My second job out of college was working in a college access program in Rhode Island. As a college access advisor, I worked in various Rhode Island public high schools, helping my caseload of students gain access to college through things like FAFSA nights, essay writing support, college visits, and a ton of informal counseling and advising.
In my first year, we offered our students workshops around Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens." The students were pretty game overall, and we made it fun for them. What I didn't realize is how many of the concepts taught in that workshop would stay with me for years...decades even.
Years after I helped run the workshops, I modified one of the lessons for the first year seminar course I was teaching at the community college where I worked. This is a cautionary tale of the lengths that a new teacher will go to in order to engage her students. Do not try this at home.
The habit I was teaching was around putting "first things first," and we used an exercise called "Big Rocks, Little Rocks." Basically, you take a container (I used an empty fish aquarium that I bought for this sole purpose) and you fill it up with a bunch of pebbles (I bought giant bags of the florescent rocks that you line the bottom of aquariums with). You fill the box, bin, aquarium (or whatever) nearly to the brim, and then you take three or four big rocks and place them on top. They, of course, extend past the edges of your container. They don't fit. Hmmm...
Next, you empty out this whole contraption, and this time, you put the BIG ROCKS IN FIRST...can you guess where this is going? You then pour all the little rocks on top, and guess what? It all fits! Ta-da! Magic.
The lesson is, of course, that when we're managing our time, it's important to focus first on our big rocks, or our priorities. The little rocks, or all the other stuff that fills our days and eats away at our time, will always find a way to get done. But if you do this in reverse, if you focus on all the little stuff, and then try to make time for your priorities, it won't work; you won't get to those big rocks because the little ones will have eaten up all your time.
After a few years of scrounging around in my backyard for rocks the night before teaching this lesson (why, Karen, why?) I surrendered. I found this video online that does a decent job of replicating this activity.
I lost some of the "wow" factor, but after years of carrying an aquarium and 20 lbs. of pebbles through the hallways on campus, I was okay with that. While I let go of the complicated parts of this lesson, I held on to the nugget of wisdom: put your big rocks first.
When I started to create my plan for how I'd meet my #HigherEdReads goals, I realized I had a big rocks situation on my hands. I had previously been trying to get my professional reading done after lunch, or later in the afternoon. It wasn't working. I'd either have fires that needed to be put out, or I'd be too tired to get over the motivation hump.
I realized that if professional reading was one of my big rocks, I had to put it first.
I made a small shift in my morning routine, getting up thirty minutes earlier on weekdays, in order to make time for my reading. The first week sucked. The second week started slow. By the end of the second week, the power of the new routine had taken over. Along with a few other important practices, I start my weekdays with fifteen minutes of professional reading. Alexa keeps the time for me, I put my phone out of sight so it's out of mind, and I am consistently able to read several pages, or sometimes even a chapter, in that fifteen minutes of focused time.
The fires still get put out later in the day. Those little rocks will always get their needs met. They're really good at wiggling in to your day. The big rocks don't have that luxury. If we want to get them done, we've got to put them first.
I'd love to know if anyone else has had this experience? Do you routinely put your big rocks first? Is your professional reading one of your big rocks?
I don't know about y'all, but the time change last week kicked my butt.
I'm really big on routines, so even though we "gained" an hour, the change in routine was hard for me, and I think for a lot of us. This isn't just me being a routine person; circadian and ultradian rhythms are a biological fact. Anyway, I'm definitely on the side of getting rid of daylight savings time. It's just bad science.
That said, sometimes being exhausted can lead to a breakthrough; After waking up at 4:22 a.m. yesterday, I was so tired by the middle of the day that I had to surrender to the fatigue. It forced me to do a bit of contemplation about how I spend my time and the things that I can control. I remembered an article that a social media friend had posted online with tips from Adam Grant on starting a to-don't list.
I wrote last week about my scrum board, and how I use it to prioritize projects. It includes an entire "TO DO" section which is already filling up with ideas. Sounds good, right? Maybe not. Grant says, "To-do lists are the human equivalent of a hamster wheel."
Grant identifies four things we should put on our to-don't lists.
I don't invest any time in online games, though now I'm kind of thinking about it. I'm much more likely to overextend myself in my work life. I'm pretty good at setting work aside in the evenings and most of the weekends, in order to spend time with my family, but I could certainly use some improvement here.
Points #1 and #2 are two things that I can definitely work on, and oh, what the hell, I'm going to add a "TO-DON'T" section to my scrum board.
Here are a few other TO-DON'Ts of mine:
Don't be afraid of resting. Don't be afraid that if you rest, you'll never start again. Everyone needs to rest. Rest doesn't stop you from doing what you love, it helps you stay active in the long run. Play chess, not checkers.
Don't try to do it all yesterday. Life is short, yes, but it's also very long. You've got time.
Don't worry so much about disappointing people, because as Seuss said, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind. I was working on a team project last week, and realized we'd been trying to do too much in too little time. I spoke up, and guess what, everyone else was feeling the same way. Don't assume that speaking the truth will anger people; it might just do the opposite.
What's on your to-don't list?
Full disclosure: I'm not an expert on agile AT ALL. I hear people talking about it all the time, and I nod and smile. Best I can tell, agile is an approach to business that focuses on efficiency.
But what I am an expert on is washi tape and markers and stickers and buying office supplies.
In that vein, may I present to you, my scrum board! (I covered the details of the cards because they are top secret plans to save the world, and I don't want them falling into enemy hands. Sorry.)
If you want to connect with a real expert on agile, check out the work of Rebeccca Pope-Ruark. She wrote a book called Agile Faculty and she wrote a great blog post about scrum boards.
My blog post will cover Scrumming (verbified it) Karen Style.
My understanding of a scrum board is that it supports an agile work process. Whatever that means. Let's just get to the fun office supplies.
I scored a board at Michael's over the weekend for only $10 using a much sought-after 50% off coupon. I used my husband's tools to drill stuff into other stuff, strung a wire across the back of the board, and hung it on the wall in my home office.
There are typically three categories on a scrum board: TO DO, WIP (WORK IN PROGRESS), AND DONE. I decorated some paper with those titles using stickers, markers, and washi tape and pinned them to my board.
FYI: I've seen a lot of people using dry erase boards and post-it notes for their scrum boards. I've found that post-it notes fall off, and then my dog eats them, and that doesn't seem very agile, so I went with a cork bulletin board and push pins instead.
Then, I started filling out cards with tasks (I cut 4x6 pieces of cardstock in half for the cards). I used different color markers and my favorite Papermate Inkjoy pens to list my tasks on the cards.
Here are a few epiphanies I've had about scrumming:
1. Don't sleep on the DONE category.
When I first started researching how to set up my board, I couldn't understand the DONE category. Why take up space on my beautiful board with tasks that are DONE? Why not just throw the DONE tasks in the trash? Since then, I've moved five tasks from WIP to DONE, and it was freaking fantastic. I'm realizing that the DONE category is really about reinforcing positive habits and celebrating success. Rather than just staring at all that I have TO DO, I can remind myself of all that I've DONE. This helps to motivate me to do more. When I look at my board and imagine moving a task from WIP to done, or from TO DO to DONE, it inspires me to keep going.
2. The visuals are powerful.
It's really hard to make decisions about where to invest our time, isn't it?
I've caught myself, since hanging my scrum board, glancing up at the WIP (WORK IN PROGRESS) section. Right now, for example, I have eight big tasks that are WIP, including paid work and creative projects, both inside and outside of higher education. This is, of course, in addition to being a human who takes care of a little human and is a partner to a big human, and who has a canine shadow, and who needs to take care of her human body. Eight is great. Eight is more than enough.
Before agreeing to any additional tasks, whether they're my own or someone else's, I really need to look at that WIP column. Do I have room for anything else? If I add something to WIP, am I willing to subtract something else? I can also choose to wait, and take on that new task after I've moved something from WIP to DONE. Rather than just thinking this through in my head where things tend to spin around in circles, being able to visually see it is really helpful to my decision-making process.
3. My ideas are in one place.
Oh my ideas. I have a few. Thousand. What I love about my scrum board is that it's a safe space to store my ideas. I went through all of my notebooks and asked myself whether an idea was board-worthy. When in doubt, I put it on the board. It gives me a sense of peace to know that my good ideas won't get lost in the shuffle. When space opens up in the WIP section, I can look at all of my ideas in one space so that I can prioritize which one is most important to me.
I also much prefer having my ideas where I can see them rather than hidden in a notebook. Writing ideas in a notebook means they won't be completely lost, but it's so easy to ignore our notebook ideas. I see my TO DO ideas every day, and it helps me to feel closer to them, as if they're more likely to happen and it's just a matter of time before they come to fruition.
If you've been looking for a way to prioritize your projects, a scrum board might be helpful. My biggest tip here is to make it your own. Do you want a virtual scrum board or one you can touch? Corkboard or dry erase? I've also seen people getting creative with the three categories. My sense is that keeping the basic model in place and then making it your own is the way to go.
I write about higher education.