Time Management Tips

Kate Sheppard is my idol for all things related to time management as an academic. Kate is still the model that we hold up in the History of Science department at OU for finishing on time as a grad student, and she’s even more impressive as a faculty member. She’s already published a monograph and a volume of edited correspondence along with numerous articles and was fast-tracked at Missouri S&T for tenure. She edits & contributes to LadyScience.com, and she’s on several committees for national organizations. She runs marathons. She has an adorable kid and husband. She’s just an all around bad-ass.

Here’s her advice for carving up time. I’m mostly writing this so I can have it as a note to remind myself how to be productive:

I’ve always like the Pomodoro technique, but I’m pretty bad at actually implementing it. The key, I think, is to plan out your day ahead of time and use the timer as a limit to how much time you have for each task. If you don’t get all of a task done in 30 minutes, that’s too bad, you need to move on to the next thing. This shifts the focus from, “I’ll work on this thing for a couple of hours,” to “I’ve got 30 minutes to add a couple of paragraphs to this document.” Brevity is the key to wit and production apparently.

After I read Kate’s tweets, I went ahead and mapped out my days for the rest of the week. I’m still using AirTables to keep track of my To-Do list and projects, but then I map those to-do items to 30 or 60 minute windows in my day. We’ll see how well this works over the relatively unstructured and chaotic summer. Hopefully, I’ll build a good enough routine that it’ll carry into the fall, and I can test it out within the chaos of faculty and student support.

What I’m Reading: The Power

Over the last week, I read a novel called The Power by Naomi Alderman (link to a NY Times interview with Alderman). The general premise of the book is that women develop the power to harness electrical energy. This manifests in various ways like being able to shoot lightning from their fingertips, send blasts of electricity through various conductors, disrupt electronics, and manipulate the electrical systems in the human body.

Cover of the book, The Power, depicting a hand with electrical tendrils ringing the hand

The book talks both about empowerment of women and the fear that men feel as women wake up to this power. There’s fear of physical harm, fear of loss of structural (social, political, economic, militaristic, etc) power, fear about the reconceptualization of personal relationships, and just a general fear within daily life.

Alderman uses this sci-fi alternate history to demonstrate the real fear that women feel on a daily basis. I love how strange and fantastical she makes the very real issues of patriarchy and misogyny seem. The book depicts horrible acts of violence that made me squirm, but they feel warranted in that they are direct critiques of the violence inflicted daily upon women.

The story itself weaves together an ensemble cast. Alderman plays with the narrative structure, so that even though the reader feels like they’re accumulating the momentary insights and motivations of the various protagonists, they don’t really know what the end game is for anyone. Ultimately, Alderman is just using the characters to play with the religious and historical archetypes that serve as the foundation of our modern culture. The feeling of inevitability in watching these thin archetypes play to and with expectations is part of the point.

I really enjoyed the book and hope others will read it, so that we can revel in both the gory details and the grand vision that Alderman offers.

AirTable Review

I have been trying out different project management tools over the last few weeks. So far, I’ve used Notion, Trello, and AirTable and also looked at half a dozen others. I also tried a notebook and paper, but I definitely prefer the digital.

via GIPHY

My first goal is to try to find something that can help me keep track of the various projects that I’m working on. I have a habit of saying yes to literally everything anyone proposes, and then losing track of my commitments. So I need something that will tell me what projects I’m already working on, when they’re due, and some sense of how much bandwidth I have to spare.

The second goal is seeing if any of these tools also make sense for adoption by the Office of Digital Learning. We are in the process of hiring new IDs, a new instructional technologist, and a new video person. We’ve been using a combination of Trello and excel to track things for a while, but in an OLC Live conversation with Clark Shah-Nelson, I realized that we could probably do better.

AirTable

This week I’ve been trying out AirTable at the recommendation of Angela Gunder. As the name suggests, AirTable is a lightweight tool for building tables. My guess is that many people are put off by tables due to repressed memories of having to look at MS Access in a poorly thought out computer class as a kid. I, however, love tables. Working with websites as much as I do, everything now looks like a table. Each webpage is a table. A website is just a table of webpages. And I manage big tables of all the OU Create websites. I’ve organized my research notes into online tables and I’ve built tables for history undergrads to do the same.

For a couple of weeks, I was using Notion.so, and I like how it lays everything out in linked webpages with embedded spreadsheets. Any record that you put into the system can become it’s own little wiki page with embeddable images, spreadsheets, and links to other pages.

However, I eventually decided to abandon Notion, because it was not enough like a table. It was difficult to create two-way links between records for quick movement around the note system. Updates on one page rarely carried over to related pages, so you had to enter the same information on every relevant spreadsheet, rather than just updating a single table.

I spent about two days back in Trello, before remembering that Trello doesn’t do anything other than Kanban charts. There’s no interrelation of information across different charts, and once you’ve completed an item, you just archive or delete it or live it sitting taking up space.

So what I wanted, was something that combined Trello’s Kanban to-do charts with a broader table layout with multiple ways to drill down into the data. AirTable has Kanban charts taking care of my need for visual to-do lists:A screen shot AirTable's Kanban chart viewWhen you update the status (or any other information) of a card in the chart, that update carries throughout the rest of the system. You can view all of your items in a set of spreadsheets that can be tied together with relational tables:

Screenshot of AirTable's table view

In my “To-Do List” database, I have created a table of tasks. Each task can be tied to a broader project, and I can see information about those projects in their own spreadsheet. I also made a spreadsheet for ‘Ongoing’ tasks that I do daily or weekly or monthly, the types of things that can’t just be checked off and removed.

My table also includes a spreadsheet for readings, and these can in-turn be linked back to tasks or projects.

Conclusions

For my own usage, AirTable is brilliant. I’m happy to put in the time and energy to build a table to keep track of all of my stuff. The sheets are interrelated, so my updates propagate through all of the various views and sheets easily. I can sort by deadline to see what’s urgent or by impact to see what the big, important projects are. When a task is done, I can change it’s setting and then hide completed tasks. This is similar to the archival feature in Trello, but it’s much easier to unhide all of my completed AirTable tasks and analyze the amount of work I did in a given week or on a given project.

For my group’s usage, I think AirTable has a lot of power but also several drawbacks. We could easily set up a spreadsheet of all of the programs around campus that we are working with and list out points of contact and notes. We could then create a related spreadsheet of the courses we are developing and have developed. A task list might then list out all of the pieces of content and meetings and design work we are doing for the various courses. We could even set up a separate media table of all of the video and image assets we have acquired and created for the courses. I think in terms of keeping track of all of the stuff that the Office of Digital Learning is working on, this would be a really great tool.

However, my usage so far has been free, but I think we would need to pay about $5 per user (about 15 of us) per month. That’s not a ton of money, but it’s a new cost as compared to our current free usage of Trello or Basecamp which we already have access to.

Also, I felt very comfortable playing with tables, but I anticipate most people will want to stay on their views of the main tables, especially as the database gets much bigger and less comprehensible. It’s easy for me to modify my tables to my exact needs, but it will necessarily be harder to design a set of tables that fit everyone’s needs. My guess is that we will end up with a few tables that are only used by one person, so that they can organize their information as they want. As long as those tables are related back to the main tables, that’s not too big of a problem, but the system will grow ever larger and more complicated.

But, those are all tasks to worry about next week. For now, I will change the status of “Write-up on AirTable” to done, and call it a day.

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