Interview with Natalie M. Houston

Natalie M. Houston

What projects are you involved in?

As a university professor, some of my current projects include: directing a digital humanities software development project; presenting my work at scholarly conferences and writing research papers for publication; developing a new graduate course for the spring; and supervising the English department’s professional internship program for undergraduate students. I’m also currently developing an online course I’ll be offering in 2014 in my work as a personal productivity coach. I’m a regular contributor to the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/), where I write about productivity, pedagogy, and technology.

How did you get interested in productivity?

It’s an amazing thing, to move from an idea to creating something in the world — whether that’s a painting, a book, a cake, a business, a garden, or a family. Productivity for me is about uncovering your core values and strengths so that you can channel your energy into the projects that matter most to you, whether that’s in the workplace or at home. It’s not about doing more things — it’s about doing the things that matter to you, and doing them to in a way that is satisfying.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

About 15-20 — a mix of coaching client appointments, meetings with research collaborators and students, and university committee meetings. Approximately half or two-thirds are Skype/phone meetings and the others are in-person.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

My favorite productivity tool is a timer. I use it for quick five-minute sprints to clear off my desk, for fifteen-minute breaks (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/why-15-minutes/40196) or to get started on a project, and for sustained writing in blocks of 40 minutes. A timer keeps me focused during work and lets me fully relax during a break. If, like me, you have a tendency to get deeply absorbed in certain kinds of tasks, a timer can help remind you when it’s time to change gears and do something else.

Although I use digital tools for my calendar and to-do list, I also use pen and paper quite a bit at different points in my workflow, especially for brainstorming, planning, and creative work. I think differently when I’m writing with pen and paper (and research shows that writing by hand uses different parts of your brain than working at the keyboard). I love index cards for focusing my attention on the priorities for each day — something about the constrained size and the act of writing a few key priorities down each morning helps me be more productive.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

About eighteen months ago I started using a standing desk for much of my computer time and have found that it not only helps my spine feel happier, but that it helps me organize my activities according to the physical space where I do them: standing desk for the computer, work table for mindmapping and planning, armchair for reading.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

At the start of the day I take a few moments to write in a journal about my intentions for the day, my priorities, and the mindset I want to maintain throughout my various activities. At the end of the day I journal some reflections on how the day went. I’m interested in qualitative reflections rather than quantitative measurements, as that helps me make sure that my chosen activities are connected to my core values and purpose.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

I expect that productivity tools will begin to become integrated with health trackers and other devices that are part of the quantified self movement. I recently started using a Basis tracker because it can give me much more detailed data than my previous device — it’s interesting to see, for instance, how your pulse rate or skin temperature change in response to your mental activity as well as physical.

You can learn more about Natalie M. Houston through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.

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