Tips for Improved Time Management & Productivity

Three time management and productivity tips anyone can use to account for time, plan ahead, and prioritize tasks.

Overview

I recently learned some productivity and time management tips and tricks, after attending an online seminar from the New York Public Library and a course on Coursera. I decided to make a blog post after several weeks of using some of the concepts and tools.

In this post, I will share 3 tips I learned on how to:

  • Better account for time on task
  • Schedule long-term and complex tasks
  • Prioritize difficult tasks with a change in mindset

I also have some research on the importance of timing.


Time Tracking: Accounting for Time

One of the tips I learned on time management was on the importance of getting an accurate recording of how you spend your time. There were a few suggestions around this:

  • Create a calendar with 30 min slots of time and then write down what you did
  • Create a task list for the day, and prioritize what needs to get done vs what can be postponed
  • Generally schedule time for the inevitable distraction

I haven’t yet tried the 30 min calendar, but I have been planning for being distracted. Or to put it a better way, I’ve been using a digital countdown timer to account for how much time I spend on tasks.

Smart Countdown Time for PC and Mac helps me account for how much time I spend on a task.

The product I’m using is Smart Countdown Timer, which is available for Mac and PC. It has two benefits so far:

  • Stay focused on a task
  • Time-block different activities, both scheduled and unscheduled

For scheduled tasks, if I have my list of tasks to complete, I can set the time for how long I want to work; (ex: 30 min, 20 min, etc). I know that I will have worked for at least that period of time. And when that time is over, I can reset the clock again, or move on to another task. It’s also great to keep track of how much time I’ve been sitting in one place!

For unscheduled tasks, like if I get a text, or I just have that feeling to check social media or email, it helps me in 2 ways:

  • First, I can look at how much time is left to finish my scheduled work. Then I can decide whether it makes sense to put off my distraction or just go do it. For instance, if I see there’s only 5 minutes left for my task, I’ll just finish my work and then go check my email. If it’s longer, that’s a different decision but you get the idea.
  • The other thing it helps me do is put a time limit on how much time to allow myself for a distraction. For instance, after I finish my work and want to reward myself with a little distraction, I can give myself 12 min, or whatever, to make tea, check email, etc. This way, I still get my distractions, but I don’t get carried away with the time.

For both of these scenarios, when I need more time, I can just add it. But the main point is to stay on task and hold my time to account.


Task Management: Keeping a 30-60-90 Calendar

Another tip I learned was to create a special type of calendar to keep track of longer term goals and tasks. It’s called a 30-60-90 calendar, which stands for 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. The idea is that it can be hard to take action on 1-year plans or 5-year plans…if you can even plan that far ahead! But 30 days out is a little bit more manageable, as well as 60 days or 90 days. So this calendar is a method to help get some of those longer term goals started and accomplished.

Example of 30-60-90 calendar for tasks scheduled 30 days from the current date.
Using Google Sheets

For my calendar, I use Google Sheets, with different sections for the chunks of time. I use formulas for the dates, so they’re always accurate relative to the current date. My columns are:

  • Activity – The task to be accomplished
  • Date Assigned – The date I added the task to the calendar
  • Deadline – Either a hard deadline, like taxes, or n+30, n+60, etc.
  • Est Time – How much time I think it will take, though I don’t always enter this information
  • Priority – I don’t always include this and instead rely on order
  • Progress – See below.

In the progress column, I write down activities on what I’ve done to complete a task or notes related to that task. Related notes might be phone numbers, addresses, etc. For instance, I had a task to ‘Get dental X-rays’. The progress column kept track of my activity in locating a dentist, getting a quote, and finally putting in an address, phone number, and date after making an appointment.

Bonus Tip: Break apart big tasks into smaller pieces

And just to make another point on tracking progress, which maybe goes without saying: it can be helpful to break apart big tasks into smaller pieces and tackle each one at a time. For instance, getting dental X-rays could involve getting a quote. Getting a quote could involve calling multiple offices, and so on. So this task could be broken up in a few different ways.

In my experience, it feels nice to accomplish tasks and make progress, even if those tasks are small.

Creating Artificial Deadlines

This type of calendar can be used to create an artificial deadline on long-term tasks that don’t have one already. For my X-ray example, for instance, there was no real deadline for that. But I created one with this calendar by giving it a date 30 or 60 days in the future.

I’ve also found that this calendar is also helpful for scheduling calls with friends and keeping up with people, generally speaking. Rather than say, Hey, let’s talk later and then kind of forgetting about it, now I can actually put down that phone call for 60 days out. It’s like a CRM for friends!

Working Through Tasks

As I work through the list, I move tasks from bottom to top. When they’re completed, I cross them off and move them to another tab. I had a task, Publish a blog post on productivity resources, which I put on the list 60 days ago. Little by little, I added more and more detail, moving it through the lists. Here I am now, accomplishing that goal.

Calendar Modifications: 10 days, 20 days

One way I’ve augmented this calendar is to add more sections for immediate tasks. I found that the 30-day slot was too broad to help me prioritize things that need to get done in the next 1-2 weeks. So I created new sections for 10 days and 20 days, respectively. As I move tasks up the list, the new sections help me keep track of things that need to get done right away.

Downsides

While this calendar is helpful for future and complex tasks, I find that this list is not great for daily or routine events. Something like going for a daily 30-minute walk will never leave the list, because it occurs every day. If a task never gets finished, it can feel discouraging because it seems like there’s never any progress being made. So I recommend not using it for that.


Prioritizing Tasks: Eating Your Daily Frog

The final concept came from the productivity seminar. It’s focused on ranking your daily task list, from most dreaded to most favored, and tackling the worst of the worst first. It requires changing your mindset towards how you look at your tasks.

“Eat your frog” by prioritizing tasks.
Putting It Off

In the past, when I had a list of activities to get through, there would often be one that I really did not want to do. I would put it off! My mindset was something like this: “I’ll postpone it until I’m able to work myself into finally getting it done”. Whether it was a difficult phone call, or just a tedious task, I would put it off by doing all the fun stuff first.

Challenging That Mindset

The concept here challenges that mindset by reversing that order. It says: Take that worst thing and get it done first. The concept supposedly comes from a Mark Twain quote about “eating your daily frog”. It goes something like this:

“If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, this will probably be the worse thing you do all day.”

Mark Twain (maybe)

Eating your frogs means that by prioritizing your worst tasks first, you’ll be able to get them out of the way and work on tasks you enjoy more and more. It will be a relief that the most difficult task you needed to do is already done.

Putting It Into Practice

I’ve been putting this into practice and it has been pretty helpful. But some days I think, “Wow, I really have a lot of frogs today!” But actually, there’s another Mark Twain quote that goes something like this: If you have two frogs, start with the biggest one. 🐸

It can be a little difficult when unscheduled “frogs” show up. I don’t really have a solution for that, other than using the timer to account for my time. But for those that are on the list, it’s a helpful motivator.


The importance of timing

Unrelated to my course or the productivity seminar, I watched a talk from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) YouTube channel. The talk, The Secret of Perfect Timing, was given by Dan H. Pink, who is the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

The talk is about his research on the importance of time or timing. He argues that being mindful of when tasks take place can make a difference in their outcome. For some people, it can also be useful to help prioritize when tasks take place based on when their mind is most efficient.

I also like that this research supports the idea of taking care of your most challenging or difficult tasks early, though even Dan Pink says that’s not universally the case.

The Secret of Perfect Timing | Dan Pink – 58:23

Summary

In this post, I reviewed three tips on time management and productivity:

Time Tracking: Accounting for Time

Tip: Use a digital timer to account for elapsed time.

  • A timer can help keep track of how long you’ve been working on a task, or even how long you’ve been sitting.
  • It can also help structure time, by tracking how much time is being allotted to scheduled and unscheduled tasks.
Task Management: Keeping a 30-60-90 Calendar

Tip: Plan ahead by managing tasks with a calendar focused 30, 60, and 90 day intervals.

  • This works best for long-term and complex tasks with clear ends, such as filing taxes.
  • It’s not great for recurring tasks, like taking a daily walk.
Prioritizing Tasks: Eating Your Daily Frog

Tip: Take care of your most difficult task first, rather than putting it off.

  • Change your mindset: Once your most difficult task is accomplished, everything else that day will be easier in comparison.
Video: Dan Pink, When

Overview: When a task is accomplished can make a difference, sometimes a big difference, in the outcome.

  • The video from Dan Pink’s talk, The Secret of Perfect Timing, goes into detail on how the timing of certain tasks can affect the outcome — e.g, when a decision is made, when a procedure is scheduled, etc.
  • Some people are more efficient at different times of the day, due to how their brain works.

That’s it! I hope these tips are as useful for you as they have been for me!

Cleaning Mindfully

Part two of my post on building a purposeful life. This post discusses a few of my life aims, how I came up with them, and how I have set out to achieve them.

Living a Life of Example, Living with Intention

In my last post, I discussed the concept of Be, Do, and Action goals, and how creating these help someone find and create a life of purpose. These goals help you become type of person you’d like to be. Be goals help form the central, self-organizing aim for your life – each one is a life purpose.

Be goals are aligned to our self-affirmations and life purpose. Be goals remind us why our Do goals are worth achieving. Action goals are how we achieve our Do goals. Here’s a cleaned up version of my Be, Do, and Action goals.

Pared down example of my purposeful circles.
A few examples from my purposeful circles. In the center circle are my Be goals, including Be a good example, Live intentionally, and Seek and share enlightenment. The middle ring has Do goals, Presentable and Well-read, Read a lot. The outer ring has crispy behaviors, the Action goals. These are Create a cleaning schedule and Read 20 or more books a year. I also have reminders off to the side about what Be, Do, and Action goals are.

Two of my Be Goals included living a life of example and living with intention. (I’m not sure if “life of example” is the correct way to put it, but that’s what I came up with for now.) One way I thought of to be a good example was to be presentable; this is my Do goal.

Being presentable can mean many things, I tried to brainstorm about how to achieve this. One action I came up with was cleaning. I liked the idea of cleaning, but it was a bit vague. To create my action goal, what the professor calls a “crispy” behavior, I needed to be more specific.

What I came up with was a cleaning schedule, which has so far turned out pretty well.


Japanese porch

Why Cleaning

I chose cleaning as helping me achieve my life purposes of living with intention and living a life of example for two reasons.

Meditation is all about being intentional and focusing your mind. Taking a meditative approach to cleaning, seemed like a great way to put that goal into action.

The other reason is that a clean home is presentable. I wanted to feel that if anyone walked at any moment, they could see I had a clean and presentable home. It was a great example and reflection on the type of person I want to be.

Cleaning and Mindfulness

The cleaning schedule borrows from the cleaning examples I found in the book A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind. The monk who wrote the book explained that his monastery uses a particular schedule for certain activities like when to shave their heads or mend their clothes.

I heard about the monk and this book after attending the Japan Society Talks event Clean House, Clear Mind: A Buddhist Monk’s Wisdom, on Wednesday 27 March, 2019.

1:02:10

The book, which I read twice, focuses on cleaning as a meditative practice. It gives advice on how to clear the mind when cleaning.

When I first read the book, I was obsessed with cleaning. And I did feel lighter having dusted everything and wiped everything. It’s amazing how much and where dust accumulates.

After the online course, I was able to connect cleaning with my personal values. Seeking to solidify specific actions to help me live my values. My cleaning schedule consists of 2 calendars and a separate inspiration page.


Schedules for a Clean Home and Mind

To create the calendars, I used InDesign. The fonts are Letter Gothic Std and Garamond. I created generic versions, so they can be downloaded for your own use.

Daily and Monthly Schedule

The first schedule lists tasks to be taken care of on a daily basis and monthly basis.

Schedule for daily and monthly cleaning tasks.
Monthly or daily cleaning events

Day to Day Schedule

The second schedule includes tasks that track close to the advice in the book. I split the 3 and 8 days into tasks focused on increasing light and reflections.

The second set of tasks, for 4 and 9 days, includes events focused on fixing things and more cleaning activities, like vacuuming.

Schedule for tasks that should be completed on the third and eighth day, and those on the fourth and ninth day.
For cleaning events that are scheduled on days ending in 3, 4, 8, or 9.

Inspiration Page

I thought it was important to keep in mind the mindset for why cleaning mindfully is important. The book refers to Zengosaidan which is a Buddhist concept focused on living in the moment, and not letting worries about work that is to be done or past failures weigh you down in them moment.

Zengosaidan inspiration focused on living in the moment, and not letting worries about work that is to be done or past failures weigh you down in them moment.
Zengosaidan inspiration

Put all of our efforts into each day to live without regrets. Live for today without grief for the past or worry about the future.

Eliminate the seeds that distract your mind with unnecessary thoughts about past failures and future challenges.

The longer you neglect to remove the impurities of the heart, the longer it will take to remove them.

Shoukei Matsumoto, “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind”

Eliminate the seeds that distract your mind with unnecessary thoughts about past failures and future challenges.

Building a Purposeful Life

Part one of my post on building a purposeful life. This post discusses the course I took which helped set me on this path, concepts from the course, and a brief overview of the course activites.

I recently completed a new online course. It was very different from my usual string of courses. It was a self-improvement course, focused on neuroscience and public heath. It’s called Finding Purpose and Meaning In Life: Living for What Matters Most. It’s taught by Vic Strecher, of the University of Michigan’s Schools of Public Health and Medicine, on Coursera.

Course certificate, Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life: Living for What Matters Most. – https://www.coursera.org/learn/finding-purpose-and-meaning-in-life

The course has a 4.8 rating with over 1,000 reviews. Here is what Coursera provides in the description.

In this course, you’ll learn how science, philosophy and practice all play a role in both finding your purpose and living a purposeful life. You will hear from historical figures and individuals about their journeys to finding and living a purposeful life, and will walk through different exercises to help you find out what matters most to you so you can live a purposeful life…. By the end of this course, you will:

  1. Understand that having a strong purpose in life is an essential element of human well-being.
  2. Know how self-transcending purpose positively affects well-being.
  3. Be able to create a purpose for your life (don’t be intimidated, this is different from creating “the purpose” for your life).
  4. Apply personal approaches and skills to self-change and become and stay connected to your purpose every day.

Not only did I finish the course, I’ve started making changes. This first post covers the concepts and course topics. The next will be about how I applied the concepts and design artifacts I created to help me achieve them.


Socrates voor zijn huis, Reinier Vinkeles (I), after Jacobus Buys, 1792 – Find at Rijksmuseum

A Central, Self-Organizing Life Aim

The course focuses on helping students find a purpose in life. It’s important to point out it’s a purpose, not the purpose. A purpose in life is “a central, self-organizing life aim”; a predominant theme in a person’s life.

The lessons guide students by introducing topics in Buddhist and Greek philosophy, such as the “true self” known as atman (Hindu/Buddhist) or daimon (Greek), and connecting those concepts to brain function and the Ventro-Medial Prefrontal Cortex, VmPFC. The VmPFC is the part of the brain that is involved in processing information and our emotional response.

We return to the VmPFC often in the course, to understand our neurobiological responses to stimuli and how behavioral practices like Loving-Kindness Meditation can lead to a positive sense of self, which can help lead to positive behavioral outcomes.


Astronomy Picture of the Day, 2019 August 4
Rumors of a Dark Universe
Image Credit: High-Z Supernova Search TeamHSTNASA

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

We also learn what it means to have a purpose and discuss concepts in existential philosophy by thinking about Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

We even learn about what Stanley Kubrick, who was apparently a big fan of Nietzche, and (loosely) 2001: A Space Odyssey have to say about purpose:

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference…our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick, 1968

Obviously, I have to have the music. 🙂

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra / Dudamel · Berliner Philharmoniker
Richard Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra / Gustavo Dudamel, conductor · Berliner Philharmoniker / Recorded at the Berlin Philharmonie, 28 April 2012.

There’s a very interesting article from the Houston Symphony on Richard Strauss’ musical interpretations of Nietzche’s book and philosophy, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which has the same name as his famous orchestra piece.

In describing the music, the Houston Symphony writes, “Kubrick was not too far off the mark in using the piece’s opening to score a sunrise from outer space; Strauss indeed intended it to depict the mountaintop sunrise that opens Nietzsche’s book. The opening motif in the trumpets has been called the ‘nature’ or ‘world riddle’ motif; it recurs throughout the piece as a symbol of nature’s indifference and mystery.”


skuawk.com

What Kind of Cook Are You?

One of the important lessons is that while it’s important to seek knowledge, it’s also important to have guidance in that pursuit. To seek knowledge with purpose.

There’s an analogy used in the course, to help compare the pursuit of knowledge with cooking. We really can’t all expect to become master chefs before we ever start cooking. But we also can’t expect to have any efficiency or safety in a kitchen with no training whatsoever. The same is true for the pursuit of knowledge. An unintentional pursuit can lead down dark and dangerous paths; meanwhile, we can’t spend all our time studying for the next exam.

The question, What Kind of Cook Are You, is an existential philosophical question about the pursuit of information that is meant to focus on the importance of intention and balance. Learn enough so that you can seek out recipes and follow them, but also learn enough that you can deviate from the recipe without ruining the food or burning down the kitchen.

Image of flowers in golden light, showing sense of calmness
pexels.com

Golden Rules

I’ve often heard about The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — either at church or Girl Scouts. And while it’s a great concept in theory, in practice, it’s kind of self-less and you end up getting mistreated a bit.

The course brought up a new version, which I think is a bit better.

The Reverse Golden Rule: Do not do to yourself, what you would not do to others.


skuawk.com

Being Purposeful

As I mentioned above, the course often refers to the Ventro-Medial Prefrontal Cortext, VmPFC, to understand, explain, and change our how a life purpose can improve life outcomes in positive ways, from a biological, psychological, and behavioral perspectives. The course focuses on how our own thoughts and behaviors can be reinforced. However, we often we don’t achieve our goals to “do better” for 2 reasons: they haven’t been tied back to our purpose and they don’t represent what he calls “crispy” behaviors. That is specific actions to be put into practice. We often make goals that are just a little too vague.

skuawk.com

Finding Your Purpose

These goals are called Do, Be, and Action goals. And the course helps the student think about and create them by, again, focusing on existentialism. Existentialism acknowledges human mortality, which many people don’t like to think about. However, by considering that life isn’t forever, we can use this inevitable fact to not freak out but to channel our life towards having a purpose – a central, self-organizing life aim.

There’s an app the instructor has called Purposeful by Kumanu™, to help create those Do, Be, and Action goals. I didn’t use it, I created the diagrams using a drawing program. But to get there, you start asking introspective questions about yourself, such as:

  • What are causes you care about?
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

Literally, there’s an earlier part of the course where you think about what you want your headstone to say!

Pencils on a yellow background

Create Do, Be, and Action Goals

Ultimately the answer to the introspective questions above help to generate your Be goals. The type of person you’d like to be. Your atman, your daimon. These will form the central, self-organizing aim for your life – each one is a life purpose.

Do Goals: Next, you take these Be goals and ask what you have to do to enact those Be goals. Those are your Do goals.

Actually, the course makes a point to mention that many people start here and stop here. Rather than tying their goals to a life purpose, it becomes about achieving this goal. Like wanting to lose weight to fit into a dress, vs wanting to lose weight to fit into a dress, because ultimately the person is lonely and doesn’t want to be.

Action Goals: Finally the question becomes what action to take to enact to achieve those Do goals. These are the Action goals. And these should be specific and achievable goals.


To clarify, creating these goals is not a one-day activity. The course has the student ask themselves these questions frequently. By the time these concepts shows up, you already have a bit of a list and you’re primed to accept the ideas. I even spent time after the course completing this work.

Also a person can have more than one facet of their life in which to create their life purpose, including work, retirement, school, family, and even military service.

I highly recommend the course. As one reviewer said, “Vic is an excellent professor who just connects so well with the students even from the computer screen.” It’s not an in-depth neuropsychology course, nor is it a philosophy course. It provides enough information to support the course content, and enough to continue researching independently if that’s a goal.


As mentioned in the intro, I’ve split this post into two. In the next post, I’ll go into 2 of my Be Goals and how I turned them into crispy behaviors focused on cleaning.

Until then, here’s a video of the sun.

Astronomy Picture of the Day, 2020 August 19
The Sun Rotating
Video Credit: SDONASA; Digital Composition: Kevin M. Gill

Featured Image: Astronomy Picture of the Day, 2020 November 17. A Glowing STEVE and the Milky Way. Image Credit: NASAKrista Trinder

Psychology, Education, Women’s History, Medieval Literature, and Wine & Beer: A Shortlist of Future EdX Courses

This year I’ve taken some fantastic courses and I’m really excited to take something else. I’m not exactly sure I know what to sign up for — but I do want to be as excited for the new course as I have been for my previous courses.

I scribbled down this little short list of courses and it’s been sitting on my desk for weeks. I’m going to share them here so I can throw away this paper.

Even though I make these lists, I still end up taking courses that aren’t listed. I see something interesting and watch one video, and then end up in the whole course! For instance, I came across multiple courses on Islam, a business “MicroMasters” series from Bangalore, India, and two courses from Harvard. One on rhetoric and another on money and ethics. So, who know what I’ll get into. Actually, I’m already taking 2 other courses right now.

Most of the courses below have a preview video, so I’m including it.


Psychology of Activism: Women Changing the World

Smith College – SmithX

Learn what motivates prominent women such as Gloria Steinem, Loretta Ross, and others to become involved in activism in this political psychology course.

https://www.edx.org/course/psychology-of-political-activism-women-changing-th

For obvious reasons this year, I thought this might be a good course to consider.


Intercultural Competency in Education

University of Iceland – UIcelandX

Do you want to learn practical skills to become interculturally competent and aware as an educator? Take this course and learn to develop strategies to deal with identities in a fairer and more coherent way.

https://www.edx.org/course/intercultural-competency-in-education

After I took that Gender and Intersectionality course, I thought this might be another course to become more informed about intercultural issues. It’s actually more of a course for educators, but you never know when you’ll have the opportunity to teach something new.

I’m not surprised the University of Iceland has a course like this. The more I learn about Iceland, the more impressed I become!


Women Have Always Worked, XSeries Program

Columbia University – COLUMBIAX

Explore the history of women in America.

https://www.edx.org/xseries/columbiax-women-have-always-worked

This is a 4-course series. These XSeries of courses are meant to provide a deep exploration of a topic. They’re really a semester or a full year’s worth of education. Each individual course is broken up into like 8-10 weeks sections, so it’s pretty substantial. EdX estimated 10 months to complete all four courses, but if it’s your only course and you’re not doing anything else, you could get through it much faster.


The Medieval Iceland Sagas

University of Iceland – UIcelandX

Learn about the Icelandic Sagas, the characteristic literary genre of Medieval Iceland comprising roughly 40 texts.

The Medieval Icelandic Sagas

https://www.edx.org/course/the-medieval-icelandic-sagas-2

I’ve put this one on a short list because Icelandic sagas came up during the Gender and Intersectionality course I took. And, I’ve decided to take as many courses from the University of Iceland as possible. (There are only 6.)


World History of Wine

Trinity College – TrinityX

Explore wine through the eyes of a historian, as you learn about the “old” and “new” worlds of wine, including how its taste and quality has changed over time.

https://www.edx.org/course/the-world-history-of-modern-wine

I read a book earlier this year about world history through 6 drinks: wine, coffee, tea, spirits, beer, and cola. This seems like kind of the same thing, but specifically using wine.


World of Wine: From Grape to Glass

University of adelaide – adelaidex

Learn about the principles and practices of how grapes are grown and wine is made. Whether you’re a wine novice or a seasoned oenophile, you’ll learn to confidently describe wine appearance, aroma, flavour and taste.

https://www.edx.org/course/world-of-wine-from-grape-to-glass

A few years ago, I started learning more about wine. I thought this might be a great course to learn more.


Science of Beer

Wageningen University and Research – WageningenX

Are you interested in more than just the taste of beer? Discover what’s in your beer, how it’s made and marketed and the effect it has on your body and health.

https://www.edx.org/course/the-science-of-beer

Beer is so common, yet hardly discussed seriously. This course seemed like a good opportunity for that.

Unlocking Your Employability: An Edx Course from the University of Queensland

I was having a conversation the other day about job hunting strategies. I mentioned how I’d recently taken a new online course and had learned some new and unique approaches to share my past experiences with employers. I’d also learned that there are certain qualities all employers look for, though not every employer priorities these qualities equally.

The course, Unlocking Your Employability, is available from EdX and taught by two career coaches from the University of Queensland in Australia. The course frequently uses interviews from students, graduates, and employers to help explain many of the concepts. There’s also a mock interview.

In all honesty, the course is geared towards college students and recent graduates but I think the lessons could be helpful for experienced people as well. I’ve been working for more years than the intended audience, but I still learned quite a bit.

Overwhelmingly, the course focuses on teaching students how to reflect on past experiences, and to use that reflection during job hunting to demonstrate how the individuality of each job seeker is valuable to employers.

So here are some concepts I learned. This is will be a reference for me, too.


What is Employability

The first part of the course is focused on introducing and defining the term “employability”. I have to admit that I had not heard this word before and it took me a while before I really understood the concept.

Sharing Skills vs Employability

In my experience, when it comes to job hunting, much of what I’ve come across on job hunting strategies focuses on sharing skills and describing “what you did” on a project. One of the employers in the course distinguishes between employability vs employment outcomes, which is a closer concept to what I’ve come across. Employment outcomes is focused on just getting hired, not maintaining a job or emphasizing employee effectiveness.

Employability is about: finding a job, maintaining work, and being effective in the workplace. The course follows the path of reflecting on experiences to convey employability, and using those experiences to be an effective employee.

As the course is focused on employability, there’s more emphasis on the longer term goal of maintaining employment. The course does not emphasize skills growth. The course assumes the student, or job seeker, already has the skills. Instead the focus is on reflecting on your own individual responses in relation to your work and life experiences, and connecting them back to work.

The course focuses on identifying defining moments which can be used to build an employability narrative, which is conveyed to employers using the SEAL method, as discussed next.


STAR vs SEAL, and Behavioral Interviews

One strategy I’ve come across numerous times focuses on use of the STAR method when it comes to sharing your employment experiences. I typically see this advice given to help job seekers prepare to answer behavioral interview questions or even how to describe a project in their portfolio. If you haven’t come across this before, STAR stands for Situation, Task, Action, Result. The idea is that when an interviewer asks a behavioral question, the interviewee gives an answer in the STAR format.

The trouble I’ve had with this advice is that there’s never any instruction provided on how to translate a past experiences into the STAR format, in a way that’s actually meaningful to me. Or an employer. It’s always seemed that it’s just focused on telling the story of what happened, not providing an answer that’s meaningful to employers.

SEAL is the reflective method taught in the course. SEAL stands for Situation, Effect, Action, Learning. SEAL focuses on helping job seekers take a past experience, from work or life, and reflect on it in a way that can be used to convey employability to employers.


Prep for STAR-based behavioral interviews using the SEAL method

The best way to prepare for behavioral interviews is to prep ahead of time using SEAL. The course identified four questions employers are likely to ask in behavioral interviews:

  • Tell about overcoming a challenge
  • Dealing with conflict in a team
  • Managing competing priorities
  • Showing initiative

The idea is to think of specific situations that can be used to provide SEAL-based responses to the above questions. Once you’ve got those responses, it’s much less of a challenge to convert those responses into a STAR format. I’ve already started to use the SEAL method to shift my explanations of past projects towards a more reflective approach.

The key to choosing a situation to use in SEAL is to focus on an experience where you learned something. I really liked this approach because it means I’m able to take a situation and turn it into a learning experience that shows off some of my personal capabilities. The SEAL method can transform even a negative experience into something positive.


Identifying Defining Moments to Build an Employability Narrative

An employability narrative is the sum of each person’s individual experiences. It’s not just recapping a story of a series of experiences. When you’re hired by an employer, they’re getting the sum of your experiences not just your skills.

The experiences can come from anywhere, not just jobs. These can include:

  • Defining moments (that maybe had a big impact on your job outlook)
  • Key development opportunities (such as a volunteer or teaching experience)
  • Capabilities and strengths
  • Passions, values, beliefs

I think it really helps to spend time reflecting on this in order to build the narrative ahead of time. This part has been harder than I expected; it can be difficult to view yourself objectively.


Employer Expectations and Professionalism

Employer Expectations (aka Core Competencies)

Early in the course, the instructors provide a list of 10 expectations employers have for graduates (or employees). As they described, the list doesn’t change much.

This list probably looks pretty familiar. It’s in nearly every job ad, in one form or another. NACE calls these career competencies, if that helps to clarify. The list of employer expectations can be used by job seekers, using the SEAL method to share examples, and to convey capabilities and strengths.

Professionalism

These core competencies are not the same as professionalism, which focuses on workplace behaviors. The 4 aspects of professionalism identified by the course include:

  • Punctuality; Arrive on time
  • Dress appropriately
  • Work well with others; Team work
  • Communication; speaking appropriately

In addition, one of the employers (a nurse) interviewed in this section identified or explained a few other traits, which still fall under the above categories: positive attitude, introducing yourself, not arguing; think of how you address people. These fit under communication and team work. Obviously, some of these will be more important for some jobs vs others.

When I thought about this list, I have to admit that these are not what I would have identified as professionalism. Probably because I assumed professionalism was mostly focused on technical skills. And the course asked students to reflect on unprofessional behaviors we’ve witnessed as well as our own behaviors that we’d now classify as unprofessional.


Career Transitions and Wrap-Up

The last sections of the course focused on putting it all together, even including a mock interview. That was interesting because we were asked if we’d hire the interviewee and then discuss why or why not on the course forum.

There was also a section on discussing opportunities for continuing education. I guess this post is pretty biased towards the sections I found most interesting. Clearly I don’t have a problem with continuing education.


Reflections

The end of the course includes a course evaluation. Some of my thoughts about the course:

I learned more about the qualities that make someone employable, not just professionally but also personally. I also learned about qualities that define professionalism, which no one has ever explained to me before.

I’ve always considered myself to be professional, but I’ve developed a bad habit of being late to many different types of appointments. Most articles about lateness talk about the idea that being late as a sign of disrespect. But if you’re late to everything, including events that have no one there but yourself, that doesn’t make sense.

However, putting it into context that being late is an unprofessional behavior, well that’s not something I’d heard before. I’m sure that this habit has hurt me educationally as well as professionally. Now that I know, I will work harder at not being late because I don’t want people to think of me as unprofessional.


Initially, I did not appreciate the course that much, probably due to not understanding employability. But by the end, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to purchase a verified certificate of completions. It wasn’t too expensive ($59) and I don’t want to lose access to the course materials.


Bonus!

The section on professionalism reminds me of this 1950s video I saw on YouTube called ‘Office Etiquette’. The video is about a young woman who starts a new job after taking some type of typing training course. She spends the rest of the video reflecting on the lessons the typing instructor shared. Many of the lessons focused on employability, competency, and professionalism, though that’s not what they were called.

The instructor gives a little speech that her students seem to remember by heart: First of all know your work. Enjoy it, but also the people you’re working with. Be considerate of them and be considerate of your employer.

I guess this kind of speech meant a lot in the 1950s. To me it sounds a bit vague and kind of corny. I prefer the much longer and clearer lessons of the Edx course. But the overall points about professionalism and core competencies are still the same, even if the communication isn’t so clear.

The video is 13:15.

Old Time TV: Do’s and don’ts film portraying ways in which office etiquette contributes to success in office relationships. Follows a young woman who is seeking her first secretarial job and shows examples of good (and hilariously bad) on-the-job behavior. (13:15)

Resources:

Unlocking Your Employability: https://www.edx.org/course/unlocking-your-employability

The Wikipedia definition of employability is available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employability

Career Competencies on NACE (National Association for Colleges and Employers): https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

The University of Queensland, Australia: https://www.uq.edu.au/

Month Notes, May-July 2020

Just a mini list of all the stuff I’ve been consuming/doing. Portfolio updates, books, and courses.

Portfolio Updates

I’ve made several adjustments to my portfolio. I’ve already started another post detailing the changes, so I won’t go into much detail now. But one change was to update the website index page. Instead of the yellow and dark gray, with Courier font, I updated the page to stick with all Inter font and emphasized the portfolio link. I may change it again, but I prefer the gradient gray over the yellow.


Courses and Educational Film

The Dynamics of Desegregation

Over the past few months, I’ve been watching The Dynamics of Desegregation which is available via my local PBS station. This series originally aired in 1962 and 1963 as a 15-part “intensive study of race relations in the United States.” It is hosted by Thomas F. Pettigrew, PhD, who was then Harvard psychology professor. He is now at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

3 MOOCS

In the past few years, most of the online courses I’ve completed have been about tech, business, or design. While I find these courses valuable for work, I do sometimes wonder what I’m not learning. Serendipitously, due to the lockdowns, ClassCentral sent an email about courses and I decided to try some new topics. Here are three courses I’ve completed, or almost finished:

1. ChinaX: Creating Modern China on EdX

I’ve always been interested in Chinese history, but this is truly one of the most interesting courses I’ve even taken, anywhere. The 5-parts are:

I suppose I selected this course on modern China because I have been hearing about the country so much in the news media and from government officials, who I assume are biased. I wanted to form my own opinions about the country. I also took it because I know the history of modern China had a communist period. Supposedly the country is still communist, but given the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard about the growing wealth in China, and how aggressive China is towards developing technology, I wasn’t so sure.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating course. I highly recommend it. This series is Part 2. Part 1 is about pre-history of China and the earlier dynasties.

2. Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society on Coursera

This course is from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s focused on the design of physical artifacts. I really enjoyed the breakdown of solving design problems by breaking them down into separate issues and using charts to deciding which prototype to progress into the next stage. It’s much more professionally focused than the others.

Given the circumstances, where I’m not really going out and not able to talk with friends, I did not attempt to create an artifact. But I did appreciate the lectures and hopefully I can come back to this in the future.

3. Sheep in the Land of Fire and Ice on EdX

“This short course discusses the sustainability of sheep grazing in Iceland and explores how history, socioeconomic factors and environmental conditions have shaped the management of grazing resources.”

I tell anyone who will listen about my dreams of farming sheep and/or goats. When I saw this short course from the University of Iceland, on a topic related to sheep, I figured I  should try it.

What I learned is that because Iceland’s soil is volcanic, it is prone to erosion when the native plants that keep the soil together are destroyed by overgrazing or by too many sheep that simply crush the plants. There was more information about the history of Iceland, sheep farming, and geography. Needless to say, I will never be a sheep farmer on Iceland.

You can also learn more at sheepfireice.org.


Personal

Last time I did a post like this, I mentioned finishing “Flights”, by Olga Tokarczuk. Since then, I’ve finished:

Food-wise, it’s now summer which means I don’t use the oven much. Due to the lockdowns, I also haven’t been buying fresh milk too much. I’ve switched to non-fat dry milk and almond milk because they are more shelf stable, reducing my trips to the grocery. It turns out I really enjoy almond milk in my iced coffee.


Image credit: Hand schrijvend met een kroontjespen, by Isaac Weissenbruch, 1836 – 1912, paper, h 72mm × w 113mm — View original at Rijksmuseum.nl 

(I believe the title is translated as ‘Hand writing with a dip pen’.)