Deciding What To Do First

We all have full plates. So many tasks calling for our attention at the same time. New ones constantly being added. Where do you start?  What do you do next?  How you answer those questions determines how efficiently you work and how successful you feel at the end of the day.

There are lots of ways to develop your to-do list and determine your priorities. I use the tried and true pen and paper list. To help me, I break my tasks into categories such as Blog, Montana (where I am teaching online), ALA, and Personal. But where do I begin?

Starring the highest priority items helps, but there are always several starred items. The first item of business is knowing which comes first. On Saturdays, it is this blog. This gives me room to complete it by Sunday should life interfere. The imperative is to get it to my editor who edits what I’ve written as well as posts it on my website on Monday.

My second task on Saturday is checking on my students, responding to their posts, and grading their work. The rest of the week, they come first. I count on the amount of time I need with them to increase slowly through the week as they complete readings and are then able to submit work. The other tasks follow.

During the week there are other things on my schedule. Doctors’ appointments, phone calls that are important, and any other number of things which make planning essential because something is bound to throw me off course at some point. Holding onto my fallback mindset, “Everything will get done — it always does” can keep me calm (mostly) about unanticipated disruptions.

Another way to determine what to do first and what to next is to use the Eisenhower Box or Eisenhower Matrix, named for US President Dwight Eisenhower. It’s an excellent guide for helping you making the decisions on what to do first, next, and so on.

James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, explains how to use this  in How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box.”  To construct the Box, you work with two categories, Urgent and Important and their flips, Not Urgent and Not Important which give you a matrix with four boxes. Clear gives the following explanation to help differentiate between the two, “Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, ‘Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.’”  You can easily redefine Urgent for your work environment with school-related tasks – student disruption, fire drill, call from the principal.

The Box is pictured above. If something is Urgent and Important – DO it. It’s a priority. If something is Important, but not Urgent, you can schedule when it will be done. If it is Urgent and Not Important, look for ways you can delegate this – it’s not the best use of your time. And if it’s Not Urgent and Not Important… don’t do it. Cross that off and move on to the things in the other boxes.

What is important about the Eisenhower Box is that it has you identifying the difference between what is urgent and what is important. Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” But it is wise to know when it’s both and when it isn’t.

Life being what it is, this matrix doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you cannot delegate something, and because it is Urgent, you need to do it anyway- sooner rather than later. Which may mess up the scheduling you’ve done for the things that were Important but Not Urgent. Fortunately, this won’t be an everyday occurrence and you can return to the matrix when it’s time to plan again.

If this thought process works for you, consider adding the Eisenhower Box to your time management skill set. When you consciously decide what to do and when to do it, you feel more organized and have a sense of accomplishment. I also, am aware of what time of day is best for me to do certain tasks and what small and not very important things can be dealt with when I have short periods of time available. Look for those things in your schedule and hopefully soon you’ll be spending your time on your priorities and crossing things off your to-do list.

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Perfect or Good Enough

When my daughter was in high school, I told her, “Good enough is not good enough.”  I was wrong. One reason for our stress and exhaustion is our need to get everything done perfectly. That’s not an option. We have too much to do, and we need to be honest about the importance of our tasks. From making the bed in the morning to leaving the library looking neat, we often treat everything we do equally, but that’s not a good use of our limited time. The result can be that important jobs do not get the detailed attention they need, and we are worn out.

Time management requires more than a to-do list. It means looking at what we do with an eye toward the return we get from our investment of time. In The Costs of Being a Perfectionist Manager, Anna Carmella G. Ocampo, Jun Gu, and Mariano Heyden discuss how to use perfectionist strengths without wearing yourself out trying to get everything done perfectly. They warn that perfectionism frequently leads to dissatisfaction because even when a job is well done, it still may still not meet your standards. It becomes a matter of balance and priorities.

In addition to describing several different types of perfectionists, the trio recommends the following approaches when faced with your own perfectionism:

Design the Right Goals – Ultimately, your goals should be tied to your Mission and Vison, however, as they say, your goals need to be “attainable yet challenging.” Interim goals that inch you towards your larger one will give you the best results. You learn what works and what doesn’t, and you don’t beat yourself up for not seeing your whole Mission in operation or achieving your Vision. You enjoy the process.

Recognize Failure as Part of the Process This can’t be stated often enough. We teach students that failure is learning, then don’t apply the concept to ourselves. We won’t get it right the first time. The learning is as important as the goal. If we don’t accept this, then fear of failure will keep us from taking risks, and risk-taking is an important leadership quality.

Cultivating Mindfulness – How you think is how you feel. Meditation is what the trio recommend. This could be traditional meditation, but anything that gets you away from your desk and immediate demands on your attention can be beneficial (long time readers of this blog know that I’m a walker). Look for times in your day when you can take a break, listen to your own thoughts (or music, or a podcast) so that you come back recharged.

Using Pep Talks – We are well-aware that we speak a lot of critical things to ourselves, things we’d never say to others. Perfectionist tendencies can make these thoughts batter us too often. Ocampo, Gu, and Heyden recommend finding calming and positive mantras to help banish these thoughts. I use this technique and remind myself of past struggles and ultimate successes. Again, what you think is how you feel.

Fostering Positive Interpersonal Relationships – Although every conversation is an opportunity, you don’t have to have an end goal in mind for each one. We know how important relationships are to the success of the library program, and building them begins with casual interactions. The authors point to how good we feel when we help someone. Doing so is a natural part of being a librarian. And not all help needs to be tied to library use. It’s about being an empathetic, caring person.

Managing Emotions – This is part of SEL and is vital for us all. Perfectionism leads to stress which tends to make us irritable and unpleasant to be with. The above techniques can help reduce that as will reframing. Every cloud has a silver lining. Find it and use it to calm yourself. This may also be a good time for a walk or reading some funny memes. Do whatever you need to restore your mental balance.

How many tasks do you have that don’t need to be done perfectly? Look to your priorities, give them the time they deserve, and then let the other things go. Sometimes, and again with apologies to my daughter, good enough is good enough.

Dealing With Avoidance

Procrastination and avoidance may look outwardly similar, but their internal differences need to be recognized. Procrastination can be healthy, such as when used to give your brain a rest. Yes, it can be overdone, but normally you get back to the task. Avoidance has few positives. It refers to something you know should and must be done, and you keep doing other things hoping it will go away. It could be a dreaded task or a conversation you don’t want to have. At its core, it is a form of denial.

We cannot not avoid most big things in life. Avoiding something doesn’t make it go away, and often makes it worse. And it looms in our minds adding to our stress. Leaders need to face the tough stuff.

In his blog post, What Are You Avoiding, Gregg Vanourek lists what we most commonly avoid, why we do it, and the problems caused by avoidance. He concludes with a list of 14 ways to stop doing it. They are brief, and many you have heard before, but they are worth reviewing and recognizing.

  1. Recognize our avoidance behaviors—but without beating ourselves up over them – You can’t deal with a problem unless you recognize it’s there – and is a problem. Whether it’s choosing less important tasks until you have used up all available time or waiting until you are in the right frame of mind, there is a pattern for you. Be honest about it.
  2. Seek their root causes (continue asking why until there’s no deeper why) – There are reasons for our behaviors. What are we afraid of? Do we fear we can’t do it? If so, why do we think that way? Our brains try to protect us, but sometimes they prevent us from developing further.
  3. Engage in relaxation and self-care activities such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, gardening, art, or journaling – These can be key ways to understand what you uncovered in the first two steps.
  4. Get support from a friend, mentor, therapist, and/or coach – Support is a great means of dealing with a tough problem and getting past avoidance definitely qualifies. Reach out to the people who will talk you off the ledge and help you get back on track.
  5. Process emotions by talking them through with someone or journaling – Similar to the previous one but focus on the underlying emotions, not just the actions. Emotions are powerful controllers of our behaviors. The journaling or talking will help you identify them and see how they are getting in your way.
  6. Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks – Once you can see both the behavior and the emotion behind it, chip away at it by breaking it into manageable steps.
  7. Start with an easy task to get momentum and small wins- As you divide the task, look for the small pieces you can start with. Early victories create momentum.
  8. Give ourselves motivations, such as rewards for accomplishing tasks – Acknowledge the achievements as you take these steps, no matter the size. It will keep you going.
  9. Reframe a situation to note the positives and avoid focusing only on the negatives – What are the positive emotions you’re noticing as you take these steps? Look for these rather than how far you have to go (remember #1 – don’t beat yourself up!)
  10. Change our inner monologue, quieting the negative self-talk – The words we use when we talk to ourselves are extremely powerful. Give yourself a break. You are getting there.
  11. Practice communication skills, including assertive self-advocacy – Speak up for yourself. We frequently avoid difficult conversations and topics, including advocating for what we need.
  12. Set deadlines and goals to commit to action by a certain time – Set a “by-when.” Make sure it’s realistic. Without that you are more likely to continue to avoid.
  13. Build action and proactivity habits, training our brain and helping us become a “doer” – Knowing your best time of day for getting big jobs done is the first step. Do the next small chunk then and celebrate you win.
  14. Recognize that doing something we’ve been avoiding can feel amazing, giving us a sense of agency, accomplishment, momentum, and confidence – It is liberating. That looming elephant that you have been pretending not to see is gone!  You are ready to take on the world.

You are not the only one who has avoided doing difficult things. It’s human nature. But if you keep dodging them, you don’t build the self-confidence you need to draw on to be the leader your students, teachers, and administrators need you to be.

Procrastination – Good, Bad and Ugly

We have too much to do, not enough time to do it, and still we procrastinate. Why do we let ourselves waste time and get off track? Despite resolutions to focus on the tasks at hand, somehow, we find something to divert us. How can we change this and when should we?

First off, there is a good side to procrastination. Our brains need rest. If we have been tackling a complex or a boring job, when it’s through we need to pause and give our brains a chance to shift. Additionally, we need different types of thinking depending on the task. That said, the pause shouldn’t last an hour. Once we go to our procrastination of choice, we tend to linger there too long. Time gets sucked away and we are upset with ourselves.

Procrastination becomes “ugly” when we use it to avoid a task. Instead of diving in and taking a break when we complete it or come to a natural resting spot, we put off starting. By the time we get to it, we are annoyed with ourselves and are not bringing our best to the job.

How can you manage procrastination so you can use it in good ways and avoid the bad and ugly ones? Amanda Pressner Kreuser presents 5 Easy Tricks to Beat Procrastination You Should Start Today. Here’s the list, along with my adaptations for our world.

  1. Be realistic about your bandwidth. There’s always too much to do. When facing the stress or overwhelm of a big project, you are apt to try clearing your deck of the little tasks, but these don’t move you forward and your deadlines loom closer, adding to your stress. Instead, prioritize the larger tasks based on your availability and look for ways to do the smaller things at a later time. If at all possible, delegate so that you can still enjoy checking things off without having to do them yourself. For example, if you feel pressed to get a cart load of books shelved, make a sign suggesting students look over these recent returns for  a suggestion of what to read next.
  2. Break up large projects or deadlines into small tasks. The old advice works best. Chunk the project up into workable tasks. This way you get a sense of accomplishment as tasks are completed, and your project gets done on time, or even early. An added benefit is that you have a chance to review what you have done as you tackle each new part making it more likely that you’ll find ways to improve and streamline your plan. If you use my telescoping (visualizing the full project), microscoping (focusing on what needs to be done now), and periscoping (popping up every now and then to be sure you are aware of upcoming tasks as deadlines), you will stay on track and keep stress levels down.
  3. Put time blocking into action. Our brains need a pause. Kreuser says studies show we need a break after 90 minutes. Don’t fight against this. Instead, plug this into you schedule, then set a timer and stay on task until you reach that pause point and stop. If you are on a roll, make yourself a note that will help you get you back to where you were when you stopped. What to do during the pause? Moving is one good choice, reading for pleasure could be another. But whatever you do, set a timer for however long you plan to take. This way you won’t fall into the bad aspects of procrastination.
  4. Eliminate distractions — or at least put them on pause. This one is tough. In the library people are always coming in, and you must do what you can to respond. Eliminate the ones you can such as keeping your phone on mute so you are not tempted to respond to it. If you are working from home, let partners and children know when you’re busy. Tell them when you will be ready to talk and ask them to wait until them. If you have a door you can close, post a sign for when you will be “available.”
  5. Reward yourself in small ways. We are naturally motivated by positive reinforcement so make a plan for this with each successful milestone. Take the reward you earned. Do a Wordle or other computer game. Physical activity is always a good change after doing a mental task. Take a walk. Plan a trip to your favorite coffee shop. Then set up the next task and the next reward.

Caveat emptor. Don’t expect this to work every day. Some days you end up going down the procrastination rabbit hole. Somedays will have more unexpected interruptions than others. You are human. Be compassionate. But the better you are at learning to manage procrastination the less stressed you will be, and we all need that.

I Don’t Have Time To…

How are you completing the sentence in the title? To get books shelved? To do a diversity audit? To eat lunch? We are so pressed for time we focus on the most urgent tasks or the ones we are struggling to complete and forget ourselves. It’s not only that there are a limited number of hours in the day. The fact is, we can’t be creative every hour we are awake. We cannot even be productive every hour. Our bodies and brains need a break.

We’ve all tried a variety of ways to organize and manage our time. We have our to-do lists in whatever format we prefer, project planners, and post-it note reminders. Then your principal pulls you to cover a class and have no choice but to do what you were told. And there goes the to-do list and your day. You surrender to it and are too tired to use whatever time you have left to tackle the task you expected to get done.

Despite your best efforts, you may not be making the best use of the time you do have. Mary Kelley has 5 Ways to Find Out If You Are Maximizing Your Time.

  1. You Stick to Your Schedule – First, make sure you’re doing what you said you were going to do when you wanted to do it. You’re not maximizing your time if you are checking emails before getting started. But what about those unscheduled interruptions?  What happened to the task you didn’t get to finish? Get back to it as soon as possible. You may need a quick review to see where you left off. An alternative is to consciously reschedule it for a better time. Then get on with the next task on your schedule.
  • You Plan Ahead – Kelley is referring to looking long range – next week, next month. I call it telescoping, periscoping, and microscoping. In telescoping you view a project through its completion. This could be an advocacy plan or a unit you are doing with a teacher. You are aware of when the parts need to be completed to meet your final deadline. In periscoping, check in every so often to see if you are on target for completing a task. If not, make the adjustments to the schedule to make sure there are no surprises as you head toward the finish live. In microscoping you focus on the immediate work. Then if you are interrupted, you can make the needed change when you periscope.
  • You Prioritize – Kelley uses a whiteboard with her MITs (Most Important Tasks). You may be doing that with your to-do list but having them in front of you is a constant reminder. It might also alert those interrupting you to the work you are trying to do. And don’t forget to put yourself in the schedule. Put in your lunch time. Add whatever you do to stay healthy such as a chair yoga exercise or even going to an open window to breathe. You need these pauses to refresh your brain. You are a priority too.
  • You Avoid Multitasking – It’s been proven that it doesn’t work, and we keep doing it. Know which tasks require the most brain power and/or creativity. Make sure that has your total focus. If there is an interruption you must respond to, do not work on the task while dealing with the interruption. Tasks involving creativity often require that you pause to think through a problem. It may be tempting to scan your emails while you think. Just because you are not actively doing something doesn’t mean you aren’t engaged in the task. Trying to get through those emails will only slow you down, and you are likely to miss important details on both tasks.
  • You Cheerfully Say NO – I like this one. While you can’t say no to your principal, there are many other requests you can turn down. Knowing when and how is important in making the best use of your time. If the request connects to a priority of yours, “yes” is probably the right answer. If not, refuse, but carefully. Suggest an alternative. You may be able to take it on at a future date. It’s important to know how to say “no” without damaging a relationship.

In her post, Kelley notes our brains can’t run at full capacity for more that 4 hours a day. Know when your most productive/creative times are and develop your schedule around it. Do what you can to work on your biggest priorities during those times. And give yourself a break when the schedule goes nuts.

You Are Not Lazy

photo from Canva

It’s been another tough year (okay, is there ever not one?). There’s more to do than ever, and everybody seems to be doing more than we are. Any time we take away from getting things done if it’s not we studiously scheduled for self-care is considered wasted. We think it’s “proof” we are lazy.

A piece of advice, which I sometimes need to remind myself, is “Don’t judge your inside by someone else’s outside.” We see what others are doing, but we don’t see what they are not doing. Their lives and task may have some similarities to yours, but are actually very different. We judge ourselves when we compare, and our judgements are usually harsh.

Give yourself the same generous support you would give others. Doing nothing for an entire evening or taking off a whole day, even when that’s not what you originally planned doesn’t mean you are lazy. Could be that you are very tired. Or overwhelmed. Or haven’t truly given your body and mind time off. In these cases, allowing yourself to not do what you planned is probably the best thing you can do to be productive and effective. If you don’t let yourself have down/away time, you will burn out.

You don’t want your exhaustion to cause you to take more and more time off. That’s usually a sign you’re heading for burnout. Albert Costill explains How You Can Become Productive – Even If You Are Lazy. He presents the following ten tips for doing it:

  1. Arrest Your Laziness Culprit – Identify what is causing your need to take time off. Is there a task you hate doing? Maybe you can delegate part of it. My best method is to get it done first so it doesn’t wear on me all day – or distract me as I do other things. Remember, your inner critic isn’t helping. Talk to yourself like a friend.
  2. Find Meaningful Work – Or make your work meaningful. Sometimes we approach tasks like robots. Do this. Then do that. Ask yourself why you are doing it. Why does it matter? Connect your tasks to your Mission and Vision so you see their purpose.
  3. Surround Yourself with Success – Costill suggests listening to a motivating TedTalk. Find the things that work for you. Stay away from colleagues who spend time complaining. I like keeping a success journal to remind me of what I accomplished in a day.
  4. Play to Your Strengths – You know what you are good at. Costill suggests drawing on them to help you accomplish a task. Your strengths make you confident in what you are doing and allow you to be more productive.
  5. Make It Difficult to Get Distracted – Okay, during school hours this might be nearly impossible, but even if it is only for a half hour, have or create a space where you can stay focused. Have everything you need before you start and minimize your distractions. Turn off your phone or put it on vibrate.
  6. Procrastinate – Yes, there is a time and place for this. You can’t go from one intense task to another one. Do whatever works for you to clear your mind. Meditate. Go for a walk or run. Read a few pages in a book. The space you gave yourself will often allow new creative thoughts in and have you more ready to take on what’s next.
  7. Do a Victory Dance – You don’t need to do this literally but find a way to congratulate yourself for your accomplishment. This connects to #3 and surrounding yourself with success. Teachers used to give students gold stars. How many did you earn today? This week? Notice your forward momentum and celebrate it.
  8. Try Gamification – Big tasks take a long time to complete. Sometimes the end seems so distant it is hard to believe it will get done. Break it into its parts and give yourself “points” for achieving each “level.” If a job took you an hour last week – see if you can do it faster this week. Find ways to have fun with the progress as well as the goal.
  9. Relax and Do the Things You Enjoy – This is a reminder to give yourself time to the things that give you pleasure. As with Procrastinate, it will allow your creative energy to emerge. Positive feelings bring positive results.
  10. Recruit Support – Is there someone who can work with you on part of the task? Remember, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If that is not an option, draw on your ever-available PLN. They are always there for advice and support.

There is so much to do – chances are you doing much more than you realize and only noticing when you’re not working. Be kind to yourself. Try a reverse of the Golden Rule and treat yourself as you would treat others. 

Time and Task Management

Being able to manage available time is a critical skill. There’s always more to do, so there’s always more to learn about how to find and use new techniques. Two weeks ago, I blogged about Diffusing Pressure and discussed knowing the difference between urgent and important. Another time management skill is knowing how take into account the time to complete a task and when it’s best to do it. This combines time management with task management.. Some tasks require a great deal of time. If you are creating a presentation, you need to stay focused on what you are doing.  You can’t jump in and out of doing it without wasting time reviewing it each time you return to the task. On the other hand, sending overdue notices while being careful not to violate student privacy, takes somewhat less focus but a sizeable block of time. 

The key point is to be aware of the amount of time it takes to do the tasks on your to-do lists. This must be looked at in connection with whether a task can be interrupted and restarted without losing much time in getting back to where you were. Going through email or regular mail is one of the best illustrations of this.

Knowing the differences between these projects and when you can do them are the mortar that hold the bricks of you time management together and help you become more productive. For example, you have finished that big report and have nothing on your schedule for the next half hour.  You could just let your brain breathe, especially if your creative juices are dry.  Or you could use those few minutes to clear through some email or junk mail. Those tasks are neither urgent nor important (unless there is something in email), but still need to get done.

About that drain of creative juices. That’s something else you need to think about. What is your best time of day to do creative tasks?  For me it’s in the morning.  If I tackle it later in the day, it takes me longer to complete.

Make a spreadsheet to help you see how to organize your time; In the first column put the task. Then have three columns for (1) approximate time it will take, (2) urgent/important, (3) creative (yes/no). Use this for several days and see what you learn and how you are able to manage your time. If it works, in a few weeks, you will probably be able to allocate your time without it.

Another thing that helps with task management is knowing your very quick items and getting them done at the right time. Crossing items off your to-do list always feels good. Naphtali Hoff offers his approach on How to Productively Knock out Those 2-Minute Tasks.  He quotes David Allen’s Two Minute Rule: “If it takes less than 2-minutes, do it now.” We all get these thoughts of some quick thing that needs doing and can lose the idea quickly if we’re enmeshed in a bigger task. If it’s an interruptible task, handle the quick one immediately, and get it off your plate. You’ll get the added boost of a sense of accomplishment which energizes us when we get back to what we were working on. 

The downside is dealing with 2-minute tasks can get you off-track if you’re working on something that you shouldn’t be distracted from. To determine whether you should address the 2-minute task, Naphtali offers these three methods to aid your decision:

  1. Only work on two-minute tasks that relate to the larger assignment that you’re working on Is there someone who you need to call about an item in your report?  Did you wonder if there was a quote that could capture an idea in your presentation?  Search for these now.
  2. Set aside a larger time block for your two-minute tasks – Note those brief tasks on one list and deal with all of them at once.  This accomplishes two things.  You get them done, and because there are so many of them, you can relish seeing all those items disappear from your to-list.
  3. Immediately decide your next stepsNow what?  You are feeling great about your accomplishment. Use your positive mindset to power you onwards. What is your next priority? Get back to a bigger project or more on to another item on your list? Note the items in your Urgent/Important list with a “yes” and see where those fit next.

As best you can, keep distractions away from your uninterruptible tasks so that you use that time well and learn which items on your to-do list are doable when there are interruptions. Plan those tasks when you’re more likely to be disturbed. As an added bonus, look to use this with your personal tasks as well.

Time is a precious and limited commodity. The clearer you are about what you need to do and how you need to do it, the more effectively and efficiently you can manage.

Focus and Procrastination

Photo by Antonio Guillem via Canva

There is always something that needs to get done but too often something pulls our focus. Before we know it, we’ve lost too much time and haven’t made the progress we want. Is there a way to make the two work together?

Sometimes procrastination can help and other times, not so much. When we choose to answer a phone call or an email as a way to not work on a task, it can be hard to get focused again. Then there are the times when you’re stuck during a project. You take a break. Perhaps go for a walk or even play a game of solitaire (my two favorites). When you return to work, somehow you have figured out what you need to do next. The procrastination became an aid not a deterrent.

What’s the difference? Usually it’s your attitude or mindset towards what you are doing. Are you taking the break intentionally or to avoid something? When you are not eager to dig into the task at hand, staying focused can be a challenge. You are more likely to succumb to the negative aspects of procrastination. The short break you give yourself stretches out. By the time you get back to work, more time has passed than you realized. Then we typically beat ourselves up for taking the break. You probably will get it done, but without the enthusiasm that produces your best work.

As part of a blog post on How to Remove Distractors from Your Workday, Naphtali Hoff shares six techniques to help you manage internally driven distractors from your day:

  1. Set Daily Goals – This is familiar advice. My suggestion is to limit the number of goals to two tasks. You can have more on your to-do list but keep your focus on one or two priorities. If you get to anything else, it’s a bonus.
  2. Set Deadlines – Most of your tasks probably have inherent deadlines, but it helps to be specific. Set a time by when you will finish the day’s top priority items. Having a “by when” will help you achieve it as you have a goal you are working toward.
  3. Break Project into Manageable Chunks – Big projects are intimidating. My method is to telescope, microscope, and periscope (see my blog post on this here). Use Telescope to identify by when the project must be completed. (Set your own internal deadline for before that date since life happens.) Microscope by determine a sequence of steps, including daily ones. Focus only on the one you need to complete today. Every so often, pop up your Periscope to see what is coming up. Do you need to alter your daily schedule?
  4. Practice Mindfulness – Meditation is not procrastination. Use all your tools to keep your outlook positive. Record your successes. Praise yourself for accomplishments. Hoff says, “practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with improvement in sustaining focus and attention.” When you feel good about yourself, it’s much easier to get work done – and stay focused at it.
  5. Set a Timer – This allows for what might be called “planned procrastination”. It’s like a workout for a specified period of time. How long do you want to work before taking a break?  Your body needs to move, your thoughts may need to focus elsewhere for a little while. It’s healthier if you get up each hour for a few minutes. After a second hour, you might plan a longer break – to take that walk or play that game. But set a timer for that, too.
  6. Switch Tasks – Sometimes you hit a brick wall. While some form of procrastination to refresh your brain cells might work, consider switching to task #2 on your to-do list. Some may find that doing this needs some transition time, but as long as you know you’re making this change, you’ll start the next task sooner.

Know how your mind and body behave. Identify what is happening when you lose focus or when you’re having trouble getting focused. How long can you work full-out at something before your focus begins to dwindle? Remember that you can welcome, allow, and even plan for procrastination as a tool in accomplishing tasks. When you do this – the time spent procrastinating is less likely to take over your day.

Knowing When to Say No

With all the talk about self-care, the need to say “No” has not been discussed much. Yet knowing when and how to say “No” may be the one of the most important skills for keeping yourself mentally and physically heathy. You cannot keep giving and doing and then adding to it. Even more important is being able to make that “No” stick, without caving in and saying, “Ok, I will do it.”

The first secret it to know when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. This starts by going back to your Mission to get a perspective on what the additional responsibility will entail. Will taking it on advance your Mission or take you away from it? If the task/project/offer doesn’t move you toward your goals, then the answer should be ‘no.’ There will be times when the person asking is someone you can’t say no, which is when it’s time for the second secret.

Sometimes you have to find a way to negotiate. This allows you to set boundaries and gives you some control. The Eblin Group offers Ten Things to Say Beyond Yes organized into three categories of responses: Yes, but…, Learn more, and No, but….

Yes, but…

  • With these conditions – You don’t have to use the word “conditions,” just itemize them. This lets the other person know your boundaries but show you are still prepared to take on the task. It also sends a message that your other work has importance as well. “I can do this if, I can get help with…”
  • Not now – When you say this, you control the timeline. Suggest a date when you will attend to it then follow up with confirmation. This shows your willingness to participate and be a team member while keeping your priorities.
  • Not me – Use this when you know someone who is better suited to the task. You are possibly putting them in the same position you currently are (depending on their priorities and workload), so be sure they’re a good substitution for you.

Learn more

  • Tell me more–You might even open with this. You can’t make a decision unless you know what’s involved and why it’s important. This also gives you time to think about your choice and no rush a response. Also recognize that jobs always involve more than they seem They are like icebergs.
  • Why now instead of later? – This gives you the information as to whether you can use the second “Yes, but” response. It also tells you how critical is to get the job done.
  • What about some alternatives that don’t require as much?–Get the other party to also think about the best way to manage the task. Find out if there are other options available to make the job happen.
  • What else would work or help instead? –  This gets both of you thinking out of the box. Maybe there’s a way to bring in more people or take a fresh approach. It also stops the “do what’s always been done” cycle.

No, but…

  • Here’s what I can do – On the one hand, you know the task is taking you away from your Mission. On the other hand, you still want to be cooperative. After you have Learned More, you can define how much you are willing to give. (If you are saying this to an administrator, instead of starting with, “No, but…” try ‘How about if I….”)
  • What if we tried this instead – Offer a solution that works for both of you. I once had a principal ask me to cover a gym class because there was no substitute available. I suggested the class meet in the library and research what was available on sports, exercise, etc. I had to work fast to make it a quick project with a purpose, but the principal and the kids liked it.
  • I wish you the best–If you must say no, be courteous and clear, “I am sorry I can’t help you with this. Maybe some other time.” We always want to leave a situation open to relationship building and future collaborations. Sometimes ‘no’ is only ‘no, for now.’

At some point – and probably when you least want to say ‘yes’ – you will be asked to do something more. Be prepared. Review your Mission so it’s firm in your mind and be ready to respond with something other than a ‘yes’ that will deplete you. You do have choices, and ‘no’ can be one of them.

Why Is It So Hard?

Somedays are just too hard. I have big plans for the day.  My to-do list is at the ready.  Then one by one, life happens, and the day is drawing to a close.  I still haven’t done my number one priority, I’ve added more things to my to-do list, and I am too tired and brain dead to deal with any of it.

I remind myself tomorrow is another day. I focus on having a positive mindset. And then tomorrow brings its own set of obstacles to my plan. Or I have one or two great days and feel confident I have a handle on my life. And then stuff happens again. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. Social media is filled with tales of life continually interfering with plans and intentions. 

I give advice on time management. Surely, I should manage my own better.

Some answers came from an unexpected article. A post by Scott Mautz, 5 Reasons Why Your Middle Manager Role Is So Difficult (And What To Do About It) provided answers I could see where school librarians are middle managers and how their challenges are ours. You are the Program Administrator for your library with the responsibilities it carries, and you also have a boss–your principal.

Consider how these five reasons reflect your situation.

  1. Self-identity – Mautz points to the many hats you wear and their differences. You move from directing what is happening in your library to working collegially with teachers, and then bringing a “deferential stance with your boss.” These “micro-transitions” exhaust us. Probably more so because we are not recognizing them as such. It’s hard.
  2. ConflictExhaustion and stress are everywhere, which means tempers flare. You may be in challenging situations with teachers, students, and parents. As librarians, you are expected to have a positive working relationship with everyone, but no one seems to have that responsibility with you. You are using many of your relationship skills to soothe tempers and reduce tensions. It’s hard.
  3. Omnipotence – Mautz says you “feel you are expected to know everything,” The saying that “if librarians don’t know the answer they know where to find it” heightens that expectation from others. But they have questions and needs from so many different fields. Every moment you’re uncertain adds to the weight of your day. It’s hard.
  4. Physical – All that micro-switching, uncertainty, and desire to be at your best takes its toll. You’re probably not getting enough sleep and the sleep you do get is not always restful. You wake up exhausted with the entire day to face. Then it’s coffee and/or sugars to give you an energy boost even when you want to eat better. And exercise? When? It’s hard.
  5. Emotional – Mautz points to the emotional toll of middle managers who felt isolated. Librarians know this deeply as most are the only ones in their school– or perhaps spread over multiple schools. No one else has our responsibilities, goals, or challenges. PLNs definitely help. But it’s hard.

Mautz follows up these challenges with several “reframes” which I have abbreviated:

  • Recognize your micro-transitions are all one job–Keep your Mission Statement in mind. Mautz writes: “The 100 jobs you belong to add up to one vital job you’re uniquely suited to do well. Take pride in that and value the variety.”
  • Leading and Influencing Up – Know what your principal expects of you (and what they need) and keep them apprised of how you are doing it. Offer regular reports or, at the least, an annual report (see last week’s blog).
  • Leading and Influencing Down–Mautz talks about the importance of giving feedback. Watch your words and body language to ensure your message comes across as feedback, not criticism. Create strong relationships and partnerships and the emotional toll is decreased.
  • Influencing Across–These are the people in the larger community. Here is where you can spread the word about the importance of school libraries and having certificated librarians run them. Even where you have no authority, you have an opportunity for great influence.

It is hard. Understanding what causes some of your daily frustration may ease your feelings that you aren’t doing enough or not organized enough. You are doing more than enough. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also important work.