Finding time

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me how I ever find time to read or learn so much. I know, I know, half those inquiries were covert accusations that I was slacking at my job… but a few of them were sincere, and even among the malicious ones there was an undercurrent of wistful, sometimes fearful envy.

The simple truth is that learning can’t happen without time, and it’s not always time that our employers, our colleagues, or our lives inside or outside work want to offer us. Libraries generally are feeling the pinch of time too; there’s quite a bit of chatter of late about what libraries should stop doing. This means that librarians absolutely need not feel guilty about asking ourselves the same question!

In my mind, there are two main branches of time management for learning: actually finding time, and making the best use of the time you find. This section will help with the former goal. You’ll find plenty of advice in the rest of the book aimed at efficient learning.

Knowing where the time goes

Find a small notebook, or if you’re the tablet or smartphone sort, open a note in your favorite note-taking app. Write down two weeks’ worth of work days, one day per page if you’re using a notebook, and for each work day list the hours you’re at work. For those two weeks, every hour just after the hour ends, scribble down the various things you were doing that hour. Don’t make a big production of it, just scribble. For example, a typical early-morning hour for me while the semester is in full swing reads “email, newsfeeds, hall chat, catching up on class discussion forums.” If you forget an hour, fill it in as best you can the next time you remember.

What you’ll have at the end of two weeks is a fairly detailed work-time diary. Reread it. See what jumps out at you as time you could reclaim. True story: a former colleague of mine on one edge of the sprawling University of Wisconsin–Madison campus bewailed the several hours per week spent traveling to and from meetings on the other side of campus. Eventually she asked whether she could join certain meetings by phone instead. This favor was readily granted, freeing up quite a bit of unproductive time for better use.

If one particular activity occupies more time than it’s worth—email is a popular culprit—that’s your cue to look for strategies to cut it down to size. This is a learning project like any other! Common tools, techniques, and systems you can learn that may save you (and your colleagues) time include:

  • Email filters and email-management techniques (Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero is justly popular)
  • Time- and task-management tools and techniques such as the Getting Things Done system
  • Meeting-management techniques
  • Project-management tools and techniques (There are quite a few free or cheap project-management web services like Asana and Trello around that are infinitely better than what was available when I was learning project management. Try one out!)

Books, websites, and courses can help you with any or all of the above. Consider your learning time an investment in freeing time for more learning.

Eliminating timesinks

When you looked at your work-time diary, did you find yourself involuntarily rolling your eyes at how long you spent on some particular activity that didn’t feel useful or perhaps even necessary? That’s a timesink. Timesinks must die!

Common timesinks and potential solutions to them include:

  • Meetings. Your organizational culture governs your best available response to timesink meetings. If you can leave a useless committee, do it. If you can attend by phone and multitask, do that. If you can politely ask meeting leaders for agendas and other process improvements, do that (and don’t forget to set the example in the meetings you run).
  • Listservs and other bulk email, such as vendor email. If a listserv only makes you angry or wastes your time, unsubscribe from it. Whatever email program you use, learn how to filter email into folders, so that you can get listservs and vendor pitches out of your inbox. That doesn’t mean you never read any of it; it means you read it on your schedule only. Have a “bozofilter” that dumps email from People from Porlock straight into the trash. Do look at Inbox Zero for more email-taming ideas.
  • Uninspiring rote work of many varieties. Is it truly necessary? (Stop doing it for a week. If no one notices, don’t start up again.) Can it be delegated? How about automated? Automation almost always entails possibility exploration and a learning curve, so treat it as a learning project and give yourself permission to let it make you slower for a while—chances are you’ll make back the extra time and then some.
  • Travel, if you work on a sprawling campus as I do, or have to split your time between workplaces. Email and the telephone are the best mitigators here, though web conferencing (try is speedily overtaking them for sheer usefulness.
  • Service commitments. I like professional service. I do professional service. But I also say “no” to service commitments; I have to. So do you, if you can’t spend time learning because service hoovers up every spare second. Think about reducing your service commitments, even the ones you enjoy. They’ll take you back when you have the time to spare again, I guarantee!
  • The water cooler. Be honest in your time diary about how much time you spend hanging out and chatting with your friends at work. I’m not asking you to turn into an antisocial monster, of course, but I’ve met an awful lot of people claiming to have no time in their day who thought nothing of a solid half-hour spent talking about the latest reality show or tech toy. Be conscious of that as reclaimable time.
  • Interruptions. These are so costly, and not always avoidable, either. The best place to cut back on these is typically purely social interruptions. If you have an office door, close it more often; doing so at defined times may help subtly train your colleagues to leave you alone at certain times. If you don’t have an office, practice your polite assertiveness with your colleagues: “I’m sorry, I’ve really got to get this done; could we talk about your new dog later?”

Being honest about priorities

Take another look at your work diary. Identify the one or two least-important things you do during your week. If you do not believe expanding your skills is more important than those least-important things, this book cannot help you until your priorities change.