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?
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 had to take a sick day yesterday, like a real one where you stay in bed and watch an 80s movie and try not to think about all the work that you have to do. I am fully remote in my work, which makes sick days particularly challenging, because my home office is twenty feet away from my bed, beckoning to me to come do all the work.
I feel better today, and I'm really grateful for that. I'm working on never taking these good days for granted. I noticed, though, that when I sat down to look over my schedule this morning, I was in attack mode.
My rationale was that since I didn't work much yesterday, I needed to work twice as hard today. Isn't that funny that this was my first instinct? Because when you think of it, doesn't it make more sense to take it slow today, since my body is still likely trying to return to its balance point? I took a breath, and let go of attack mode. I decided to move at a steady, sustainable pace instead. So far, so good.
I'm realizing that after a gorgeous break this summer, where I spent an inordinate amount of time in a hammock, I came back to work in August like this guy:
I think we talk a lot about getting burned out in jobs we hate, but not nearly enough about how doing work we love, with people we love, also requires us to set healthy boundaries for ourselves. That's been true for me, at least. I love the work I'm doing, and I want to do more. Which is a good problem to have, as they say, but if I don't take time out for rest and relaxation, it won't be sustainable.
Sustainable work: slow and steady. I want to learn more about that, write more about that, and find others who are having that conversation.
As I was writing this post, I saw a professor post on Twitter about taking a sick day, and felt a little less alone. Higher education, in general, can be a tough space to share our human frailties. Writing this feels weird and vulnerable, and I came THIS CLOSE to stopping myself, and writing something confident and bold and focused and strong instead.
But I want to hear from more people in higher education about the art and science of being human, and I've learned that if you want to see more of something in the world, you have to be willing to start with yourself.
I posted about goal setting, time management, and planning on Sunday night. I have a plan to do more work in that space, as I love talking to people about those topics, sharing what I know, and learning from them. The past couple of days have been a reminder for me that always, always, within that conversation about working toward our goals, we need to remember our bodies and spirits, instead of just focusing on where our minds want to go.
Years ago, I read something that said that before we add things to our lives, we should think about what we're going to subtract. If not, we'll just keep adding more and more until we reach the point of complete overwhelm.
That concept has stuck with me for a long time, and I try to share it with my students, many of whom are starting their first terms in college. "You just added a 10-20 hour per week commitment to your life. What did you subtract?"
Too often the answer is sleep, which won't work. Our brains, hearts, and spirits need sleep to be healthy and strong. I have learned to protect my sleep at all costs, and I encourage others to do the same.
If not sleep, then what? Time with our kids? A social life? Our fitness routine? There are no easy answers here.
The question of subtraction applies to anyone who wants to add something new to their lives, whether it's a college course, new job responsibilities, a relationship, or a gym membership. Adding things is great, but what will you subtract?
I saw this quote from Chani Nicholas over the summer, and I think it speaks to this tension of doing the math in our lives. We are an addition culture. Do more. Be more. Experience more. If all we do is add, we're going to bury ourselves in new experiences. I'm all for adding things to our lives, but I wonder if we need to become better at exploring the power of subtraction.
I write about higher education.