Year for Productivity: Session 2: May I Have Your Attention?

Year for Productivity Session 2

Remember the old joke “SEX!  Now that I’ve got your attention…”?  It turns out that this is a humorous but accurate description of how the brain works.  When human brains evolved, they did so where needs were basic.  When we consider the environment in which ancient man lived, this meant needing to focus on first identifying danger, then food, and so on.  Paying attention to every blade of grass, every tree, every cloud in the sky would have meant not noticing the saber-toothed tiger stalking you.  There are several key aspects of “attention”. First is the fact that it functions to filter out information, not let it in  (Davenport, p. 58).

Another article discusses the neuroscience of attention:

Getting Past the  First Roadblock – Reticular Activating System (RAS) According to Willis, at any given moment only about 2,000 bits out of the  millions of discrete pieces of information that our senses  are constantly bombarded with can reach our  conscious attention. The gatekeeper that decides what gets through is the RAS,  located in the brain stem. This primitive part of the brain works in much the  same way that it has since our human ancestors were hiding in caves and running  for their lives from better-equipped predators.  This part of the brain is regulated by our  basic survival instincts to notice what has changed or is different in our  environment. When something new is present it is given the highest priority for  our perception, particularly if it is perceived as a possible threat.

This leads to the second most important fact: attention, like time, is finite, and there is no magic solution that will give more of it.  The concept of attention management grew out of this hard fact.   Management consultants and researchers Thomas Davenport and John Beck first popularized the term. They studied it from the perspective of how organizations become more successful as they become more proficient in focusing the attention of the group and the individuals who are part of it.

Davenport and Beck (p. 20) define attention:

Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information.  Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.

Attention is thus tied to information.  Consider the implications of the following: “The Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written work available to a reader in the fifteenth century” (Davenport, p. 4).  We’ve all been discussing information overload for years, but the concept of attention management is essential to understanding that our personal productivity is a matter of what we choose to give our attention to, and whether the most important priorities receive the most attention.

Information overload is certainly part of the equation.  We’ve all seen masses of infographics about the rate that knowledge is increasing, and with the advent of the web it is coming at us from so many more directions.  What is important here is the psychological effect of so much information, which for most people results in the feeling of being overwhelmed.

In the excellent book Personal Productivity Secrets, Maura Thomas talks about the Lion Syndrome.  Lion tamers use a chair or stool and point the legs at the lion, who sees four separate and equal threats and backs away in confusion, unable to decide which to attack (p. 42).  So when faced with overwhelming information, we often turn our attention not to our highest priorities, but to the easiest thing to deal with, usually email.

The book asks a number of questions to determine if you have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  I was appalled to find myself answering every question yes, but the author goes on to the conclusion that many of  us have a culturally-induced version of ADD brought on by our hyper-connected world.  A result is that most of us start the morning with email or other forms of communication and wind up reacting to the needs of others and at the end of the day can’t recall or articulate what we actually accomplished (Thomas, p. 19)

One response to this infinity of things needing our attention is that the concept of multitasking has become the battle cry.  There’s so much to be done, and I can do more than one thing at a time!  Sadly, the brain doesn’t work that way.  Dave Crenshaw in The Myth of Multitasking explains it in terms of switching costs.  The brain can’t focus on more than one thing at a time unless the second thing requires little conscious thought.  Moreover, as the brain switches from one task to another, it takes a while to find its place.  The more switches, the more time spent reorienting to the next task, therefore multitasking takes more time than focusing on one thing through completion and then moving to the next.

A number of books have been published lamenting that being always connected leaves one without time for reflection, the deep thinking from which creativity and inspiration spring.  It is why many of us these days find our most useful ideas occur to us in the shower where there are no distractions (though sadly no easy, or dry, way to capture those moments of inspiration).

William Powers, author of  Hamlet’s Blackberry, is not alone in advocating that we schedule into our lives some unconnected time, in order to have those moments of reflection and creativity – or to have more “face time” with the people we are closest to.  Doing so is challenging because, as neuroscientists are finding, our brains get addicted to many kinds of stimuli, anything from narcotics to gambling to chocolate to constantly checking if we have new email, or new Facebook updates.  So it may take effort to adjust to unconnected time.

A good plan to start with is to create to-do lists.  One of our upcoming lessons is on that topic, so more details then.  One of our suggested readings this lesson is Personal Productivity Secrets.  In it Thomas sets out the challenges covered briefly here and has a detailed plan for redesigning one’s work life to be most efficient AND (cue fireworks) actually achieve one’s highest priorities.

Paying attention in a hyper-connected world is like herding cats…if the cats are on a stampede through your brain.  Throughout this course we will focus on tools and concepts for improving productivity, and an essential prerequisite is knowing that what you choose to pay attention to determines your productiveness.

Selected Readings:

Attention Management Blog ( Aggregates and edits posts from other sources on attention management.

Crenshaw, D. (2008). The myth of multitasking: How doing it all gets nothing done. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (Only 68 pages, worth reading in its entirety). He has a good 20 minute video on YouTube on the same topic:
Davenport, T. H., & Beck, J. C. (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, ch. 1-5.

Goodman, N. “How to Train Your Brain to Stay Focused“. Brief post with some excellent ideas.

Hatmaker, T. How Mind-Controlled Games Work – and Why It Is Way Bigger than That. The most interesting part is near the end, starting with the Future of the Future section, in a discussion about being able to retrain how the brain pays attention.

Renfro, C. Time Management or Focus Management?

Thomas, M. (2012). Personal productivity secrets: Do what you never thought possible with your time and attention … and regain control of your life. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley. Her blog has several additional timely articles on attention management.

For Fun:

Pickpockets, Attention, and Neuroscience: A Demonstration –  Fascinating fun piece about Apollo Robbins.  The video is a wild demonstration of the art of distracting attention.

For Further Exploration and Insight:

(1)  For two days, keep a log of your activities at work.  Write down everything. Also, for this step and for step 2, notice when your energy peaks and when it is at its lowest point.
(2)  The next two work days, start the day by writing a list of things you need to accomplish, and mark them off as you do them.
(3)  Compare the four days.  Did you accomplish more when writing a list of goals to be accomplished?  Did it help you clarify in your mind what needed to be done?  Did you act more and react less? Is your energy best in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Can you schedule your creative time when your energy peaks?


Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Link Roundup #4

western saddle with a lasso on it Australian University to Roll Out 11,000 iPads to Students and Staff Next Year. Article also mentions other schools/school systems that are deploying iPads. Nice that they included staff as well as students, a necessary step if professors are to develop course-related materials for the iPad.

Mapsaurus – Find Android Apps Based On Your Interests. Nice idea, an app that suggests other apps you might find useful based on the apps you have installed. I found this on Android 4 Schools, a website/newsletter aimed at the K-12 educational community, but I’ve found a surprising number of apps through it that I think are useful to the higher education community as well.

TabTimes Presents the Best 100 iPad Apps. “If you want to get the most from your iPad, the TabTimes 100 Best iPad Apps is your guide to the best apps for business and productivity. Over the next week, we’ll be featuring the 9 app categories (Utilities, Presentations, Healthcare & Medical, Writing & Editing, Reference, Productivity, Financial, Collaboration, and News).”

5 Best Presentation Apps for iPad. Covers Slideshark, Keynote, TelePromt+, Prezi Viewer, and SyncSpace.

20 Best iPad Productivity Apps

WordPress Plugins – Be Smart about the Ones You Install
. Post with good common sense advice on installing plugins. I am still learning WordPress and good advice on it is gold. Just found out that after updating a plugin you have to reactivate it.

Best New iPad Apps: Notes for Public Speakers, MindJet Task Management, Tablet Blogging, and Vinyl Music 2.0 The first 2, and maybe the third, can be useful for productivity and academic workflow. The first, Speeches, lets you create cue cards for speeches/presentations.

Yes, I get the TabTimes newsletter, why do you ask? ;-). I have put a lot of links there to iPad apps, but they also cover Windows 8 tablet news (such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro Tablet to ‘Arrive at the End of January’ They do not report as much on Android tablets, sadly, though their website has an Android section.

As for the date the Surface pro tablet will be released, CNET has more details.

Android or Chrome? Will Google Ever Decide on One OS? This is one of CNET’s Ask Maggie columns, by Marguerite Reardon. She writes well in language aimed at the lay person.

Top 5 Android Phones for 2013. Or at least for today. With Android phones, as he mentions, the day after you buy yours a better one comes out, sigh. I’ve been getting Bob Rankin’s newsletter for years, since way, way back in the age of dinosaurs and he was one of the two authors of Internet Tourbus. Now his newsletter is on technology, and he, like Reardon, is good at explaining tech to the layperson.

Seton Hall University Tries Them All, Picks Windows 8 Tablets. Interesting story about pilot projects at Seton Hall University. They have been early adapters of iPads, Android tablets, and Windows tablets, and have had the most success with Windows tablets with a dock.

Sensemaking through knowledge mapping

Knowledge maps fascinate me.  I started out repelled by certain visual representations of information in my first career (in international development); I just detested a particular working paper of one important organization which had as its cover design a project management flow chart.  Yet I live by organization charts, and I can’t keep away from the Literature-Map, which is a dynamic vjsual representation of how likely people associated with the site are to like sets of authors.

Now I have been asked to teach concept mapping to students in one of our doctoral programs.  I often wonder why more librarians aren’t involved in teaching information/knowledge mapping techniques, which I find to be very useful tools in the sensemaking process.  In this post, I’d like to begin to dissect the broad field of knowledge mapping, exploring several types of mapping tools and their applications.

There are many different ways to slice and dice information or knowledge mapping tools, and a lot of different names for them (see for example WikiIT for other terms and ways to think about types of knowledge maps).  “Mind mapping” is a term most people in education are familiar with, in either the strict (and trademarked) sense defined by Tony Buzan ( and Tony Buzan, Inventor of Mind Mapping) or the more common usage by a multiplicity of software companies in the project management market.  Concept mapping and argument mapping/issue mapping/dialogue mapping are tools for special purposes, much less well know outside their niches.  I prefer the overall term knowledge mapping to information mapping.  Others prefer knowledge cartography (Okada, Buckingham Shum, and Sherbourne, 2008), a term which incorporates knowledge rather than information and avoids the already claimed KM acronym.

What knowledge mapping tools share is use of the mapping metaphor to bring relationships into prominence.  Few words are used, and therefore they must be well chosen.  Relationships may be indicated by labels (concept maps), or just by proximity or connecting lines.  In some maps, pictures or symbols add meaning.

I like the way David Hyerle (2009) categorizes mapping (or visual) tools into those oriented toward facilitating creativity, those meant for analysis, and those meant for synthesis.  To these I add a category of tools for organizing large collections of resources.  It’s possible to break these categories down further, but I think these provide enough for some orientation to their value.

In this post, I want to give an overview of each kind of tool; in later posts, I will discuss each in more detail.

Mapping tools for creativity are often called mind mappers.  While there are now many software tools, the activity can easily and sometimes more productively be done manually.  A large whiteboard, a wall of whiteboard paint, flip chart paper taped up on a wall, or plenty of sticky notes can all provide great media, and some people find them more conducive to the thinking process than software.

Source: My Thoughts Mind Map

How to Mind Map

This map shows use of color, images and interconnections, all typical features of mind maps.  (“How to Mind Map – MyThoughts for Mac” from MyThoughtsMindMaps’ Photostream, used under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivs 2.0 license

Analytic maps often resemble visual versions of outlines.  They can be applied to research projects, or indeed any kind of project, breaking down the project or process into steps to be taken. I teach the library research process using a double-sided map, wherein the left side is the library research process and the right side the outline of the paper:

Research plan map

Research plan map


Maps for synthesis include a number of subcategories such as concept mapping and mapping of complex, iterative dialogues.  The latter can be used in decision making processes where stakeholders have different values as well as varying points of view, and where it isn’t possible to define a problem in a simple fashion, without multiple attempts at understanding the nature of the problem itself.  Concept mapping is similar in that, in the process of understanding a complex field, one makes multiple attempts to state the problem as well as to identify the proper constituent parts and their relationships, which may have complex interrelationships rather than simple hierarchical correspondences.

In this concept map I made to explain concept maps to students, note that each relationship is labeled.  This map shows fairly simple relationships, but entities in concept maps can have multiple parents and circular relationships:

Concept map

(You can see a better version of this here).

Maps for organizing large collections Most librarians have personal sets of resources.  Some of us are satisfied by keeping them in notebook form; others, more visually oriented (like me), like the map style but have collections that are too large for static maps.  For these collections, dynamic, web-type software can be extremely useful.  Like concept mapping software, this allows you to make connections every which way (the technical term).  On a static map, you’d go farther and farther out on a branch, or scroll farther down a page, losing the view of the rest of your map; in a dynamic map (like the literature map linked in the first paragraph), the map re-centers at every click, giving you a new view oriented around your current focus.

It’s hard to imagine how these work without seeing them in action, but here are two screen shots from one of my all-purpose webs, from a section on mapping tools:


Mind mapping

The first image is centered around the term “mind mapping;” in the second, I have clicked on its child, “programs,” giving a related but different view:


As Tom Anders observed on a comment on an earlier post of mine, it’s hard to find one mapping tool that could serve all purposes equally well, and that’s frustrating.  But this is how I divide up the world of knowledge mapping:

Tools for

  • Creativity
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Organizing large collections


Hyerle, D. (2009). Visual tools for transforming information into knowledge. Thousand Oaks, CA : Corwin Press.

Okada, Alexandra, Buckingham Shum, Simon, and Sherbourne, Tony. (Eds.). (2008). Knowledge cartography : software tools and mapping techniques. London, England: Springer.




















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Year for Productivity: Session 1: What is PKM?


Welcome to the very first session in our year-long look at Productivity for Academic Librarians and Researchers!  We are excited you are checking us out and hope that you stick around and participate throughout the year.  You are welcome to post insights or questions to any of the information we provide here, and you are still very welcome if you prefer to be a silent participant.  The “exercises” that we suggest at the end of each session offer each of you the opportunity to spend some active time with the topic of the day. We hope they might spark ideas, changes or goals to implement in your own lives and suggest to your students, coworkers and faculty.

One housekeeping point.  Several people have reported difficulties subscribing to our blog via email.  Feedburner has some glitches when it comes to accepting email addresses that contain special characters other than @ or a period.  Using a different email address may resolve any problems.  I have heard from several individuals that gmail accounts seem to be working well.

We begin the discussion of productivity by introducing of a concept that may be new to some of you. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a field of study, an amalgamation of skills and tools to aid in knowledge creation, growth, storage and dissemination.  It is also a label that is used by many to describe how they manage their lives more effectively and productively.  I wrote a blog entry on the definition of PKM back in November of last year which you can review here.

PKM is a personal tool, and personal choice and personal learning are fundamental to its practice.  Knowledge management (KM) without the modifier is assumed to be an organizational practice; it is often seen as yet another way for management to try to squeeze still more out of us workers.  While management may reap some of the benefits from increases in productivity that result from effective use of PKM skills and tools, that is incidental to our focus here.  It is by stepping back and examining the process of learning and its dissemination that we can better understand how to help our faculty, coworkers and students to become more effective as well.

When productivity is discussed, there are a lot of different kinds of terms used.  We hear experts arguing over the concept of information overload; librarians are widely discussing the ever growing field of data management; business and computer specialists are talking at length about the importance of an organization internally implementing efficient KM systems; and philosophers and historians discuss the wisdom of past visionaries.

Perhaps it would help us focus on PKM a little better if we considered the flow of these different terms:

The collection of data is necessary in order to prime the rest of the process. Once that data is analyzed, related and organized, we can consider the resulting product “information.”  Knowledge takes a body of information to a new level by synthesizing and relating information and one’s own experience and learning to create new or clarified meaning of value that can be disseminated to others. Wisdom results when both ethical and “higher good” thinking is applied to a person’s growing knowledge and experience base. Acquiring true wisdom is generally a process that evolves over time.


Considering this flow (also called by some the DIKW Pyramid), it seems to me that our opportunity as academic librarians is vast.  We have traditionally been involved in helping others find the information produced by others, and even in finding data.  NIH and NSF mandates for public access to data as well as the open access movement in recent years have also caused an explosion in the library fields of data management and overseeing newly created data repositories.  Librarians have seemed less active in the right hand side of the mix.  Granted, we do not have the in depth knowledge of our researchers’ fields of expertise, but we do have many skills to offer them in terms of easing their progress through the stages of DIKW.  Throughout this year, we hope to offer participants ideas and tools that librarians and researchers can implement in their own lives and also offer to their faculty and students to help achieve their goals more efficiently and with reduced stress in the process.

 Selected Readings:

Bedford, Denise A.D., “Enabling Personal Knowledge Management with Collaborative and Semantic Technologies”, ASIS&T Bulletin, Dec/Jan 2012.

Cheong, R. K. F. and Tsui, E. (2011), From Skills and Competencies to Outcome-based Collaborative Work: Tracking a Decade’s Development of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) Models. Knowl. Process Mgmt., 18: 175–193.

Frand, J., & Hixon, C. (December 1999). Personal knowledge management: Who, what, why, where, when, and how [Working paper]. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from

Liew, Anthony (June 2007). “Understanding Data, Information, Knowledge And Their Inter-Relationships”. Journal of Knowledge Management Practice 8 (2).


For Further Exploration and Insights:

  1. Brainstorm for a few minutes regarding your work situation.  How do you interact with the various levels of the DIKW Pyramid? What opportunities might there be to offer further value to your faculty, coworkers and students? Are there new classes you could create? Other services you can offer?  What creative things are you already doing in this regard?
  2. Jason Frand and Carol Hixon’s paper in your selected readings is an often quoted source on PKM.  Frand & Hixon ask a series of questions which are still pertinent over 12 years later:

“If students and teachers continue to approach the educational experience using the same old approaches and techniques, will investing in information technologies make any difference? What, if anything, do faculty and students need to do differently in order to get value from our investment in information technologies “

How would you answer this question?

Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Year For Productivity: Introduction

New Class for the New Year

New Class for the New Year

Mary Axford and Crystal Renfro, two of the three authors of the Academic PKM blog (, are pleased to announce a new, FREE online course called “A Year to Improved Productivity for Librarians and Academic Researchers”. The course will consist of 26 lessons; one lesson will be posted every two weeks on our blog. Inspired by Helene Blowers’ 23 Things and created from an idea by Crystal Renfro, each lesson will consist of background on the topic, suggested readings, and exercises. Each lesson should not take more than an hour or two to complete.

What will be covered?

The lessons fall into one of three sections: (1) How to Improve Productivity, with lessons including What is PKM, Attention and Focus, Calendars, Productivity Apps, and Notebook software; (2) How to Create an Efficient Academic Workflow, with lessons including the Concept of Academic Workflow, Citation Software, Alerting Services, and Mindmaps; and (3) How to Develop a Learning Network, which includes lessons What is a Learning Network, Which Social Network Tool is for You, Effective Online Professional Image; and Tools Facilitating Further Training to name only a few of the topics planned.

What do I have to do?

The exercises will vary with the topic of the post. For posts that emphasize definitions of a topic, exercises might include writing a journal explaining your own ideas or current productivity regime. We find that the process of writing something down has a great effect in clarifying one’s thoughts. Mind maps have a similar ability to clarify and will be another option for exercises. Some exercises will encourage the reader to explore a particular productivity tool, or to write a list of goals.

While we will not collect and grade the exercises, we do want the experience to be an interactive one, and we encourage all participants to share your thoughts/exercises as comments on the blog posts. We expect to learn as much as you do.

Where do I sign up?

Interested individuals may sign up to get our blog by email or RSS feed at any time. As a bonus, there will be other posts on personal knowledge management topics (as well as the lessons) which we hope will enlighten and/or entertain.

The first lesson will be up on the blog Monday, January 7th, 2013, and new lessons will be posted biweekly thereafter. We hope the experience will be challenging, engaging, useful, interactive, and fun. All participation is welcome.

Link Roundup #3

western saddle with a lasso on it


Mobile Outlook 2013: $99 Tablets and ‘Digital Natives’ Take Charge – It is that time of year when we see year-end wrap-ups and predictions for the coming year. A $99 tablet that is light and could perform work tasks would be really nice.

Office for iPad Mentioned on Microsoft’s Support Website – also mentions Office for Android and iOs. This is likely to really increase tablet sales.

InvestInTech has a product Able2Extract PDF Converter 8 that can convert PDF files to MS Office formats including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The licensing cost seems pretty reasonable. Have not used this product and do not know how well it works, but could be very useful to academics.

Undergraduate Students and Technology is an infographic found through Stephen Abram’s blog, with info on the technologies students use, how they use it for study, what technologies they wish their professors would use more, etc.

Docear, the academic research management suite, has added automatic data extraction from PDFs. This is a big addition for their beta version. Docear is loosely descended from SciPlore. We hope to have a full review of it in 2013. For now, here is their description: “Docear is the complete solution for searching, organizing and creating academic literature such as assignments, theses, books and research papers. Just as an office suite bundles the applications essential to the professional environment, Docear integrates the essential applications of a researcher. These include an academic search engine, file manager, PDF reader*, mind mapping and note taking tool, reference manager, paper drafting, and word processor*. While the components are integrated, they are still replaceable so that if you don’t like Docear’s reference manager, you can simply use another one.”

New York Times Set to Launch Mini-books for Tablets. Interesting development, as this could allow them to sell extended analyses of news events that professors might use in courses.

How to Buy The Best Tablet. Good common sense advice from PC Magazine, with links to their Tablet Product Guide and article on 10 Best Tablets.

8 Ways Evernote Can Help You Get More From Your Research in 2013. The Evernote blog has some useful items, and it has “ambassadors” – blog contributors who blog about using Evernote in their profession and/or areas of interest. Alexandra Samuel, the author of this blog post, might be a good person to follow, as her ideas about managing research using Evernote in this blog post are worthwhile. As a bonus, at the bottom of this article are links to PDFs for using Evernote in different contexts, including 10 Ways to Use Evernote for a Productivity Boost.

Bitcasa and Its Unlimited Cloud Storage Come to Android, Windows 8/RT. Bitcasa is one of the newer cloud storage apps, offers 6 GB free, but the $10/month plan offers virtually unlimited storage. Useful for academics, because, ya know, we’re all broke!

christmas-kiss-decorated-tree And finally, we here at Academic PKM wish you a wonderful holiday season, whatever holiday, or none, that you celebrate. Among our favorite blogs are Profhacker and Gradhacker, and Gradhacker has had a couple of posts about gifts for graduate students. One is on technology gifts.