All posts by profkushin

How You Are Influenced By People You Don’t Know, Backed by Science (Book Review)

We’ve all heard of six degrees of separation. The idea, proven through the research of Stanley Milgram, is that any one person is connected to another through 6 or less other individuals.  (If you’d like to see this idea in action, play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where you can find if any actor is connected to Mr. Bacon through 6 degrees or less). But to how many degrees of separation does one person influence others?  Here’s a hint. It’s not 6.

connected-book

As educators in the social media space, we talk to our students about online influence and the great powers that thought leaders can have to diffuse ideas or realize the adoption of those ideas among social networks. But, while important, talking this way is in a sense, shortsighted.

We know that ideas spread not simply in a two-step flow, a la Paul Lazarsfeld’s groundbreaking research (way before Facebook!), but through a multi-step flow (or, later, diffusion of innovations) through a network of connected individuals.

The book Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do by Christakis & Fowler is a fascinating exploration of the role of social networks in the spread of everything from happiness, to perceived value in the marketplace, to sexually transmitted diseases, to my favorite example: la ola (the wave) at sports games.

But it is not simply ideas or diseases that spread. Who we are connected to has many subtle yet powerful influences on our lives: from who we marry, to how quickly we solve problems, to whether or not we’ll vote, to why we would act altruistically at the expense of ourselves, to why men benefit more from a marriage than women, to much, much more. And that is the central thesis to the book. While we like to think of ourselves as independent and autonomous, Christakis & Fowler take a sledgehammer to that notion. We are, as the authors put it, Homo dictyous (“network man”).

Interest in Social Network Analysis

Interest in social network analysis is on the rise in communication scholarship. Recent years have witnessed a growth in the analysis of large data sets of social media data (e.g., big data) to understand connections and the spread of ideas. As I’ve said before on this blog, this is an area I personally need to delve deeper into. And, I believe that’s true for all of us aiming to teach our students to thrive in the social media economy. Strategic insights can be gained by understanding social networks and we’re seeing a greater emphasis on that both in research and in professional applications.

Should You and Your students read Connected?

The book is a thorough and accessible look at social network theories and research. While this isn’t a ‘must read book’ like Made to Stick, I would suggest this book to anyone as we all live in a networked world. The book has given me a much greater appreciation for my place within the different social networks I’m apart of. It’s been one of my favorite reads of late. and I absolutely recommend it. Educators and scholars interested in a deeper appreciation for social networks would enjoy and truly benefit from reading this booth.

Should students read this book? This is a very readable, incredibly informative and sometimes humorous read that I believe students would enjoy. I would love to have my students read this book. However, I likely won’t use the book in my classes – at least for the classes I currently teach – simply because there are too many other books I want my students to read. But, this book would be great for any class specifically about social networks and more broadly for theory classes. It would be a great read to add to a data analytic course exploring online social networks.

Though the book is primarily about offline social networks with a chapter dedicated to online networks, Connected could be used as a suggested or supplementary reading in a social media class if the professor wants sufficient time or depth given to social networks (see my lecture and activity on social networks for my Social Media class).

Three Degrees of Influence

So back to our initial question. While we all may be connected by about three degrees of separation, through how many degrees does one have influence on another? The authors’ research indicates that influence generally travels three degrees. They state: “Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on friends (one degree,” our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees)…. Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond” (p. 28).

Which begs the question: How are you influencing your friends’ friends’ friends?

How to use Microsoft Social Engagement software to teach social media listening (Post 2 of 2)

This post is part 2 in a two-part series on how I currently teach social media metrics and social listening. You can see the previous post, which provided a spreadsheet that I use to empower students to track metrics for the social media accounts they manage in my social media class (2016 syllabus; and all articles about this class).

We’ll be using that same spreadsheet, though a different section of it, in this blog post. You can access it here.

In this post, we’ll discuss Microsoft Social Engagement and how I integrate it into the the social media class so students can engage in social listening.

About Microsoft Social Engagement

Microsoft Social Engagement, sometimes also called Microsoft Social Listening, is part of the Microsoft Dynamics Academic Alliance program via the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software package. In short, Microsoft Social Engagement is one of the pieces of software bundled into the full CRM. It appears the Microsoft Academic Alliance program has recently gone through some changes since when I signed up last spring.  The website itself is quite different. However, I’m not personally familiar with the nature of any changes to the program.  The language on the website aimed at educators reads: “Demonstrate thought leadership and differentiate your institution by integrating Microsoft Dynamics CRM and ERP solutions into your curriculum. DynAA helps you innovate and remain relevant when working with prospective students, current students, and potential employers interested in hiring new graduates. Your free DynAA membership provides access to software, support, resources, and community-building opportunities that will prepare your students for exciting careers. ”

Through the Microsoft Academic Alliance program, I have been very fortunate to get my students access to the Microsoft Social Engagement software.

So what is Microsoft Social Engagement? In short, it is a social listening tool that enables users to track metrics for public social media accounts or posts (e.g., keywords or hashtags) such as posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  You can also track mentions forums and blog.

You do this by programming different ‘analysis focuses.’ That is, I can have 1 that searches one or a set of topics, keywords, social media accounts – say, my brand – and I can have another analysis focus that focuses on my competitors accounts, keywords, etc. From what I can tell, you can have as many as you want so long as you don’t go over your monthly quota of social data units.

For example, in the social media class we follow our social media accounts and mentions of them, and specific keywords surrounding our department’s brand, such as our hashtag.

The software enables you to quickly visualize several things such as key phrases, sentiment, social platforms or accounts that posts are coming from and their sentiment, posts across time, sentiment across time, geo-location, and geo-location across time. Below is a quick look at the main hub you see when logging into Social Engagement. In it, you can see sentiment in the top left. You can see the sentiment for each platform below that. In the center, you see the volume of posts across time for the keywords we are tracking. In the top right you can see the phrases being used related to those keywords. And in the bottom right, you can see the proportion of the posts that are being analyzed in this instance from each platform.

Click to enlarge.

There  are 4 main sections of the software: Overview (the page shown above), conversations, sentiment, location and sources. They are pretty self explanatory.

When you click on a pie chart or graph or keyword, it is interactive. What I mean by that is, it creates a filter in the app.

So, if I click a specific keyword in the phrases word cloud, I am filtering for only those posts that used that keyword.

For example, in the below GIF I am in the Conversations section of the software. I see all of the phrases surrounding our department’s social media accounts and blogs in the last month. That is, every post that mentioned 1 of our social accounts, our hashtag or our blog (Note: This is what I’ve selected for this analysis focus). I then click on the #shepcomm hashtag which filters for only those posts that contain that hashtag. So, I can see the other phrases that are in posts containing #shepcomm. You’ll see that the blog source gets filtered out because the 1 blog post does not contain the hashtag. Next, I click Twitter. Thus, only posts containing the hashtag and Twitter are being shown.  Lastly, I click on the neutral (gray) sentiment and we filter down to the 1 Twitter post that has neutral sentiment containing the #shepcomm hashtag. While not shown in the below GIF, in order to see what the 1 post was, I could click on the “posts” tab in the right-hand side of my screen to see the original Twitter post.

Click to enlarge.

For the sake of keeping this post length manageable, I will stop there. Suffice it to say, I am just touching the tip of the iceberg on how you can use this software. I will go into 5 key ways that we use the software in my class below which will further demonstrate its utility. And, you will get instructions on how to use the software for those 4 ways in the lab guide I provide my students which I will link to below.

Before doing that, a few notes: The reality is, there is a lot more than can be done with Social Engagement by linking it to other software within the Dynamics CRM. For example, as I understand it, it can be linked with other software for social media customer relations management. But I have not gone down that path yet.

One limitation of the software is that you have to program in what you want it to track ahead of time. Then, it begins tracking. For example, it isn’t like a Twitter search where you can go in and look into past 2,500 posts on a topic after the fact. If I know I’m going to want to track a hashtag or social media account, I have to program it and then I’ll get the data going forward from the time I programmed it. A second limitation is that it is not real time meaning that while you are looking at the software you don’t see the data changing if new Tweets are coming in.

How I integrated Microsoft Social Engagement into the social media class

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Click to enlarge

As noted previously, students in my social media class are divided into teams and each team is in charge of running a social media platform for our department’s social media.

As I mentioned above and went over in depth in the prior post in this series, the students use a spreadsheet to track metrics for the social media content they create and post. Here is a copy of that spreadsheet as it was distributed in my Fall 2016 class.

Social Engagement is used to work on the “social listening” tab of that spreadsheet. In short, the other tabs in the spreadsheet are about tracking our own performance. The social listening tab is about, well, social listening – seeing what is being said about our brand. The spreadsheet asks the students to answer 5 questions each week. You can see them below. A hint is provided to students on where to look to find this answer by mousing over each question.

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To help students learn how to answer each of these questions, I developed a lab guide (about lab guides). The lab guide teaches students how to use the software.

That lab guide can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/FSM_microsoftsociallistening

You will find that reading through it can teach you a bit more on how the software works and how it can be used to answer the above 5 questions.

In summary, these posts have provided an overview of how I taught social media metrics and listening my fall 2016 social media class. In my research class this spring we will be diving deeper into Microsoft Social Engagement and a few other tools for learning about social data. I am always looking to improve. I’m also looking to find new, cost-effective software solutions to expand social media measurement learning opportunities. If you have any suggestions, leads, or want to chat or collaborate, please Tweet me.

I hope you found this post helpful. If you did, please share it. It helps a lot.

– Cheers!
Matt

An Assignment and Spreadsheet for Teaching Students to Track Social Media Metrics in my Social Media Class (Post 1 of 2)

In the social media education community, there has been a lot of discussion about teaching social media metrics and analytics to students. This has been a challenge and frustration for myself and many others. Access to industry tools is cost prohibitive for many universities, making it difficult for us as educators to prepare our students for this aspect of their careers.

I’ve worked hard over the last few years to try and enhance how I’m teaching these concepts. And I’m not where I want to be. But I know there are many fellow educators also on this journey with me. So, I’d like to share how I teach students to track social media metrics as part of a semester long assignment and a few modifications I have recently made to enhance that aspect of my teaching.

I’ve split this topic into two blog posts for length purposes. In both of these posts, we’ll focus on my social media class (2016 syllabus; and all articles about this class). In this post, we’ll talk about the spreadsheet for tracking metrics. In the follow up post, we’ll discuss Microsoft Social Engagement and how I integrate it into the metrics assignment portion of the class.

Update: The follow up post on Microsoft Social Engagement is now available.

My aim in my social media class is to introduce metrics to students both in lecture & discuss (which I’ve been doing for some years) as well as by use of software. Then, when students get into the Communication Research class (2015 syllabus; articles about this class), they will get more in-depth learning about analytics. I’ve increased/improved my focus on this area in that class for next spring. And my long term hope is to really build that part of the class out. During the upcoming spring semester, I will write a blog post about what we will be doing with analytics. And, at that time, I will share all of my assignments and handouts.

Okay, back to my social media class. In past years we’ve used Twitter Analytics – which has been the best, free tool. Unfortunately, other platforms have been limited in their analytics. We’ve used a slew of free tools that have been here today, gone tomorrow.

This year, we still faced the challenges of relying on Twitter Analytics and whatever free tools we could find. But I also added a brief introduction to Microsoft Social Engagement (which will be discussed in the next post in this series).

But first, let’s discuss how I teach students to track performance metrics in my social media class.

In my social media class, students are divided into teams. Each team is in charge of running a social media platform for our department’s social media. In the past, I had my students use a spreadsheet developed by Jeremy Floyd to track metrics. At the time, I modified the spreadsheet for our purposes. At the start of this semester I modified the spreadsheet further simplify it and to add a section on Microsoft Social Engagementƒ (again, which I will discuss in the next blog post).

Here is a copy of the spreadsheet as it was distributed in my Fall 2016 class which you can use in following along with the below post. You can also download a copy for yourself to modify and use as you prefer. Again, credit goes to Jeremy Floyd for the original incarnation of this spreadsheet.

In lecture, I teach students about the activity, engagement and performance metrics discussed in Kim’s book, Social Media Campaigns: Strategies for Public Relations and Marketing. I also emphasize the importance of choosing metrics that are tied to goals. (You’ll see a tab in the spreadsheet discussed below, where students are to determine their objectives and what metrics would be important to those objectives).

Student teams begin with the planning tab, then they establish their metrics goals to use the spreadsheet to establish benchmarks and KPIs for their platform and track metrics over the semester. They then move over to reporting tab to track weekly metrics.

Tip. You can see tips by mousing over the small triangles in the upper right corner of some cells, as shown below. I’ve created these to help students when working on their spreadsheets in groups.

In the image below, you can see the ‘reporting’ tab of this spreadsheet. We start tracking in week 9 of the semester, but you can modify this as you like. After each week, you’ll see the percentage change. Of course, you can also modify what you are tracking. I throw in a number of potential metrics to track for different platforms. But, students can delete all the rows they don’t need and modify the individual metrics for that platform as needed. The metrics identified in the spreadsheet are just a guide.

I’ve also divided the spreadsheet up into different platforms so each team can pick their platform (as shown in image below) for tracking the success of their posts. The idea here, is that by tracking these posts across time, students can begin to analyze these metrics for trends (though, I don’t have any ways to quickly analyze and visualize this data at this time). This could help them learn when the best time to post is. However, you could also add variables about the post that can help them identify which is the type of content that is most successful. Other spreadsheets I’ve seen track variables such as whether an image was used, what hashtags are used, if links are used, etc. So, again, you can modify the optimization section as you see fit. I discuss other variables to track, but focus on the ones in this spreadsheet so as to not overwhelm students. I’ve found if I ask students to track too many things, nothing gets tracked as they get overwhelmed. So choose what you want them to track, and stick with it.

I’ve relied on Kim’s metrics categories for metrics students can track. Also, please know the metrics I have identified isn’t perfect and modification of what I’ve identified may be needed – some of my initial metrics may not work, or changes have occurred.

Integrating The Metrics Into the Semester-Long Assignment

As noted above,  across the entire semester of my social media class, students are strategizing, building and executing social media for my class. As a part of that, they present their content to the class for approval at intervals throughout the semester.  In the latter half of the semester, the students present their current metrics to the class alongside the content they are proposing for the next content time period. At the end of the semester, we discuss their metrics, whether they met their KPIs and during what week they did, and what they learned from them.

While the above enables us to track interaction with our social content and extract some insights, it doesn’t account for listening to competitors, following trends, etc. It also doesn’t take deeper analytics and the extraction of insights into consideration. We don’t do anything to plot or discern specific insights – I am saving that for the Communication Research class this spring. Said another way, the assignment and use of this spreadsheet in my social media class, as I executed it in Fall 2016, was really more about tracking metrics, following change and teaching students  to see the impact (outcome) of their efforts on social media, while connecting those back to objectives and KPIs.

In the next blog post, I go into the “social listening” tab of the spreadsheet and discuss how students got a little hands on use with Microsoft Social Engagement in my social media class during fall 2016.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or suggestions or resources you’d like to share about teaching metrics to students, please share them with me and the readers via a comment in the post or Tweet me. This is an important journey for all of us as we work to enhance hands-on metrics learning for our students.

I hope you found this post helpful. If you did, please share it. It helps a lot.

-Cheers!
Matt

An Easy System for Keeping Your Daily Lessons Organized (Case #2 of Putting Systems Thinking to Practice)

In a recent post, I discussed creating simple systems to help you work more effectively and reduce unnecessary cognitive load. It isn’t necessary to read that post to benefit from this post. But, I encourage you to save it to read some time. It is a bit long.

In the previous post in this 3-part series, I discussed how to save time by removing bottlenecks when setting up meetings with students.

In this final post, I’m going to present how I set up and keep my classes organized using a template system. For me, using this basic system means I can be prepare for today’s class with just a few quick minutes of review. Remember, systems are ideal for dealing with repeated, predictable problems. The problem we all face as educators is, “What are we doing today in class?”

First, some quick background. I’m a planner. I plan my classes (usually in the summer), meaning that I can look at my syllabus and know what we are going to cover on every day of the semester. This has its benefits but also some drawbacks. The benefits are related to 1) time management and 2) the ability to build the class to maximize the opportunity each day presents. It is of course easier to plan a class in the summer when you have less going on and focus on executing the class in the fall when there are many other demands on your time. Also, because I know what will happen each day, I can have semester-long projects with many parts that all inter-relate. And, the daily activities and lectures can be designed to cover the materials to support those projects. In terms of drawbacks, my approach allows for less flexibility when it comes to bringing in emerging topics, or adapting to student time needs, etc. So, I find it is important to build in a little flexibility if you take the approach I do.

In the sense that every day of the semester has a plan, I need a quick and efficient way to know what we’re going to be covering on any given day in class. There are many ways one could approach this problem. Here is how I do it.

I create a binder for each class. In the binder, I have a Word document for each day. The document is built using a template I created. I simply use a tab to mark what day of the semester we are on. And, before the class I open the binder to the page of the day of class we are on and review the day’s notes.

When I create my plan for each day of class, I simply create a file using the Word document template for that day. I save each day as a separate file, ordering the files by lecture number. So, the first day of class is lecture 1 and so on. This all goes into a folder named for the class.

The template contains 7 key components – many of which are not used every day. They are:

  • Topic – the lecture day number so I know what it is when it is printed and in my binder. I’ll also have a few words on what topic we’ll be covering that day.
  • Slides –I use Powerpoint slides for my lecture notes and for any in-class activities for which I will need instructions. For example, if we are doing a “simultaneous response” activity or any other educational activity or game, I put the instructions on the slides. So, if there is any lecture notes that day, I’ll have a slidedeck. Note: I name the Powerpoint for a day’s lecture the same file name as the Word document. So, Lecture 1.ppt, Lecture 2.ppt and so on (see example below). Thus, when looking at the folder on my computer, I see: Lecture 1.doc and Lecture 1.ppt one atop the other so that the Word and Powerpoint files are ordered sequentially in the folder.

example-lecture-folder

  • Supplies Needed: I provide the computer filename for any assignments, handouts or activities that I’ll be handing out in class that day. For example, if I am assigning a project and I know I need to print a copy of the assignment, I’d have the filename listed so I can easily find it in my “assignments” subfolder in the folder for that class on my computer. I’ll note any other needed supplies here as well such as if I need any props for class activities or any technology needs I need to bring.
  • Activities: I note any in-class activities we have planned. For example, if we were doing a “simultaneous response” activity or an exam review, it is listed here.
  • Assignments: There are 2 categories here. Assign and due. If I’m assigning something that day, I write “Assign” in front of it. If it is due that day, I write “Due” in front of it.
  • Notes: Random reminders and notes to self about the class that day. For example, I’d add notes if I need to remind students about an upcoming deadline, or if there was a website I wanted to be sure to show, or things we need to be sure to cover in class that aren’t on my lecture slides. I even put notes to myself. For example, I may remind myself I need to write an exam that students will be taking in a few weeks.
  • Under the notes section, I leave a blank space to put any announcements I need to post onto our course management system. By having these pre-written where possible, I can quickly post them to the course management page by loading the document on my computer and cutting and pasting the text into our CMS.

Below is an example of my “Lecture 14 – promoting social media offline” day from my social media class (syllabus | all posts about the class). A few quick explanations: Students give presentations during part of the class. So I need to bring a way of taking notes on their presentations. I have a form that other students fill out to give feedback to the group presenting. And, I need to provide students with the group report card so they can evaluate one-another. The “Content Period #1” assignment is due that day. The notes are to myself, reminding me that there is a brief lecture that day after presentations and that I need to grade the presentations to prepare for an upcoming class.

If you’d like to download a blank copy of the template I’ve discussed in this post, you can below.

As I said in my post on using systems: “Using your memory when you don’t need to unnecessarily uses your energy and time.” Using this template helps me quickly prepare for a day of class. I spend about 5-10 minutes before going into class reviewing the Word document plan for that day and doing anything needed to prepare, such as printing anything or loaded any announcements. During this time, I also load up the day’s Powerpoint slides and quickly review the lecture to job my memory.

In summary, as an educator you have too much going on every day during the semester to be scrambling around trying to figure out what you are going to be teaching in class. Good news. You can solve this repeated, predictable problem with a template system.

– Cheers!
Matt

If you liked this post, I would love it if you shared it to your network.

Why I No Longer Schedule Meetings with Students Over Email (Case #1 of Putting Systems Thinking to Practice)

In a previous post, I talked about the power of systems to simplify recurring tasks in our jobs as professors.

In that post I mentioned that we can work to remove bottlenecks that unnecessarily slow down the completion of tasks. Here’s one such task that faces major bottlenecks: scheduling appointments.

calendar

A certainty in our lives is the fact that students will need to make appointments with us. In addition to meeting with students about class projects, I’m also an academic advisor and advisor to student capstone projects. Needless to say, students are wanting to schedule meeting with me fairly regularly.

The non-systematic way of scheduling student appointments:

In the old days, I didn’t have an effective system for scheduling appointments.  It went something like this. I put my email address on my syllabus and told students to email me to schedule an appointment. So I’d get a long, detailed email that I’d have to comb through before a student got to the simple fact that they wanted to schedule a meeting with me. Or, I’d get some kind of cryptic email about an appointment. I’d respond by telling them my available office hours and that if they couldn’t come by then,to let me know some times they were available. For those who couldn’t make my office hours, we’d go back and forth until a common time was identified. During all of this, a lot of time was wasted. I had to look over my calendar and think about when I was available and when I wanted to hold a meeting.  Then I had to suggest it to the student. And then read their response email and program the finalized time onto my calendar if a mutual time was found. And then I’d respond to confirm the meeting.. If no mutual time was found, we went back and forth like this until something was settled on.  You know this frustrating dance. Think of how many unnecessary decisions are being made here, how much time is wasted for both you and the student?

A Simple System for Scheduling Appointments

At the start of this school year, I decided to try something new. I found a free online meeting scheduling tool that integrates with my Google Calendar.

The tool I use is YouCanBook.me but there are many other tools that are very similar.

How it works:

After connecting my Google Calendar, I programmed what days and times I am available into YouCanBook.me.  For example, I don’t want to take student appointments before 10am or after 5pm. And I don’t take student appointments on Fridays since that is my research day. Note: My Google Calendar has all of my classes and appointments programmed onto it, so students can’t make appointments during those times.

While the free version of YouCanBook.me gives you less control over your availabilities, I’ve managed just fine by scheduling a recurring event on my calendar for lunch time when I don’t want to be bothered.

When someone makes an appointment, it syncs to my Google Calendar automatically and I get an email reminder (you can turn these off if you like). Thus, that block of time is no longer available on my calendar and it no longer shows up as available on YouCanBook.me.

Here’s a look at my schedule for one week. This is exactly what someone would see if they were trying to book an appointment with me:

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Click to enlarge

With YouCanBook.me, you get a unique URL that you share with people so they can schedule appointments. So, I put it on my syllabus and course management site. And I tell students at the beginning of the school year that if they want to make an appointment with me, this is the only way. I tell them that if they send me an email trying to book an appointment, I’ll reply with a template email telling with the URL telling them how to book an appointment with me.

How It’s Worked:

I probably spent an hour setting up this tool before the start of the semester during a peaceful Friday afternoon.

I’ve had dozens of students schedule meeting with me this semester using this tool. I estimate I’ve saved a few hours of time that would have been spent going back and forth during a busy work day trying to schedule a meeting. And that is just in about 1/2 of a semester’s time. So I’ve already recouped the time I put in. And I can use this tool for years to come.

In addition to class-related student appointments, we recently had our 2 week advising period  where I had to meet with about 30 students over the course of two weeks to advise them on what classes to take next semester. I used YouCanBookMe for this as well and it was wonderful.

And of course, you can use tools like YouCanBook.me to schedule any type of meeting. I’ve used it to schedule appointments with folks on campus who’ve wanted to schedule a phone or in person meeting.

Considerations:

The number one thing I was concerned about when I switched to an appointment booking tool was losing control over my time. When someone emails you to schedule an appointment, you might be available at a time but simply don’t want to meet. So you don’t offer that time period for the meeting. With a booking scheduling tool, the person can see all the times you are available that aren’t busy with events on your calendar.

I thought I would find that really annoying. But, it’s a compromise I haven’t really been bothered by. Yes, there have been a few times that students have scheduled appointments when I wish they hadn’t. But, no big deal.

If you want to mark off times on your calendar when you don’t have a meeting or aren’t teaching class yet you simply don’t want someone to book an appointment during that time, schedule something on Google Calendar at that time. For example, I schedule a lunch time on my Google Calendar. But you could also schedule private time for grading or for any other reason.

Lastly, sometimes you need to plan a little ahead so someone doesn’t book an appointment at a time when you won’t be on campus.  If I know I have a doctor’s appointment, I’ll mark enough time before and after on my calendar to account for the commute.

In summary, an appointment booking tool is a great example of a simple system to deal with a recurring task: scheduling student appointments. It helps you save time and mental energy and puts you in control.

Use Simplicity and Systems To Have More Time and Energy to Do What You Love

I had an amazing time at the PRSA Educator’s Academy Super Saturday on October 22 presenting on tools educators can use to break down the classroom walls.

After our presentation, Ai Zhang, Karen Freberg, and I were asked how we manage to engage with all of these different tools, keep our classes updated, and more.

Honestly, it is a lot of work but also a lot of fun.

Yet, in my answer, I mentioned two things that have helped me tremendously: 1) Simplicity in life and 2) systems.  And I’d like to explain a little more about them.

simplicity-wont-give-you-indegestion-kushin

As professors, we’re constantly trying to balance opportunity and time cost. There may be several opportunities we’d love to engage in (such as trying a new tool like Slack in our classroom), that come with a deal of uncertainty. How much time is this going to take? What potential opportunity am I giving up if I take this opportunity? There just isn’t the time to do it all.

At the same time, there are some aspects of our jobs that are certainties. Students needing to schedule appointments with us is one of those certainties. The fact that we are going to teach class tomorrow is a certainty – with assignments, readings, and more.

Let’s talk about time and energy and how we can have just a little bit more of each in our lives by using two hacks: simplicity and systems.

Thinking Systematically

There are many productivity books, blogs, and gurus advocating the application of systems thinking to increase productivity. But one of my favorite advice books comes from Scott Adams, the creator of the famous Dilbert comic. The book is How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

Adams advocates for the value of simplification in life and working to maximize personal energy. Systems are a great way to achieve both.

As Adams says, “Have a system instead of a goal. Systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

He defines systems as “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”

Chances are, you’re already using systems in your life. But you may not be taking this systems thinking and evaluating how you can apply it more broadly.

As professors, if we can create systems (both in our personal and professional lives) that help save time and streamline repeated tasks, we can get what we need to get done with an efficient investment of our most finite resource: Our personal energy.

In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of systems. What systems am I putting in place in my life to manage repeated tasks and make my life simpler?

Adams advises: “Optimizing is often the strategy of people who have specific goals and feel the need to do everything in their power to achieve them. Simplifying is generally the strategy of people who view the world in terms of systems.”

Simplicity & Systems

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I keep my personal life simple by using systems and rules to manage my time and personal energy. For example, when I was in graduate school the cost-effective grocery store was 8 miles from my house over the state border into Idaho. I was working 7 days a week at grad school life. So, I didn’t think it was time or cost effective to be running to the nearby, more expensive, grocery store every few days when I needed milk. And it certainly  wasn’t effective to be scrambling to figure out what I was going to eat that night. I devised a simple system of grocery shopping every two weeks. I’d plan my meals for a two week period and then drive to Idaho on the weekend every two weeks to buy all of my groceries. By batching my grocery and meal planning and shopping time into 1 big event instead of many little events, I saved countless hours that would have been wasted debating what to have for dinner, driving to the store, wandering around trying to find things, etc. And I saved thousands of dollars by not eating out. Time and money are very valuable commodities when you’re in grad school. And this simple system was so effective that my wife and I still use it today.

Ordering a pizza or hitting up the fast food drive through optimizes your time – it’s efficient. But it isn’t a system. The problem of needing to find dinner tomorrow will exist again tomorrow and you’re back to square one.

Technologies can work as systems too. My wife and I have a wonderful dog, Scout. And, despite what you would think with all that hair, she doesn’t shed. But, her flocks are incredibly effective at collecting leaves, twigs, and other debris that get brought into our home and deposited on our floor. A few months ago, my wife and I invested in a Roomba vacuum. Between my wife and I, we were spending a lot of time sweeping up the floor in a losing battle. What a drain on our personal energy and time! Now, we have a simple system whereby the Roomba runs on certain days of the week. And, we spend about 1 minute in the morning on those days preparing the house for it to run – picking up things, moving a few things to block the Roomba from going into an unwanted area, etc. Then, after the Roomba is done I spend a few minutes cleaning it out. In the few months we’ve owned the Roomba, we’ve probably saved a good 10 hours of time that would have been spent sweeping. There was a repeated, predictable problem: debris from dog. This certainty in life could be better managed with a simple system.

Designing some of the decision-making processes and stresses out of your life is also systems thinking. By choosing to live in a small town, I’ve systematically designed many of the daily frustrations many people face out of my life. Yes, there aren’t a lot of restaurant or entertainment options. My commute is simple and straightforward. But, just think about how many frustrations, stressors, and teeth-grinding decisions I’ve designed out of my life. Yet, living in a small town probably doesn’t appeal to many people. Or, maybe it does but you don’t have control over where you live. No matter. You can design your way out of the agony decision-making process in many aspects of life. For example, you’ve probably noticed that folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs always wore essentially the same thing. They designed the “what to wear?” problem out of their life.

A few other basic ways I’ve designed simplicity into my life include these 4 tools:

  1. Frustration gatekeepers – I rely on what I call ‘frustration gatekeepers’ to filter information for me. Rather than staying up on all the latest trends in pop culture, I simply rely on other people who I know are good at doing that. And I take their advice. The same is true for shopping. By not shopping or going to restaurants much, I keep my head clear of stressors and unnecessary decisions. I have a brother who is more knowledgeable about fashion and clothes than me and enjoys shopping. And sometimes he buys things that he decides he doesn’t want but it’s too much of an effort for him to return. So I acquire the stuff directly from him (since we mostly can fit into the same clothes). He’s a perfect example of a frustration gatekeeper. He also knows a lot about cars and can quickly give me advice when I’m having problems with mine or when I’m car shopping. When something has been tested and found true by others across time, I can assume it is worth exploring. Then, by relying on these frustration gatekeepers, I can put my time and effort into the new tech and trends that I’m interested in, and stay up to date on social media, education tech, etc. These are simple examples and this topic could be it’s own blog post… or book.
  2. Yes Scarcity – Say no more often. Indeed, your default answer should be no. Saying no is a frustration gatekeeper. By saying no, you are closing the gate and keeping frustrations at bay. The problem is, it is hard to realize that we control the gate. We have the ability to say no or to say yes. As a professor, you are going to be asked to be on a lot of committees, participate in a lot of extra-curricular events, do public service, etc. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll never have time to say yes to the things you really want to do. It took me several years of working in academia to learn this even though I’d been advised by others that I needed to learn to say no. I’d always been raised to say yes to opportunity. “You never know what door it might open,” was a common refrain. And that is very true. But, you also don’t know what door you might be closing in the future by saying yes to the present request.  But as you establish yourself in your career, you can begin to be more choosy on what you say yes and no to. By saying no to things that don’t interest you, don’t benefit your career, or help those you are aiming to help, or further your mission (whatever that may be), etc., you are making yourself available for the opportunities that will. Time is finite. You can’t do it all. I finally realized that it is okay to say no and that is actually a good thing because it will leave me energized for the right tasks. And now, when I say yes to a project it is something I’m excited about and dive into and the rewards are greater and so too are the outcomes. Don’t make another person’s mission your own if indeed it is not a mission that you want to be your own. You are either working on your mission, their mission, or a common mission. Pick projects that are common missions. Otherwise, you’ll simply be unhappy, resentful, and won’t do great work. Of course, there are things you simply need to do, or that are polite and generous to do, or that are the right thing to do. That’s not what I’m talking about with the above. I’m talking about the extra projects you take on. When it comes to those, use your yeses wisely. Practice “yes scarcity” as a frustration gatekeeper.
  3. Macro-Level Task Assessment and The Advantages of Non-Competitive Choices – It would be great to find a parking spot just a little closer to the building that I work in, particularly with the cold months approaching. When I enter our parking lot at work, I notice this is what most people are trying to do– find a parking spot very close to the buildings. And this is how most people approach this situation. However, with most people approaching it this way, it means the chances of finding a great parking spot are few. Further, there is a gate and you have to swipe your card in order to get through to get to the closest parking spots. This takes the additional time of stopping, leaning halfway out of your car to swipe your card, and then waiting for the gate to open.  Once you do that, you drive around anxiously trying to find a parking spot. If you do, great. But likely you won’t. Then you have to leave the gated area, backtracking, and go to the less desirable spots you already passed by. We can all relate to this. What I do is take the same spot in the parking lot right when I enter the lot. It, or the one next to it, is always empty. And while it appears to be further away since its the first row when you enter the lot and most assume a closer row means you are closer to the buildings, my spot in the last row is actually closer to the building than going to the closer parking section but having to drive way down to the end of that row of cars. Plus, I have the advantage of 1) I save time because I quickly go to my spot, park, and get walking to my building, 2) reduce uncertainty which causes stress, 3) and remove an unnecessary decision from my life.  And here’s a bonus – I don’t have to try and remember where I parked when I leave work for the day. Said another way, there are many great opportunities most people ignore because they perceive that an option many people want is better. But doing so fails to take the whole picture into account. If you look at the micro, having a closer parking spot gives you the sense that you are saving time because you don’t have to walk as far. But this way of thinking fails to take into consideration all parts of the process (the macro). It doesn’t consider the extra time driving, the resources and stress that go into finding the spot, and the eventual distance you have to walk. Yet, you’ve convinced yourself that this is the optimal way of solving the problem. On the other hand, if you look at the macro picture – all of the steps needed to complete the process – parking a little further away in an always-available spot and walking the brief distance from the further row, actually saves time, energy, stress and removes unnecessary decisions.  Simplify by looking at the macro level. In dealing with crowds or scarcity, you may find that the the non-competitive choice offers many advantages. When everyone is doing things one way, it creates an opportunity to benefit from the resources they’re ignoring
  4. Sequencing – Is the simple process of prioritizing the things that need to be done before other tasks can be done. Seems simple. But a lot of people don’t do this. They simply pick a task and begin. Let’s say you’re making dinner. Why cut the veggies up first if the first task in the recipe is to cook the meat? You should cut the chicken up first, get it cooking, and then start chopping the veggies which will go in later. Instead, many people cut the veggies, cut the chicken, cut everything else, and then start cooking. And the task takes twice as long. Many things in life work this way, and an easy place to start is to re-analyze your routines. What is the first thing you do in the morning? In what order do you work out? Run your errands? But, we don’t often prioritize sequencing and thus we let time go to waste. Many things in life we simply need to start, and they take care of themselves with only a little attention from us – such as the pan heating up or water boiling, the chicken cooking in the pan, coffee dripping, the shower water heating up, the garage door opening, getting students working on one task while you hand back exam grades or take attendance, etc. When tackling a task, always be thinking about sequencing. What is the first thing that needs to get done to set up other steps that will maximize time efficiency?  Which tasks are tasks that you simply need to set up, and they will take care of themselves with little supervision while you can work on something else? For example, when you walk into your office in the morning, the first thing you should do isn’t take off your jacket or put your apple in the drawer to eat later. It is turn on your computer since the computer takes a while to load. Then, take off your jacket, get yourself organized, and, if you’re me, spend a few minutes writing in a bullet journal and then get to work on your computer.

As I like to say:

“Variety may be the the spice of life. But simplicity won’t give you indigestion.”

(If you’d like to learn more about simplicity and systems, here’s a great article from Scott Adams. And, here’s another great article on optimizers versus simplifiers)

But before I make this blog post way too long, let’s return to grocery shopping. Clearly this is a predictable, repeated task. So, I know I’m going to need to come up with meal ideas. Rather than eating the same old handful of meals and growing sick of them, my wife and I have created an evolving Google Doc of meals we really like. They are organized into categories such as ethnicity, what type of meat (or if they’re vegetarian) is in them, or whether they are warm or cold weather meals, or if they tend to produce leftovers and thus will cover two meals. It is simple. We take most of our meals from that list. And, we’ll try a new meal every two weeks or so. If we really like it, we add it to the list. So, we never eat something we don’t love. And we have dozens and dozens of meals to choose from.

Using your memory when you don’t need to unnecessarily uses your energy and time. That’s why lists are great, simple systems that save you time when dealing with repeated tasks. Travel often? Create a packing list for the common things you need to pack with you. Create a list for what you need to do to prepare your home to be left empty, such as set thermostats, security lights, locks, etc. Free apps like Checklist and others let you create reusable task lists.

Systems at Work

For whatever reason, in the past, I’ve had a mixed record of applying systems into my professional life. When it comes to work, I’ve always been a ‘shoulder to the wheel’ sort of person. I didn’t necessarily work smarter. I worked harder. I put in the extra time to do things that should have been done in half the time. I’ve had a tendency to look at this as dedication – showing I care.

But, as Tim Ferriss would say, rather than concerning yourself with showing dedication, focus on demonstrating results.

I’ve taken stock of the systems I have been using at work. And, I’ve started looking for ways to question the way I currently do things and find simple systems.

In the upcoming two blog posts, I’m going to explain two simple systems that I use as a professor to reduce uncertainty and/or save time and energy. One of those systems I’ve been using since I started teaching – my day-to-day class management system, and a second I began using this year – a system for scheduling student appointments.

But before I do that, here are a few quick tips for applying systems thinking into your life.

Systems and Your Work/Life Balance

Is there a consistent (predictably recurring) problem that you are facing in your life or job? If so, it may be a contender for a system. Are there decisions you are making in life that you don’t need to be making? If so, find the system.

I’d encourage you to start small. Create a system for dealing with a simple problem in your life. Dive in by creating a checklist or template for repeated tasks.

Checklist & Template Systems

  • Checklist systems – Write down the steps that you are currently doing to complete the task. If they are simple, repeated steps (like a packing list or things you always need to buy every time you go to a particular store) save your energy and create a checklist that you can repeatedly use.
  • Template systems – There are plenty of instances where you can write a template letter or email that can be tailored to the situation in professional settings. For example, there are certain questions I tend to get from students. One such question is whether I’ll offer an override to a student who wants to get into a class of mine that’s full. I used to individually write an explanation as to why I can’t give them one. So I created an email template citing the policy. When I get such a request, I’ll quickly tailor it to the situation and send it to the student. Not only is time saved, but the students are getting a consistent, accurate answer. Gmail offers the “canned responses” feature for this. But, other email clients offer tools for using email templates.

Next, think about batching tasks or automating your behavior.

  • Batching – If the task is something you are repeatedly doing often (like my grocery shopping example above), is there a way to batch it to save time? Hint: Just as you don’t need to go grocery shopping every few days, you probably don’t need to check your mail everyday.
  • Automating (aka, habits) – You’ve probably heard a lot about automation by way of software. But you can also automate your analog life. When you walk into your house, have a place to put your keys and wallet so you can always find them. This is automation (aka, harnessing the power of habit). You don’t have to think about it. You just do it. And you don’t have to waste mental energy looking for a lost wallet or trying to find your keys. Chances are, you are already doing this. Now, think about how you can create other simple automation techniques. Here’s a tip for doing so. Use a note-taking app on your phone like Google Keep. When you notice a frustration about how your life is organized (for example, you forgot to lock up the computer lab before leaving work for the day), jot it down. If it happens a few more times, set aside some time and find a way to re-organize (or, organize it for the first time). The goal is to not have to think about it. Use a habit-forming app like Habit Bull or others to help make your new procedure a habit. Or, create an evening checklist of things you need to do before leaving work. In a few weeks, every time you leave for the day you’ll leave on the side of the building where the lab is and walk by and check that it’s closed. That’s one more task that you’ve automated, saving valuable personal energy.

Tools such as those described above can help you say no to chaos.

Removing Bottlenecks – For Advanced Users

If you’ve got the above things down, try moving on to bigger fish.

  • If the problem is more complicated, identify what you are doing to complete the task that can be thrown out. What is the ‘middleman’ that is holding up the wheels of progress? How are you allowing the process to be more complicated than necessary?  If you can take decisions out of the process or unnecessary exchanges between people, look for ways to remove these bottlenecks. I’ll talk about this concept more in the upcoming blog post on scheduling meetings with students.

In all of these examples, it’s about designing your life in such a way that can help you focus on what is important to you.

It’s not about complexity. It’s not about finding new, fun technologies and going searching for a problem to solve.

Remember, the best systems are the systems that work. The simpler the system, the more likely you are to implement it. Don’t over-complicate it.

-Cheers
Matt

p.s. I know this post was a bit outside the ordinary focus of this blog. I hope you enjoyed it. If you like posts like this, please Tweet me and let me know. I’m always looking for feedback.

 

3 Ways to Use Slack to Foster Student Team Work in The College Class

I had a great time this past weekend presenting at the PRSA Educator’s Academy Super Saturday with Ai Zhang, Karen Freberg and moderator Kirk Hazlett.

If you missed our presentation, we covered how social media tools can be used to break down the classroom walls. #EdWithoutWalls

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You can watch a rebroadcast of the Facebook Live Stream that Karen Freberg did.

I had the opportunity to discuss my experience using Slack in education settings. I’ve used it both in the classroom as well as for student groups that I’ve worked with.

Because of time, I presented a short version of the presentation at Super Saturday. So, I’d I’d like to share with the unabridged slides on using Slack for student teams in class projects.

This presentation goes a little further into depth about chat bots, their rise, and their potential for educators/the classroom.

(See the presentation on SlideShare.net)

I got several questions and compliments  about the GIFs I made and used in the slides (note: The Slideshare version doesn’t show the GIFs. But, if you download the slides you can see them in presenter mode).

I created them using Recordit.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how to use GIFS to enhance your teaching if you’d like to learn more.

It was great to see everyone and make new connections. I learned a ton. I look forward to seeing everyone soon and continuing to learn from everyone as we all work to build and share knowledge in social media education.

-Cheers!
Matt