“Seasons” in the academic year

On a recent Mikes on Mics podcast with Erik Fisher (host of the Beyond the To Do List podcast), they briefly explore the idea of repeating and recurring tasks that are sometimes related to the seasons. For example, they talk about the fact that in the northeast U.S., you need to hire a snowplow in the fall so that you’re ready for the winter snow. Ideally, you set up a repeating reminder on say October 15th each year to remind yourself to hire a snowplow. For those tasks or projects that you can anticipate happening at regular intervals, it can be helpful to set up these reminders in advance so that they are out of your head, but not completely forgotten. This notion of capturing tasks and placing them in a trusted system is one of the hallmarks of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to productivity, and one that works very well for me.

Even though in the podcast they only touched on this notion of seasons dictating certain tasks and projects, it made me think about the rhythm and seasons of the academic year. The start-up tasks that occur at the beginning of each year are fairly predictable. One needs to develop/revise syllabi, obtain class lists, set-up a class Web space or other way to diffuse information, and do the careful planning for the first few class sessions. This is true for the Fall and Spring semesters. In the Fall, though, there are probably additional, predictable tasks. I know, for example, that I need to attend to program reviews that are due in early October, circulate the spring class schedule, and do the requisite travel authorization forms for fall conferences. These tasks are as predictable as February 15th (tax day in the U.S.). And yet, every fall I tend to plan for project development work, writing, and a myriad other generative tasks that are simply less urgent than the aforementioned recurring tasks. In reality, no matter how motivated I am to plan the next research project, it probably needs to wait until I get these other (less engaging) tasks completed first. It is hard for me, though, once these generative tasks are on my radar to let them go until I complete the other tasks.

What if, though, we were more forward-thinking in our planning? What if we blocked out time (a realistic estimate of time) to attend to the recurring tasks that have hard deadlines and slotted in some of the more generative tasks at a more appropriate time (or season) of the semester? I have three two-week blocks of time during the semester that I know my preparation/feedback work in my courses is going to be slow. What if I organized my calendar to focus on the generative tasks during these time periods instead of trying to cram them in around the inevitable beginning of the semester tasks? There will be the inevitable unpredictable diversions, but they can be more easily absorbed into a more deliberate planning approach. Of course, I think of this every Fall about this time and fail to act on it. This time, though, I’ve set up some recurring tasks for each Fall semester going forward as well as the Spring and Summer. I’m hoping that in doing so, I’ll be more realistic, productive, and satisfied during these busy times of the semester.

“Seasons” in the academic year

On a recent Mikes on Mics podcast with Erik Fisher (host of the Beyond the To Do List podcast), they briefly explore the idea of repeating and recurring tasks that are sometimes related to the seasons. For example, they talk about the fact that in the northeast U.S., you need to hire a snowplow in the fall so that you’re ready for the winter snow. Ideally, you set up a repeating reminder on say October 15th each year to remind yourself to hire a snowplow. For those tasks or projects that you can anticipate happening at regular intervals, it can be helpful to set up these reminders in advance so that they are out of your head, but not completely forgotten. This notion of capturing tasks and placing them in a trusted system is one of the hallmarks of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach to productivity, and one that works very well for me.

“fall in hartford” by Ed Schipul – http://www.flickr.com/photos/eschipul/

Even though in the podcast they only touched on this notion of seasons dictating certain tasks and projects, it made me think about the rhythm and seasons of the academic year. The start-up tasks that occur at the beginning of each year are fairly predictable. One needs to develop/revise syllabi, obtain class lists, set-up a class Web space or other way to diffuse information, and do the careful planning for the first few class sessions. This is true for the Fall and Spring semesters. In the Fall, though, there are probably additional, predictable tasks. I know, for example, that I need to attend to program reviews that are due in early October, circulate the spring class schedule, and do the requisite travel authorization forms for fall conferences. These tasks are as predictable as February 15th (tax day in the U.S.). And yet, every fall I tend to plan for project development work, writing, and a myriad other generative tasks that are simply less urgent than the aforementioned recurring tasks. In reality, no matter how motivated I am to plan the next research project, it probably needs to wait until I get these other (less engaging) tasks completed first. It is hard for me, though, once these generative tasks are on my radar to let them go until I complete the other tasks.

What if, though, we were more forward-thinking in our planning? What if we blocked out time (a realistic estimate of time) to attend to the recurring tasks that have hard deadlines and slotted in some of the more generative tasks at a more appropriate time (or season) of the semester? I have three two-week blocks of time during the semester that I know my preparation/feedback work in my courses is going to be slow. What if I organized my calendar to focus on the generative tasks during these time periods instead of trying to cram them in around the inevitable beginning of the semester tasks? There will be the inevitable unpredictable diversions, but they can be more easily absorbed into a more deliberate planning approach. Of course, I think of this every Fall about this time and fail to act on it. This time, though, I’ve set up some recurring tasks for each Fall semester going forward as well as the Spring and Summer. I’m hoping that in doing so, I’ll be more realistic, productive, and satisfied during these busy times of the semester.

 

Digital commenting and grading

Over the last several years, I’ve tried to go as paperless as possible. For the most part I’ve been fairly successful. One area that has always been a challenge for me though is in devising an effective and efficient workflow for providing student comments on their work. There are certainly a number of options – comments and track changes in Microsoft Word, converting to PDF and inking up either on a desktop computer or via a stylus on a tablet. Even with one of these solutions, though, there’s still the extra effort in passing files back and forth, entering grades somewhere, etc. Essentially, no matter what I’ve tried, I feel like I have about 5 steps too many to be really productive.

Screenshot of BlackBoard Inline Grading via Gene Roche

Enter BlackBoard’s Inline Grading tool. While I still haven’t used it in my courses yet, it seems really promising – kind of a one-stop shop for file exchange, commenting, and grading all in one. My good friend Gene Roche, the Director of Academic Information Services at William & Mary did a great post where he outlines the features. I’ll follow up with some screencasts once I get my hands dirty. In the meantime, read through Gene’s great post to see how it might work for you.

Digital Notetaking with OneNote

For the last two years, I’ve been working on the advisory board for the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project. The goal of the project is to help university faculty find ways to integrate technology in meaningful ways to support student learning and help their students develop 21st century skills. It’s been a great experience for me and challenged me to more clearly think through how and why I use technology in my own teaching and scholarly pursuits. I have long been a proponent of digital notetaking tools. The ability to capture and organize ideas and access them on all my devices has provided a huge boost to my productivity and organization. For years I’ve been a happy Evernote user. It has been a great tool, and I’ve enjoyed using it. In the TEI project, however, we’ve been exploring some of Microsoft’s tools for education and I ran across OneNote. In many ways, OneNote has a lot in common with Evernote. I’d heard of it, of course, but because I’ve been primarily a Mac user (there is currently no desktop app for Mac OS), I hadn’t explored it in any depth.

In building this tool into our TEI workshops, I’ve begun to understand some distinct advantages that OneNote provides – particularly with a touch-enabled Windows device, like the Microsoft Surface. There are three primary features of OneNote that have led me to convert 5 years with of Evernote notes into my OneNote notebooks. I’ll touch briefly on each of these features below coupled with some quick screencast videos of me demonstrating how they work. Even if you’re a Mac user, you may want to consider these features – all of which are available for free to Mac users through Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service.

The Metaphor

In Evernote, the primary metaphor is what they call an “everything bucket.” Essentially, you can add notes, documents, Web pages, etc. into your account. You can then add tags to describe the contents of the items. One can then search using tags or with keywords. More recently, they’ve added the ability to create collections or notebooks of related content.

In OneNote, the whole application is designed around the metaphor of three year binder notebooks. In each notebook, you can create tabbed sections with any number of pages within each section. This type of metaphor just really appeals to me and connects with the way I think about organizing my life. Watch the video below for an overview.

OneNote – Overview of the App

Embedding Media and Web Materials

This feature set applies to both Evernote and OneNote. In either service you can embed any type of digital media into your notebooks. They also both offer a button that you can add in your Web browser to clip Web content right into your notebooks. This video will demonstrate how to add different files and Web content into your notebook.

Embedding Media and Web Clippings into OneNote

Handwriting

The killer feature of OneNote for me is the appeal to add handwritten notes and diagrams in your notes (this of course requires a touch enabled tablet or laptop). You can add handwritten text into a note and just leave it at that. You can also convert handwritten text to typed text. You can also use a combination of typed and handwritten notes. For me, this is what really encouraged me to make the move to OneNote as my notetaking app of choice. In this video, I demonstrating some of these features.

Handwriting and OneNote

There are oodles of notetaking apps available for both Windows and Mac, as well as mobile devices. OneNote has been a wonderful addition to my productivity arsenal. The key, I think, is to find the tool that best resonates with how and where you like to work.

Digital Notetaking with OneNote

For the last two years, I’ve been working on the advisory board for the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project. The goal of the project is to help university faculty find ways to integrate technology in meaningful ways to support student learning and help their students develop 21st century skills. It’s been a great experience for me and challenged me to more clearly think through how and why I use technology in my own teaching and scholarly pursuits.

I have long been a proponent of digital notetaking tools. The ability to capture and organize ideas and access them on all my devices has provided a huge boost to my productivity and organization. For years I’ve been a happy Evernote user. It has been a great tool, and I’ve enjoyed using it. In the TEI project, however, we’ve been exploring some of Microsoft’s tools for education and I ran across OneNote. In many ways, OneNote has a lot in common with Evernote. I’d heard of it, of course, but because I’ve been primarily a Mac user (there is currently no desktop app for Mac OS), I hadn’t explored it in any depth.

OneNote Screenshot

In building this tool into our TEI workshops, I’ve begun to understand some distinct advantages that OneNote provides – particularly with a touch-enabled Windows device, like the Microsoft Surface. There are three primary features of OneNote that have led me to convert 5 years with of Evernote notes into my OneNote notebooks. I’ll touch briefly on each of these features below coupled with some quick screencast videos of me demonstrating how they work. Even if you’re a Mac user, you may want to consider these features – all of which are available for free to Mac users through Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service.

The Metaphor

In Evernote, the primary metaphor is what they call an “everything bucket.” Essentially, you can add notes, documents, Web pages, etc. into your account. You can then add tags to describe the contents of the items. One can then search using tags or with keywords. More recently, they’ve added the ability to create collections or notebooks of related content.

In OneNote, the whole application is designed around the metaphor of three year binder notebooks. In each notebook, you can create tabbed sections with any number of pages within each section. This type of metaphor just really appeals to me and connects with the way I think about organizing my life. Watch the video below for an overview.

OneNote – Overview of the App

Embedding Media and Web Materials

This feature set applies to both Evernote and OneNote. In either service you can embed any type of digital media into your notebooks. They also both offer a button that you can add in your Web browser to clip Web content right into your notebooks. This video will demonstrate how to add different files and Web content into your notebook.

Embedding Media and Web Clippings into OneNote

Handwriting

The killer feature of OneNote for me is the appeal to add handwritten notes and diagrams in your notes (this of course requires a touch enabled tablet or laptop). You can add handwritten text into a note and just leave it at that. You can also convert handwritten text to typed text. You can also use a combination of typed and handwritten notes. For me, this is what really encouraged me to make the move to OneNote as my notetaking app of choice. In this video, I demonstrating some of these features.

Handwriting and OneNote

There are oodles of notetaking apps available for both Windows and Mac, as well as mobile devices. OneNote has been a wonderful addition to my productivity arsenal. The key, I think, is to find the tool that best resonates with how and where you like to work.

When do you start your day?

I wouldn’t say I’m a morning person, but I’m definitely no night owl. I get working around 8am and by 4pm, I’m next to worthless. On those days when I teach a 4:30 class (or heaven forbid, a 7:15pm class) I literally have to get away for a few hours during the day so that I’m not exhausted before I even begin class. Recognizing these patterns in my work life, I’m beginning to wonder whether I ought to get started even earlier. Today while I was doing some yard work, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Mikes on Mics. The guest on the show was Andy Traub, author of The Early to Rise Experience. Andy made a great case for the benefits of the quiet of the morning to jumpstart your creativity and productivity. I appreciated that he kept coming back to the point that it’s not fun to get up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. But the benefits that can accrue may outweigh the difficulty.

After listening to the podcast, I bought the book. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m looking forward to receiving the daily email audio segments as I try it out. I’ll report back as I try the experiment. In the meantime, when do you start your day?

When do you start your day?

I wouldn’t say I’m a morning person, but I’m definitely no night owl. I get working around 8am and by 4pm, I’m next to worthless. On those days when I teach a 4:30 class (or heaven forbid, a 7:15pm class) I literally have to get away for a few hours during the day so that I’m not exhausted before I even begin class.

Recognizing these patterns in my work life, I’m beginning to wonder whether I ought to get started even earlier. Today while I was doing some yard work, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Mikes on Mics. The guest on the show was Andy Traub, author of The Early to Rise Experience. Andy made a great case for the benefits of the quiet of the morning to jumpstart your creativity and productivity. I appreciated that he kept coming back to the point that it’s not fun to get up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. But the benefits that can accrue may outweigh the difficulty.

Feeding the 3rd Brood! by Karen Brazier

After listening to the podcast, I bought the book. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m looking forward to receiving the daily email audio segments as I try it out. I’ll report back as I try the experiment. In the meantime, when do you start your day?

 

 

How do you start your day?

Seems like a simple question, no? In terms of being productive and working on what’s most important, the question of how to start your day is actually pretty important. Take, for example, beginning in email. If you’re like me (and I’d guess you’d not be reading this if we didn’t have some things in common), I could spend most of the morning in my email without realizing how much time I’d spent. Because it’s not just browsing through and answering a few messages. Many emails include lengthy to-do’s, things to consider, or a series of steps. One email can snowball into 30 minutes. And don’t get me started on beginning the day on Twitter or Facebook!

For most people, the morning is a precious space. Your head is still clear and you’ve probably yet to experience the inevitable curve balls life is likely to throw at you. This is the time that can be great for doing some course planning, thinking through vexing problems, reading, or writing the results section on your latest manuscript. If we aren’t deliberate with how we spend this time (or gift), it’s easy to slide down a rabbit hole. A horde of productivity gurus will offer this same advice about avoiding email first thing in the morning. The trick is, what do you do instead?

One of my favorite podcasts related to productivity is the Home Work podcast by Aaron Mahnke and Dave Caolo. They offer substantive, helpful ideas to be mindful and deliberate about work life. On Episode Six Dave introduced me to David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner.

David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner

This simple tool helps me to determine my priorities for the day and block time for these most important actions during the day. If you take a look, you’ll notice that you’re prompted to first jot down just three major tasks. David is kind enough to provide three more spaces, but the point is that you realistically can’t complete 12 major tasks in a single day. Identifying the three most important tasks is really helpful for me in terms of making sure I have the time and space during the day to get these done. There’s a great area on the planner to block time during the day in 15 minute increments so that you can ink in the meetings you already have scheduled, with a not so subtle reminder that you also need to make time for your most important tasks.

While I still spend some mornings in my email inbox (like when I recently returned from two weeks away from the Internet), I always start by completing my task planner first. This helps me to make deliberate choices about how I spend my time. I’ve found that it helps me to be more realistic about what I can accomplish in a given day and keeps me focused on what’s most important rather than on what’s right in front of me.

In future posts, I’ll get into how I keep all my projects and tasks organized as well as my approach to using David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach. I’ll also do a round-up of helpful blogs and podcasts. For now, though, download a copy of the Emergent Task Planner (or buy the pre-printed pads on Amazon) and start your day off productively.

ProfHacks begins

“Cairn” by Sha Sha Chu – http://www.flickr.com/photos/shashachu/

The career of an academic is an interesting experiment with balance. In contrast to  many careers and professions, professors have the ability, to a great extent, to chart their own course day to day, year to year. In doing so, however, they must find a delicate balance of time and energy in three roles: teaching, scholarship and service. It may be relatively easy to prioritize tasks, goals and projects within one area of focus, it is often more challenge to prioritize across these areas. For example, is it more critical for an untenured faculty member to provide feedback on a students’ dissertation proposal, prepare for the class meeting the following day, or complete revisions on a manuscript?

This dynamic nature of the professoriate was something that attracted me to this world, but also befuddles me from time to time. Somehow I managed to navigate the gauntlet and achieve promotion and tenure. My success, at least in part, is due to my efforts to systematize my day to day work and planning. I’m certainly no expert though. I consider myself more of a hack; someone who continually experiments, refines, and hopefully improves the quality of my work and consequently, my satisfaction in my career.

This weblog is a space for me to share what I have and will continue to learn about working more efficiently, productively and effectively as a professor. It will be a space for others to both garner new ideas and share their own. It will also be a space for me to clarify my own thinking and test out new ideas and processes.

So what can you expect to find here? Some weeks, I may only post one new resource, idea or experiment. Other weeks will probably be more productive. I assume the content of the site will ebb and flow with the academic year. You can expect posts around productivity tools (both digital and analog), resources, screencasts, interesting ideas, and book reviews. The content will center primarily around the work of academics – researching, teaching, writing, organizing, and planning.

I hope we all find utility with the content of this site. I hope that you’ll comment and share your own experience, ideas, and perspectives. In short, I hope the prof hacks will make our work more productive, meaningful, measured, and fun.

The Microsoft Surface as a Productivity Device

One of the things that intrigues me most about personal productivity is the idea of designing efficient and effective workflows. By this I mean developing common sets of processes to accomplish different tasks. For example, I often need to read and comment on my students’ writing. In the past, I relied on printing their work and marking it up with a pen. I would then pass these back the following week in class. This worked fairly well for me and my students, except for three issues:

  1. My writing is terrible – I even had trouble translating my own writing when students couldn’t read my chicken scratch
  2. This process delayed my getting comments back to students in a timely manner – particularly on rough drafts that they hoped to revise prior to submitting the work
  3. Unless I made photocopies of the commented work, I didn’t have a record of comments I’d given them at different stages of the process – a problem with a major piece of writing like a dissertation proposal that goes through many revisions

So, these issues were frustrating enough that I was determined to plan a better workflow.

To mitigate these concerns, I began to use the robust commenting features built in to Microsoft Word. Between highlighting snippets of text, tracking changes, and adding comments in the margins, I was able to replicate the same kind of process without some of the challenges inherent in working with paper/pen.

When the iPad was released several years ago, I began an experiment in trying to shift this workflow to a tablet device. I loved the lightweight form factor and ability to read the work more like a document on a table in front of me instead of reading on a vertical screen of my laptop or desktop. I was especially jazzed about the idea of being able to add hand drawn comments and scribbles via a capacitive stylus. Fortunately, a number of robust PDF editing apps were developed for the iPad. I so wanted to figure out and enjoy this workflow, but after two years of near constant exploration, I ran into some new (and old) workflow challenges.

  1. I had to convert every piece of student writing to a PDF file, then either email it to myself or save it to Dropbox in order to access it on the iPad
  2. It was often even more difficult to get the commented documents off the iPad and back to the students
  3. Using the capacitive stylus to leave handwritten comments made my poor handwriting even more difficult to read.

Essentially, with the iPad I introduced even more problems to my workflow than in either of the first two approaches.

When I began working with the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project, I had the opportunity to explore a range of Microsoft software, tools, and devices. About two months ago I received a Surface RT and began to explore this as an iPad alternative. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Surface is an entirely different device than an iPad. While the iPad is an excellent consumption and entertainment device (my kids love using it for all kinds of activities), trying to use it as a real productivity device was a constant headache for me.

Here’s what the workflow looks like on the Surface.

  1. I either save my students Word documents to a Dropbox or Skydrive folder (or set it up so that the students can upload files there directly)
  2. I open them up in the full version of Word (that’s included for free on the Surface RT) and use the full set of track changes, comment options, etc. to mark up the documents
  3. I can use the same capacitive stylus with the writing recognition tool built in to the device and it does an amazing job of translating my chicken scratch into crisp, clear typed text
  4. I simply save the file and send it back.

The addition of this one device has literally transformed the way I can provide students with feedback on their writing. The workflows I use with the Surface are not only way more robust and simpler than the iPad, I actually find that this 2 pound device has replaced my laptop and desktop for all but a few key functions. The best part is that not only can I develop these workflows easily, I actually look forward finding new opportunities to use this productivity tablet.