Sunday, 12 May 2013

Making time to think


The lack of time to think is probably the biggest complaint I have about my current role and the way I work.

I work part time. 22 hours spread over four days so I can be there for my son to take him to school. 12 miles away from our home, then pick him up again. It means I get in to work most days around 10.00 in the morning, only to leave again four hours later, with the exception of one day where I work through until 19.00 in the evening.

That short window of working time means that when I get in to work, I throw myself straight in to it. Working in a hot-desk environment, finding a desk is the first challenge of the day, and locating my colleagues to check in and catch up the second challenge. Logging on, the first thing I do is check my email. I work in a library at a distant from my customers, in a fast reactive enquiry environment where I pride myself on a quick, accurate response to customer needs. Email is also the only way I know what reactive work I need to prioritise that day. But it does leave me feeling like a proverbial slave to the email. I'd much rather be a Slave to the Rhythm.

The two phone lines,two email accounts, interruptions from colleagues, a noisy working environment and a short working day means that I don't stop until I leave the building. And it's only later when my son is finally in  bed, I've cleared the dishes, packed our bags ready for the next day, cleared my own paperwork and collapsed into bed and I suddenly have a little peace and quiet that I find myself reflecting on the day and pondering solutions to the challenges thrown at me. My notes and thoughts get typed quickly into an email to remind myself the next day. But it doesn't feel very efficient, and work life is bleeding over in to home life, especially with the additional task of attempting to complete a portfolio for Cilip accreditation.

I'm not a big fan of the over-used philosophy of 'working smarter, not harder'. It suggests that we're inefficient and all we need to do is implement a technique to suddenly create space... but the likelihood of that space being filled with more reactive work, rather than thinking time is high. I've worked to ensure email's get automatically tagged and filed, use 'If This Then That' to reduce the amount of time I spend moving information from one platform to another. I already use an on-line diary, and an on-line to 'to do' list that I use for both home and work and have identified and reduced efficiencies in our admin for processing requests. So 'working smarter' means I can get more of the same kind of work done, but that's it. I still hadn't found the space to just think.

Two weeks ago, I found a rather dramatic solution to the problem of not having any thinking time. My office was involved in a fire, making it unsafe to work in the office for a week. I found myself at home wondering what on earth a digital librarian does without access to the digital library. Or email. Or the files on the network that I wasn't able to access from home. 

Firstly, I did what I could. British Library Document Supply Service, Athens, and many other resources were all available to me on-line to enable me to carry out some of my reactive enquiry work. I stayed in close contact with colleagues who were set up to access everything from home, in an attempt to respond to priority users. But there was a large hole looming in my day where email, sending post, answering phone-calls, meeting partners and all the other little distractions would be. 

I did what every sensible librarian would do. I made a note of all the things I could work on from home that didn't require access to email or anything else that was stored on my computer back in my office. It looked like this.

Doodle To Do

Looking at my list, apart from reminding me that I really need to take some coloured pens in to work so I can do this more often, I realised almost all of the things on it had been delayed at work because they involved thinking time. They weren't every day, reactive enquiries that I could easily complete. It was one-off unique pieces of work, or the start of a project that needed a different approach. They needed planning. They needed creativity. They needed time to think and ponder.

I was working from home for five days. Divorced from my work email, I discovered the freedom from the day-to-day urgency of routine tasks and found a new way of working. It took a few days to adjust. It didn't feel right to just sit down and start work. It felt like I needed the trigger-routine of sitting in a traffic jam for 30 mins, running madly to the office from a car park 20 minutes away and to scroll madly through my email before I could access my 'work head'. That routine got replaced with a new one instead. Clear desk, pour myself some water, grab some bourbons, and text line-manager.

Those five days at home, I felt like I achieved a lot. I was inspired by posts on Twitter. Read blog entries that contributed to my though-processes. Found examples of other organisations achieving things I wanted to do in my own work place. Created new templates, pondered on notes I'd made myself months back and only just rediscovered, found new ways of approaching a problem and... strangely... wrote down a lot more in an old fashioned notebook, rather than typing things out. I need to stop framing 'thinking time' as 'time wasting'. And I wanted to carry this new way of working back to the office when all the usual distractions were back in place. The Google philosophy of offering it's software engineers 20% of work time to develop their own projects and work on whatever they like is well known. It's a concept that was first created by 3M, resulting in the creation of the little yellow sticky note. [1] The science behind daydreaming as a powerful tool for problem solving is also documented. [2] And I loved this Guardian Blog [3] about a teacher implementing the 20% idea in to the classroom to engage the kids in their own learning.


I also realised that I'd actually created this thinking space for attendees who came on my ' Essential Searching Skills' course where the last hour was dedicated to surfing, playing, and random clicking leading to new discoveries and idea's about how to integrate the techniques we'd been discussing into their every day research practice. I offered it to them. Why not give myself the same option?


So how could I create thinking time in my own day (both at work and home) and feel that I could still justify that time?


Challenge my workload

Although I'm part-time, I'm a key member of the team. And I'm a sucker for sticking my hand up first to volunteer to take a lead on new projects. Which often means I bite off more than I can comfortably chew. I need to get better at giving others the opportunity to take on new and interesting projects, and give myself the chance to focus on what's already filling up my plate. My eyes really are bigger than my belly sometimes.

Focus on objectives

I had taken a sneaky short-cut recently, when I tied in my own work-based objectives into my Cilip accreditation objectives. But to follow on from the task above, I need to make sure that every piece of work I do fits in with my objectives - if it doesn't, I need to challenge myself - why am I doing it? Would it be better done by someone else?
Turn off email

I've recently started using 'Sane Box' to manage my email at home, combined with Unroll.me to work towards the ultimate goal of 'inbox zero'. What Sane Box does is remove the clutter from your email box, and save it in a 'Sane Folder' to access later. Unroll.Me does something slightly different. It takes all the newsletters and regular emails and rolls them up in to one to read / dismiss in one step. I already filter all my work email's so that current awareness bulletins, RSS feeds and newsletters, community alerts, Jiscmail messages and LinkedIn email's go in to one folder that I can access later when I have the time.

But email is also used a lot in our workplace to communicate across the team. We're a dispersed working team, operating across different working patterns and geographical locations. I want to change the way I communicate with my colleagues. Swapping email from Instant Messenger for quick messages will reduce the amount of email traffic. It can also remain open when email is closed, so I'm still marked as 'available' to colleagues and easy to contact. I dislike using the phone due to my deafness, but there is always the option of getting up from my seat, playing 'hide and seek', taking a walk and a break from the screen to go and find my team mates. [1000 workers spread across four floors in an open plan hot-desking environment - it's often harder than it sounds! But the break from the screen and the chance to stretch my legs is one I welcome]
The third task might be the hardest to implement in a reactive work environment - to reduce the amount of time I spent dealing with incoming mail. A constant flow of email can be distracting and need to get better at setting aside time to focus on email - and separate that from time to focus on other tasks.
Break tasks down

I already use a 'to do' list. Now I want to start separating tasks in to 'thinking time' and 'doing time'. I think just focusing on completing the physical task itself masks the true amount of time needed to spend on it.

Find the space to 'day dream'

The problem with working in an open plan office is the silent pressure to be seen to be 'doing something'. And although I know I'm doing something productive when I'm reading a book about metadata, I'm still concerned that that time on self-development activities is judged by others that I clearly don't have enough to do to keep me occupied. Luckily, the joy of working in a flexible working space is that I do have other options. A designated 'quiet space' where there is a strict 'no phone' policy, and less passing foot traffic is an ideal place for 'thinking time'. Little high-backed sofa's creating an enclosed world in the corner of the office, providing shelter from on-lookers is a great place to sit and read. Heck, there is even a public library over the road, with all the inspirational reading material we could need to feed new ideas. I need to improve the way I interact with my working space and move away from the idea of sitting at one desk to do my work all day. Moving to a new working space gives a chance for new habits to form. Now I've worked from home for a week and proved it can work, I have the option - and trust from my manager - to do it again.

Develop new habits

Rather than diving head first in to the new day, I want to spend the first part of the day reflecting on what I didn't get done the previous day - and what I need to prioritise for the day ahead. I also want to start scheduling in 'thinking time' into my calendar. This needs support from my line-manager. I can't guarantee that 'thinking time' will always come up with innovative solutions and I need buy-in from the boss so that thinking time is recognised as a valid part of my work.

The next goal? Make my office more playful. If only I could replace the central stairs with a Google-like slide...




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