As information professionals, we have a lot coming at us. Is it possible to keep up with the rapid-fire pace and stay stress free? According to today’s guest, it is. Doug Crane is the Director of the Palm Beach County Library System. He has a blog called the Efficient Librarian and teaches workshops and webinars on this topic.
He explains how to organize our workflow systems, develop our personal knowledge management structures, take effective action-steps for success, and even have an email inbox that is empty at the end of each day. By tuning in, you will get simple steps to make all of this efficiency a reality. https://efficientlibrarian.com/
This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.
This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.
As information professionals we have a lot coming at us. Is it possible to keep up with the rapid fire pace and stay stress free? According to today’s guest, it is. Doug Crane is the Director of the Palm Beach County Library System. He has a blog called the Efficient Librarian, and teaches workshops and webinars on this topic. He explains how to organize our workflow systems, develop our personal knowledge management structures, take effective action steps for success, and even have an email inbox that is empty at the end of each day. By tuning in you will get simple steps to make all of this efficiency a reality. Enjoy the show!
Welcome to the show, Doug.
Well, thank you very much.
Question #1: It’s so great to have you. You have a blog called, the Efficient Librarian. You write articles on efficient librarianship, and you conduct workshops and webinars on this topic. You’re a fantastic resource for helping us sort through the vast ocean of information we all face in our field. First of all, will you share with us what precisely is an efficient librarian? 01:44
Well, thank you very much for having me on the show. An efficient librarian is an idea that I believe is important for the present and future direction of librarianship in general. In my article that was in Public Libraries Magazine, which was published in 2017, I wrote that an efficient librarian is an elite knowledge worker navigating the complexities of the post-internet information world.
What I mean by that is the traditional role of a librarian, and I think it’s the one that when we say librarian to non-librarians the stereotypical idea is someone in a building full of books answering questions from a desk. I believe, certainly that old fashioned model is something that most librarians today would certainly bristle at, that we’re trying to move away from.
What I think is important for the profession to understand, and what an efficient librarian really is, is someone who understands just how complex the world of information is now, today. And how we have to master a different set of tools, and a different approach to processing and managing information. Not only so that we can do what we consider is a regular job of serving the public, we’re serving students. But also, so that we as workers ourselves can master the things that we need to do to advance our projects, advance our goals, and our larger mission and vision related to our careers and the institutions that we serve. That’s my quick summary of it. If you want a little bit more I can provide links to the article.
Question #2: Absolutely. There’s so much there. And, in your work you talk about defining and organizing personal workflow systems. What is this all about? 03:33
Well this probably is a good point to give a little background on how I came into this particular subset of information management, and such. Back in about 2011, I was a manager at one of our busy branch locations here in Palm Beach County. I was really looking for a tool, a resource that would better allow me to structure my work. I felt I was falling a little behind…that feeling of information overload. I needed something to help me gain control.
I came across the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen. Reading that book just completely reoriented the way I approached my job, and the way I approached my career. It was truly a groundbreaking book and it’s one that is an international best seller. In fact, if you hear people talk about themselves being GTD’ers, they mean that they are disciples, or followers of this system that David Allen set up.
If you read GTD, or Getting Things Done, its full title—you’ll find that David Allen talks about the idea of workflow management. That is, how do you take something that comes into your world, identify what it means to you, process it, and get it to a point where you’ve parked it somewhere, or you’ve completed it?
In his philosophy, which is something that I share, the five stages of workflow are basically this – first, there’s capture. When things come into your world you have to reliably capture them and not let them disappear through cracks, or forget about them.
Then we have to take everything that you’ve captured and process it, or clarify it. Basically you have to identify what it means to you. Is it important? Is it not important? What do you have to do with it?
After that point whatever you’re retaining from the capture that you’ve processed you have to organize it. You have to put it somewhere based on it’s context so that you can find it again, and be able to work and finish off whatever it is it means to you.
There’s also a stage of reflecting. We get so much information, so much work that comes in that we need to pause from time to time to look at the whole scope of our work and make sure we’re still on top of things, and that we haven’t forgotten important pieces.
Then finally, there’s a do phase. Which basically means we have to get out there and do the work, take the appropriate next action to move items forward. That’s basically the idea of personal workflow systems. We all do them. But, I don’t think many people have really taken the time to dissect them like David Allen does in his book, to understand where process improvement can come into play.
Question #3: As librarians we often help others in their information navigation skills, but you say it’s important for us, ourselves, to develop our personal knowledge management skills. Will you please tell us about this? 06:21
I think a lot of librarians, when they first think about knowledge management, we might think on that larger scale of how we manage the broader collections in our buildings. How we manage it through our ILS systems, or that kind of thing. But really, what I’m talking about here is more about our own set of knowledge that we collect and keep for our personal and professional use.
Now the term called Personal Knowledge Management is PKM. It is my understanding that some of the first papers on PKM came from librarians, back in the 70’s, if my memory serves me correctly. Essentially what it really comes down to is, How do we manage all the information artifacts that we keep around us so that we can do our work productively?
I like to say, Look, basically what we’re doing—and any knowledge worker does this is, How do we manage our notes? Notes can come in many different forms. Notes can be a simple sticky note, Pay your bills, remind yourself to buy bread, it could be a paper that you’ve written, it could be an article you’ve clipped, it could be a photograph, it could be a spreadsheet. Notes come in many different shapes and sizes. It’s a successful management of those notes that allows us to move forward productively in our work.
I think all our listeners have that experience of misplacing a note. We were sure it was right here on our desk, or in our file cabinet, but now we can’t find it. Well, that ‘s where there’s a gap in that person’s personal knowledge management system.
How do we work with that, not only just the initial capturing of the note? There’s also a deeper level too, of how do you process this note? How do you pull out meaning from that? Perhaps a good example of this is when we clip an article. Just say you were going through an issue of, say, Public Libraries Magazine. You saw a great article. You photocopied, or you copied the electronic version into a Word file.
Well you now have this document, this note, but it’s just pure information at this point. So there are some ways to approach it so you can tease out the information so that it’s easier to scan and digest. There’s a technique called, Progressive Summarization where you can move through a document as many times as you wish and fully narrow down, piece by piece, what are the most important bits of information. So that later on if you realize, Oh, yes I have something on this topic that will be useful for this project. You don’t have to go and review the whole article to find the bits of information that are important. You can look through the different layers of summarization to see, Oh, yes this is what’s useful, and there’s what’s useful. Let me pull that out. But you still have the deeper meaning attached to it.
A lot of people these days are moving their personal knowledge management online. Using tools like Evernote, or OneNote—from MicroSoft’s OneNote, to do these techniques where they can quickly search through notes, quickly manipulate notes in order to have them fit as an effective tool.
Before I leave this topic the other thing, too, that’s important is not to neglect just the paper filing systems. At its most basic personal knowledge management is, How do you actually maintain all the files in your cabinet? And believe it, or not…that’s often the first area where people can become more productive and efficient, is taking control of all the paper that’s in their world.
It’s funny, when I introduce this in one of my seminars I try to over-hype, and get excited and say, Oh, I know you’re all excited about coming here to learn about how to file paper, Yes! It gets a good laugh but then I let people know what the meaning is out of that, and I think they understand it.
Question #4: Absolutely, so helpful, and so needed. One of the things you mention is the power of next action thinking. What is this, and how do we apply it? 10:30
Again, a lot of the inspiration behind next action thinking comes from David Allen’s, Getting Things Done book. But, it’s really a core thing that applies to any knowledge worker. I define…a knowledge worker’s basically someone who shows up and has to define what their work is, as opposed to another type of worker who would just show up and have someone tell them what to do.
Library workers are generally all knowledge workers to a certain extent. When we get information it’s not always very easy to know, What do we do with this? So part of the challenge and technique of any efficient librarian work is getting down to what is the actual next action we need to do?
David Allen was very specific in his book about saying, What’s the next physical thing you need to do to move this item forward? A lot of times if we have a project or work that has just stalled, it’s often because we haven’t broken it down into its smallest component that we need to move it forward.
For example, maybe if you’re looking at a project you might be stumped and then once you break it down you say, Oh, the next thing I need to do is call someone. Or, The next thing I need to do is send an email to someone. It has to be something that’s physical, that someone could watch you do. Because what often stops people from moving a project forward is they start getting too much in their head and they’re just thinking about it, and they’re dwelling on opportunities, or the possibilities that could be done with it.
Well, that has sort of a layer of a brainstorming, if you never get out of brainstorming – no work ever gets done. In fact, one great tool that’s in David Allen’s book is the 2-Minute Rule. He often stresses that, If you’re going to get nothing out of his material, the 2-Minute Rule minute rule is probably the best thing you can do to take away from his material. I share it and I live by it.
The two minute rule is basically this: if anything comes across your desk, or your workspace that you can do in under two minutes—do it right away and get it done. This serves two purposes. The first is that it gives you—it moves something quickly out of your world so you don’t have to maintain it. Because, if it was easy to do quickly, if you tried to store it somewhere to do it later, it’s actually less efficient and it’s going to take more time.
Also, it gives the knowledge worker a really quick win. One thing I stress in my workshops is, It is important for us to really define when we’ve won at work. Most people don’t tend to approach work thinking, Oh, did I win today?
It’s sort of funny, I do like watching sports and we’re in football season now. I tell people in my classes, Wouldn’t it be funny if after a football game a quarterback got up for the press interview at the end of the game and said, Does anyone know if we won today? I think we did good, but does anyone know if we won? It would be obviously a ridiculous question because in a sport like football everyone knows who’s won by looking up at the scoreboard.
Well, we don’t have a scoreboard, typically, in our offices. But, we still really need to feel the sense that we’ve won, that we’ve accomplished. So, a thing like the 2-Minute Rule or defining the next action is one way to really allow us to move forward successfully.
A lot of times people do this in the form of to do lists, that they check off, as a way to kind of keep score. That’s a very important piece, keeping track of every next action in every project that’s out there. There’s a lot of material in there, there’s more than we can unpack in this interview. But, I certainly say that the more we can build our workspaces so that we’re thinking about what’s the next physical thing we need to do to move it forward. I think it becomes a more dynamic and a more exciting workplace to be in.
Question #5: I agree, I like that. And, I know we’ve all been at that sticking place and it really keeps people moving forward. It’s extremely helpful as we navigate our work and our lives. So, if we’re able to master each of these skills, what benefits do we stand to gain? 14:39
I have three benefits that come to mind regarding—mostly from my own experience of working with this. The first is, if you apply the techniques that I share in my workshops of Efficient Librarianship, the first thing is it gives greater clarity on work. I mention how a knowledge worker, one of their prime tasks—and the term knowledge worker comes from Peter Drucker, who is a management consultant and expert, who did a lot of his work in the ’60’s and ’70’s. But, the idea is that if you come into work and you’re not really clear on what you’re doing, or why you’re there, it can be very much of a struggle.
So, when you get greater clarity on your work by clearly defining it, not only what your goals are, what your next actions are, and really clearing it out, it gives a sense of an understanding of scope of work. And, that helps to reduce stress by simply identifying, Okay, this is what I have to do as opposed to all the million things in my head that I think I might have to do.
Once you can narrow it down to that one clear next action, it makes life a lot easier. Also, it gives you a much greater peace of mind on projects. If you’ve got a project and you’re not clear when that project is going to be complete—what’s the victory, or end condition of the project? Then we can fall into situations where we either lose the enthusiasm for the project because it seems to be going nowhere, or it becomes the never-ending project where people never quite know when it’s done, they’re always adjusting it, they’re always doing something with it.
I know one thing I’ve often talked about in my workshops is the never-ending committee. Now there are some committees, say like weekly meeting type committees where you’re just assessing work that are, of course, constant and don’t end. But I’m thinking of those projects we’ve all been on at some point, that there’s no clear end in sight—it just seems like it’s meeting, after meeting, after meeting, and only incremental steps get done. When we clearly define what we’re doing, and why we’re there, it really gets people energized with the job.
And the final thing I’ll mention here is that being an efficient librarian allows one to have a broader vision of their career. Because once you’ve cleared away a lot of the day-to-day stuff that really bogs us down, if you can clear that out—prune, if you’re thinking of a gardening analogy, getting rid of all the weeds, so you can see the garden. When you do that you can get a bigger—it’s easier to get the broader sense of where you’re going in your career, or for your organization.
In David Allen’s book he talks about the Horizons of Focus. For most people they’re caught up in the lower levels of horizon. But once those levels are cleared out and you’re able to move beyond them, that’s when people can start mapping out goals that are a year, or two years— visions for five years from now. Their broader career is a lot easier, and with a greater sense that they can actually accomplish it. So those are things that I see are very helpful byproducts of doing this work.
Question #6: Definitely. Can you share any simple examples of people who have taken these things and made a difference in the way they work? 18:07
Oh, yeah. Actually a couple stories come to mind. In one of my seminars I had an employee from the county’s parks and rec department who came in. He was a manager of fieldworkers. During the workshop he seemed to be getting it. It’s funny when we do the workshops, because I’m never quite sure at times how people are absorbing the information.
Some are obvious, they are very excited about it. Others seem bored. But there’s sometimes this layer of people who are just kind of there. And, I’m not sure what they’re doing, how they’re processing it. Well, this particular gentleman, he came through the workshop. He asked some good questions. Then at the end I always invite people to send me pictures before and after pictures of their desk. So, it turns out this particular gentleman, he went out and he spent the weekend in his office clearing everything out. He told me, I think he was working for about sixteen hours to clear out all the stuff that was in his office. And, he sent me the before and after pictures. He just told me what a relief it was to finally feel free to get in there with a systematic approach—to be able to clear out all the backlog, and now be able to have a clean desk and a clean mind to be able to move forward.
Another good example of a work situation was a circulation manager who I was working with at the branch when I was manager. She was one of the first people I actually sat down with at their desk to help them implement this system. We spent about two hours in her office going through papers, going through folders, going through drawers, just trying to make sure everything there had a reason to be there.
As we were going through she was getting kind of stressed. It felt like she was getting resistance to things. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it because it was one of the first times I’d worked with someone at that level. But, when we were done she said to me, Oh, this is such a relief, because you know I’m retiring in the next couple years and I was really concerned about what I was going to be leaving for the person who succeeds me. Now I know that I’m only going to be leaving them the things they’re going to need. It just relieved her so much. For the rest of her career with the library system she kept the system going and she left with a clean desk for her next person.
One last story, I’ll share which I think is really helpful and shows that this material actually applies beyond the world of libraries..I was visiting one of our branches for a different reason and I had a staff member come up to me who had taken my workshop about a year ago and she said, You know, Doug, I want to tell you that material you shared with me has been really helpful in my personal life. Because I have a child who has special needs, and by taking this information I’m actually better able to manage home life around his special needs. So, it surprised me that—I guess I should have realized that this does have application beyond just our work, but to actually hear a testimonial of someone who took this and applied it in their personal life for greater benefit was really heartwarming.
Question #7: Gosh, well done. I can feel the relief in each one of those stories. It sounds fantastic. One of the things I’ve found helpful on your blog is something you call, Five Minutes to Inbox Zero. People should definitely go to efficientlibrary.com for more info. But, is it possible to give us a high level intro into what that is? 21:38
Ok, yes, I’d love to. Five Minutes to Inbox Zero was a spark talk that I gave at the Public Libraries Association conference in Philadelphia a couple of years ago. The idea of Inbox Zero has been out on the internet for a little while. If you want to just Google Inbox Zero, you’ll find the original website that talks about it. But it was a gentleman who actually took the GTD philosophy and really built a systemic approach towards clearing out the inbox.
In fact if you read GTD, one of David Allen’s key points is that our inboxes are often heavily mismanaged. What he means is a lot of people try to use their inbox to manage their workflow. Those stages of workflow, which I described earlier in the conversation, cannot be managed effectively by keeping everything stored in an inbox.
So the inbox really, and I think this is the most important thing that people have to understand when they look at their inbox is that the inbox is designed to help you identify new material. It’s really there to let you know, Hey, there’s something new that’s shown up. We’ve captured it. What are you going to do with it?
The Inbox Zero approach is basically going through there and recognizing that there’s basically only one of five things you can do with anything that shows up in your inbox. Really, that helps simplify the process. Those five things are this. One is that something can be trash. As soon as you recognize it’s trash, get rid of it.
The next thing is it could be archival information, that is it’s something you think you may use later, but it’s not actionable now. So, you can put it aside in your files until you need it.
Another option is someday/maybe. This is something that you might want to take action on, but you’re not ready to do it yet. An example of a someday/maybe category could be, you get a conference flyer advertising a conference that’s going to be happening three months from now, but you’re not ready to commit to going. You want to put that aside somewhere so that you can review it from time-to-time to see if it’s something you actually want to activate.
The other two categories are waiting for, that is there are some things that we send out into the world and we can’t take our next action until someone else takes their next action. But, we need to keep track of the items so we don’t lose them. So, a waiting for folder is a good stop to put these items in as a reminder that you’re waiting for someone else to take action.
Then the final folder is, not surprisingly, the action folder. If you receive something in your inbox that’s going to take longer than two minutes to do, then you just want to store it in the action folder so when you have discretionary time you can quickly open it up, find the set of actionable items that you need to move forward, and then select the one you want to work on.
I’ve tried to get a sense of how many things fall into each folder. One study that was done by Dan Ariealy, who’s a behavior economist—it’s the one that he mentions on his blog. It wasn’t an in-depth study, but I think it’s an insightful one, as approximately only one out of ten items that show up in your inbox is actually really actionable. That’s something that you really need to take action on quickly. Which means that the remainder of the stuff that comes into your inbox is really stuff that can be better parked somewhere else.
I’ll tell you right now, for me, when I started into this work, one of the things that I quickly gravitated to was this Inbox Zero approach. For the last, about eight-nine years now since I started this work, I keep a practice of emptying my inbox everyday. If you’ve never done this approach, I’ll tell you for me, it really allows me to feel very comfortable because I know I’m on top of things. I know what’s come in. I’m aware of what’s in my world, and I’m not going to be surprised by something buried five layers down in an inbox that’s waiting to go stale or start smelling on me [laughter] later on, or have someone knock on my door later, Hey, you forgot to do this, you know? Really, I try to emphasize it is a powerful way to approach work if you clear out your inbox every twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
Question #8: That’s really great advice, and so much easier when you think, Gosh, there’s only five things that might need to happen to this. Is there anything else you’d like to add? 26:28
I think in terms of the Efficient Librarian philosophy, and it’s something that I’m still continuing to develop. One of my aspirations is to write a book on the topic, a little while down the road here. Basically, like anything, one of the definitions about Efficient Librarian, it’s not just about us. It’s not just about the work we do. I believe it’s important to be an efficient librarian because it allows us to serve others with more of our awareness, more of our abilities, and more of our focus.
It’s so easy if we’re—we all know people who just seem perpetually behind, perpetually stressed out, perpetually unable to get out from under the mound of work they found themselves buried under. Whereas if we’re efficient, and we’re able to clear our own selves out of there, we can be better co-workers, better managers, better directors, better employees for those people who really need us. So for me, I think that’s important.
One of the other things I’ll stress is that a lot of these techniques, like any habit change, takes time. It’s very easy if we fail to do something to say, Ahh, this isn’t going to work for me, or I just can’t do this. All these techniques anyone can do. It’s just a matter of being persistent, staying with it, and if you fall off the horse just get back on and keep going.
Question #9: Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share, and why? 27:56
Since I’ve mentioned it several times, I really have to say that the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen is—even though a lot of people would think of it as an organizational book, it is really about leadership. It’s about leading yourself. It’s about how to be an effective executive. I often call it my office bible. I refer back to it from time to time because it is chock full of information really, on how to lead yourself, which is the first step for being a leader.
I’ll also mention that I’m currently reading through a book called, Principles by Ray Dalio, the founder of an investment firm called Bridgewater Associates. If you’ve never heard of Ray Dalio and Bridgewater there’s lots of different podcasts and things out there. Actually there’s Adam Grant, who’s a professor, and has a great podcast called, WorkLife. One of the episodes features Dalio and Bridgewaters’ approach to it. I highly recommend that.
Then the last thing I’ll just mention is certainly for leaders in the library world, seeking out other leaders and talking to them, interviewing leaders which is what I’ve done and recorded in two other articles in Public Libraries Magazine, is an important way to build up one’s own leadership skills.
Question #10: Thank you for sharing those. In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 29:17
For me, I’m one of those people who’s been a library employee for life. I started out shelving books and I’ve moved through many different positions, as children’s librarian, a manager, and now I’m a director. For me, I think librarians are important because information is so important in the world. It’s not just about, Well, how do you get raw information these days? It’s how do we take information, transform it into knowledge, and ultimately wisdom? Because, it seems these days, especially with the phenomenon of fake news and fake information out there, I think librarians are just more important than ever to help people navigate the complexity of this internet world that we live in.
To be able to help everyone find the right information at the right time, to help them with their lives and the lives of their community. So for me being a librarian is an important role as a public servant. I really hope that the profession continues to evolve, continues to grow, continues to thrive so that we can continue on for as far in the future as librarians are needed.
That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Doug. It’s been great having you on the show.
Well, thank you very much for the opportunity.
It’s my pleasure.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.