per week organizing documents
4 hours per week managing document routing
9.5 hours per week searching for information
AND a whopping 14.5 hours per week reading and answering email

If you are interested in doing an audit of your time, the book, Organizing for Success, has an appendix that gives you worksheets to photocopy and details how to use them to gauge where the leaks are in your daily routine. Our suggestion is to ruminate on those things you KNOW are wasting your time already and problem-solve some solutions. This may still require some work on the front-end but will payback in dividends when you get to go home a few minutes earlier every day.

  1. Which activities could be eliminated?
  2. Which activities could be scaled back?
  3. Which activities could be delegated to others?
  4. Which activities could have been batched to improve efficiency?

“In an eight hour day, the average person experiences forty-eight interruptions.” (Wetmore, p.81)

Digital Distractions

What are some of the digital distractions you should watch out for?

Email: By keeping your email alert on, you will always be tempted to stop working on that very important project to just “take a peek” at incoming mail. That can lead to all kinds of exciting things, including getting off track and onto surfing the Internet. Set aside specific times to check your email throughout the day. Stay tuned for further discussion on time saving email strategies.

Instant Messenger: This may be the epitome of digital distractions. Very few of us are disciplined enough to install this on our desktop and still get work done. It will only distract you—unless you are one of the cool libraries that use IM as chat reference. In this case, the IM should be the task you are working on, not the cause of the interruption.

News Reading: It is essential for librarians to keep up with daily news, technology advancements and relevant peer discussions. But not at the risk of your everyday responsibilities or you career! Tame the influx by using RSS readers. They are a fabulous invention that once you begin to use one, you'll never know how you lived without it.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
-Albert Einstein

The Tickler File

Touted as a three-dimensional calendar, the Tickler File consists of a series of 43 file folders including 12 monthly and 31 daily folders. The idea is to place items in the file folders that correspond to when the item should be handled. For example, you could put a flyer about a play you've been wanting to see as a reminder the week before to see if it still coincides with your busy schedule. Hence, the item will "tickle" your memory about it.

Ideas for your Tickler File:
  • Action reminders
  • Bills and receipts
  • Reports
  • Travel tickets, confirmations, driving directions and things to do during travel
  • Anything you want to be reminded of on or near a particular date
What is an "action reminder"? Any item that is pending and that will take more than two minutes for completion.

Allen, D. (2001).
Getting Things Done : The Art of Stress-free Productivity. New York : Penguin Books.

The Masterlist

Make specific goals—daily, weekly, monthly plans based in reality. In Getting Results with Time Management (in The Successful LIS Professional series), Alisa Masterton suggests planning your time like this:

  • Designate 20% of every day free
  • When planning tasks, allow for 20% longer than you think it will take. We tend to underestimate the time by this percentage that a task will take.
  • 80% of your time should be spent on major tasks
  • 20% of your time should be spent on routine stuff

Set realistic deadlines. Ziegler has this motto: “It is better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver.” Every librarian who has ever promised a worried patron that the ILL book will definitely be there in 4 days knows this is true. The same holds true for promises you’ve given your coworkers.

Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.
-Vaclav Havel

Characteristics of the Masterlist

Update at the end of the day. Drop everything and brainstorm. By getting your ideas on paper and out of your head, you can freely leave the office knowing that you can leave work at work.

Why should you do this at the end of the day?
  1. Closure
  2. Mental separation between work and home
  3. Add and check off completed tasks on the Masterlist all day
  4. Good place for your nuggets or epiphanies that pop into your head throughout the day
  5. Add deadlines to your calendar as new items are added
  6. Keep list with you while you are at work
  7. Batch phone calls on your Masterlist
  8. Set up periods of time to check and respond to email
  9. On Friday, see how you did. Enjoy all those checkmarks. Ask yourself what you could have done better. Spend 10-15 minutes updating the Masterlist for the following week. Only transfer the tasks not completed to the next week. Staple the old Masterlist and file it away.

Benefits of the Masterlist
You won’t be bogged down trying to remember details, frees your mind to focus on other tasks, and there will always be something to do on your Masterlist. And my 2 cents is that you will probably start to see a pattern to your procrastination.

Beating procrastination with the List
Star the 2 items you do not want to do. Do one of these tasks in the morning when you first arrive to the office. Before email. Before everything. That’s one burden off your shoulders. Then, do the other starred item right after lunch. Don’t you feel great!

Masterlist vs. the Traditional To-Do List

pad of paper
empty your head
7 days and start over
rewritten every Friday
saved each week, put in a file
used as a backup from time to time
*BONUS* At the end of the year, you can use retrospective Masterlists for your annual review to remind yourself of all you’ve accomplished.

Traditional To-Do List
single sheet
task list
tomorrow driven
rewritten daily
thrown away
post-its, loose paper

“Remember, the average person loses 45 minutes a day just looking for notes and to-dos.” (Zeigler, p. 35)

Creating an Effective Masterlist

In Getting Things Done, Allen suggests that you should learn how to identify the NEXT ACTION which he defines as “the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion.” This means that there must be distinction between the task and the project. For example, by identifying that you need to “Finish writing article on time management” you are actually recognizing a project. Let’s break down the tasks. Maybe you need to call your publisher first, or maybe you need to verify a few citations. These are doable tasks, ones that can be completed and further your project one step at a time.

What goes on your Masterlist? Tasks, projects, meeting notes with action items, ideas you do not want to forget, personal to-dos are ok, too. Tasks with deadlines to add to your calendar. Keep these ideas in mind as you are constructing your list:
  • It should be a physical action
  • It can be accomplished in a single sitting
  • It supports valuable progress toward a recognized goal
  • It is something for which you are the most appropriate person for the job
Read more about Building a Smarter To-Do List

Learn To Prioritize Items on Your Masterlist

Whatever works for you, find a way to prioritize. One suggestion we have is to use different color highlighters to mark your items by priority. Purple is critical, Green is important, you get the picture.

  • Critical: Time sensitive and offers the most payback if accomplished soon.
  • Important: Not due today. It’s a good idea to get this done, but nothing’s on fire.
  • Whenever I can: Not a high value task to do today, but maybe more so when a deadline approaches.
  • Not urgent: Think of this category as “delegate” or “downtime.” (Foust, p. 32)

Don’t forget your Quickies! A Quickie is a task that only takes a few minutes or less, often routine. You should do these when you have a few moments, for instance when you are waiting for a conference call. A Quickie could be an item like backing up your computer files or filing loose papers on your desk.

The Incredible Shrinking Inbox

Tips for Managing Your Email

Read your email once. “The average businessperson receives around eighty emails a day.” (Wetmore p. 119)

Do it or delete it. Ruthlessly delete. And use folders to store the emails that make it past the first scan, you cannot get to right now or that are not a priority.

Watch for failed folders. In “The Role of the Academic Librarian”, the authors warn to look out for “failed folders”, that is, folders that you created, but they do not reduce the complexity of your email management (p. 33). These folders can also be ruthlessly deleted.

Archive your email on a disk or hard drive. One author asks, “If you did not read it this week, what makes you think you’ll read it the next week?” (Zeigler, p. 97). At the end of the day or week, file, delete and/or archive messages in your in-box. Outlook has an autoarchive junction for messages over 6 months old. That time frame can be adjusted to a shorter span.

Create folders and label them according to priority rather than subject. For example, Take action, Pending, Ready reference, Meetings, Delegate, Project folders (with name for respective projects), etc.

Avoid spam at all costs. Use Outlook’s “Rules Wizard” to block unwanted messages or to automatically move your incoming messages into the correct file. Better yet, install spam software.

DO NOT use your in-box as a to-do list. It is analogous to having stacks of paper on your desk. It is also a visual cue to do something, which is helpful, but not necessarily efficient or organized. “The average person spends 30 minutes a day looking for email messages” (Zeigler, p. 95) Take action immediately or file it.

Check email only once or twice a day. Impossible, you say? I know. Well, at least turn off email notification systems. Even if you do not jump to read the message when it dings, it probably broke your focus on the task at hand. Or set your email screen view to “preview” (available in Outlook and Gmail) so you can see the subject line, 2 or 3 lines from the beginning of the message. This will allow you to quickly scan messages for importance.

Flag messages. Or use colors to code your email in Outlook. This allows you to categorize them by priority or perhaps by whom they are from (faculty, student, consortium member). If red means, “do this first” or “from my supervisor”, your eyes will be drawn to them first. The same thing can be done in Google with their labeling system.

Enlist your calendar. Drag and drop messages into your calendar if you want to keep them for later, but don’t want them to fall off your radar. This feature is available in Outlook, but you could do the same thing by opening your calendar software and cutting and pasting the email into the day you want to work on it.

Batch your response time to email. Give yourself a set interval of time, like 20 or 30 minutes to look at as many messages as you can. Take action on the priority messages first. Then, close your inbox.

Create templates for common emails. If you sent out the same email over and over (e.g., notification to faculty member that a book they requested has arrived), consider creating a template in Word. You will not have to type out the same information repeatedly and you can easily modify the text before you send it out.

Save Your Colleagues Time

Creating a signature will help email recipients identify you as well as provide relevant contact information. The standard recommendation for this, however, is to keep it under 6 lines.
• Limit emails to one key topic per message. If there are too many issues or requests being made in one email, the reader may not remember what you wrote after reading it. Try to keep it short, discuss one topic, and it should be easy to understand.
• Use simple background and fonts that will display well no matter what email program the recipient is using.
• Let the subject line do the talking.
• The first few lines should communicate—Why did I get this email? What do I have to do? When do you need a response?
• If there is a deadline, say so prominently in the email.

Here are some guidelines for using email rather than the phone (Zeigler, p. 97)

Need only information
Provides a written backup
Some people respond faster to email
Multiple people can receive it

Need an immediate response
Need to ask questions
Want to hear someone’s voice

If you need to have a dialog, you should use the phone. Tell coworkers if they have a time-sensitive request or question - a matter of hours vs. a matter of days - they should call you instead.

Taming Your Electronic Mailing Lists

Electronic mailing lists can be conduits of valuable information, but they can also clog up your work inbox in a hurry. And distract you from more pressing messages.

One way to free up some space is to create an email account and keep the address quiet from your coworkers and friends. This account will be used solely for professional discussion lists and email alerts. Then, the next time you have 10 minutes to kill before a meeting, you can sign into this account and leisurely catch up with your colleagues, without feeling guilty about all that other stuff in your primary email inbox.

Rule your mind or it will rule you.

RSS as a Professional Current Awareness Tool

Subscribing to RSS feeds is an easy way to stay informed about what people are talking about in Libraryland. While you work on other things, links to new articles, blog entries, and news from your favorite websites are collected for you in one location to browse when you are ready for them. Sort of like checking your email.

What is RSS? A way to syndicate current web content. A file is created that is automatically updated whenever the web site’s content is updated. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, but most people only refer to it by the acronym.

What is a Blog? A web-based publication of brief entries in chronological order; usually about one person, theme, place, etc. Example:

For more information about RSS, see Jenny Levine’s Computers in Libraries presentation on Unleashing the Power of RSS.

Subscribing to RSS Feeds

First, you will need a RSS aggregator or reader, which is the middleman that allow you to collect and read RSS feeds.

There are 2 types:
Desktop Aggregators:
Web-based Aggregators:
Google Reader

One advantage of the web-based aggregators…they’re free!

The most popular aggregator is Bloglines. On his blog, RSS Compendium, Peter Scott has compiled more information than you will ever want on aggregators/readers, so you can choose the one that works best for you.

Second, you need to add feeds to your reader. If a website or blog offers RSS, there will be a button, RSS icon or a text link indication. This is where it gets a bit confusing…when you click on the link it will open to a page of XML code. What now? Copy the feed URL and paste it into designated place on your RSS reader. For example, from your MyBlogs page in Bloglines, you enter the feed's URL in the box at the bottom of the left frame labeled "Subscribe by entering URL". That’s it!

Taming Your Electronic Mailing Lists, Part II

Now that you have a separate email account for your email discussion lists, why not take it one step further and combine it with your RSS feeds?

Several RSS aggregators, like Bloglines, allow you to display email messages right along next to the other content feeds. LawLibTech offers an introduction to using Bloglines for discussion list management.

We also like the way we can personalize the Google homepage to show our RSS feeds and Gmail inbox together on a single page.

Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.
-Henry Bergson

Searching for Blogs

Feedster—Searches RSS feeds
Technorati —Searches Blogs
Or use a general search engine, like Yahoo or Google

Most blogs offer recommendations for like-minded blogs along the side of the page. If you use Bloglines it will refer you to other blogs based on your existing RSS subscriptions.

Won’t Blogs Become Another Digital Distraction?

Bloggers, Nev and Dave, offer the following “10 Tips for Effective Blog Reading, Part 1":

• Set time limits when you’ll read blogs—and stick to them.
• Limit how many feeds you subscribe to and if you add a new feed, consider deleting one of your old ones.
• Organize your categories by importance and/or reading frequency. For example, important, daily, weekly
• Add a quarantine category for new blogs that you’ve added to your aggregator. After a week or so, decide whether you really want to keep that blog and move it to the appropriate category.
• Consider subscribing to only one subset of a person’s blog. Many bloggers tag their posts into categories, so it is possible to get category-specific feeds. [See
Life Hacker’s index of categories ]

Recommended Reading List

Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
All-encompassing time management book with two great ideas: how to create a productive to-do list and a "tickler" file.

Davison-Turley, Whitney. "Blogs and RSS: Powerful Information Management Tools." Library Hi Tech News. 10 (2005): 28-29.
A great introductory article to how to use blogs and RSS feeds for information needs.

Foust, J'aime. Dewey Need to Get Organized? A Time Management and Organization Guide for School Librarians. Worthington, Ohio: Linworth, 2002.

Graham. Krista. "Tech Matters: RSS by any other name..." LOEX Quarterly. 32 no. 3 (2005):4-5.

Langley, Anne, Edward Gray and KTL Vaughan. The Role of the Academic Librarian. Rollingsford, New Hampshire: Chandos; 2003.
Extremely helpful general handbook for new academic librarians. Chapter two offers valuable information for even seasoned librarians in time management, organization, and communication.

Lockwood, Georgene. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Organizing Your Life. 3rd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2003.
This popular book is in its third edition and we loved it despite its status as a “Complete Idiot’s Guide”.

Masterton, Ailsa. Getting Results with Time Management. London: Library Association Publishing, 1997.
Older work, but a strong chapter on “Time Stealers” makes it worth a look.

Siess, Judith A. Time Management, Planning and Prioritization for Librarians. Lanham, Maryland: Scrarecrow Press, 2002.
Just as the title implies, this book covers the well-worn areas of time management, but also serves up some relevant chapters on “Dealing with Job Stress”, outsourcing, business travel and stragic planning.

Taking Control of Your Time. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005.
With an average chapter length of 4 (large print) pages, this Havard Business School Press publication is a time-saver in itself.

Wetmore, Donald E. The Productivity Handbook: New Ways of Leveraging Your Time, Information & Communications. New York: Random House, 2005.
Can be read in one sitting. Written from a general business point-of-view, but the broadness of Westmore’s approach to productivity makes it applicable for librarians.

Zeigler, Kenneth. Organizing for Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Claims to help you shave 2 hours off your workday. We're not sure about that, but Zeigler does offer practical tips to free up time at work.

Time for Sharing

Now that we've given you some fodder for thought, do you have some of your own life hacking tips that you'd like to share with other librarians? The tips you share with your colleagues will be posted here and we'll even be updating this blog periodically to help you continue to use technology to YOUR benefit.

This workshop was presented at the 2006 IACRL Spring Conference on March 30, 2006.