Productivity Day by Day

doeverythingbetterI have a confession. I am a productivity junkie. Ever since I can remember I have been making to-do lists and finding tangible satisfaction in putting a checkmark in the checkbox or physically scratching through items on my list. I have even been known to put something I just completed on my list so I can experience the euphoria of striking it from said list. Maybe it was partly the college prep school culture growing up or just how I am wired, but regardless it’s always been hard to tame the voice that says do more and sometimes… just do everything better.


Feeling Productive

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down big life changes into the power of cues, routines, and rewards, the combination of which he refers to as the habit loop. Duhigg’s collection of stories and research got me thinking more intentionally about my daily workflow, especially on the days when I have no less to do in actuality, yet it emotionally feels like less. It might feel this way because I have the freedom (or curse) of being able to walk to the kitchen and get a snack or have a non-traditional work environment for a day, like today as I sit on my back porch working only in the company of my canine colleagues. Since these days are often bookended with several days of 16+hr work and ceaseless travel, it is all the more important to use my “less hectic” work days to get stuff done and build in margin to recharge before the next sprint. But I needed to change my perception of these days and understand their value and necessity in the bigger picture.


The second obstacle relating to my productivity obsession is the very omnipresence of it. Some people say I just can’t turn off my mind or my brain is firing on all cylinders or something about a hamster. Whatever your analogy I feel that too—a lot. Striking at any moment, my very desire for productivity can actually impede productivity, challenging my efforts to be present in a mindful, reflective moment or breaking the flow of an otherwise successful focus block.

Should Have Had a V8 (the duh moment)…

to-dosThen I stumbled upon a habit so simple I felt ridiculous for not already maintaining it. One of the suggestions in Managing Your Day To Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, by a collection of the 99U team, was to create one master to-do list. Anytime your mind swirls with all the big and all the seemingly insignificant to-dos they go on the list.  I think the key for me here was no matter how insignificant—if it was taking up space in my brain it went on the list. Suddenly I could release my mind to think about what really mattered in that moment which was probably not the fact I needed to get more heart worm treatment for my doggies, although at some point that is quite important (just look at that face).

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Color-Coded was Overrated

I refuse to show you all the categories because you will realize how insane this was...

I refuse to show you all the categories because you will realize how insane this was…

Maybe everyone else already does this one big list thing, but in my misguided attempts at organizational efficiency I had multiple, color-coded todo lists that correlated with my color-coded calendar categories. Ten to be exact. Each was categorized to represent a distinct role or responsibility I held and all the associated tasks and events that would ebb and flow as a result. Sounds lovely I know, but my brain didn’t actually think in these nice little boxes, instead my thoughts were much more reminiscent of spaghetti than waffles (supporting what Jeffrey and I learned in our group study earlier of Men are Like Waffles & Women are Like Spaghetti). Ok so step 1…I moved all these crazy lists into 1 master list. Now what?

In another section of Managing Your Day To Day, Mark McGuinness suggests limiting your daily to-do list to a 3”x3” Post-it commenting, “If you can’t fit everything on a list that size, how will you do it all in one day?” This was the second epiphany I needed to click. I always put way too much on a daily list, but now I realize part of that was solved by new habit number one—by putting any stray todo on the master list my mind was freed to focus and get things done. I am still working on creating the habit loop for this, but I try to take a little bit of time each morning to look over my master todo list and pull a couple must do items onto my smaller sticky note for the day. My sticky note is not a 3 by 3 yet (for the record more like a 5 by 7) but I know I still have work to do.


Enjoy the Flow

 When I get to the end of my Today List I can decide do I tackle a couple more from the Master List, work on something in my To Learn list (ok so I still have one extra list), or do something that might be exactly what my future productive self needs…nothing and let my brain and my soul reset before I tackle the to-dos of tomorrow.

Learning without the Clutter

Photos by Stephanie Cerda

Photos by Stephanie Cerda

I would much prefer things to be clean and organized before I sit down to work. A completely open desk space has the instant ability to calm and prepare me to get stuff done in a way I cannot fully describe.  It is the same in my kitchen. Clean countertops simply minister to my soul. In fact I can’t start cooking anything inspired until everything in my line of vision is clean and clear. My mind and habits tell me this space for working is important, but somehow I still forget to clear off space for learning and reflection.

This week was the annual TCEA convention, an incredible opportunity to connect, collaborate, share, and grow with those in the edtech community coming from a variety of perspectives and experiences. In years past I have overbooked myself to the extreme. Partially out of necessity, or so I tell myself, and partially out of my own insanity, I would present, work on the exhibit floor (including set up and tear down which only folks who have done this can fully understand), plan and execute events, and fill in any semblance of margin with a meeting or call. At the end of the week I was always exhausted, overwhelmed, and unsure of what had even transpired in those seven days. On paper it looked super productive I’m sure, but I was missing out on some of the most valuable moments. The moments that occur in the in-between. The unscripted, unplanned, serendipitous moments. The moments I was able to be a part of at TCEA 2014.

Moments like these…

  • Strolling into a presentation in the Digital Square and staying even though it wasn’t on my initial schedule.
  • Making a new, face to face connection with another educator I would have never known from a state far different from the one I call home.
  • Collaborating and digging into writing a manifesto about wonder and curiosity with my new friend during the presentation we both stumbled upon.
  • Diving into a heated discussion on edreform with no official facilitator, direction, or agenda.
  • Accepting a lunch invitation from two, first time TCEA attendees who wanted to talk about applying the concepts from a presentation to their own campus.
  • An impromptu startup therapy session or two…this is where two or more people involved in startups commiserate, brainstorm, pull each other off the ledge and… more.
  • Another meal with an educator I greatly respect and love learning from and with.
  • Catching up with people while walking from one place to the next (key word here is walking—not jogging with five bags or text-walking without looking up).

Don’t get me wrong. I also got to do some structured things…

The time and energy put into the development and deployment of these planned events was totally worth it too, but this is a post about creating space for the in-between and that doesn’t mean you stop planning. Actually I think it means the exact opposite. Only by planning and intentionally leaving the appropriate space and margin in our schedules and lives will we be able to be present in these moments. In one of our Digital Square conversations Stephanie Cerda quoted Tom Barrett who said we have to de-clutter to let learning get messy. To me that implies some organization, some cleaning up, some prioritization of the time and space we have so we can use it well. When I clear off my kitchen countertop I leave room to pull out all the ingredients needed to make something satisfying. And when I finally de-cluttered my schedule I created space for the moments that mattered.
    Even in some of these unique moments I still had to fight against the voice inside that whispered, “You aren’t doing enough, this isn’t real work, and even… what’s the point of all this?” The point is learning, the point is growing, sometimes throughout the scheduled events in life, but other times by decluttering so that we can be inspired by the space between and the unique pieces that come together to create something we never even imagined.

    And so as I reflect on TCEA14, I am glad that I took the initiative to declutter this year. I am grateful that space wasn’t missing from my schedule as Greg Garner wrote about in his post on Getting Smart. Because without that space I wouldn’t get to wrap my brain around what I learned this week and see how I changed and where I can go back to the real world apart from conference-land and actually implement my new ideas and understandings.

    So, why don’t we apply this to our professional learning plans? Why don’t we declutter and leave some space to learn and grow in more authentic, even serendipitous environments? Why is it often the case that any potential margin or holiday or break gets reeled in and filled with a full day PD session? Why don’t we pursue trainers who are better facilitators and model educators than showmen/women?

    Maybe the words professional development wouldn’t make our teachers cringe if we gave them more margin and unstructured collaborative time to explore conversations that interest them and solve problems that they really face.

    P.S. If you struggle with Margin in life too this is a pretty good book on the subject…