It seems very hard to believe, but time has been flying and the first 3rd of our yearlong program to increase productivity is now complete. Next week we will be moving on and turning our focus from topics that focus on how to improve productivity, and instead begin looking at the concept of academic workflow and exploring tips and tools to help streamline that process. Before we do that, however, we want to check in with our readers to see how the program is going so far.
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All the tasks that we have to keep up with when using web applications would exceed the amount of time and attention that any one of us could handle. It follows, therefore, that the more we can automate tasks we need to do, the better. Moreover, the web is, if not a series of tubes (as the late Alaska Senator Ted Stephens once claimed), it does rather resemble an almost infinite series of silos. Each web page or service is independent, which means if we want to do the same thing to more than one silo we have to repeat the task. Or at least that was true before mashups (Quote below from this Wikipedia article).
A mashup, in web development, is a web page, or web application, that uses and combines data, presentation or functionality from two or more sources to create new services. The term implies easy, fast integration, frequently using open application programming interfaces (API) and data sources to produce enriched results that were not necessarily the original reason for producing the raw source data.
For example, HootSuite became available in 2008 and serves as a dashboard for controlling one’s social media accounts. It is often used by companies or other organizations to coordinate their brand. Posterous also started in 2008 (though sadly has just shut down) as a blogging platform that allowed one to disseminate the same blog content across sevices such as Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Live Journal, etc. Rebel Mouse also works with social media to provide a newsletter-like presentation. Organizations can use it to display their social media content, and students could use it to create a newsletter for an assignment. Particular operating systems have, for some time, tied together the software in their own ecosystem. Outlook and Onenote work together as do various Apple products. New apps that integrate web services are announced frequently and trying to name them all would take up a month’s worth of blog posts.
Currently the winner and still champion of task managers, however, is IFTTT (If this then that). As of this writing, Ifttt offers connections between 61 web services (called channels). The code that connects two channels is called a recipe, which consists of a trigger channel (the “if” part), an action, and the result channel (the “that” part). For example, if I post to my WordPress blog, and want to send it automatically to Twitter or Facebook or Evernote, then WordPress would be the trigger channel, Twitter, Facebook and Evernote would be the result channels and the action would be sending the WordPress post to the three result channels.
Channels include all the usual suspects, such as the four just mentioned, but also a variety of cloud storage apps such as Dropbox, photo sharing services including Instagram and Flickr. There are more unexpected channels such as date/time, weather, email, and recently the Belkin WeMo brand controllers for home appliances – so you could, for example, set your lights to come on at a certain time. Nor are you limited to your imagination. Ifttt users have been very generous in sharing their recipes. So generous, in fact, that one drawback of the service is that many new users of Ifttt wind up enthusiastically activating so many recipes it adds to the confusion rather than decreasing it, with an overload of, for example, emails with the latest free books in Amazon, or free tunes.
Another drawback is that while the service is advertised as simple to use, it helps to see it in action first. In the readings section are some quick tutorials to view first before trying Ifttt out yourself. Note: I have a Google alert for ifttt, and there are a huge number of articles about it, but the majority are blog posts with simple introductions to ifttt. So the readings consist of only a few articles or videos that are the best I’ve seen at showing how to use ifttt.
The last drawback that I want to discuss today is that there is a dearth of research-oriented channels. Certainly Evernote, Dropbox, WordPress, even Twitter and Facebook have legitimate academic uses. For example, one might send new RSS items from a saved database search to a specific notebook in Evernote with specific tags. Still, the service could be more useful for academic research.
Recently, an exciting announcement from ifttt developers has promised a forthcoming enhancement which will allow web services with open APIs (for example, Mendeley and Zotero to name only a few) to create channels as well. Enhancements such as this make the future of task automation for academia look bright, and it is exciting to contemplate what it might look like in ten years’ time. Will universities set up their own instances of Ifttt, for example, which could tie together the Learning Management System, research databases, secure cloud storage, research management tools, and notebook software? It will be fascinating to see what develops!
Ekart, D. F. (2012). Tech Tips for Every Librarian. Computers in Libraries, 32(4), 36-37.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
– – – William Butler Yeats
The Yeats quote is a good way to start a review of Flow for a couple of reasons. First, it is one of those books that changes how one views the world, which engages the mind – lights a fire, in other words. Secondly, the book is specifically about that kind of engagement, which Csikszentmihalyi calls “optimal experience”, or flow.
” ‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” (p. 6) In flow, a person’s attention is wholly focused on what they are doing and they are being challenged to stretch their skills, but not in a way that causes anxiety. In a life devoted to flow, a person constantly strives to establish goals, obtain new skills or enhance their existing skills and use those skills to successfully meet new challenges. Such a life is creative and satisfying in ways no other way of life can match.
In another quote a life that has flow does so by working on a goal or goals and mastering the skills needed to reach the goal:
From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is – provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy [attention] . The challenge might involve the desire to have the best beer bottle collection in the neighborhood, the resolution to find a cure for cancer, or simply the biological imperative to have children who will survive and prosper. As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life. (p. 215)
Csikszentmihalyi, the author, is a psychologist who has spent his life studying positive psychology – what makes people happy. Perhaps this is not surprising in someone who in his childhood endured the horror of World War II. He and his team have studied thousands of people over the years, specifically looking at when people are the happiest. One technique used was to send people a page at 8 to 10 random times a day. The participants knew that when they received a page they were to write down the time, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt.
The results are fascinating. While flow occurs fairly commonly in the arts or athletic competition as expected, there are people who find flow in repetitive factory work or hard labor such as farming or raising herds of animals. Moreover, wealth, position, and ease of life do not necessarily create flow:
Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: people who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend. (p. 6)
So why do some people achieve flow while so many others do not? Most people have experienced it at some point, but didn’t realize it at the time. For others it is a common experience. There are some personality traits that make optimal experiences more common. The people who cultivate flow most successfully are neither self-conscious (anxious about how others perceive them) nor self-centered. “Children who grow up in family situations that facilitate clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation [doing a task for the joy of the task itself], and challenge will generally have a better chance to order their lives so as to make flow possible.” (p. 89) Csikszentmihalyi also mentions (p. 236) that lives full of flow are more likely to happen to those who were read to as children. In addition, the person who is successful is able to negotiate both differentiation, or self-awareness and growth as an individual, and integration, an ability to be a part of something larger than ourselves, to be part of the community’s growth. (p. 223).
Where do flow experiences most often happen? Despite the fact that society tends to denigrate work and exalt leisure, most people are considerably more likely to experience flow at work than in pursuing leisure activities, particularly if the leisure activity is a passive one such as watching television. Work can become more conducive to optimal experiences by being redesigned with that goal in mind, and helping workers to have the kind of personality that is most open to flow, “by training them to recognize opportunities for action, to hone their skills, to set reachable goals”. (p. 157)
Can one increase the ability to be in the flow? Yes. “It does not matter where one starts – whether one chooses goals first, develops skills, cultivates the ability to concentrate, or gets rid of self-consciousness. One can start anywhere, because once the flow experience is in motion the other elements will be much easier to attain.” (p. 212)
While many speak of the virtues of simplicity, Csikszentmihalyi writes continuously in this book about the beauty of increasing complexity. For example:
The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action… A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.” (p. 6)
It is in striving for something better that individuals and humanity as a whole become something better. If the earth were to disappear tomorrow, the memory of Shakespeare, Ghandi, Rosa Parks, and multitudes more, sung and unsung, would continue to resonate. Humanity has achieved that which will last. The author says something similar:
It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be GIVEN meaning. Much of what we call culture and civilization consists in efforts people have made, generally against overwhelming odds, to create a sense of purpose for themselves and their descendants. It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying. (p. 215)
While mulling over how to write this review, I came across a video with a snippet of a graduation speech by Neil Gaiman (whom I suspect has the kind of personality Csikszentmihalyi celebrates) given to the University of the Art in 2012 . Gaiman gave this advice to the graduates for how to deal with adversity: “Make Good Art”. It is advice Csikszentmihalyi would endorse, and Flow is the manual to achieve it.
Now that we have spent a couple of months together talking about managing our knowledge and some of the online tools that are available to us, I feel like we should spend this week taking a step back and considering the safety of our information. We are all very aware of cautions we need to take to protect our privacy on social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, but how many of us have considered all the other online tools we use every day?
It is easy to become complacent about our online security. Many of us have whole departments of IT professionals who are busily keeping our emails relatively clear of spam, and alerting us to possible infestations of computer viruses and worms. With our Knights in Shining IT Armor guarding our systems, it is easy to overlook other kinds of vulnerabilities that might be targeting our data instead.
Information Security with regards to cloud computing was highlighted for me recently by our Security Policy and Compliance Manager in our systems area. Our conversation was eye opening for me and resulted in a new page that I post in my research guides and discuss in my workshops and classes. And he is far from alone; in fact, Forbes has an entire section of their website devoted to latest news in Cloud Computing.
For example, I had never thought about the vulnerability of Dropbox. That wonderful tool that just automatically syncs my computer with the Dropbox files when I log in, could be vulnerable to being hijacked. All anyone needs is brief access to my account name and they could add their own computer as a new location for syncing. This would result in anything I added to my Dropbox being automatically sent to this hijacker as well. I am told it is somewhat tricky to determine all of the locations that sync to my account, so this could easily go unnoticed for some time. Now I do not put sensitive information in my Dropbox, so this is less of a concern to me. Consider however, your researchers who DO deal with sensitive information as well as data on new discoveries and possible patentable research. This could be devastating to them as well as the university should they have their data prematurely revealed. The University of Michigan has a great page that their IT folks put together on their view of data safety in cloud based storage and Google Docs. The page is very user friendly and brings up great issues for faculty and researchers alike to consider.
Then there are mobile devices. Mobile devices are often more vulnerable to security breaches and offer hackers more opportunities of access to cloud services. The most secure company computer can be derailed by just one unknowing employee syncing their infected mobile device with the secure environment. Free WiFi hot spots are also a vulnerable area; Bob Rankin did a very nice writeup on this topic on his site: “The Big Problem With Free Wifi Hotspots”. If sites you visit or email providers you use don’t encrypt their connection, then anything you send or even read could be vulnerable to being vulnerable to other eyes as well.
So should we go back to just using our mobile devices offline? No, of course not, but being aware of vulnerabilities and taking precautions such as authentication procedures using strong passwords, and cryptography for sensitive data can go a long way to making our mobile use safer. Ellyssa Kroski wrote a lovely post in January for the Open Education Database on online privacy tips for librarians.
For Further Exploration and Insight:
1. Do you know the IT policy of your university? Search it out or talk to an IT professional about possible vulnerabilities for you or your users.
I just finished reading a complementary download (free for signing up to Michael Hyatt’s blog emails) of the book Creating Your Personal Life Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing the Life You’ve Always Wanted . I suppose I should preface this Review/Summary by saying that I am a long-time reader of Michael Hyatt’s blog, Intentional Leadership and really love his conversational style. I always feel like I’m curled up in an easy chair just having a conversation with him when I read his blog. I have a deep respect for his value system and faith (he is the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing and author of the best-selling book, Platform). While all this had a great deal to do with me picking up his book, it doesn’t represent why I’m reviewing it today on our blog.
Creating Your Personal Life Plan is a book which hit me at just the right moment. I recently had a friend ask me what my new set of major life goals were, and frankly, I was somewhat stymied. My focus for the past two years has been so consumed with first getting our blog up and running, and now with keeping our Year of Productivity program going that I had not really looked past this year for most areas of my life. Hyatt’s book provided a helpful outline and structure toward exploring and taking stock of both where I am and where I want to be.
Creating Your Personal Life Plan is based on the Life Plan concept used by Daniel Harkavy, author of Becoming a Coaching Leader: The Proven Strategy for Building Your Own Team of Champions and the CEO and Executive Coach of Building Champions. This is also a great website offering bonus free podcasts each month as well as a newsletter and blogs from several of their motivational coaches. Harkavy offers a great podcast here talking about this Personal Life Plan and why it is critical for balancing our life. Like Hyatt, this is a site led by Christian coaches, but in both cases, I highly recommend both sites for the excellent coaching tips and leadership tips each offer regardless of your own faith persuasion.
The basic building blocks of your Personal Life Plan are called “accounts” Each account will take part of your time, your effort and your attention, and just like financial accounts, you can’t spend more than you have in the bank of your life. These accounts will make up the major facets of your life. A career is usually a major account for many of us, but there are also accounts for your spouse, family and friends. Don’t forget to have yourself for an account too! Each of us will have our own unique group of accounts because we are each made up of unique facets. One major account might be an activity that you are passionate about: for me, Dance will be an account. It is not only something I do for entertainment, it is something I study as a student, and there are a unique series of goals that I see for myself in this arena. Each of you will have your own mix of accounts.
Hyatt’s book then goes on to explain subsequent steps to identify and flesh out your life plan. This is something that is reviewed and updated regularly, and specific action steps are identified for your progress toward your life goals. You will both define what each account will look like ideally, as well as what the reality of that account is today and some action steps to begin moving you closer to your ideal. Both Hyatt and Harkavy recommend carving out at least eight uninterrupted hours to think, focus and create your life plan. Some may need even more time.
I recommend reading Michael Hyatt’s book and listening to David Harkavy’s podcast on Life Plans. I found both to be motivational and feel better prepared to tackle the creation of my own life plan.
Habits get bad press, as most of what is published focuses on how to get rid of bad habits. Too little attention is paid to the extraordinarily important role habits play in making our lives run more smoothly. Things that become habits are things our minds do with little conscious attention, and as we know from an earlier session, our attention is our most precious commodity. So we want that which makes us productive to become habitual. Indeed, this was part of David Allen’s reasoning behind the creation of his Getting Things Done (GTD) system – to get things off our minds and into a trusted routine, thus freeing the brain for more focused creative productive work.
Turns out that a lot of research has been done now on how habits form, how bad ones can be broken and new ones formed. This research cuts across disciplines from neuroscience to psychology to management, and is explained for the layperson in books such as The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Habits turn out to have three components: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is that which triggers the routine, which is the action taken. The reward is, basically, a response in our brain that is happy because of the routine. Sometimes the cue and the reward are unconscious, which makes it more difficult to change a bad habit. It isn’t the cue and reward that need to change, however, it is the routine. Duhigg gives an example in the appendix of a habit he changed, that of going to the cafeteria in the late afternoon for cookies, which caused him to gain weight. He tried not doing it, but the compulsion was too strong. So he decided to use what he learned researching the book and created a framework with the following steps: Identify the routine, Experiment with rewards, Isolate the cue, and Have a plan. By using the framework, he found that the trigger was not hunger, but a need for socialization. So he started going to coworkers’ cubicles to socialize instead of going to the cafeteria. If no one was around he would go to the cafeteria and get coffee and talk to colleagues. It has so far worked for him. (Duhigg p. 275-286)
Earlier in the book he discusses that changing one habit can have positive effects on others. Creating an exercise habit, in particular, seemed to help the most, as many people who did also began eating healthier, feeling less stress, becoming more productive at work, and better at controlling their spending. (Duhigg, p. 109)
Habits are part of the less conscious part of our minds, and so are related to our intuitive judgement, and that is the subject of a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink. Blink is about intuitive judgement and rational, data-driven judgement, and the conclusions are fascinating. People ask him all the time when to use which, and this is something that may never be entirely clear. He does have some conclusions, however. First, useful intuitive judgement has to be cultivated. It works for experts whose years of experience and knowledge allow them to make quick but informed judgements. On the other hand, too much information, for any one judgement, may get in the way – it may obscure the important stuff. A related problem in academia is knowing when to stop doing research and actually turn the project in.
Similarly, after 25 years as a reference and subject liaison librarian, for most questions that I get I have a good idea where to start looking for information, and usually have a feel for how much has been written on a particular topic. Many times my intuitive sense saves me time and helps me show the student where to find the information quickly. However, that judgement fails me often enough that I’ve worked out a system. I make an appointment with the researcher and spend time looking at the databases and other resources available to me. I then print pages that give the other person an idea what databases and what searches were most productive. So my experience informs my intuition but quite often I require analytical skills as well.
Routines/habits are often good as they allow us to turn our attention to important priorities. Some habits are self – destructive or simply no longer productive, and scientists are learning how we can change those. Habits and experience also feed into our intuitive judgement but we have to balance that with analytical skills to get the best results.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House. If nothing else, read the appendix, pp. 275-286.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co..
For Further Exploration and Insight:
(1) Have you successfully changed a bad habit or created a new good one? If so, please write a comment about the experience and how you did it.
(2) Set a goal of changing a bad habit or creating a good one… I plan on starting to exercise regularly by using Breaking the Chain (see the Session 6 post), for example. Keep track of how well you do. Add a comment to this post about the results.