Six years have past since I wrote A Few Notes on Productivity, a post that outlined my approach to productivity in academic and administrative life. More than 11 years have somehow passed since I wrote about Time Management for Graduate Students. Over the past few years, I have referred to the first post in an annual Academic Advancement Network workshop on Prioritizing Time/Email Management. This year, however, I thought I would take a moment to reflect upon my recent practices of academic work in the wake of the pandemic and with an eye toward a possible future.

Reading over those two previous posts on productivity and time management, I realize that many of the tools I use have changed, but the basic principles endure. There is a playfulness to the post on productivity by which I stand: joy is at the heart of all meaningful work. Here, however, I focus on the vital role of intentional self-reflection as a key to shifting from getting things done efficiently to creating a meaningful life. The discussion becomes increasingly practical as it progresses, so those of you who want to hear about my productivity practices can skip to the section on “Brutal Efficiency.”

Know Thyself

This ancient call to self-reflection and intentional self-understanding continues to shape my academic, administrative, and personal life. It is cultivated and refined by a daily practice of writing that offers me opportunities each day to practice ethical candor.

Since October 2017, I have adopted the habit of daily writing designed to focus my attention on intentionally enacting my values in every aspect of my life and work. This commitment to performative consistency — the intentional alignment of values and practices, words and deeds, what you say you care about and how you embody care in your daily interactions — requires cultivated habits of self-reflection. My daily writing practice opens a space for me to check in with myself, refine my ideas, and hold my myself accountable to my core values.

Take a Holistic Approach

My work on the HuMetricsHSS initiative has reinforced my view that identifying and intentionally enacting one’s core values deepen the meaning and impact of our work. The Charting Pathways of Intellectual Leadership (CPIL) framework we are developing and adopting in the College of Arts & Letters is rooted in this values-enacted approach. It asks colleagues to look out toward the horizon of their careers and imagine what they will have accomplished over the course of their academic lives. Bill Hart-Davidson calls this “future-perfect thinking”– what will you have accomplished when you retire? From there we structure mentoring conversations around 3-5 year milestone goals, and the stepping-stone indicators that suggest over the next 6-months to a year that you are heading in the desired direction.

When we turn our attention to horizon goals and ask colleagues to consider how they have Shared Knowledge, Expanded Opportunities, or engaged in Mentorship and Stewardship as part of their pathway to intellectual leadership, we reinforce the importance of taking a holistic approach to our work.

Being productive is not an end in itself, creating a meaningful academic life is. All our efforts to be more efficient and productive should be oriented by the academic life we hope to have, shaped by the values we hold most dear.

The pandemic has, among many other things, forced us to slow down and reflect on what is most meaningful in our lives and work. Katherine May refers to periods like this as “wintering.”

Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

Katherine May, “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” 14.

The pandemic has brought a wintering upon us; it will lead to transformative positive change if we learn to be more intentional about how and why we work. Every act of “brutal efficiency” we undertake as we consider our practices of productivity ought to be oriented toward the change we hope to enact, the future we hope to create.

“Brutal Efficiency”

Having focused to this point on why it is so important to be intentional and reflective about where you place your attention in your work, we turn now to more tactical questions of how to be more productive in this deeper sense. These sections focus on what May calls “carrying out acts of brutal efficiency” by intentionally orienting your time and effort to the work that is most meaningful to you.

The technological tools and administrative practices I discuss below have been adopted in the spirit of what Aristotle says about ethical virtue in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. There he emphasizes that true excellence of character shows itself in the person who is able to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. Having information where I need it at the moment I need it is a central principle of my academic and administrative life.

Relentless Email

Let me begin with what I have called the “first commandment of email” – Do not use email as your To Do List. The inflow of information through email is relentless. It is constantly pulling you away from what you have determined to be most worthy of your attention.

It is vital to have an intentional way to process email so that you are able to distill and align the information you receive with your priorities and values. Although I am constantly reconsidering and re-evaluating the To Do application I use, I have settled for now on Microsoft To Do because of the way it integrates with the Office 365 Suite and Teams in particular.

Here are a few screenshots of my current lists on the iOS To Do application.

Intake of information and ease of processing are critical aspects of one’s productivity workflow, and for now at least, To Do’s integration with Teams and Outlook works best for me. Flagging an email creates a To Do with a link to that particular message that can then be organized according to my projects and priorities.

Conversation in the Teams application, with the Create Task option selected to demonstrate how easy it is to set up a To Do linked to a Teams chat.

With To Do, you can easily add a link to a specific Teams conversation or shared file, so that you can easily turn to it when you are ready.

Contextual Computing

These features of To Do are aspects of a broader strategy animated by the idea that you need the relevant information at the relevant moment to do your most efficient and focused work. David Sparks, aka MacSparky, calls this Contextual Computing: “the idea that you can go from idea to action on your computer with the least amount of friction.” As David emphasizes, using links within apps to jump directly to artifacts on which you are working–be they documents, projects, emails, etc.–allows you to focus your attention on the work itself rather than navigating your way to the work.

One way I do this is through my calendar application. I use Fantastical, which is connected to my MSU Outlook Calendar, to integrate links to all documents I need for any given event. Deanna Thomas, my Executive Assistant, and I have a naming convention connected to a shared drive that we use whenever an agenda or working documents are needed for a meeting. The calendar becomes, in this way, an organizing principle for many important documents. When I need to return to any of them later, I know where to find them.

Screenshot of my Fantastical calendar for April 9, 2021, with the event of the AAN workshop selected and a link to the working document for the event.

Practice what you preach

The "Send later" button on the outlook web interface. A dropdown menu on the send button bring up the option to "Send later."

As a dean, I make every effort to practice the habits of communication for which I advocate. Specifically, I am intentional about not emailing or sending Team messages after work hours or on the weekend unless it is absolutely necessary.

For the past two years, I have been using the Outlook web interface as my main desktop email client, relying on Outlook for iOS on the phone. As surprised as I am to have embraced the Outlook webapp, two elements have been important to me. First, I have enabled the use of Gmail shortcut keys on the Outlook for web interface. This has increased my efficiency greatly, since I have long used Gmail shortcuts. Second, and more importantly, the web interface has the Send later option built right into the dropdown menu of the send button. This allows me to send email during regular business hours even if I myself am answering email off hours.

The “Send later” feature has allowed me to process email when it is most convenient for me, while returning messages to colleagues during appropriate business hours. In this way, I reinforce my expectation that staff and faculty take time away from work to focus on activities that are important to them.

In addition, I am always mindful of not sending too much email, recognizing that email is already relentless, and I don’t want to further exacerbate the problem. I turn communication to Teams whenever possible, and certainly whenever there is a document on which a group of us are working. It is a complete waste of time and energy to continue outdated practices of downloading, editing, adding your initials to the latest version, and returning documents to colleagues for revision. Instead, set up a quick Teams chat and add the document to the chat so you all can edit it online. Not only will you have simplified your work by focusing on a single document, that document’s revision history will be saved, so anything that needs to be retrieved will be readily available.

Ever Evolving Process

Reflective habits of time management require ongoing attention, refinement, and revision. This post captures a moment in time and a set of specific tactics and practices that work for me now given my leadership roles and the evolving technologies. While the basic principles of self-reflection, values alignment, and adopting a holistic approach endure, the processes and practices will continue to evolve and develop as I continue to find pathways of meaningful work.

If, as Katherine May emphasizes, wintering is the crucible of the life cycle, the current pandemic is a crucible for our work-life cycles. The reflective practices of intentional work we have learned over this difficult year of “wintering” may have a powerful transformative effect if we are able more effectively to do the right things, in the right ways, at the right time.

Some Resources

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