Today marks the beginning of a new month — a good time for taking a few minutes to assess how things are going. It’s easy at this point in the semester (whether you’re 4 or 7 weeks in) to feel caught up in just doing stuff: teaching, meetings, grant proposals, recommendation writing, and oh yeah, your own writing and research.
All too often, the things we’re not doing weigh more heavily on our minds than the things we are doing, just as the class that goes badly stands out more in your memory than the ones that went well. Sometimes you can use that as impetus for change or “doing better next time”; but sometimes you just wind up feeling overwhelmed. (Particularly if it’s week 6 or 7.)
So, a simple question. What’s working?
This is both a psychological and a practical strategy. As Nels pointed out, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by productivity tips (like those on this site) and if things are working well for you — or even just working well enough — then there’s no need to make your life more complicated by trying to change. Reminding yourself of all the things in your life that actually are going pretty well can provide a boost of confidence or energy.
At the practical level, asking What’s working? can also show you ways to improve what isn’t working so well. In her book Organizing from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern uses this question as a step in analyzing your use of physical space. Find the shelf, storage bin, area or room in your home that is organized in a way that you like, and try to figure out why it works for you. For example, maybe you like storage containers that let you see the contents, so your pantry shelves are neat and orderly, whereas your dresser drawers are a mess. So shifting your clothes into a storage system with more visibility might help you keep your clothing better arranged. Obviously, there would probably be additional factors to consider, but Morgenstern’s approach honors your own personal style of doing things, rather than insisting upon one organizational system for everyone.
In his book, You Can Have What You Want, success coach Michael Neill offers an excellent structured method for analyzing what’s working in any area of your life (work, family, personal relationships, etc) and using that analysis to help you improve some other area of your life. To briefly summarize, you first focus on an area in which you feel successful (playing tennis, telling jokes, giving Powerpoint presentations) and analyze it according to this rubric:
- Goal: what are your goals in this area?
- Evidence: how do you know if you are making progress towards that goal?
- Action Steps: what actions do you take to reach that goal?
- Recovery: if you stop making progress or hit obstacles, how do you get back on track?
After completing a GEAR analysis of the area that’s working, you do the same for the area that isn’t working. They usually will look quite different. But the real magic happens in the next step: you transfer as many strategies, techniques, actions, or attitudes as possible from the area of your success to the area that you wish to improve. In this way you’re actually building on your own best practices.
Until you actually work through all of the steps yourself, it can seem unlikely to be of much use, particularly if your two areas are very different. But I’ve heard Michael Neill coach callers on his radio show using GEAR and it always wound up making a lot of sense. And my own experience with the rubric has been very helpful.
So, as an example, here’s what I learned this week using GEAR. I’d like to improve my ability to grade student assignments promptly. I assign several smaller writing assignments in some of my classes, which has great pedagogical benefits, but means I have a lot of assignments to mark. Once I actually sit down and start grading, I am interested to see what my students are thinking about and I get good ideas for the next week’s classes. But grading has often been an area of procrastination for me, and it’s easy for me to fall behind.
The area of success I chose to use GEAR with is exercise. I like to exercise, and do so regularly. It’s an area of my life that I feel demonstrates consistency, planning, and focus. But on the surface, it doesn’t seem as though exercise can tell me very much about grading: I have never yet had an endorphin rush from completing a stack of papers, nor have I ever procrastinated and wound up lifting weights at 2:00 in the morning.
But here’s what I learned.
|Goals:exercise most days; reduce stress; improve health.||Goals:return papers within a week; give timely feedback.|
|Evidence: I track my workouts and relevant data (heart rate, exercise sets, etc); I know how I feel, mentally and physically.||Evidence: numbers of papers graded by the target date|
|Actions: I plan my workouts in advance; I fit in mini sessions if I don’t have time for my longer planned workout; I make exercise a priority because I know it makes me happier and more productive.||Actions: I grade papers; I feel guilty about the ones I haven’t graded yet.|
|Recovery: If I get off track, I change my routines or activities; jump right back in with a few pushups or a quick cardio session right away; or set myself challenge goals.||Recovery: When I get behind, I stay up too late grading, and then feel lousy.|
I obviously have many more positive strategies already at work in maintaining and improving my exercise program than I do for my grading. Some things I’m going to try to apply from my exercise experience to my grading this month are:
- Grade at least a little bit on most days, instead of bunching it up on just a few days of the week.
- Use mini sessions of 15 minutes or less as a way of getting started and building momentum. (Truth be told, I already do some of this because I use a timer, but conceptualizing it under my exercise motto of “some is better than none” will help motivate me.)
- Track my grading on my calendar. Whenever I’m trying to maintain a new habit, I track it with stickers or marks on my wall calendar. (Joe’s Goals is an online activity tracker that can work in a similar fashion.) It’s oddly motivating to see the stickers piling up.
- Focus on the positive outcomes of grading (ideas for teaching), not the drudgery of having to do it. (I don’t love doing lunges, but I know they help with my overall fitness goals, so I stick with them.)
- Change up my grading routine. I grade online, but with a laptop I can sit in different places to do it.
- Jump right in! Even if I just grade one paper right now, it will be a good start.
And with that, I leave you to pursue your own GEAR analysis. . .
[cc licensed image by flickr user photogirl7]
What’s working for you right now? Let us know in the comments!