Chris Zammarelli

Data wrangling librarian commuting between my kitchen and my home office

I Wanted Peace In My Mind

Following up on my last post, I declared task list bankruptcy at work and spent a day sifting through all my notepads, emails, reminders, and whatnot. I grouped the items into broad buckets and, when I was done, I found that had 14 different buckets I was tending.

To be fair, some of those buckets were administrative: working on my contract, doing a bit of professional development, and the like.  But even taking that into consideration, I didn’t really think I was managing that much stuff on a day-to-day basis.

I worked with my supervisor to fine-tune and prioritize my buckets, then I set about trying to tame it all. Our office has access to Planner, which is Microsoft’s version of Trello. I gradually poured everything into that in an effort to better visualize my tasks, and I am trying to make sure I’m adding new stuff as it arises.

I also finally did something I’ve long thought I should be doing, which is to block off time in my calendar for tasks. I already had meetings and personal appointments in there, so now I have blocks for managing certain buckets at certain times. I also organized my email so that tasks contained in emails are filed into appropriate folders. In other words, if I am working on the data management bucket at a set time, I have a folder of emails I will work through. I also want to add regular tasks in order to get reminders to do them.

Nothing about this is revolutionary, and it’s still very much a work in progress. But it’s nice to be able to look at all the projects I’m on and feel like I know what I need to do next without getting stressed. I hope I can make this last.


With an Excuse or a Surprise

Once upon a time, I had a pretty good system for staying on top of all the things I had on my plate at work. It involved a notepad, Google Tasks, and Google Keep, with a dash of prioritized email folders.

What I didn’t notice until recently was that my system was deteriorating. Stuff in my notepad never made it into Google Tasks, notes in Google Keep got pushed down below the fold where I never scrolled, and my email folders were stuffed to the brim. I found my response time to things I needed to get done began to lag, and I realized I started a lot of my emails with, “Apologies for the delayed reply.”

This erosion came to a head one Wednesday afternoon when I noticed I had seven pages in my notebook peppered with tasks that I hadn’t gotten around to. Fortunately, I hadn’t missed any critical deadlines, but I definitely felt like I needed to reboot in order to get myself back on track.

I don’t have anything shiny and glorious set up yet. I’m still practicing ways for me to stay on task. I’ll probably write more about my progress later. I just want to note that the main lesson I learned from this was that any productivity systems only work when I stay actively engaged in it. When it becomes rote and mindless, it falls apart.

Another Spring, Another Summer

One year ago today, we started teleworking full time because of the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t think a lot of us thought that it would last this long.  I realized we were in this for the long haul around June. That’s when it felt like all of the short-term planning stopped and the long-term planning began in earnest.

I don’t know how much longer we are going to be working this way. I know that the way I work has permanently changed. In part, that has to do with some upgrades in equipment that were probably long overdue. But it also has to do with changes in my personal life that has forced me to rethink how I manage my days.

Without going into a lot of detail, we started homeschooling my son in January 2020, before everyone else was going to be forced to do the same shortly thereafter. Fourteen months and a couple of portfolio reviews with the county later, it feels like both the right decision and a part of the routine now.

His lesson times are blocked off in my work calendar, even the ones that come after I’m done work. This is both to preserve work-life balance and to make sure I don’t think I’m too busy to make sure he does his school work.

My days are stretched out. I start work earlier, I stop work later. When I am away from my desk, I am filling the time teaching, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, writing. Finding time to rest, stretch, meditate, exercise, and unwind is more and more important now.

I am on devices literally all day. Even now, writing a draft of this at 10:30 at night, I am aware that I am still staring at screens. Making the time to give my eyes a break seems to be a challenge that I am still not succeeding at.

I don’t have any great insights, one year later. My days were disrupted until the disruption fell into routine. I continue to survive while trying to move myself forward. I am less worried about the future now because the present needs tending to first. There is so much to do and so little time to do it. Even so, I am managing to do it all. Sometimes under duress, on the verge of breaking down and crying. Sometimes with grace and ease.

Someday soon, the pandemic will be over, and everything will change again. For now, spring is here and another summer is coming.

It Is Just Spreadsheets All the Way Down

I’m a big fan of Festival of the Spoken Nerd, a science and math(s)-based comedy troupe from the United Kingdom. In their first video Full Frontal Nerdity, Matt Parker has a routine about his love of spreadsheets:

In case you don’t watch the whole video, Parker discusses his favorite spreadsheet of all time, which uses conditional formatting to create a picture of himself building a spreadsheet. He is illustrating the idea that digital photographs are actually comprised of tiny spreadsheets. This all leads to the line I am using for the headline, which succinctly sums up my day-to-day work life.

I have access to both Google Sheets and Excel 365 at work, but a lot of what I manage is based in Google Sheets. We got Excel 365 fairly recently, just in the past couple of years. I had access to the software version of Excel, by the way, but my need to have collaborative spreadsheets beat out the need for richer functionality.

As it turns out, one advantage Google Sheets has over Excel 365 is the IMPORTRANGE function. I use IMPORTRANGE constantly to pull info from various individual spreadsheets into master lists. It’s spreadsheets all the way down. Linking sheets this way will be coming to Excel 365 soon, according to an Excel Blog post from August 2020, by the way. It can’t come soon enough!

The main bulk of the data I work with will be handled in a proper database soon, but there are still plenty of things I work on that will stay in the realm of Google Sheets. This is good in a way, because my reputation at work is based almost entirely on being a spreadsheet wrangler.  And also having an awesome last name.


Introduce Yourself… Right On!

Hello and welcome! I’m Chris and I am a librarian. I work as a contractor at an office in a bureau at a U.S. government agency. My main job is wrangling all of the data my office collects, with a side of electronic resources management.

We all have been teleworking for just about a year now due to the pandemic. It’s been fascinating to watch a bureau that was totally unprepared to telecommute suddenly find its groove and to watch an agency that needed to upgrade its systems bust its butt to push out new technology under very difficult circumstances.

That said, I’ve been pretty lucky to work in an office that has always had a restless need to find new ways to do what we do and manage what we need to manage. Between that and a progressive telework policy (I’ve been an active telecommuter for over a decade now), I feel like we’ve been ahead of the game in so many ways as we deal with how the pandemic is changing the way we work and how we carry out our mission. I’m trying not to be smug about that.

Our mission, by the way, is public diplomacy, something that even its practitioners seem to define differently depending on their jobs. Understanding the librarians’ role in PD is a huge part of what I do all day, when I am not managing spreadsheets. I manage a lot of spreadsheets, y’all.

All of which means that this blog is going to be a bit about teleworking and productivity and a bit about public diplomacy and probably a bit about spreadsheets too. Also, I’m a huge music fan, so I’m going to share a lot of songs in my posts. Enjoy!

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