Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!

Mental Health First Aid

Many of us in academia have taken first aid or CPR training. The first time that I had to learn some of these techniques was during swimming lessons as a child. I later took an intensive first aid course during my undergraduate degree. I’ve thankfully only had to use this training twice; both times involved successfully using the Heimlich maneuver to prevent someone from choking. I would therefore like to think that I would help someone out if I knew that they were in some kind of medical distress (e.g. having a heart attack, hit by a car, broken limb, etc.) You’ll notice that the examples that I’ve given here are physical ailments that have obvious symptoms. I’ve recently had to ask myself the hard question of whether I know what to do and would be willing to provide assistance to someone having a mental health crisis. Prior to last week, I would have been ill equipped to do so and probably would have hoped that some other bystander would step up to the plate and render aid. The easier choice in the moment is to turn a blind eye to mental illness perhaps out of fear, stigma, or ignorance, but I will argue that we have as much responsibility to render aid to someone experiencing a psychotic episode as we do someone who has suffered a concussion.

Last week I participated in a two day workshop on Mental Health First Aid offered by trained volunteers at my university. The program was put together by the Mental Health Commission of Canada . I would strongly encourage faculty colleagues to take part in this workshop or a similar one if offered on your campus. Many mental illnesses have an age of onset that overlaps with the ages of many of our traditional students. You may be in a position to recognize mental health problems experienced by your students and be able to provide assistance. The goal of this program is not to make you responsible for diagnosing mental illness, but to educate you so that you can provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The course also goes a long way towards combating the stigma that still accompanies mental illness. Mental health problems are common, but many suffer in silence due to a lack of knowledge about supports available and fear that they will be ridiculed or discriminated against due to their health condition. Mental health problems include substance-related disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; chances are that many of your colleagues, friends, and family have or will have a mental health problem. According to the Canadian statistics, one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year, while one person in three will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The economic costs from lost productivity and medical leaves are huge, but it is the personal costs to the person with the illness that is the real tragedy here. Contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one. People with mental illness are often ostracized, belittled, disbelieved, judged, or told that “it’s all in your head” or to “snap out of it”! These are real medical conditions; imagine telling someone with cancer that their disease would go away if only they “stopped being so lazy”. We have a long way to go in educating ourselves and fighting against ignorance.

I feel fortunate to work for an institution that recognizes the value of training its members to offer assistance to those experiencing mental illness. I hope that I will never have cause to use my training from last week, but that is an unrealistic wish and I recognize it as such. I look forward to the day when the stigma around mental illness is eradicated and the needed social supports are accessible and readily available. Until that day comes I will stand ready to offer assistance to those who need and want it and to dispel the myths that abound about mental illness. It is my wish that you will do the same.

Why aren’t more faculty members on Twitter?

Last week I participated in my first Twitter chat and this also coincided with serving as the moderator of the chat. The topic of the chat was live tweeting research talks and we discussed several issues pertaining to the use of Twitter by academics and others. One of the things that came up during the talk is how many faculty are not on Twitter and why that might be.

One reason I’ve often had expressed to me is that some colleagues don’t see the utility of Twitter. I will admit that this was me for a long time. I didn’t really understand Twitter and really didn’t see how it could be advantageous professionally (or personally). At first it seemed like a passing fad.

Another reason that many faculty don’t Tweet is fear of the unknown or fear due to a lack of control over social media. I think many of us are worried that we may not express ourselves well given the limit of 140 characters or that we might say something inappropriate that could have repercussions for our career.

Others may not use Twitter because it isn’t intuitively clear how you go about archiving tweets or how to quantify them in terms of impact. In the sciences, impact is usually a numbers game. Tools to do this like Storify etc. certainly exist, but there is a learning curve in figuring out how to use them.

These thoughts transitioned into how you might encourage colleagues to join Twitter. Suggestions included helping them set up a Twitter account, showing them how easy it is to do, providing tip sheets, giving examples of Tweets, and providing evidence of its impact and usefulness. The role of institutions and organizations was also seen as important in terms of increasing the adoption of Twitter by faculty.

I started using Twitter in December 2013 for fun. I didn’t have a goal or purpose in mind and just wanted to explore using it. Being connected to others through Twitter has had many advantages and outcomes that I would never have imagined in the beginning.

What are your thoughts on Twitter? Do you Tweet? Do your colleagues? Why or why not?

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

One of the more challenging aspects of my first year as a tenure-track faculty member was teaching a university level course for the first time. I had previously served as a teaching assistant in several labs and had done a few guest lectures prior to starting my faculty job, but I had never prepared, designed, and delivered a full semester course before. It was a terrifying prospect!

Since that time I’ve learned a lot from the experience of teaching multiple classes, but I’m always on the look-out for resources that could improve my teaching effectiveness and enjoyment of interacting with my students. I just finished reading the 14th edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips .

The book is divided into several major parts: Getting Started, Basic Skills for Facilitating Student Learning, Understanding Students, Adding to Your Repertoire of Skills and Strategies for Facilitating Active Learning, Skills for Use in Other Teaching Situations, Teaching for Higher-Level Goals, and Lifelong Learning as a Teacher. I liked this book because it does talk a bit about theory, but also offers tangible examples and exercises that you can try in your course preparation, in the classroom, during testing and evaluation, and in the future. This book offers a fairly robust coverage of most of the challenges that I’ve run into as a university teacher and suggests ways that these issues can be avoided in the first place and realistic solutions that can be applied when necessary. It’s very practical and has led me to think quite a bit about the structure of my courses and the assignments that I’ve been using to evaluate student learning. I’ve picked up several ideas that I might implement moving forward and found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading the book.

I think that it would be a great resource for new teachers in a university setting and is also a worthwhile read for experienced teachers. A bit of thinking and planning before launching a course is time well spent and this book is full of multiple gems of advice and knowledge for university teachers.

Moderating my first Twitter Chat

I was very slow to embrace Twitter and have only had an account since 2013. One of the interesting things about blogging is that you can never really predict when one of your posts will resonate with someone and what the outcome of it will be. Last week I wrote a blog post reflecting on the experience of live tweeting a research talk for the first time. The post caught the attention of our university’s Knowledge Mobilization officer and through that connection I was invited to moderate my first twitter chat at #KMbChat. The topic was my blog post which was very flattering.

The twitter chat took place yesterday and will be archived here . I wasn’t sure what to expect since it was my first time participating in a twitter chat, let alone hosting one! I can happily report that it was an awesome experience and that the community was fantastic and very welcoming. I learned a lot from the experience itself as well as from the content of our discussion.

My plan is to use several of the topics that came up for discussion in the twitter chat as subjects of blog posts over the next few weeks. Based on my experience yesterday, I can verify that Twitter chats are very useful from a professional standpoint and I’ll be actively looking to participate in more of them in the future.

Making bad choices? Blame decision fatigue!

I’ve finally come to realize that I make my best decisions in the morning and my worst decisions in the afternoon or evening. The reason for this is a phenomenon called decision fatigue . It’s the idea that the more decisions that you make during the day, your ability to make good quality decisions rapidly decreases as the day wears on. I used to think that living in a world with a myriad of choices available was a fantastic opportunity, but sometimes it is the availability of the huge number of options in our lives that can be overwhelming. I think that these ideas can feed into procrastination, especially when there are so many choices competing for our attention. I also wonder if this is partly driving why many of my students are so unclear about their next steps in education, life, and career. The more decisions that we have to make, the harder those decisions become.

So what can you do about decision fatigue and/or avoid it? This article at the Huffington Post provides some simple steps. I think that the best suggestion is to make important decisions in the morning when you are still fresh and have a large supply of willpower. The other hint that I think is helpful is to limit yourself to three options only and make a decision based on those. I’ll often do this when buying lab equipment. I’ll first think about the features that the item really has to have and only look at options that satisfy these criteria. This makes it easier to make decisions and feel good about them and avoids the trap of second guessing my decisions after I’ve made them.

The negative consequences of decision fatigue can be high. Maybe it’s starting a research project that ends up being a time, money, and resources sink. Sometimes it’s a bad equipment purchase. It could involve sending your manuscript to an inappropriate journal. Bad decisions are costly for a number of reasons; I do my best to avoid them by consciously choosing to make important decisions about work when I first arrive at work. A fresh brain is a brain that’s capable of making better choices.

Office supplies and technologies that can improve faculty productivity

Below is a list of office supplies and technologies that I find useful in my job as a faculty member.

1) Coloured file folders

We once dreamed about a world where technology would make it possible to go completely paperless. We aren’t there yet and I strongly doubt that we ever really will be. I’ve found it helpful to organize projects into coloured file folders that relate to one particular role of my job as a faculty member. Anything related to administration is burgundy (e.g. service, financials, etc.), teaching is violet (e.g. course syllabi, student assignments, tests, etc.), blue is research (e.g. lab supplies, vendor catalogues, grant applications, etc.), and teal is current projects (e.g. manuscript writing, lab experiments, etc.). I find that this colour coding helps to keep me organized.

2) Post-it Notes

The glue used in post-it notes was a failed experiment which as a scientist I think is hilarious and is a good commentary on the importance of basic research and making mistakes while doing science. I use post-its for a wide variety of reasons and in a multitude of colours. For the past several months I’ve been using 3” x 3” post-its on my personal Kanban board in my office and I hope to write a future blog post on that topic. I also use yellow lined larger post-its for capturing lists or ideas that I need to flesh out in more detail.

3) Label maker

I have already waxed poetic about the label maker in a previous post . It is one of the greatest human inventions ever. Enough said.

4) Writing implements (a.k.a. pens)

I am a pen snob and am very particular about them. About a year ago I discovered the Pentel EnerGel Metal Tip 0.7 mm ball pen in black . No leaking, no smudging, quick drying, smooth…this pen has it all. “Borrow” my pens at your own peril!

5) Notebooks

I prefer to use the Hilroy 80 page 1 subject lined notebooks. Many of my colleagues use bound notebooks (e.g. Moleskine), but I write in my notebooks and then rip out the pages so these don’t work for me.

6) iPad

I use my iPad in my daily work as my calendar, task manager, timer, etc. and have previously written a post on several apps that I find useful .

7) Generic office supplies

I’ve got a stapler, staple remover, paperclips, scotch tape, scissors, and a calculator that I use regularly in a desk drawer. I also purchased a letter opener and the number of paper cuts that I receive has dropped exponentially. I also find that the “sign here” sticky flags have proven very useful for one up approval of grant applications, financial reconciliations, and various other documents that need approvals from my departmental Chair and Dean.

8) External hard drive

I back up my laptop regularly in case my computer decides to go nuclear or on the small chance that my computer gets stolen. I’ll likely migrate to a cloud back-up soon, but if the laptop is in my office then the external drive comes home with me and vice versa.

None of these items is particularly ground breaking or earth shattering, but I find that when used together in my everyday work activities they save me a lot of time and vastly increase my productivity.

Care to share the office supplies that you find useful as a professor?

The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk

Last week the undergraduate and graduate students in our department delivered 15-20 minute research talks at our departmental colloquium. The person who administers our departmental Twitter account @LaurierBiology asked if I would live tweet the talks occurring on the second morning of the colloquium. I agreed and wasn’t sure how this experiment would turn out.

I was a relatively late adopter of Twitter. I’ve only had an account since December 2013 and while I post to Twitter @AEMcDonaldWLU regularly to advertise my blog posts I am certainly not using it to the full extent of the platform’s capabilities. I am slowly mastering the art of the hashtag. I went into the experience of live Tweeting fully expecting that I would be distracted and therefore wouldn’t take in most of the content of the talks.

You can therefore imagine my surprise at how helpful it was to live Tweet a research talk. It forced me to pay attention to the speaker and their content, but it also required me to synthesize and report the major points of their talk in a succinct manner. There is nothing like being limited to 140 characters to force you to be brief and to the point.

I can’t say that I will always live Tweet talks from now on, but I will certainly consider the idea moving forward. I used to assume that people who were using Twitter during research talks at conferences were being rude and not paying attention. Now I know that a fraction of those people are very actively engaged with the speaker, but in a non-traditional way.

Anyone else want to share their experiences with live Tweeting a research talk? Any other benefits or drawbacks that I’ve missed here?

Moms and babies: Maintaining academic productivity while a mother is not a zero-sum game

My friend Dr. Andrea Kirkwood contacted me on Twitter this morning to direct me to this post at The Guardian. In it a new mother talks about her dismay when several of her colleagues judged her for “taking time off” for maternity leave and held her to higher expectations upon her return to graduate school. She felt she had to “make up for” what was perceived by others as a poor choice that proved that she wasn’t serious about her research. The post really resonated with me and I suspect with many female academics who are parents who have experienced the same biased responses upon returning to school or the workforce.

So let’s flesh out and challenge some of the erroneous assumptions that some faculty in the academy still make about parents.

1) Maternity leave = time off

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! This is a good one and is totally hilarious. It is also totally wrong. By far the hardest thing that I have ever done physically and mentally in my entire life is give birth to and care for my children in the first 2 years of their life. Performing Ph.D. research, writing your dissertation, and defending your thesis is a cake walk compared to feeding, bathing, loving, diaper-changing, and raising a small child. Going back to school was far less challenging and demanding than the first 9 months that I spent with each of my children at home being the primary care giver. It is a trial by fire and you come through it changed forever; usually rising like a phoenix from the ashes. If I can handle that I can take whatever science wants to throw down. I’m ready to rumble…

2) Choosing to have children as a female academic = bad choice

My children have increased my appreciation of my life in a myriad of ways. They have opened up my eyes to seeing the world from entirely new perspectives and have allowed me to recognize that my perspective is not the only viewpoint and is not always correct. This is valuable. Having children exponentially increased my productivity, time-management, and project management skills while a graduate student and post-doc. These skills have directly contributed to my ability to secure a tenure-track faculty position and be successful at it.

Let’s replace these erroneous assumptions with some better realities.

1) Having children = getting a healthy perspective on what really matters

Crappy day in the lab? That’s o.k. because your son still wants to play Thomas the Tank Engine with you that evening and your daughter still thinks that you give great zerberts .I will always make the argument that people are more important than projects. Having kids has also made me a much more empathetic and considerate colleague. Everyone has a tipping point where more time spent on science does not equal greater returns and is in fact detrimental. Kids are great at making you realize the irrationality of your first world problems.

2) Having children = checking your pride at the door and learning it’s o.k. to ask for help

When I was younger I wanted to figure out everything on my own because I was ashamed to ask for help, didn’t think it was necessary, or thought that I knew best. Having children reveals the depth of your ignorance on a wide variety of topics. I’ve found that it’s had a profound mellowing effect on my high-strung, Type-A personality. Sometimes it’s o.k. to have cereal for dinner. Lots of times good enough and finished is better than perfect but not completed. Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Great colleagues are always willing to help you out and you can return the favour when they need assistance later. An ability to admit ignorance is a strength, not a weakness.

I’m happy with my academic and personal choices and wouldn’t change much if I could go back in time for a “do-over”. The only thing that I would change if possible would be the attitudes of some people who seemed to think that I had checked-out of an academic career by choosing to have a family while a woman in science. There is an immense degree of satisfaction in having proved these nay-sayers wrong. I also feel fortunate to be in a position where I can help the women and men who are coming up the ladder behind me who would like to combine having a family with an academic scientific career. The view from up here is after all amazing!

The Scientific Persona Mask

I’ve been a practicing scientist since 1997. That’s the year that I started an undergraduate thesis project. My knowledge of what scientists did up until then was based on the portrayal of scientists in media, film, television, and books. That picture of what a scientist is was very homogeneous. These portrayals weren’t anything like me and that made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like an outsider and an imposter. Everyone has a strong desire to fit in and I was no different. My initial impression is that science was a serious business and that there isn’t much room for levity.

Through most of my academic career I’ve kept my intimate thoughts and ideas close to my chest, often out of fear that they were weird, stupid, or incorrect. What I have learned over the years is that what the scientific enterprise really needs is diversity. I think that the only way to get this diversity is to actively invite and recruit “others” into science. When we increase the diversity of people doing science then we increase the diversity of ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking about science and I think that this will do a lot for the advancement of science.

Several thoughtful posts by other bloggers have started to lift the veil on how different people do science. These posts have also served to highlight that it is people doing science and that we aren’t robots and that emotions have a rightful place in the scientific realm. Most of the scientists that I know have a wide range of talents that often are not directly related to doing their science. These can range from athletics (e.g. biking, hiking, swimming, etc.), hobbies (e.g. playing a musical instrument), or a passionate interest in something (e.g. star gazing, stamp collecting, etc.). I’m constantly surprised by the hidden depths of other scientists, but I really shouldn’t be. People are people after all.

I think that perhaps instead of working so hard to fit in, I should start letting other scientists see the other facets of this particular scientist. Perhaps someone else has a liking for scruffy-looking nerf herders, productivity tips, do-it-yourself manicures, and Settlers of Catan. I’m ready to take off my scientific persona mask and be a real person. Care to join me?

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