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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Productivity Hacks for the Digital Academic: Part Two

This is part two of a blog post I wrote for the Digital Science Guest Blog


Image CC BY 2.0 Dennis Hamilton
The first part of this guest blog post looked at the problems that new and existing academics face when considering web and social technologies as part of their profession. The second part looks at a few options for dealing with digital distraction in the academic institution. Given that the web and technology is increasingly becoming important to how researchers do their work, from communication to measurement, it makes sense to have strategies at hand should managing them all becomes too much.

Create to do lists
Starting your working day as you mean to go on can be a helpful thing to do. We often start our working day full of good intention and a strong sense we can achieve many things. By mid morning and a few checks of your email and favourite research and news websites we find ourselves promising more for later. Soon lunch is with us and by mid afternoon we start feel bad we have not nailed that proposal, article, literature search. So for the last hour the temptation is just to reply to email and complete a few conversations, as that feels like moving things forward. The reality will be that it did not, as more emails pop up in some kind of technological ‘whack a mole’. A list is a way of prioritising your tasks and what you need to complete. Tools such as Wunderlist can help structure your working to be more productive and constructive. Of course like any of the suggestions below it requires a level of willpower but so does any kind of change for the better.

Use a timer
Like the suggestion above, this is about structuring your working day that fits in with the modern digital academic. For some researchers they have to consider the notion that they will often struggle to retain focus, whether that be internal or external factors. That for some, the idea of sitting hour after hour reading or writing will never happen naturally. Work may always be in some kind of fractured state and by giving yourself set times to work on projects and pieces of work you can have a better chance of at least nudging them forward bit by bit. By applying a timer you can set waypoints and reminders to change task that it is less disruptive than just jumping from one thing to another. One way to do this is called the Pomodoro Technique which encourages you to work on one thing for 25 minutes at a time with regular short breaks in between to recharge the brain cells. Whilst apps like 30:30 on IOS and ClearFocus Pomodoro App on Android help break your day up into more productive chunks.

Put a leash on email
Email is a constant distraction for academics, whether it be the prospect of getting an exciting communication, response to a conversation or just passing on your latest idea to a colleague; it can be very addictive. The quicker we respond to emails the more they seem to come, and with it expectations by others you will reply speedily each time. Email is essential to modern academia and platforms like Google Wave and more recently Slack have tried to change that. There are tools available like Inbox Pause for Gmail that allows you to pause incoming mail till a time you want to receive it. Whilst restricting email on your mobile phone might also help break that pattern of constantly checking it up for new communications. Doing something like restricting email so it only updates when in wifi range not only gives you peace and quiet but could save on personal data charges. There is of course the option of just not checking, which is quite hard for some, but by turning off email whilst working at least puts an extra step in the process. Some organisations have tried ‘no email days’, or periods, but that approach has often been seen as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Use a blocking tool
Any digital academic keen to communicate their research across the web will more than likely at some point start using social media. Add this to email and you have a double whammy of digital distraction if you don’t contain it. Obviously there are detractors who believe social media is bad for the modern workplace, whilst there is the opposing view who believe it has revolutionised work and communication. Like so many other things in life, it is about everything in moderation, if you are on social media every minute of the day you will get little else done. On the other hand if you ignore social media as a researcher you could be missing out on valuable information, conversations and of course a platform to communicate your research. To bring some balance back for the researcher who wants to structure their working day around writing, reading and communicating there are things you can do. By applying blocking tools so that you use them when you want, not when others prompt you. One of the most popular tools is StayFocusd which allows you to limit time on a certain website. That website might be legitimate for work or not, nevertheless if you think you are spending too much time on Facebook personally or LinkedIn professionally, this could help.  

Create an alternative calendar
Again like the to do lists and timers this is a useful way to create a more structured and disciplined working day. Most academics have digital calendars these days, whether they use them is another thing. For anyone using platforms such as Google there is the ability to create additional, private calendars. These can be used as gentle reminders with repeated daily events to check your email, read or write for set periods of time, rather than mix up the various tasks into one cluttered, unstructured day.

Use an aggregator
Trying to stay on top of the latest published research, news and updates from experts in your field gets increasingly harder to do. The sheer volume of content across the web means finding new and inventive ways to keep up to date. One tried and tested way is to use an aggregator to pull in the disparate collections of content into one location. Such as journal contents, blog posts and news can be subscribed to by using an RSS aggregator such as Feedly. Whilst Twitter users can refine the continual stream of Tweets into various strands based on users, search terms or hashtags using tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck.

Set up a personal Dashboard
Working on a similar model to aggregators and employing rss are personal dashboards. Personal dashboards used to be more popular thanks to iGoogle, PageFlakes and Netvibes, with only the latter still in existence. Nevertheless, Netvibes is a useful tool that goes beyond rss aggregators that allows social media monitoring, video embeds as well as using the xml format to bring in traditional rss content.

Eat a frog
The final suggestion might seem like the most drastic, and before anyone goes out in the garden to find a frog, I need to say you do not actually eat one. For most people, apart from survivalists and Bear Grylls, eating a frog would be considered a very hard thing to do. So are many tasks an academic has to complete, they can feel almost impossible at times. Yet that comes with the territory and at some point you will have to tackle that piece of work. So why not do something radical about it and start your day by ‘eating that metaphorical frog’. By keeping email locked away for the first hour of the day you could instead work on that piece of work you have been avoiding for the last few weeks/months/years. The chances are by practicing this approach a few times you will begin to feel a real sense of achievement. So by the time email starts to suck you in, or you pop out of the office for a coffee, you will feel that little bit better about it.

In Conclusion
Whatever tools and tips you apply you are certain to find a few that will work with refinement. Everyone is different and works differently so these kind of suggestions will have different results. It might be that you are already very well organised, so in that case - well done. It might be that you are a terrible procrastinator and incredibly dis-organised, many people are for a variety of reasons, some of which they cannot change. Either way, it is likely that there will be something from this list above that you can use to help you manage your digital workplace that little bit better.

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