“What do I feel deeply inspired by?” and “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?”

― Greg McKeownEssentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

So I’m reading this book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and it’s not really that great a book (in fact, I nearly shut the book after the first unrealistic “case study”), but it’s gotten me thinking a lot about what I spend my time on. Here’s a description of the book:

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about challenging the core assumption of ‘we can have it all’ and ‘I have to do everything’ and replacing it with the pursuit of ‘the right thing, in the right way, at the right time’. It’s about regaining control of our own choices about where to spend our time and energies instead of giving others implicit permission to choose for us.

For me, two ideas from this book stood out to me: 1) that in spreading ourselves too thin, we do justice to nothing and no one, and 2) that it is so easy it is to lose sight of what we should really be focusing on.

One simple fact of life is that we can’t do ALL THE THINGS. Or, more accurately, we can try to do them and do nothing particularly well. Having my son forced me to recalibrate my life, because I never wanted to miss out on fun times with him because of work stuff. I don’t always meet that goal, but I come close. Time with my son is more fun than any possible professional project.

I feel like I’m actually doing a pretty decent job with this aspect of essentialism, because I made the decision a while back that I would not take on more than I can handle. While this seems obvious, we too often ignore that gauge telling us we’re at our limit. Have you missed a project deadline? Have you had to ignore one time-sensitive project because of another? Then you’re doing too much! I know people who are stretched way thinner than I am, and, yes, they do a lot, but they don’t do justice to any of their projects. They don’t meet their commitments. They frustrate their project collaborators. And, in the end, is it a satisfying way to live your life?

The author writes “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” I know a lot of librarians who need this message. I’d rather dedicate myself to just a couple of things I’m really passionate about (and do them well) than to give a tiny bit of myself to a whole lot of things that interest me (and not do justice to any of them).

When I look back at the things I’ve done professionally, the thread that runs through everything I’ve been passionate about is enabling knowledge-sharing. The blog. The wikis. Five Weeks to a Social Library. The unconferences. The OLA Mentoring Program. Open sourcing Library DIY. I hate, hate, hate the idea of hoarding knowledge and reinventing the wheel. I want to find ways to let knowledge and expertise flow from people who have it into those who don’t without those who don’t having to pay a fortune for it. It just seems silly for me to know something that might be useful to others and not share it.

I started out just doing things I was passionate about, before I’d even found my first professional job. Over time, I started getting asked to do things, which is incredibly flattering and seductive. Some were right in line with my interests and some weren’t. For example, in 2009, I was asked to give a workshop on mobile tech in libraries. It’s not something I knew a ton about, so I learned more about mobile tech in libraries. This wasn’t my passion, but I did it because I was asked and it seemed like a good opportunity. Then I got asked to give more presentations on the topic because of the first talk. Then I was asked to write a book chapter on it. It’s a slippery slope, and one that makes it easy to lose sight of what you really should be doing.

By the time I was on the tenure track, I don’t think I could tell if I was doing things because I was truly passionate about them or because they seemed like things I should be doing. It’s easy to get bogged down in the shoulds when you’re on the tenure track; playing that guessing game about what the P&T committee will value most. But even before I was on the tenure track, I found myself saying yes to things that weren’t really my passion; that just seemed like things I should be saying yes to because I’d be an idiot not to. But the more you do things that don’t speak to your passion, the further removed you are from a meaningful life.

This book has gotten me thinking again about the things I do that really aren’t essential to who I am. Given all of the transitions in my life this year (new job, son starting kindergarten, etc.) it’s a good time to take a hard look at my professional activities. I’m going to pursue just a few things that I’m passionate about and extricate myself from those that I’m not. The first move in this direction (other than taking the job at Portland Community College, which is a biggie) was to resign from the Library Hi Tech editorial board. While I have nothing but the most positive regard for the journal and those on the Board, I don’t feel right about giving my time and effort to a non-open access publication. It seems like a contradiction for a person whose blog is called Information Wants to be Free to be on the editorial board of a journal where the information isn’t. I also vow not to publish anything that is not open access. I know I’ll give up on some good opportunities because of it, but we’re in an era now where it is quite possible to only publish OA.

I’m also getting more involved in the Oregon Library Association this year. Last year, Emily Papagni, Shirley Sullivan and I launched our labor of love, the OLA Mentoring Program for early-career librarians. Now, I’m chairing the Membership Committee (under which this service falls) and am really excited to work with other committed Oregon librarians to make our professional organization even better.

Do you feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends? Not doing justice to all of the activities to which you’ve committed? What are you doing that you should give up? What’s stopping you? And if you’re looking for ways to focus on the right things for you, here are Five Ways to Say No.

 Photo credit: Burn by Patrick Feller on Flickr