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Feeling Busy? Stay Close To Your Roots

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image via khowaga1 on Flickr

It’s that time of the academic year when everyone is busy. At Champlain we’ve been having a lot of conversations about faculty workload and about how course load, advising, service, professional development keep growing as we try to do more and more. Librarians here also wear a lot of hats. Almost all of us teach, we all do reference, we serve on committees and are involved with campus initiatives, all in addition to our regular job duties. And students might be some of the busiest among us. They have various classes, jobs, internships, clubs, organizations, and important socializing to do.

In all of these cases, it can lead to a very transactional view of the work we’re doing. Instead of seeing the big picture of a class assignment, stepping back to understand why we’re doing something, or thinking strategically, we accomplish task after task, simply trying to put out fires without asking where it is leading us. There are several reasons for this. First, we continually take on new projects and tasks because we want to serve students, or add something to our resume, or because it sounds fun. Second, we don’t reexamine things that we are currently doing because they have “always been done that way” or they simply become routine and easy to miss.

“As with a tree, the more of it there is, the farther it is from it’s roots. The less of it there is, the closer it is to it’s roots.” – Wang Pi

Librarians are very service oriented and want to help, but constantly taking things on can lead to over-extension, loss of effectiveness, and ultimately burnout. We need to balance our desire to serve others with our need to take care of ourselves and maintain our effectiveness. There are several strategies that can help with this:

Say yes…strategically

At Champlain we had a presentation the other night from a group of interim deans and consultants giving us their perspective from the outside. They said that we have a “culture of yes” at our institution. A culture of saying yes is a much better environment to work in than a culture of saying no. It makes work more fun and can be a big strength in serving our students. But when we overuse strengths they can become weaknesses. While it’s important to have a culture of yes, say yes strategically. When you say no you can say, “this sounds like a great opportunity, but with what I have currently I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves.”

Ask “does this add value?”

I’ve almost finished The Lean Startup and the really important question that Eric Ries asks is “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?” Are we solving library problems or the problems of our students and faculty? We have limited resources in terms of time and budget. Are they being used in ways that are benefiting our users? Could they be used more effectively elsewhere? We need to focus on services and initiatives that people need and want. As the economist Thomas Sowell succinctly put it, “Producing things people don’t want is a road that ultimately leads to the bankruptcy court.” In the case of libraries it means becoming irrelevant.

What can you drop, automate, delegate or reorganize?

I’ve talked here before about reducing clutter and asked the question what can we drop? Dropping things can sometimes be difficult because it may involve tradition or someone’s territory. But there are other ways to drop things. Are there different workflows or organizational structures that will do the same things more efficiently? Can tasks be delegated or automated? Perfection is the enemy of good enough. If someone else (or an automated process) can do something 80% as effective as you can, delegate.

Focus on what’s important but not urgent

“If you were to do one thing in your professional work that you know would have enormously positive effects on the results, what would it be?” The effectiveness guru Stephen Covey says that our time is best spent on things that are important but not-urgent. These are the things that we believe will be really beneficial but we never seem to get to. Instead they get shifted to the backburner while we attend to what is urgent and get in the habit of putting out fires. By carving out time to focus on things that are high impact as opposed to urgent, we can use our time more effectively and we won’t have as many crises.

To maintain sustainability in our work lives, not feel overwhelmed, combat burnout, and avoid the busy trap, it’s crucial that we don’t simply put our professional work on autopilot. We need to regularly step back and see the bigger picture of our work. What do I really want to accomplish? Why am I doing this? Is this adding value to students, faculty, or other community members? Do I have to do this or do it this way? We need to slow down sometimes and we need to take care of ourselves, or else we’ll do a poor job at serving others.