As many of you know, I find joy in refining the system that shapes the way I work and in sharing my approach here on the Long Road blog. So let this be the latest in an ongoing series which I have tagged “Productivity,” but which I prefer to think about in terms of meaningful work, perhaps we can call it “meaningful productivity” to distinguish it from a mindless productivity that serves systems of extraction and exhaustion.
As I look back, it has been fifteen years since I wrote my first post on the topic at the request of a group of graduate students who were interested in learning how to best manage their time, and, strangely enough, it has been nine years to the day since I wrote A Few Notes on Productivity, a post that outlined my approach to productivity in academic and administrative life.
Over the past few years, I have referred to my 2021 post on moving from productivity to meaningful work in an annual Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Affairs workshop at Michigan State on Prioritizing Time/Email Management. Preparing for our 2024 workshop has prompted the reflections below.
While I would love to write more about how Obsidian, a powerful markdown writing application, has transformed the way I organize my academic, administrative, and personal life, here I am going to focus on a few specific elements related to how I manage my day-to-day activities as a dean of two colleges—the College of Arts & Letters and the Honors College. Obsidian is an application and a platform; its power lies in its community of users and in the plugins you can add to customize it to your specific needs.
In what follows, in addition to the core Obsidian application, which is free for personal use, the workflow I describe makes use of the Tasks plugin, the Calendar plugin, and the Periodic Notes plugin. I encourage you to explore the application and to join the vibrant Obsidian community, but fair warning: there are rabbit holes within rabbit holes waiting to swallow your time, so enter with intention and purpose!
Enduring Purpose, Writing Practice
Even as I continue to refine my process and the tools I use to manage my workflow, the enduring purpose of my efforts is to free my mind to be fully present to those with whom I meet every day. As I have discussed in the past, to facilitate this, I have a daily writing practice during which I return to the core values that animate my life—ethical candor, ethical imagination, attention, integrity—and reflect on how best to enact these values in the context in which I find myself.
The workflow I describe below combines this commitment to reflective practice with a contextual computing approach designed to give me direct access to the materials I need at the moment I need them most. The power of Obsidian in this context is its ability to make connections not only by linking notes to one another, but by allowing you to easily link to files and websites outside of your system of personal notes to create a broader ecosystem that enables meaningful productivity.
Preparing for the Week
At the beginning of each week I carve out a little time to go through my calendar and, using the Periodic Notes plugin of Obsidian, I create a daily note for each day of the week with links to notes related to each meeting I have.
Here is what the note for Monday, January 8th, 2024, looks like:
Now there is a lot going on here, and I don’t want you to be overwhelmed, so focus on the center panel of the page where you will see the call-out box labelled “Focus” in which I have a bullet list of links to notes related to each meeting I have that day.
There you will see links to notes connected with people with whom I meet (Upenyu Majee, Thomas Jeitschko …), projects on which I am working (MSU Strategic Planning, NEH Pilcrow Grant…), and areas for which I am responsible (HC – MarComm, CAL – Development, CAL – Research…). Each of those links connects to a note that itself includes everything to which I need to refer in considering the topic at hand.
So, for example, when I click on the link to the Campball Hall Renovation note, I am taken to the following note:
This note has links to all the documents related to this project on Sharepoint. So I can, for example, look at the document we are using to track donors for the project, or link directly to the memo I am working on about our financial commitments to the project.
Contextual To Do Lists
One of the most powerful aspects of this approach is that when I have something that needs to be done related to the project, I can add it directly to the note and the Tasks plugin will enable me to view my tasks in a variety of ways, as indicated in image above of the daily note, which has call-out boxes on the left with my tasks organized in various ways—Due Today or Tomorrow, High Priority, etc. This allows me to write tasks in the context where they are most relevant and view them in the ways that are most meaningful to me. Having my tasks integrated into this ecosystem of notes where all relevant materials are readily available enables me to take and track actions in the context in which they have the most meaning.
More importantly, this daily note’s list of linked notes allows me to focus my full attention on the person with whom I am meeting because I know all the material I need to respond to questions or to work collaboratively is readily accessible.
The daily note for January 8, 2024 connects to over twenty other notes, as this graph of the note’s connections indicates. By connecting my notes in this way, I can quickly and easily find the materials I need when I need them most.
Although it has taken time and experimentation with Obsidian to develop a system that works for me, now that I have notes connected to the range of things on which I am working, a liberating peace of mind that has settled upon me. Obsidian is remembering things that need to be done, holding the information in the context in which it is most relevant, and I am free to focus on those I encounter, imagine new possible projects and connections, and enjoy the purposeful work to which I am dedicated.