A day in the life of a librarian (October 2017)

Welcome to a periodic installment of ‘day in the life’ because I figure it might be interesting to see what this looks like for a librarian. This was not quite a typical day, but it gives a good range of the kinds of things I do.

(I’m not being very specific about the content of some of the things I’m working on, both because of patron privacy and because it’d fairly quickly directly identify where I work: instead, I’m talking about the kinds of questions and projects in more general terms.)

Image: A wooded path with autumn leaves, trees arching overhead. Text reads: Librarians: Day in the life (October 2017)

A not quite typical Friday

5:15am :

Get up, do minor morning computer things, put on swimsuit and nicer work clothes on top. Make sure to pack jewelry and a nicer hair thing. (Normally, I am a knit top, knit skirt, and hair in a braid person, but we have international visitors today.)

6:00am :

Leave my apartment, drive to the fitness club where I swim. Swim from 6:25 to 7, shower, change, drive to work.

7:35 am :

Get into the library. Our library and archives assistant is working in the archives this morning (so she can be up in the library this afternoon) so I turn on the lights, unlock the stacks, and pull the cart of materials for our visiting researcher out into my office.

For the next hour, I eat breakfast, work through my email, review some pages on the intranet that we need to tidy up, and read web pages about the people who are visiting this afternoon, so I can have a better sense of their possible questions. Forward one question to other people in our institution who can probably identify the thing being asked about much more quickly.

We’re light on questions today – only the one so far. Some days, I come in to find three or four waiting.

8:45 am:

Quick bathroom break, set up our webcam for monitoring our researcher and wait for her to show up at the front desk.

We have a very small staff (me, our archivist, and a shared assistant) and visiting researchers work at a desk in my office. It’s common for archives to have limits on how materials are handled (that’s another post!), and for people using materials to be observed the entire time.

Our IT folks helped us figure out a webcam option (pointed at the work table researchers use, but we can’t see things on their screen or notes, just that they’re not mishandling materials), which means I can take a quick break (bathroom, to help someone else, etc.) with a little advance warning now.

However, there are some other limitations: there’s some kinds of work I have a much harder time doing or focusing on, and I can’t do things involving extended phone calls or going back and forth to the stacks. And I can’t have music on, and there are definitely some tasks I find easier or more pleasant with music or a podcast.

This researcher has been here for two days already, so we don’t need to cover any of the basics like how things work.

9:00 am:

Waiting for researcher to appear. Get a reply to the ‘track down this particular thing’ with a list of other people to ask, send the question off to them. Answer another email re: the library newsletter. Open most recent newsletter so I can set up this month’s version (it goes out the last week of the month.)

My researcher days involve a certain amount of ‘can’t start more complex task because I am waiting for them to show up/come back from lunch, and don’t want to get into the middle of something’

9:35 : Go to plug in my phone for music, researcher arrives. Get her settled.

9:50 am:

Get a call from our front desk: there is a walk-in visitor who’d like to visit the library. Get assistant to Skype in from downstairs to keep an eye on researcher.

It turns out to be a book jobber who buys books from various sources including library discards and resells on Amazon/eBay (she is here with a friend doing something at our institution.) We discard very few books, but I give her a chance to look at our free shelf.

10:15 am:

Get back to my desk to actually do things. Take a while to settle down again. Answer an email about shifting one of our general email addresses over to Gmail (we are at the tail end of shifting from Outlook to Gmail: I am delighted by the switch, but will be glad when everything’s in one system.)

Get an answer back about the thing this morning, remove stuff not to be shared with person who asked (a “The person who developed this is very elderly, you might be able to reach her at this email” which is the kind of thing we don’t pass on to researchers unless actually necessary.)

11:15 am:

Work on newsletter. Pause to make an accessible version of a handout I want to include in the newsletter.

The newsletter is a simple Word doc that goes up in our staff intranet. There’s a section about something the Research Library offers (this month, I’m talking about getting research articles), an Archives thing (usually a recently digitised collection) and then information about the month’s book display and a list (with some brief annotations) of new titles in the library.

12:00 pm:

Have lunch with colleagues and researcher (outside on a picnic bench: we are making the most of the last of the decent weather.)

12:30 pm:

Back at my desk, doing a few small things before my 1:00 meeting.

1:00 pm:

Meeting and tour of campus with two people (the CEO and an architect) from overseas who are doing a tour of schools and organisations like ours around the world to see best practices for specific kinds of design. They were fantastic.

(Also fantastic: the foundation that gave them a multi-million dollar grant on the condition they did such a tour. Very smart. They were learning a lot from seeing how different places did things and what was working for them best.)

3:30 pm:

Dash back from the tour just in time to let my assistant go for the weekend (since she’d been the staff member in charge of our researcher.) Grab a bottle of fizzy water because that was a lot of walking. Catch up on email that came in while I was gone, try to finish the newsletter except for pulling the new books.

3:55 pm:

Discuss interesting reference puzzle with archivist. Put interesting puzzle on to-do list for Monday, because the amount I will get done before leaving is approximately 3 minutes and a lot of frustration. See researcher back out to the main door, do a few tiny things.

(As a note, the research on Monday involved about 90 minutes of diving into the actual process by which people made sculptures in the 1840s. Who knew?! We’ve got useful answers now, though.)

4:15 pm:

Head home, via my local pharmacy for a flu shot. Get back home around 5:30 (due to the flu shot: I normally get home around 5.) Make dinner, fall over, do brainless things for the rest of the evening.

Jenett’s quick guide to evaluating information

I got nudged by a friend to do a ramble about information evaluation. It might have gotten a little away from me.

Basic principles:

  • We all have biases and things we know more about than others.
  • Some people are more up front about this than other people.
  • Ditto goals. We all have them, some people are more up front about them.
  • Be really suspicious of the people who claim they have the absolute truth and are telling you for your own good.

(They probably don’t and they probably aren’t. Especially if you don’t have a preexisting trusting relationship. Real world stuff has fewer absolutes, for one thing.)

Information: A quick guide to information evaluation (image of a fountain pen and blank lined notebook)

Who is this person (or What is this source?)

Start with the basics. Who’s telling you this thing? What’s their background? If it’s a website without an individual author, what do you know about the site?

You may need to file this in “Need to do some more research” but knowing you need to do that is a great first step. First thing: check out the ‘about’ page, or a bio. Usually this will give you some hints on what they’re about and what they care about most.

If you’re not sure where to start with that, try searching the person’s name (plus maybe a term from the topics they write about, if you need to narrow it down) or search on the name of the site. Sometimes adding in words like ‘review’ or ‘about’ will help.

Even just knowing what kind of source this is can help. Personal website? Newspaper that’s actually well-known and reasonably respected (even if you don’t agree with them)? Pocket of internet culture you weren’t previously aware of? Political group hidden behind astroturfing techniques?

I sort things into “Probably reasonably competent”, “Dubious” and “Need more information”, personally.

Probably reasonably competent sources are those I’ve checked out before, and came up reasonably well sourced. I still need to check the specifics here, but they get some starting benefit of the doubt. Dubious sources are those that have come up short before. Everything else gets filed in ‘need more info’.

What are their goals?

Education? Information? Sell something? Share something gorgeous or fun or amusing? Are they trying to persuade you of something?

What do they get out of you believing them and taking them (or their information) seriously? Are they being up front and honest about that?

Here’s an example: sales sites are not the most fun thing ever, but there is something refreshingly honest about “Buy this thing from me and here’s why.” It’s clear what the people want, and usually pretty clear what’s involved in getting it.

On the other hand, a lot of sources in the political realm are trying to persuade you of things, but it’s not always clear what they’re trying to persuade you of. (Or whether they’re not trying to persuade you at all, but are instead signalling to their core base what they care about.)

This is often where you see a lot of vagaries and unsourced information that plays on emotions rather than treating you like the intelligent, thoughtful, considerate person I want to think you are.

Where did they get their information?

This is where we get to the meat of things. People who are saying trustworthy things should give you a way to check, or more information about how they know that.

When we’re talking to a friend, we put what they tell us in the context of all the other things we know about them. They’re reliable as anything with a ride when it’s important, lousy at getting stuff to the post office.

They have a lot of specific experience in dealing with Mercutian rabbits, and the last fifty things they told you about those rabbits turned out to be right, but they’re not nearly so reliable about Venusian wombats. And they’re normally great about Saturnian leopards, but there’s this one weird quirk, don’t trust their grooming recommendations.

When we’re reading a random website, we don’t have that. We can’t put some of what they’re saying in context without more information.

That’s why their sources matter. Do they tell us where they’re getting their info? If it’s unnamed experts and sources, be dubious. (Though there’s a link below with some more about how to evaluate this with more nuance.)

If they claim specific expertise, can you verify that or does it seem in line with what someone with that expertise would say? (If someone claims to be a lawyer or doctor or librarian and says stuff that is way outside what you’d expect, be dubious without more specifics. Maybe a lot more.)

When is this information from? Is this a topic where currency matters a lot? Some topics change fast, some don’t. Sometimes the info that debunks a current thing has been around for a while (so older info may still be helpful in sorting this out.)

What kind of source is this, and is the information presented in a way consistent with quality information in that kind of source? Reputable newspapers don’t generally go in for explicit personal insults or completely unverified sources. (Unless they’re quoting someone who used one.) Less reputable current events sources might.

Expect better of where you go to learn things. If they’re not giving you meaningful information, go to sources that that will. You can do better than speculation and gossip.

Other key tips

Beware of absolutes, especially in complex situations.

There just aren’t that many absolutes in the world. This is especially true when looking at expert statements: few experts will give 100% certainty. If they do, they will likely also be explaining why. Look for that explanation.

If a media source says something absolute, check into what the experts actually said, and what information they looked at to get there. Chances are pretty good the expert was not nearly so absolute about things.

Be dubious of things that are too good to be true, too weird, or too perfect.

Again, the world just isn’t like that very often. The more we realise that we live in a world that has a lot of shades of colour and nuance and different experiences in it, the sooner we’re going to get better at evaluating information effectively and using it well.

Is this a situation where there are strong emotions?

Sourcing is often not the top priority in these cases. Which is understandable, but just because someone’s having emotions all over the place doesn’t mean you have to use everything they tell you as the basis of your decisions.

Emotions don’t mean someone’s wrong, mind you.

It is, for example, pretty reasonable for someone to be emotional about a topic that has a major impact on their daily life, health, safety, family, or religion, if other people are treating it as a purely intellectual discussion. But a story that’s playing on your emotions to make you feel upset or riled up or righteously victorious, you should be suspicious of that.

If emotions are in play, and you’re not in the middle of the discussion, it’s usually better to pause and take a moment to look at what’s being said.

Who has real experience with this thing? Who doesn’t? How does what people are saying match up with other kinds of information you can find or your experience of people or situations? Who has what at stake? Is this a real person who has specific experiences, or is it a made up storm of emotion that’s trying to get you to react a certain way?

Some additional resources:

Here are a few additional links worth reading

This is only a beginning – there are lots of nuanced issues involved in how we find and evaluate information I haven’t even touched on here (like who decides what gets researched that you can refer to later.)

Sharing information effectively

I’ve been having conversations recently about sharing information, specifically the medium used. Not the complex things, like how you frame something differently, but the simple “When do you share a link? Text? A video?”

(We got into this because of the tendency of some people to link a whole bunch of videos without summaries or other content information as part of discussions – it especially happens with some threads of political discussion, but I’ve seen it on other topics, too.)

This lead me to three questions, a principle, and some discussion.

The questions:

1) Are you switching modes?

2) Are you asking for a chunk of someone else’s time, focus, energy, or attention (beyond what would be a reasonable part of the interaction they’re currently in.)

3) What does this add to the conversation in the place you’re already in?

Here’s the principle. Use material outside the space you’re currently talking in as supporting material, not the core of your contribution. Give people a reason to consider taking time for the content.

If you don’t do that, and you browbeat people for not using a different kind of content in the way you want, well, that’s not an honest discussion, is it? People are going to notice that.

1) Are you switching modes?

I started thinking about this because of someone linking to uncontexted videos in a text-based discussion on a site that is set up for longform text discussion.

But it’s also true if you link to a PDF in a text discussion. If you are on Twitter and link a podcast episode. If you’re listening to a podcast episode or the radio and they reference visual materials. In a short-form text format (texts, Twitter, Facebook) linking to a lengthy news story on another site.

All of these are about switching modes. Sometimes, that’s really appropriate and informative. But if it’s handled poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Personally, it makes me less likely to take other things someone says seriously.

Here’s the thing. Handling it well is pretty simple.

If you are switching modes, tell people that you are. Give them a brief summary so they can decide when and how they might want to explore that.

Things to include:

  • What’s the format you’re linking to?
  • Why are you dropping it into this conversation?
  • How much content is it? (Especially for video or audio.)
  • What are the key points, if someone can’t watch/listen/read/access it?
  • Any major accessibility notes. (Is it purely an image? Not captioned? Only auto-captioned?)

You don’t need to be extremely precise about these things: a brief summary will be really helpful in the vast majority of cases.

It can also be very helpful to identify a specific part (particularly in a longer work) that is relevant to the conversation or that you’d like to discuss more.

Example summaries

(All examples entirely made up.)

Video link:

There’s a great video that illustrates this perspective. It’s about 20 minutes, from ExampleUser on YouTube. Auto-captioned, but the speaker is facing the camera. The part most relevant here starts at about 10:30, about the purple rabbits.

 

PDF link:

There’s a PDF that goes into this. About 50 pages, but the opening summary is the part I’m interested in, especially the discussion of how they chose people to interview.

 

Images being discussed on a podcast:

You can find the image from our show notes for this episode on our website, but the important parts are the claws, which are about eight inches, and were used for digging burrows.

 

Linking to a long detailed source:

Much more detail at this link – about 20,000 words. The discussion of previous experience is about a third of the way through, and there’s a significant chunk of citations at the end.

 

Referencing a much longer work (a book, in this case)

I got most of this from a really great book, called Finding All The Things, by Named Author. The book’s quite long, but I found it worthwhile and recommend it to anyone who’s really interested in how our current search algorithms got developed.

 

Audio track

Here’s a version of the song (about 6 minutes) via YouTube. Lyrics on the screen.

 

You can see here that these examples are brief, and should be pretty straightforward to explain if you’re familiar with the content you’re sharing. None of them require extensive additional time on your end , but they’re tremendously helpful to people trying to figure out if they should click through or make time for this, and why.

They also help someone continue the conversation even if they can’t take in that piece of material now (or anytime soon).

2) Are you demanding someone’s time?

People have a lot of things going on in their lives. What those are will be different for each person.

You don’t get to decide how they spend their time. (Unless you’re paying them, or have an agreement about that.)

Often when people won’t click through to videos, or point out accessibility issues, they get a “Well, it’s less time than Game of Thrones” (or whatever the current TV of choice is. (Like people who are poor get the “Well, stop buying a daily cup at Starbucks.”)

That’s making a false equation.

I set out what my day looks like when it comes to information consumption in a previous post. Your day probably looks pretty different, but the point is, there’ll be some things that are easier for you or fit more comfortably in your day, and some that don’t.

(Key points if you don’t want to read that post: I read very fast, so I can consume most written content much more quickly than video or audio. I can listen to some podcasts while at work, but my time to watch video content is pretty limited and it competes with a number of other things I want to do like writing or projects.)

Example : me

If I’m watching a video for content, I want to pay attention to it – and my time for that is pretty limited, both by time slot and by attention. My current backlog of “Video I know I’d like to watch but requires more attention than I can usually manage after work” is currently well over 20 hours, and growing.

So, if you link me to a video, it’s competing with that 20 hours (plus all the other things I’d like to do), but if you give me text, I will get through it much faster.

Other people might be quite different. They might find it harder to get through text, and have an easier time with audio (or a longer commute or a job where they could listen more than I do.)

There are some tendencies, though. Video tends to be least accessible. Someone doing a long commute on public transit might have more time, but they might also have data or battery limits. Someone at home with young kids might not want to expose those kids (or themselves!) to random undescribed content from an internet stranger.

There are also accessibility issues to think about – I’ll get to those at the end of this post.

3) What does this add to the conversation?

People having a conversation in a particular place have probably chosen to spend time in that place for a reason – often because the format and kind of conversation suits them for some reason. Even if it’s not ideal for them, if they spend a bunch of time there, they’ve probably figured out how to make it work for their specific preferences.

(Obviously, many of us are somewhat flexible about this: we may use a format that’s not our favourite because someone we really like talking to strongly prefers it, or needs it. There are reasons I’m hanging out on Twitter more than I used to.)

The people in a space are there because they want to have conversations with the other people there. At least spaces that are focused on conversation (rather than one-to-many content or one-upsmanship.)

The more time you’re asking someone to spend, the more that’s important to remember.

Thinking about proportions

If I’m in a text-based discussion, and the comments are a few hundred words each, each comment is going to take me a minute or so to read. (And most comments will be shorter than that…)

If we’re in the middle of that kind of exchange, and you suddenly want me to watch 45 minutes of video, you’re asking me to spend 20 times as many minutes on your comment as I am on every other comment in the conversation.

If you want me to do that, it’s up to you to tell me what’s so compelling and why it’s worth that significant a proportion of time.

The same thing is true if you want me to read a long PDF, or work my way through a complicated flow chart graphic, or read a bunch of interconnected discussions with many links and hundreds or thousands of comments.

Expecting people to spend 45 minutes of their time on the thing you think is important, when it’s off to the side of the main conversation is unrealistic. People might spend 5, but more than that, and they probably want to know why it matters.

Giving a summary, and a “If you want more, here’s where I got more about that” is a good start.

In other words, use the links and other modes of content as supporting evidence, not your only contribution.

Talking in your own words about what a source or approach does for you is ideal – that’s you talking, and they’re in a conversation with you, directly, not with your video (or audio or PDF or whatever) link.

If you just want to monologue, well, that’s a different thing. Monologues are fine things! But don’t blame people for deciding not to be in dialogue with them, and doing something else with their time.

Accessibility

The final piece of this is that not all types of content are equally accessible.

If someone is an ongoing and active user of a particular site, you can probably assume they’ve sorted out ways of using it that work for them (at least well enough.) If they’re not on the other site you link to, though? Maybe it’s not accessible to them.

Someone might be visually impaired, and not able to get anything out of that really gorgeous but badly described infographic or chart. Or that PDF may be so badly organised it will take as long to navigate it as to get a sense of the content.

Someone might have hearing impairments and the thing you linked to has lousy auto-captioning. Even when the captioning’s okay, it takes extra time and energy for them to figure out who’s speaking and to sort out context cues that others can hear (like background noises, music cues, or who’s speaking.)

Someone may find some sites frustrating or impossible to use for design reasons. They may have medical conditions affected by flashing images or lights, and not want to watch videos without someone checking that’s okay. They may have specific experiences that mean they’re strongly affected by some kinds of content, images, or sounds, and watching those things (especially without warning) will mess them up for hours or days.

Someone may have young kids at home or just not care to listen to some kinds of language or content themselves. (Or at least not without some warning and a chance to prepare.)

Someone may have medical issues that make concentration and focus precious things. They may find it much less tiring to process text than audio or video, or short text compared to longform conversations. Switching from one location to another online often changes these things too.

Someone may get most of their online access from work or school (so some sites may be blocked, or some content could get them in trouble). Others may have limited data or technology access, so they can only watch videos in specific places (and need to balance that against other tasks.) Some people may be in a public internet space and not want to click on unknown sites, or be using a network that has filtering.

You probably know these things about your close friends. (I hope so, anyway!) But you probably don’t know many of them about someone in a given online conversation.

Long story short

Pointing people at undescribed content isn’t a good way to get them to engage with your points. If you care about the conversation, give them some content in the context you’re all currently talking, and take a sentence or three to explain what you’re linking to.

It feels weird to explain this, but clearly, it’s a thing a lot of people on the Net haven’t adequately internalised yet.

What I do: taking things in (text, sound, video)

Round about now, it might be useful to note how I take in information, and what I do with it.

I’m laying this out not because I think anyone else should do things the way I do, but because doing so gives a way to talk about some other possible approaches and issues, and figuring out what choices might work for you.

You should know about me…

I have – for reasons related to the chronic health issues – a pretty set routine about my life. This means my day to day is pretty consistent (and that I try to keep it like that.)

I read very fast compared to most people, but find watching videos for active content very tiring (and I also have a very limited amount of time that’s something I can reasonably do.) Audio’s somewhere in the middle: I can only do some things while listening to podcasts, but they include driving and time at work.

(I’m also laying this out because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about different kinds of media and how I use them, for an upcoming post, and explaining it here will make it easier to reference when I get there…)

Where I get things

Reading online

My core online reading includes my Dreamwidth reading list, and The Cauldron (the online pagan forum I’ve been on for approaching two decades in some form, and am currently staff.)

The former takes me about 10-15 minutes to read several times a day, unless someone’s made an extra long thinky post, the latter runs between about 20 minutes a day and an hour or more, depending on what replies I make.

I have a large number of blogs in my Feedly rss reader, and they produce about 120-200 posts a day. A number of these are from very busy sites (Metafilter and Ask.Metafilter) where I read only the ones I find intriguing from the opening, and it also includes a handful of Tumblr blogs where the posts tend to be short.

On an average day, I probably read 30-50 actual posts, and skim a lot of others.

I find Metafilter and Longform.org both fabulous for finding longer in-depth reading material that gets me looking at things from a different perspective, or getting me to read about something I might not have selected.

I dip into Twitter, though I have lists set up so I can keep up with a few close friends on there, and skim other things as I have time.

Finally, on the news front, I have digital subscriptions to two papers and one of my local NPR stations. They all send me at least daily updates on new stories, and I click through the ones that interest me. (Plus various other newsletters, information from organisations I donate to monthly, and the other stuff that happens in email.)

ebooks

I have a long To Be Read pile, read some amount of fanfiction on a regular basis (some of which can be quite long). These days, most of my reading is in electronic form (three long distance moves will convince even the most ardent adorer of books that moving the physical objects is a pain in the neck. And the arms and the back.)

So I mostly only buy print of titles I might want to lend out or reference with people in future (Pagan titles, mostly, or things where the print layout really matters) and everything else is digital. Conveniently, this also means I can walk around with 600+ books in my pocket, and never have to have the “Might I run out of book while out today? I’d better bring another one” mental discussion with myself, like I do with print.

My ebooks go into Marvin, an app that has a very functional list feature. I move items into “to be read” lists by broad genre (fiction, non-fiction, and Pagan) so I can skim different things, and then have a “read next” list for things I want to read sooner than later, a “read” list for things I’ve read, and so on.

I read about 10 books a month, give or take, though I’ve had months where it’s only about 4, and months with 15 or more (especially if I’m travelling.) In months where I’m short on brain, it’s a lot of reading things I already know something about, or rereading old favourites.

I’ve read for at least 10 minutes (and usually more like 30) every night of my life I could read, except for a handful of times. Since I do most of my reading on my phone these days, I also do a lot of bits of reading at other times (waiting for my work computer to boot in the morning, while things are processing, etc.)

Listening

I got the podcast bug fairly hard within the last year or so. I actually have three different kinds of podcast listening I do.

Swimming :
I swim three days a week before work, and I have a waterproof MP3 player and headphones. I put them in when I get ready to swim, and turn it off after I’ve showered and changed and gotten back to my car, which is right around an hour total. Keeps me from getting bored. I mostly go for longer ones here, and usually with multiple hosts, because I find that easier to follow early in the morning.

Work :
Some of my work tasks involve routine sorting of information that gets a little tedious, so I listen to podcasts while I’m doing that.

Since I work in a school (not directly with students, but with a range of people nearby at times), I want to be attentive to content, so I avoid some topics and podcasts. I mostly aim for history podcasts about topics I know something about (but not tons) which works out well for me.

Driving:
My commute is about 25-40 minutes (depending on traffic) and I listen to podcasts there. This is when I’ll listen to other content (there’s a couple of spooky or true crime ones that I won’t listen to at work, or Pagan/esoteric topics, and I avoid explicit political discussion there too.)

Watching

A lot of my video watching is material I am already familiar with – it’s what I have on while I’m home after work (or on the weekends) doing other things online.

Right now, I’m watching Classic Doctor Who from the beginning (BritBox made all the surviving episodes available streaming last year: I’ve seen them all at one point or another, but in many cases, not for decades.)

I usually get through 1-2 hours in a given night, but if I need to really focus on content, then the video is the only thing I’m doing, and time for that is a lot harder to come by.

What that looks like in a day

On the average workday, I get up, read my core online spaces, get dressed, get my things together, and drive to work, while listening to about 30 minutes of a podcast. (Some days I go swimming, first, and listen to about an hour of podcasts while swimming. Either way, I’m out the door within 30 minutes of getting up.)

I go to work. Sometimes I can’t listen to anything (because there are other people – volunteers, interns, visiting researchers – working in my office.) Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes it’s podcasts. It probably comes out to 3-5 hours of podcasts a week.

During this time, I’ll take breaks while I’m waiting for things to run, check in with the core online spaces, read blog posts, and so on.

I drive home (another 30 minutes of a podcast), get home around 5 and do things like make dinner, be sat on by the cat, eat dinner, and other necessities.

From here, on a good day, I’ve got about 3 hours of time I could do something with (including making and eating dinner) before my concentration goes away. On a bad day, I’ve already run out of focus. That’s due to multiple chronic health issues that can play havoc with concentration, focus, and ability to process new stuff at all efficiently.

This is my time for writing (hi!), reading more blog posts, knitting, making images for the blog, some kinds of other project work, and basically any other small hobby things.

This is also the only slot where I can actually watch video. So for me, video has to be really extra important for me to make the time for it. Written material (blog posts, books) or podcasts, I’ve got multiple places I can do them, and they take me a lot less processing energy.

It’s often a question of “Watch this video thing attentively or write a blog post?” or “Watch this video attentively or help out a friend with a question” or “Watch this video attentively or do this project” Most of the time, the video loses.

About 9pm, I start wrapping up, do one more pass through my core online spaces, and I try to be lying down in bed by 10. I read for 15-30 minutes (This is my one solid book-type reading time, though I read in small chunks at other times during the day. I read about 10 books a month, to give you an idea of my text to audio processing ratio.) Then I fall asleep.

How does that add up?

In total, my average weekday involves:

  • 1-3 hours of audio material
  • 30-60 minutes of reading a book
  • 1-2 hours of background video time
  • A hard to count amount of time in text-based online spaces (reading, commenting, etc.) but probably 3-4 hours most days.
  • Little focused video time (an hour once or twice a week at most, usually)

My weekend time is obviously a bit more flexible – there’s no going to work in there! – but it’s also when I work on larger projects at home, or just relax.

I’m curious

Where do you get your information, and what forms work for you?

I share some of the reading I’ve found particularly interesting in my fortnightly newsletter (and a new one will be out on Wednesday) so if that’s a thing you’re intrigued by, you can sign up over here.

Productivity : Tarot spreadsheet

Last post, I talked about what I track in my daily spreadsheet. Most of the things I count are pretty straightforward (at least if you’re comfortable with spreadsheets), but the way I set up the Tarot sheets is a bit less intuitive.

One of the things that’s really true about spreadsheets is that they can do a ton of things, but it’s often hard to see the potential until you have a thing you want to track (and play with it) or can explore some examples.

It relies on a couple of more complex formulas, and has three basic sheets. I’ve made a copy of it so you can see. You won’t be able to to edit it, but if you have a Google account, you can make a copy for yourself – go to File and ‘Make a copy”. I left a week’s worth of card draws there so you can see how it works, but you can delete those (just delete what’s in the B and C columns)

I’m also going to explain the basics of how it’s set up, so you can play with it in Excel or Numbers or LibreOffice, or another spreadsheet tool if you like. (These other programs use the same formulas, though some of the syntax may be slightly different.)

Image of spreadsheet screenshot showing different coloured totals. Text says: Productivity, Tarot spreadsheet

What I track

While I love having a Tarot deck in my hands, I discovered I often don’t remember to check for a card of the day before I get myself out the door (that’s the downside of an early start time and an early morning). Via the app, I can check when I get to work, easily and conveniently.

Sheet 1 : Daily cards

This has four columns:

  • Date (in whatever format you prefer)
  • Card
  • Suit or Major
  • A column that combines these.

Screenshot of spreadsheet showing daily Tarot card readings : described in text.

Here are the daily cards for the first week of this year: The Heirophant, Page of Pentacles, The Wheel of Fortune, the Page of Swords, the Ace of Pentacles, the Star, and the Four of Pentacles. The name of the card is in the second column, the suit in the third, and the combination of the two in the third column.

You can actually just enter the card name manually (so long as you are completely consistent) but I use two optional tools to discourage random typo errors. Typos will mess up your statistics, because this spreadsheet is only going to count things that exactly match what you tell it to count.

I use data validation on the second column to verify the card names. This looks at a column of the card names on the “data validation” sheet and will only allow me to enter names on that list. As a side benefit, this means that as you start typing, you get a drop down menu of the choices that match that card. If your deck uses different names for some cards, you can adjust the text on the data validation sheet.

The third column is suit : I used conditional formatting to change the color based on the suit, because I like to be able to glance at it and see the difference. In this case, highlight the column, and then set up five rules, one for each suit plus the majors. Conditional formatting looks at what’s in the area you select and changes the formatting based on what’s there. In this case, it does a different background colour for each suit. On the stats page, I did something a bit more complicated with conditional formatting. We’ll get there in a minute.

I use the fourth column to automatically generate the statistics consistently. This uses the concatenate function which combines text strings. In this case, it combines the thing in the second column (B), a hyphen and spaces (the thing in the quotes), and the thing in the third column (C).

It looks like this as a formula:
=Concatenate(B2,” – “,C2)

The results will then say things like “The High Priestess – Major” and “Six – Cups”

Once you set up one row, you can click, hold, and drag it down the entire column to copy the formula line for line (or if this doesn’t work for you, you can edit it manually.)

The quote marks indicate that text should be inserted. You can put anything you like in there, but the – mark is nice and consistent, and lets me count both majors and suits easily.

Sheet 2 : Statistics

This is the more complicated one, since it counts automatically from things on sheet one. Basically, there are six columns. Four suits, the Major Arcana, plus a general statistical count of type (suits, numbers, court cards). I use additional columns to make the spacing attractive and more readable for me.

Screenshot of Tarot statistics sheet, described in text

The basic formula looks like this: =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Major”– this is an example from the first count, for Major Arcana cards. 

  • = tells the spreadsheet that the next thing is a formula.
  • COUNTIF is a formula that counts only if an entry in the identified range matches the identified text “Major” in this case)
  • The part up to the comma tells it where to look (up to the comma). In this case, it is a range. You can click and identify ranges in other sheets in most spreadsheet apps, so this is looking at column C on the ‘daily cards’ sheet.
  • The thing in quotes is what it’s looking for. “Major” in this case. (This is why consistent terms are important.)

Here are some other examples:

  • The specific card “The High Priestess” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“The High Priestess – Major”
  • The specific card “Six – Swords” : =Countif(‘daily cards’!D:D,“Six – Swords”)
  • All Pages : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!B:B,“Page”)
  • All Cups : =COUNTIF(‘daily cards’!C:C,“Cups”)

Different columns for different goals:

Note that these look at different columns, depending on whether you’re looking at for a class of card (Pages, in column B), a suit (Cups, in column C) or the combination (column D). This is why the first sheet is laid out like it is – it allows for much more elegance in counting the stats.

Color formatting:

I’ve also applied conditional formatting so it’s easy to see at a glance which cards come up more often. There are an absurd number of variations possible in how you set this up, so find something that’s pleasing to you. Here, I’ve chosen colour scales relating to the suits (with purple for the majors, and blue for my generic statistics because I like blue.)

These scales weight the colors, so you can see that there are differences depending on the totals. (In this case, I’ve set the midpoint colour to be 50% of the highest number in the range.) This means the shades will change as you enter more data.

Looking at smaller amounts of time

This spreadsheet looks at everything in the main sheet – so in my case, it’s all the cards I’ve pulled from January 1, 2017 to July 31, 2017. (Because it’s still the middle of August, and I haven’t put August’s data in.)

What happens if I just want to look at a month? Or three months? In that case, I can easily look at a smaller portion with just a couple of steps (though I should be careful to avoid deleting the data I want later.)

  • Make a duplicate of the Daily Cards sheet. Maybe move it to the end where I won’t accidentally click on it.
  • Edit the daily cards data to just show the time period I want.
  • Look at the statistics and save a copy.
  • Copy the data from all the days back to the Daily Cards sheet.
  • Delete the extra duplicate sheet I made in step 1.

If this sounds too complicated, you can just count manually. If you want to have months separate, you can make duplicates of both the daily sheet and the stats sheet, rename them (for example : June 2017), and then edit the part in the formula that says ‘daily cards’ to the new name you’ve chosen, i.e. ‘June 2017’. Obviously, this is sort of a pain in the neck.

One more example of spreadsheet power

After writing the last post, I did some more fiddling with my stats sheets. I have multiple chronic health things, so part of why I’m charting things is to see how I’m doing, and whether there are any patterns I should be aware of.

Screenshot of tracking spreadsheet: described in following text.

Here’s an example from the week I took vacation in July (I stayed home and set up this site, mostly.)

  • Column A : The date
  • Column B : Number of items in the next columns that qualify as ‘good’ or better.
  • Column C : Moon phase (it turns out I do usually do a bit worse over the full moon. Good to know!)
  • Column D: How much activity I got (general movement + exercise).
  • Column E : How much exercise I got (in this case, I walked downtown a couple of times).
  • Column F: How long I slept (I color code particularly long nights so they stand out)
  • Column G : Quality sleep (a percentage my tracking app gives me)
  • Column H : How many words I wrote
  • Column I : How many tasks I completed.
  • Column J : Tarot card of the day (colour coded in text.)
  • Column K and L : Notes for unusual days and if I was sick.

What you can’t see in this screen shot is a set of columns used to generate the number in Column B.

  • Column M : Total number of “good” or better for that day.
  • Column N : Uses CountIf to count if activity was more than a certain level. (30 minutes, in this case)
  • Column O and P : Count sleep info, using CountIf (more than 7 hours, more than 70%)
  • Column Q : Adds them, so I can do the calculation in Column R.
  • Column R: Looks at the total in column Q. If they were both good (i.e. the total is 2) it uses CountIf to give me one point. If the total is less than 2 (i.e. I didn’t sleep enough, or not well enough) it doesn’t count it, so no points. I figure that if either one was below my fairly generous margin, I didn’t actually sleep well.
  • Column S: Did I write things? Counts if I’ve written any words that I track (not casual discussion, but anything lengthy)
  • Column T: Was I reasonably productive? My baseline here is 3 or more big tasks.
  • Column U: Uses CountIf to count if there is anything in my “Sick” column

This part takes a little explaining. For Column U, I wanted to note why I was sick – a cold? A migraine? Feeling generically lousy (multiple autoimmune issues means that happens to me sometimes). But I wanted it to count that I felt sick no matter what the text was. So, I used what’s called a wildcard – something that will match any text in that cell. In Google Sheets, * (an asterisk) is the usual wildecard.

Here’s what that looks like for a day I was sick (May 9th) : =Countif(L130,“*”)

The total (column M) adds up the good points (Activity, decent sleep, writing, tasks), subtracts a point if I was sick (otherwise it just subtracts 0.)

Then I just had to drag the formulas down the screen so they covered the entire year, and there we go! I’ve got another sheet that calculates percentages of how the days went (so I can tell you that I had good days about 3 days out of 4. Which is useful to know – and useful to know that about one out of four days, I can expect to not get as much done as I hoped for, whether that’s because of a cold, a migraine, or feeling ill in other ways, or just plain lack of brain. (My stats also tell me that I was ill about half those days, so the other half are my brain just not working well.)

Total spreadsheet geek

As I said last time, if you’re baffled by how I did this but want one for yourself? (Putting the data in is so much easier than setting it up!) That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project.  Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

I’m also very glad to answer questions here, or via the contact form, if you’re just trying to figure out how to do a specific thing.

Want more stuff like this? My next set of posts coming up are going to be about copyright and some related topics, but I’ll be circling back to productivity in the not too distant future. Check out my newsletter which will have occasional links about it as well as other things I’ve found interesting in my travels around the net.

Productivity : Spreadsheet of doom (how I do my personal tracking)

I have spreadsheets for a lot of things. (Enough that my friends tease me about them.)

The one I use most often is my personal tracking sheet. Why do I track things over time? Because it gives me a comparative sense of I’m doing.

I’ve had a rough few days, brain-wise: a grand state of exhaustion for no obvious reason and brain fog that’s making it hard to get much done. At the same time, I can look at the data and figure out if there are particular patterns.

Screenshot of tarot tracking speadsheet with statistics : text reads productivity : spreadsheet of doom

What I track right now:

Sometimes I track more, sometimes I track less. These have been pretty consistent for at least a couple of months now, sometimes much longer. (The last ones I added were sleep time and quality, which I’ve kept data on for years, but weren’t in the spreadsheet.)

  • Activity I get (and how much deliberate exercise)
  • Sleep amount and quality
  • Tarot card of the day
  • Words written
  • Productivity
  • Number of unusual days (outside my normal schedule) and days I was sick.

And then I do a summary page by week (so I can see changes over time) and by month (for larger chunks of time)

Unusual days are the number of days that were outside my ordinary schedule (so vacation, travel, etc.) and sick days are days in which I felt sick enough to not do at least some of the things I would normally do (so when I’m home sick from work, but also ‘I am getting over a horrible cold and sleeping miserably and can’t brain at all’ which took up two weeks this May. Just as a random example.)

I divide it up into different sheets: here’s what that looks like. E is exercise, T is Tarot, W is writing, S is productivity stats. Since it’s hard to show you data that isn’t very personal, here’s a list of what the sheets look like instead.

On my list to add in (probably starting in September) are astrological transits, to see if that is related to any particular pattern.

Screenshot of spreadsheet sheets (described in nearby text)

I also keep writing topic ideas and a log of things written in this sheet (since I have it open a lot and it’s easy to add things here), and then the summaries by week and month. The last sheet is data validation for the Tarot cards, and for categories for my writing topics. I prefer having that on a separate sheet for tidiness.

I used to have all the archive data on the same sheet, but found it annoying to scroll back and forth, so I separated the archival info out into its own sheet. I copy each month’s data to the archival sheet at the beginning of the new month, and update the summaries and do some additional number crunching on it. This week’s addition to that is looking at how good the day was by different categories and counting that up.

Tools I use:

Two Google Sheets spreadsheets. Why Google? So I can access them from home or work (or with some annoyances, from the iPad while travelling. Also, I like the formatting tools a lot.

One sheet has my current data (by calendar month) plus a summary. The other has archival data (previous months).

I track the information that goes into the spreadsheet in multiple apps. (The ones I use are all iOS, but equivalents exist for other phone OS)

General activity

I use Human.

This app tells me how many minutes I moved for. I add in exercise manually (since that’s usually swimming, and my phone and the pool are not friends.)

If I walk somewhere for more than 10 minutes, I manually edit the time to count that as exercise. I also have a column for activity my phone doesn’t count (mostly housecleaning, where the phone is usually on my desk while I’m doing things.)

I use my phone rather than a specific fitness gadget because the phone’s basically always on or near me, and I lost two Fitbits before I figured out that part.

Because of the chronic health issues, part of why I track activity is so that I know if I’ve had an unusually active day so I can take steps to rest, recover, and take care of myself – more activity is not necessarily better for me!

Sleep quality and amount:

I use Sleep Cycle.

This is not always the most incredibly accurate (I’ve had nights that felt pretty lousy that the stats said were pretty good, and vice versa) but it is good at catching when I actually fell asleep, and if I was up in the middle of the night and I feel like the overall trends match my experience.

It also works very reliably for me as an alarm. (I should note I’m a light sleeper, though). It can be set to wake you up in the lightest part of your sleep phase.  It will also make note of weather, heart rate (using a pulse tool with the light from your camera’s flash) and some other useful statistics.

For example, I sleep less well pretty reliably around the full moon and new moon, and sleep better between them. Perhaps more usefully my sleep quality tends to be a lot better on Friday and Saturday nights (aka the days I don’t get up early for work) which makes me more protective about scheduling them. I try to avoid scheduling things that mean I need to be up and moving at a set time (at least before about 10) now.

Tarot card:

I use the Shadowscapes deck app for my cards.

Anything that produces a card will work for this, whether that’s a deck or an app. (And if you like apps, the people who made the app for the Shadowscapes one also have a number of other decks.)

I track what cards I get over time, and find the summary of what cards came up interesting. My weekly summary does a simple count by type (Major Arcana, Swords, Wands, Cups, Pentacles), though I’ve got a more thorough card counting sheet I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Tarot card stats look like this (this screenshot has all my daily cards from January 1, 2017 until June 30, 2017. I actually find it fascinating that the suits come out almost even over time. And yet, over six months, there are some cards I’ve never pulled for a daily, and a number I’ve pulled five or six times.)

I’ll be talking about how to set up a spreadsheet like this in my next post.

Screenshot of Tarot card statistics : described later in text

Productivity:

I use Todoist, as described in the previous blog post. I then count up the number of each size of tasks, and add it to the spreadsheet.

This is just a quick slash and tally on a scrap of paper: since I divide my tasks up by size, I write K (for knut), S (for sickle) and G (for galleon) across one side, the dates down the left, and just count and tally, then add them all up. It goes very quickly for me.

Putting the task count in a spreadsheet lets me measure how productive a week was (overall) against other weeks, and figure out if there’s something that’s messing me up.

Words written:

Counted in whatever app I’m writing in (or copy and paste into a thing that will tell me) and put in the appropriate column.

I track both number of words, and number of days I wrote that week or month. My current goal is to write at least 5 days a week, and I’ve got half a dozen projects, so there’s a column for each general project. Over time, that helps me see where I’ve been doing more writing or less.

Fun with spreadsheets

Of course, these techniques can be applied to a lot of other topics – one of the things I learned about spreadsheets is that a lot of people use them only in the ways they’ve come across before. I hope seeing some other examples and hearing about some additional things they can do help.

Come back on Saturday for how I set up the Tarot spreadsheet!

Baffled but want a spreadsheet set up for your own personal goals? That’s the kind of thing I’d love to help with as a consulting project. (Spreadsheets like the one described above are probably under an hour’s work on my end, especially if you can explain clearly what you’re hoping for.) Get in touch from that page if you’d like to talk about the options.

Productivity : Todoist in action

One of the productivity apps I rely on most heavily is Todoist. So many things go in there, and I can use it to help me figure out what to do with my day. I talked a bit about the tools I use in my last post, but figured Todoist deserves some specific examples.

My job and my personal energy levels both mean I end up moving stuff around on my to-do list a lot. I need a system that’s okay with that, and that lets me move things (both within a given day, and between days) easily, while also accommodating a lot of “I want to do this sometime in the future, but not any time soon” goals.)

That’s a big part of why I like Todoist – it lets me rearrange without fear of losing things.

It can be really hard to figure out how to use a tool without seeing it in action. So I thought I’d give you a practical example of what this looks like for me.  The three days I include here are actually a great example. I hit “Wow, I can’t even things” rather early on Saturday, had an unexpected not-quite-nap on Sunday, and my work days always involve a certain amount of rearrangement based on what questions we actually get.

One accessibility note : I’m including a number of text-heavy images here, but I’ll explaining what’s in the screenshots in the surrounding text.

Image has screenshot of a project list along with the text "Productivity. Todoist in Action. Jenett Silver : seekknowledgefindwisdom.com

Background and layout

First, I should note that I have Todoist Premium (which costs about $30 for a year). I find the additional tagging options and filtering useful, but the thing that makes me sign up to pay them every year is the ability to link emails from Gmail as a task. Your needs may be different!

Projects and how I divide them

I divide my broad project list up into broad categories based on the planets (via their general astrological associations, and adding in the Earth for ‘I live on this planet in a physical body’ tasks.) I’ve tried different categories over the years, started with these around January, and have really been liking them. They help me keep an eye on balancing different kinds of things in my life.

Here’s what that looks like.

Screen shot of project list - described in text.

The colours are chosen based on options in the app and colours associated with those planets, with enough visual distinction to be able to pull out different options. The parentheticals are quick reminders to me of what goes where.

  • Sun (work) : Subprojects for ongoing reference questions I’m working on, reviewing and improving library practices, projects I want to keep in mind, meetings, ideas for the future, and regular tasks like timesheet approvals.
  • Mercury (writing) : Broken into specific writing projects. Each specific topic I want to write gets a task.
  • Venus (relationships) : Also tasks related to the arts that don’t fit other places.
  • Earth (practical) : I live on the earth with a physical body. Household and health tasks go here.
  • Moon (priestess) : Priestess and religious tasks, including planning and doing rituals.
  • Mars (active) : Goals I want to make extra sure I get done (often reorganisation and other home tasks that aren’t routine.)
  • Jupiter (expansion) : Things I’m learning, also my research consulting business.
  • Saturn (structure) : Tasks about getting things done (sorting files, reviewing tasks, managing schedule) but also where I put tasks that are about limits or foundations.
  • Uranus (groups) : Group activities and projects, volunteering, staffing on an online community tasks.
  • Neptune (someday) : Things I want to do sometime, but not any time soon.
  • Pluto (finances) : Reminder to update my budget app, mail my rent check, pay credit card bills, etc. Also tasks about long-term legacy (so, will, intellectual property notes, etc.)

In some cases, I just have a general reminder I want to work on that thing, and add a task related to it when I decide to work on it.

For example, for fiction writing, I add a task of “Write some fiction” on days when that’s the thing I want to write, rather than have a lot of tasks saying “write some more on this fiction project”. For articles for Seeking, I want to remember the specific topic I wanted to write about, so it gets a task. (I keep some additional notes for these in Trello, too.)

My Venus project list often doesn’t have a lot on it (or Saturn) : those tend to be things I put on at short notice and then check off, based on other events. I’ve got a regular monthly dinner with friends (and their kids), and then other things that get scheduled on a week to week basis.

Tags

While my system is roughly based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done, (more about that in a future post), I don’t actually use context as tags. I found it didn’t work well for me to keep up with them, and the project classifications and task notes give me a pretty good idea what’s involved. (I do usually tag errands.)

I use a very rough system of magnitude of task. Because it amuses me (and works better in my brain), I use the exceedingly non-decimal money system from the Harry Potter books: knuts, sickles, and galleons. (17 knuts to a sickle, and 29 sickles to a galleon.) In practice, knut tasks take me less than a minute or two, sickle tasks take me 5-15 minutes, and galleon tasks are about an hour.

I track how many of each I complete each day, and on a reasonably productive day, I average 4-5 galleons, 2-7 sickles, and a handful of knuts. My spreadsheet calculates tasks at 20 knuts to the sickle, and 10 sickles to the galleon, because I often don’t break out sickle tasks as much as I probably should, so a given task is probably 2-3 sickles.

I also have some tags for other things: focus (things that require focus to do), next (so I can pull a list of the next projects I want to work on easily), ongoing (things that I do a little bit over time), and waiting (if I’m waiting for a response from someone.)

What those task lists look like in practice

One of the things that’s hard about talking about to-do lists is figuring out how they work out in practice, so I thought having a couple of sample days would be really helpful. You’ll get both a sample of what my task lists look like for three days (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) and also an outline of what I did when.

You’ll notice there are some things I don’t put onto my task lists.

  • Medication reminders (three times a day in 2 hour windows – I use a separate app)
  • Reading RSS feeds and other online content (I do that anyway, in an order that works for me.)
  • Watching things while doing other tasks and chatting online (again, I do that anyway.)

As you’ll see Monday, I do put swimming on my task list once I’ve done it, but that’s to help me track a “I did a thing that took a chunk of time and energy” so I can factor it into my stats for the day.

Saturday : tasks

Screenshot of my task list, starting on Saturday morning. Described in text

Here’s what my task list looked like Saturday morning. I usually do grocery shopping either Saturday or Sunday morning, depending on the rest of my weekend. I needed to write a post for this blog. I had an acupuncture appointment.

I had a couple of project tasks I wanted to do (putting notes in my astrology study file for Leo: I didn’t finish with the new moon in Leo last week, and the thing with a little email icon is an email for me to review that’s related) and prepping an outline for the free class I’m working on in detail.

I also have three tasks with upcoming dates. Two of the ones on this list are astrological: reminders of current retrogrades, with questions from Briana Saussy’s AstroRx 2017 resource. Last January I put them in, and they pop up on my todo list (long-term ones on weekends, when I can think a little more, lunar cycles on the days they happen) when appropriate. I also did a year’s Tarot reading with a reader, Theresa Reed, last year for my birthday, and put the card of the month and her summary into my todos.

My acupuncturist is a friend and husband of one of my college friends, and they live about 40 minutes drive from me. So it’s a hike to get up there – why I’m glad he’ll do an appointment on Saturday – but it’s also a mix of social time and treatment time. Here’s what my list looked like when I got back, and checked some things off, and added one (remembering I kept meaning to deposit a check via phone.)

Screenshot of my task list, Saturday afternoon. Described in text.

Did I actually do all those things? No, I did not. I started feeling out of it around 4:30, and didn’t get a lot else done, though I did add another task (making turkey burgers, which go in the freezer so I can eat them later).

This was a 4 galleon, 2 sickle, 3 knut day. The galleon tasks were reviewing my task list, grocery shopping, acupuncture, and writing that blog post.

Saturday : what happened when

  • 7:45am: Wake up. Putter. Read a bit.
  • 9 : Grocery shopping.
  • 10 : Write a blog post and do the image for it.
  • 11:15 : Get in the car, drive north for acupuncturist and friendly chat.
  • 12:15 pm : Acupuncture and social time.
  • 1:45 : Drive home.
  • 2:30 : Get home, minor puttering, have a bath.
  • 3:30 : Settle into computer, figure out what I should do next. Stare at things on the computer in a not very productive manner. Add “Make turkey burgers” to my task list, since I should do that either today or tomorrow. Eventually decide to make them now.
  • 4:15 : Finish making the turkey burgers. Sit down again. Fiddle with depositing check. Putter online (reading stuff in my RSS reader).
  • And then I hit ‘unable to do more things’ and puttered all evening. (And caught up on my RSS feeds.)
  • 10pm : went to sleep

Sunday

Here’s my list for Sunday, as it was when I started the morning.

You’ll notice that there one repeating task (my standard ‘prep things for the work day tomorrow’ task that reminds me of the specific things I usually need to think about doing.) There are the Leo note tasks I didn’t get done on Saturday. There are some routine tasks I need to do (laundry, prepping lunches for the work week.)

I woke up feeling sort of lousy, with a headache that got worse during the morning, and pretty much decided it was not a good day for an organisational task like sorting through old mail and catalogs, nor was it a great day to work on a complex resource guide, like the visual impairment and ritual access one I want to write as a sample for Seek Knowledge, Find Wisdom.

Screenshot of todo list for Sunday, as it was in the morning.

It was actually a day where I got a lot of tasks done – this comes out to 6 galleons, 8 sickles, and 5 knuts. And that’s not counting a nap! It’s a long enough list I can’t actually get a useful screencap in one shot. I’m sort of startled by this, because the day definitely didn’t start out feeling productive. This is why a task list and tracking help me so much.

Sunday: What I actually did when

  • 6:30am : Wake up. (Thanks, cat.) Puttering and reading in a not-very-awake way.
  • 9 : Put laundry in, read RSS feeds.
  • 9:30 : Put laundry in the dryer, have a bath to short circuit allergy issues, have breakfast, sort my download folder and add some new music to iTunes.
  • 10:20 : Get clothing out of the dryer. More puttering trying to get my brain to go so I can do other things. Take an ibprofen for headache.
  • 11 : Work on putting notes into my astrology research (that’d be the two Leo related tasks)
  • Noon : Have lunch. Still have headache. This is annoying.
  • 12:30 pm : Pause to lie down for a bit and see if I can make the headache go away. (There was some quality supervision by the cat in this time.) Never quite nap, but lie there and read and doze.
  • 4 : Sit up again. Work on the product design outline. Finish it around 5pm.
  • 5  : Combine things into a black bean and corn salad for lunch at work this week. Eat dinner.
  • 6 : Fill my meds containers for the week, discover that the formulation of the supplement I take for migraines has changed, do a bit of spot research to see if there’s likely to be a problem with the new thing in it, determine probably not, order the new formulation, and make a note to check with my doctor at my appointment later this month. Do other small tasks (charging and swapping out podcasts on my swimming MP3 player, packing my swim bag for tomorrow.
  • 7 : Break down my astrology study project into actual well-defined tasks.
  • 8 : Work on this post, as part of my ‘write 500 words today’ project. (It was actually more like 1000.)
  • 9 : Take notes on the astrology chapters
  • 9:30 : Play silly Flash games on the computer, prepare for bed.
  • 10pm : Go to bed.

Monday:

Here’s my list of tasks before I leave the house on Monday. It’s got five coming dates, two work tasks, part of my astrology study, a reminder to work on this blog post, and a reminder to do some sorting of links in my Pinboard account.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of work tasks, does it? That’s because I mostly set my work tasks once I’m actually at work, unless there’s something that’s carrying over from a previous work day, because my day is highly dependent on what questions people have asked, and we get most questions in email.

In this case, I know in advance I have some guides to review for our museum since we’re updating the formatting, and our archivist did some updates but wanted another pair of eyes.

Task list of items from Monday before leaving for work

Here’s what the tasks I actually did look like. (Up until about 7:30pm)

They’re in order of when I checked them off (so the most recent are on the top). I forgot to add in the swimming until I was leaving (even though I swim first thing in the morning.) I don’t make that a regular task for several reasons, and put it in each time.

So, that’s 6 substantial work-related tasks (plus one I hadn’t put in yet, and one I’d forgotten to check off a while ago), swimming, five reminder notes. And then two personal projects at home, and a couple of minor home and householdy things.

How Monday went in practice:

(I should note here: I get up for work absurdly early and I am totally not a morning person by nature. But scheduling my work hours for 7:45 am to 4:15pm mean my commute is about 30-40 minutes, instead of 20+ minutes more, and I am much better about actually swimming if I do it before work. I’d much rather get up early than lose nearly an hour and gain a lot of frustration in traffic.)

  • 5:25am : Wake up, do morning necessity things, do morning-of packing stuff for work.
  • 6 : Drive to pool. Swim from 6:25 to 7. Shower and get dressed.
  • 7:30 : Arrive at work, check in with the library assistant, who was on vacation last week. Check my work email. Decide on what I’m working on this morning while we have a volunteer here. Add updating reference question statistics to my task list. (I’m way behind, which is why I’m still working on March.)
  • 8:30 : Realise that our volunteer is here Thursday (dear self, look at your work calendar). Rearrange the day a bit. Work on a “Do we have copies of this set of historical conference proceedings problem”
  • 9 : Work on email archiving project.
  • 10 : Sort the first half of March into my reference questions stats tracking.
  • 11:30 : Pause from reference stats to review museum guides and make notes.
  • 12pm : eat lunch at my desk because in the midst of the museum guides.
  • 1 : Finish the guides. Talk to my assistant. Put in a vacation day request. Skim through work mailing lists for useful bits.
  • 2 : Work on stats for the second half of March.
  • 2:30ish : Get a reference phone call that takes about 20 minutes to sort out what we can offer, and then about another 10 to write up notes for me and my assistant so we can figure out how to make it happen tomorrow. (It involves a chunk of transcription)
  • 3:30 : Finish stats for the second half of March, paste them into my stats sheet, watch my computer grind to a halt, reboot, and recover most of it.
  • 4 : Wrap up and head home.
  • 4:45 : Get home, putter, make dinner, eat dinner, putter.
  • 7:30 : Work on this post, and a few other tasks.
  • 8 : Work on the astrology notes and bookmark sorting.

No day’s quite like any other

And that’s really how it should be – I have a pretty structured life, in terms of schedule and what I do when, but there are also a lot of moving parts depending on my energy, focus, and what has priority at a particular moment.

For example, at work, reference questions get dealt with before long-term projects, most of the time.

You’ll also notice there are some fairly large gaps here where I’m not all that productive in measureable terms. And that’s okay. After extensive tracking, I’ve determined that 5-6 large tasks is a pretty good day for me most of the time (and a level of productivity I can sustain, that keeps me on top of things at work, and making steady enough progress on long-term tasks both at work and at home.)

Doing things that are useful but not immediately productive (a lot of the random online reading I do, plus self-care) also matters.

Productivity : laying out the basics

I’m a productivity geek – I love looking at different methods to get things done. This is partly because I find process geeking (figuring out how things work, and how to make them work better) fun in general, but it’s also partly because I am much happier when I keep on top of it.

My job has a number of different parts. Some of my work is reactive: I am a librarian, someone asks me a question, I answer it. (But some answers take 3 minutes and some take 3 hours, and some might turn into a 3 month project.) Some of my work is ongoing projects. Some of it is other things that come up.

And then there’s my home life – I’ve got over 300 things in various lists I’d like to write some time (those are the article length things: the book-length projects aren’t broken down that far right now.) I have ritual I want to do. I have long term research projects (and some shorter-term ones.) And I’ve got all the usual household and health appointment tasks that go with being a human with a body.

Research is about the relationship we have with information, and productivity is a subset of that.

All the task lists and todos and so on are about how we interact with our world – both our intentions and our actions. Getting a handle on them makes us better researchers – and like research, while there are some general best practices, a lot of how we work best is going to be individual.

In this post, I’m going to lay out the basics of how I do things, talk about a few other options (and why they don’t work for me, but might work for you). Someone I know is trying to figure out how to make Todoist work better for them, so my next post will be some screenshots of the specifics, both over the weekend and on Monday.

Photo of fountain pen on a lined spiral bound notebook with a blank page. Text reads: "Productivity: laying out the basics"

A few notes about me:

I am actually a naturally organised person with good executive function. Except.

Oh, except.

In 2010, my health crashed badly, including what was eventually diagnosed as thyroid issues. That did a number on my ability to sequence tasks. It was really bad for about 6 months, and then not great for about another year. I’m now back – on reasonably good days – to about 90-95% of where I was before.

But on the bad days, when my head is all cotton wool, and I forget what I was working on if I’m interrupted even briefly? I really need the help.

I got along fine without a system until 2010, or at least anything beyond a Post-It note with a few things to do. But since then, I’ve really needed a structure where I can put things, find them again, and structure what I need to get done.

My health issues also come with exhaustion and stamina issues. I have structured my life so I can go to work (and the gym) and manage the basic household stuff and still have some energy and focus for writing and personal projects and just fun things, but I have to manage it pretty carefully or bad things happen.

In 2014-2015 (due to a shift in work location), I was having serious migraine issues – basically, six months of daily migraines. Mine aren’t so much about pain, as a lot of neurological glitchiness and that included having a horrible time getting back to tasks if interrupted, short term memory glitches, and a degree of dizziness and proprioception issues that lead to a couple of scary falls and a very limited range of cooking options for safety reasons.

In the middle of that, my job was cut, with six months notice. (Yay, union contract.) I’d already been job hunting, but I had to ramp it up very quickly, and because of where I was located at the time, basically every interview involved at least 6 hours of driving and travel, often more.

My system made it so I could juggle job interviews, tasks at work I was still doing (though thankfully some of the more difficult ones dropped off my list when they cut the job), and all the many tasks of relocation to another state, and not drop any pieces (at least not too badly.) That’s pretty impressive.

My system may well not work for you – you’re not me, your head doesn’t work like mine, chances are really good your set of tasks isn’t like mine. But I really encourage finding a system that does work for you. Chances are, sometime in your life, you’re going to need more help keeping things sorted, and having a system that works will make that so much easier.

These posts are going to talk about why I’ve chosen what I do, and some options that do different things, to help you find things that work for you.

My core tools

One of the things I think gets complicated for a lot of people with productivity is that we have different kinds of tasks and they require different kinds of tools.

Technology:

I have an iPhone (the 5SE at the moment) which is in my pocket any time I’m not at home. I don’t use audio reminders because they drive me up a wall, so my phone is always on vibrate.

I use a Windows PC at work (with limited ability to add apps or make changes, which is why I’ve favoured web tool options) and a Mac at home. I had a hard drive failure in June, and got a new computer, so I’ve been rearranging things and doing a lot of tidying and reorganising as a result.

Todoist:

Todoist is my task list, and the place I put all the things I want to remember to do. (With a couple of exceptions.) I’ll be talking about how I structure my list in upcoming posts, but here are some different kinds of tasks in my lists.

  • Specific task I need to do (answer a reference question, review a file, write a blog post)
  • Things I want to do sometime (article ideas for Seeking, long-term projects, etc.)
  • Notes about things to remember (topics to discuss in my next meeting with my boss or my assistant, or mention in our next newsletter.)
  • Reminders for things on my calendar (so I remember to do them, prep for them, and can include them in the list of things I did that day).

There are lots of other approaches to task lists – I’ll be talking about bullet journaling in another post, for example. But because a lot of my task choices depend on changing circumstances or focus and energy levels, having a system where I can adjust on the fly turns out to be critical for me.

One of the paid options I use all the time is the ability to mark an email in Gmail as a Todoist task: it creates a task with a link to the email so I can click on it, open it, and answer it easily.  My basic sorting is an approach I’ve been using since January of 2017, which is based on the astrological associations of the planets. That’ll be getting its own post!

(Sometimes I intend to work on a project in the afternoon, and get a new reference question that’s going to take time. Sometimes I get home, and writing coherently is just not on the table.)

Calendar:

I use Google Calendar for personal things. Scheduled appointments live on my main calendar.

Here’s the thing, though – I often don’t remember to check it, and after missing an early morning appointment for a blood draw, I started putting appointments in Todoist for the day before, so I can remember to arrange my day for them better.

(I’ve set up Todoist to automatically pull new appointments on my calendar into a task.)

Plan:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to arrange my day better (as part of an ongoing project to make better progress on long-term projects). In the past week or two, I’ve started using a service called Plan to do this – it lets you drag and drop tasks onto a schedule so I can figure out how I’m going to put work on a larger project in my day, or balance out different kinds of things I need to get done.

This is the newest addition, but so far I’m liking it a lot.

At work:

We’re currently using Outlook, but we’re about to transition to Gmail and the associated apps.

Since a lot of my reference work comes in by email (about 75% of it), I’m really excited about being able to add these tasks to Todoist without having to do a manual quick entry and then have to go find the email.

Tools for drafts, notes, and bookmarks:

Notes that just have to live on my computer at home (and not be accessed while I’m at work) are currently in Bear, which is a beautifully designed note app for Mac OS (it has iOS versions and syncing for a small monthly fee: I haven’t done that yet because I haven’t needed it.)

Large writing projects are in Scrivener, and that will let me sync portions to SimpleNote, so I use SimpleNote’s web access for other drafts and pieces I’m working on.

Bookmarks are in Pinboard, and my books are in Calibre (ebooks) and LibraryThing (catalog that includes the print books). I’m currently in the process of cleaning up all three of those.

I’m also using a bullet journal specifically for religious tracking and some kinds of notes.

More about all of these in future posts!

A few specific apps and a spreadsheet

I have a few things I don’t track in Todoist, and I also keep a spreadsheet of info I want to track over time. (And yes, there will be more about the spreadsheet, too.)

Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Medication reminders: I use an iOS app called Round that I really like. It lets you do multiple reminders, and will remind you over a period of time (hours, if you like) in a way that works really well for me. Also lets you track things you take as needed and build a record.
  • Pedometer : I use Human. I use it not for “I should walk more” as much as “I did a lot yesterday, there’s a reason I feel ouchy today”.  I’ve tried clip on options, but found having something on my phone that I have with me all the time works better.
  • Sleep : I use SleepCycle which will wake you up at a better point in your sleep cycle, but also tracks basic sleep data. I use it as a rough guide.

Those are my tools

Future posts will go into most of these in more detail – Todoist is first up on the list, for Tuesday.

If there’s something you’d particularly like to hear about, let me know!