Inbox zero. Did you just clench your teeth or tense your shoulders? I did both, just typing the words. Like most people I know, my relationship with what I have come to think of as “productivity porn” is, as Facebook would say, complicated. Just as catalogs from furniture stores make me feel a little anxious about the piles of to-be-read books and magazines (and, ahem, the occasional tuft of dog fur) in my living room, productivity blogs and books make me eye my multiple inboxes with some trepidation.
“Knowledge workers,” we are assured, need a system to Get Things Done. Your system is representative of your worth as a worker and as a person. Like you, it is imperfect and in need of constant iterative improvement. Also, your house? It is too cluttered. So is your filing cabinet. And your inbox.
The cruelest part of the onslaught of advice on how to be more productive is that it’s largely true. Every job I have ever had has required A System. That system needed to be fit to both my own tendencies and my job’s requirements (it helps if your system is compatible with your boss’s system as well). A new job requires a new system. Most of my colleagues have their own systems and the common theme I’ve noticed between those systems isn’t Inbox Zero or filing email by sender or project or phases of the moon, it’s the architecture.
Whatever your system is, chances are, there’s some keystone that the entire enterprise hinges on. A list, a notebook, some kind of folder-based voodoo. If that goes awry, the whole thing falls apart and must be rebuilt. Any new techniques must be integrated into the system based on their relationship to that central conceit.
For those of us working in technology, the tech parts of our job are seamlessly integrated into the daily pattern of our jobs and our lives. A lot of new technology comes cloaked in productivity’s clothes. Sites and apps like Instapaper and Evernote are for keeping up, keeping track, and keeping tabs, not new technologies. But if you’re a techie who’s felt a gnawing resentfulness when you see “GTD compatible” on a website or app description, you know the inner turmoil of tech burnout that many of your colleagues are feeling.
In August, I posted about keeping up and the pressure many librarians feel to stay on top of new technology. Since then, I’ve been paying close attention to how the librarians I interact with learn new technologies and what systems I see around me for keeping up.
As all the productivity gurus will tell you, there’s no perfect system. Just as Inbox Zero is a weak rallying cry for someone who only gets a few emails a day, new technologies have to make sense in our lives before we’ll use them.
A few years ago, there was a flurry of activity around core competencies. Personally, I connected it to Learning 2.0 – libraries that had loved Learning 2.0 had found that it also exposed basic tech competencies that needed shoring up. I don’t think we’re there yet.
As you go about your day, my knowledge-working brethren, count how many times you use small, basic “tricks” to use your computer well. Are you proficient at opening links in new tabs? Do you copy, paste, and select all frequently? Do you use the shift and control/command/open-apple key to select groups of things? Do you alt-tab through things?
If your productivity system falls apart when you forget your Moleskine, or Remember the Milk doesn’t sync correctly, imagine trying to keep up with new technology while doing everything in longhand (or libraryhand, for those of you that learned it). Your coworker who can use all of the programs on staff machines and zoom around your ILS like a roller derby champion on Red Bull might be doing all of this with one hand tied behind her back.
If your library has a core competencies plan, dust it off and see how you’re doing. At the very least, take some time to make sure everyone on your staff knows how to use keyboard shortcuts in their jobs. Just saying “hey, did you know you can use ctrl-a to select all?” isn’t very helpful. Using it to select the contents of a field in your ILS and copy and paste that information somewhere else, is.
Productivity porn may make me gnash my teeth in frustration, but it has taught me that without the basics in place, building a system is next to impossible. Learning about technology may come naturally for readers of this blog, but the next time you want to scream when you see a coworker struggle with something technologically basic, think about your abandoned Delicious links or your languishing Toodledo account. A little kindness and a tech tip will help your colleague feel that much more savvy and that much more kept up.