No News is Bad News

People often say, “No news is good news.” I have said it myself many times. It’s a  lie. This is a thing we tell ourselves when we aren’t sure where we stand or how a  project is really going. This is the credo for the path of least resistance. This is the motto for the path of greatest avoidance.

I run an academic library at a mid-size community college. If you think libraries are drowsy, dull places where routine is revered and nothing ever changes, you are flat wrong. Everything is changing. My library is wrestling with eBooks, eJournals, iPads and other mobile technologies. We are building chat-based reference services and piloting embedded course librarians to more effectively teach our students good information habits. We are reshaping our print collections and working with other departments to develop online learning objects to be used in the classroom. One of my favorite projects at the moment is piloting the delivery of  real-time telepresence research assistance at a satellite campus via the use of a Tandberg hi-definition video conferencing unit. My library is a busy, interesting, and challenging place.

I want these projects to succeed. I want them to solve somebody’s problem. I want them to address a need.

Anytime a team starts a new project, the effort receives the benefit of the team’s full attention. Everyone is paying attention and watching to get to the project off the ground. Quickly after launch, the immediacy wanes and the project becomes a normal part of life. Once the initial vigilance fades, we begin to shortcut our assumptions about how the project is going. We lose touch with reality.

In those first few months of life, we are continually searching for flaws in the project so we can fix them and improve. Eventually, the search for flaws becomes an assumption of strength. In the absence of negative feedback, we convince ourselves that things are going well. If things were going poorly, someone would tell us. Ergo, no news is good news.

The truth is opposite. No news is bad news.

If things are going well and people are being well-served by your product or service, they will tell you. If things are going poorly and people believe or expect something better from your product or service, they will tell you. In either case, clients, customers or patrons are engaged with your service and are willing to invest their feedback into making your product stronger. If no one tells you anything good or bad, then no one is really engaged by your product or service and you are operating in a void. You aren’t meeting a need and no one cares enough to tell you.

Complaints are a sign of health. When people complain and point out flaws, it is a sign that they have a greater expectation of your product or service. Since nothing is ever perfect, some manageable volume of actionable complaints is a sign that people value what you are offering. Act on all reasonable complaints and you can only grow stronger.

When people praise your product and point out strengths, celebrate and work to preserve and increase the specific value they have recognized.

Listen. Be patient. Don’t be defensive. Feedback, both positive and negative, is a sign of engagement. In either case, be grateful.

Silence is the enemy. Silence is deadly. Silence means nobody cares.

No news is always bad news.

Resolved: Keep Lists Short

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. If I need to exercise, eat healthier, write more, <insert your own pet personal failings here> and I am waiting for a specific day to occur before I get started, the project is pretty much doomed.

That said, I am definitely a sucker for self-reflection. I practice self-scrutiny with religious fervor and New Year’s Eve is High Holy Day for me and people like me. And so, a few things I must constantly remind myself in order to have a successful 2013:

  • Pay attention.
  • Focus on doing what’s most important and do only those things that help accomplish what’s most important.
  • Say no more easily than you say yes.
  • Delete unnecessary email.
  • Don’t waste anyone’s time, especially your own.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. Impossibly brilliant leaps forward usually result from a sequence of possible, mostly mediocre smaller steps. Do those smaller steps. Do all of them. Do them in order. Do them consistently. Do them until they are done.
  • Keep lists short.

Less time managing time = more time getting things done

I’m that guy who believes there is some secret trick or some special technology waiting just around the corner that will unleash my full ability to work smarter, faster and better. I follow blogs about productivity and tweet using the #productivity hashtag. That’s right. I’m that guy.

That’s why, from time to time, I require simple, straightforward reminders like this one from Anthony Iannarino at The Sales Blog. Managing time isn’t hard. We all manage our time. We manage our time according to our priorities. Getting our priorities to line up with our best interests more difficult. That’s called managing yourself. When you manage your priorities well, time is not really a problem.

A Tweetable Mission Statement

Things get crazy and it gets hard stay focused. When there is too much to do, prioritization becomes essential. Prioritization isn’t easy. Everything feels urgent. Everything feels important.

Personally, I struggle a bit with prioritization. I have often read that the core of good time management practice is having a clearly stated personal mission statement. A personal mission statement isn’t a description of the work you do. A personal mission statement is a statement of what you intend to accomplish through the work you do. The mission helps you determine the work. Not the other way around.

I have taken a few passes at a personal mission statement, understanding that this should evolve over time. I recently realized that the frustration I felt at not grasping and attaining clarity with my personal mission was that it had become overly complex. I explained too much.

So here’s my new rule. My personal mission statement must be tweetable, 140 characters or less.

Here’s where I am today:

Be curious and inspire curiosity in others. Learn new things and make it easier for others to learn. Help people share what they learn.

24 words. 135 characters. It explains why I am a librarian. It explains why I get myself involved in things that matter. It explains why I read, write and share ideas. I can’t claim to have realized this goal but I can say it is helping me find clarity of purpose and a little sanity in the ways I choose to divide my time.

Unscripted time

A friend at work recently congratulated me on becoming the “man with the most hats in the world”. I’m still trying to figure out if this was a compliment or something else. Either way, she is right. I am currently wearing a lot of hats. Trouble is, I still only have one head.

There is no end to the urgent, imperative, interesting work that begs to be done. I can count at least 7 major projects/initiatives with significant claims on my time and energy. Each deserves my fullest focus and effort. Each will get the absolute best that I can deliver.

I took a few days off this week to rest a bit and refocus myself before things get really crazy.  Much of this time I was busy at my mom-in-law’s house, getting it ready to put on the market. The work was tiring but rewarding and productive. Sometimes it is invigorating to work hard at something other than what you normally do.

This afternoon I found myself with a few hours unscripted time, no commitments or plans. I wasn’t  passing out exhausted. My daughter was at her grandmother’s house. I read a book. I listened to music. I let my mind wander. I felt good.

This is just to remind myself that we don’t always accomplish the most by dumping tons of hours in toil. Sometimes, we have to make space for ourselves by allowing room for unscripted time. Time that belongs to us without expectation of what we will produce with that time.

I feel refreshed. I feel focused. I feel ready. I do have many hats to wear. I once again believe I have enough heads to wear them all.



Does the iPhone kill creativity?

It feels good to be writing again. Earlier today, I was wondering why I ever stopped. The iPhone and iPad crossed my mind but I wasn’t quite sure how they related to my decreased creative impulse. I haven’t been lazy. Quite the opposite, I’ve been productivity obsessed. In the two years since I got my first iPhone and iPad, I’ve been busier, more productive and better informed that ever before.

In my small amount of free-time I have been Facebooking, tweeting, following RSS news feeds, setting up search builder alerts in library databases, blogging, and sharing links of interest to colleagues across the state. I have become ridiculously well-informed through the miracles of Twitter, Google Reader, Flipboard, Zite, Vodio and Instapaper. I’ve been gathering weblinks like a manic squirrel and stashing them in Evernote, Google Bookmarks, and various other digital hidey holes.

The trouble is, I haven’t been taking the time to process all of this information or wonder exactly what it is for.

The universe is often kind. I was pondering all of these things earlier today, wondering how they fit together and then I read Jay Fields’ LifeHacker post “Is Productivity Killing Your Creativity?”

Creativity requires downtime. Insights are created in the space between activities where seemingly unrelated events are casually examined and relationships are found. Fields, like me, loves his iPhone. The trouble is, the iPhone destroys downtime. The mind is hungry for information and the hand so easily reaches for the iPhone when standing in line, waiting for the bus, waiting for the kid to get dressed, whatever. The idea is that these moments between things used to be filled with free-ranging thoughts, which created the building blocks required to make new ideas. When the mind is always engaged in taking in new information, there is no time left to make anything happen with this information.

Fields writes:

I’m convinced that my iPhone was the root of my creativity issues. Life is full of ‘waiting time’ – waiting for the subway, waiting to see your doctor, waiting in the elevator, waiting in line at airport/grocery store/coffee shop, and waiting at the bar to meet your friends. Pre-iPhone I would spend this waiting time pondering anything that was troubling me. Now, I open Safari on my iPhone to see who is the latest injury on the FSU, or who’s tweeting about what (seems like it’s mostly sponsorship requests these days). I don’t spend that time thinking about anything, I spend that time reading – reading about things that have very little impact on my life, but seem to always more than fill my waiting time.

I’m not planning to surrender my iPhone, but I like Fields’ rather modest solution. He moved the attention-suckers to the second screen of his iPhone so that when he instinctively reached for the device, he had time to remind himself that he needs time to think. Fields also schedules “stare out the window time” into his day. Both of these are doable solutions.

I want to sustain habits that foster greater creativity. I still want to be ridiculously well-informed, but I need time to figure out how this information involves my life. I need time to do things with the stuff I learn.

Funny how the answers we need often arrive just when we need them. Or maybe, I’ve just slowed my mind down enough to create a relationship between two entirely unrelated events. Either way, I am feeling grateful.

More thoughts on Bergman’s “Two Lists”

I’ve spent the day thinking more about Bergman’s “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Day” post and realize I took the easy way out yesterday. The focus list of things I want to achieve is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, it helps to have a list of things that inspire me and carry me forward. That first list helps me better define my own understanding of success.

The second list is essential but far more difficult. Few people, Bergman claims, ever make the second list. The second list isn’t just a list of unpleasant or unimportant distractions to be avoided. The second list is hard because it may well contain things that are important, things that are worthwhile priorities, but which, I am consciously choosing to avoid.

What Bergman is talking about here is opportunity cost. For every opportunity I follow up on, I am trading the time and energy I might have made available for some other worthwhile opportunity. This isn’t an easy choice between things I like and things I don’t like. The second list involves guts. The second list involves disappointing people, letting things go, admitting my limits.

This second list strikes me as a very powerful idea. It actually scares me a little. I can’t quite get my head around it. I know I have a hundred things that belong on that second list but I don’t know how to start naming them.

Here is the generosity of Bergman’s suggestion: this isn’t a facile proclamation of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. This is a public admission that, even if my talents were unlimited (they are not), my time and energy are finite. I can’t do everything I want to do or think I should do. I have to pick and choose.

The second list is about being mindful of one’s limits to avoid the trap of constant reaction. Our mobile, hyper-informed, web-laden lives are brimming with opportunity costs. Activities, projects and notions call for more than our attention. They call for our time. We cannot give them time without sacrificing time from somewhere else.

All of this brings me back to an idea I picked up a few weeks ago about reactionary workflow, the idea that our use of information technologies only make us more productive if we can harness them mindfully to accomplish specific things we wish to accomplish. Otherwise, we spend all our time reacting to other people’s agendas.

Success is spending time making the things you care most about. I’ve got to make these lists. I’m just not sure how to start.

Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning by Peter Bergman

So, every now and then the universe throws a reminder flag and tells you to slow down and take a look. Today, that flag was “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” by Peter Bergman.

Bergman reminds me that disciplined focus and mindfulness are more worth cultivating than simple information gathering and fast acting information reflexes.

There is skill in being able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are going to get your attention. How very much more powerful and useful to also be able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are not going to get your attention. It helps to call to mind the things that typically distract you and prepare yourself to move beyond those things.

I haven’t built my two lists yet. It does, however, call to mind my earlier post about the Stop Doing List, a mindfulness practice which I have not well-maintained.

Ah well. It’s a new week with new opportunities to do things differently or not do them differently.

A fate worse than procrastination

I sometimes don’t accomplish the things I intend to accomplish in a timely manner. Standing on the outside, I can see how it might appear that I am an inveterate procrastinator. But procrastinators are often seeking fun diversions to keep themselves from doing the serious, un-fun work at hand. That’s just not me.

I rarely take more than a 20 minute lunch break. I often forget to take breaks at all. I usually get to work around 7:30am and leave around 5pm. I have had very few days when my serious, important work felt un-fun. I enjoy working. I like being productive and getting things done.

So what’s the problem?

It isn’t procrastination. It isn’t fun-seeking distraction. I am trying to accomplish too much in one day. I start my day with unrealistic expectations of how much I can accomplish and occasionally bruise myself trying.

The problem isn’t doing too little. My problem is attempting to do too much.

In the spirit of my Stop Doing list, I am (for the moment) no longer using the to-do list productivity app on my iPad. Using it, I feel like I am drowning in my list of things to do.

Instead, each morning I jot down the items on my iPad list that need the day’s attention. By “jot down”, I mean on actual paper. **gasp** Beside each task I estimate how much time the activity should take. And then I number the tasks in order of need and get to work. So far, so good.

Epiphany #1: I am not really good at estimating how much time something is going to take.

Epiphany #2: You only get points for not being a procrastinator if you are actually accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if the problem is too little effort or too much. The end result is the same.