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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Productivity can kill us, but productivity still matters. 🤔Or, a few things I’ve found useful


Screenshot shows three main blocks, one for each of three years (2020-2022). In 2020, Product-focused work was 30%, Meetings took 20%, Email 8%, Admin 13%, and Program delivery 24%. In 2021, Product-focused work was 27%, Meetings took 22%, Email 11%, Admin 21%, and Program delivery 20%. In 2022, Product-focused work was 38%, Meetings took 17%, Email 12%, Admin 10%, and Program delivery 30%. Numbers do not sum to 100, as some activities were coded to multiple categories.

Screenshots of my time tracking over 3 years, sorted by major activity categories: product-focused work, meetings, email, miscellaneous admin, program delivery. Numbers do not sum to 100, as some activities were coded to multiple categories. (Detailed alt text provided)

I’m co-teaching a graduate course called Science Career Next Steps this semester. It’s a new course we’re piloting, and I’m thrilled to be leading a specific mindset and work-life-harmony thread of the course. I’m also coming to the course as someone who didn’t start in academia and only recently considered an academic career as a viable option. So, I’ve spent a lot of time looking for insights and resources to help me navigate my own transition into academia.

Prepping for this week’s time-tracking workshop (woot! yes, I am actively enthusiastic about that kind of self-study), I ran across a set of advice and resources I compiled for graduate students a few years ago. I’ve updated them and shared them below, in case they are of any help to folks who are early-career or considering a career transition.

There are a number of possible approaches for making progress toward academic and professional goals that I’ve found useful at various stages in my own (often-rocky) transition into an academic career. I started out with a “yes to everything” workaholic approach. That became starkly unsustainable, and I’ve now spent years figuring out an approach that enables me to do meaningful work without crashing and burning. I’ve especially prioritized advice and perspectives that now help me stay focused on the work that I am passionate about: making the world a better place by facilitating change and capacity building in people and systems/organizations.

The perspectives below are derived from a host of sources. This means different approaches will work for different people, and/or your mileage may vary depending on project stages, life events, external circumstances, etc. By no means are these nuggets of insight the only advice, or even the best advice.** And, some of these approaches may be difficult or even counterproductive for some folks. However, they are some starting points into discourse and resources around these ideas. (Please share yours in the comments or on Twitter!)

Your mental and physical health are of utmost importance.

  1. Sleep, physical activity (when possible), and a balanced diet are key to physical health. (No joke – don’t sleep enough and our quality of thinking, outlook on life, and even lifespan can be severely impacted. Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing and Cassie Holmes’s Happier Hour are solid starting points for this literature.)

  2. A lot has been written documenting and calling for change, but the reality persists: some academic environments can be toxic or damaging to our health. Whenever possible, prioritize health.

  3. Given the nature of our jobs in academia, being productive can play a big role in our mental health, but productivity should not happen at the expense of our health.

Articulate goals that affirm you, and focus on the positives and what you can control.

  1. Clarify or re-affirm your purpose and goals and how your graduate degree (particularly a specific project or experience; e.g., grad school) move you toward them.

  2. Keep your intention foremost, and actively make connections between your graduate work and those intentions (Montgomery 2020a).

  3. EX: Rather than “write introduction,” conceptualize your major task as “create an introduction that justifies my work as an important contribution to wildlife science and conservation in clear, compelling language” (Farkas 2018).

  4. Consider some of the advice from Dr. Kate Hagadone, a Wellness Counselor at University of Michigan (Hagadone 2020).

Build in time to rest, recharge, and have a multi-dimensional life.

A phenomenal amount of research and decades of activism all point to some key insights into happiness and longevity:

  1. Overworking causes a massive drop in life expectancy.

  2. Overworking tanks productivity, creativity, and life satisfaction.

  3. Meaningful relationships with other humans are vital to contentment, a sense of meaning, and longer life spans.

  4. Put your own oxygen mask on first/don’t set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.

Reflect, acknowledge, and celebrate.

  1. At the end of each chunk/cycle (e.g., task, day, week, project), take time to assess your goals against your progress, to ensure you are aware of your relative progress toward your goals.

  2. Celebrate when you get things done! This is especially important for incremental things such as a first draft of something, or a submitted paper or grant. Don’t undermine the importance of these waypoints by discrediting all the work until or unless the paper is accepted or the grant is funded.

  3. Also, use reflection to identify which aspects of projects may take you longer than you anticipated.

Break down major projects into daily tasks.

  1. Core point is to identify when you will do the work, not just when you want it to be finished.

  2. Identify target completion dates/deadlines. Find a way to make this feel like a real deadline, even if it is just for yourself. See the accountability partner strategy below for one possible way of dealing with this.

  3. Note that deadlines increase stress for some people. An alternative is to create routines (see strategy below about that.)

  4. Divide major projects into monthly components of 3-5 things.

  5. Divide monthly components into weekly chunks and daily “bite-sized” tasks (Duffy 2015). At the weekly and daily level, 1-3 tasks tend to be most feasible.

  6. Identify specific times to work on the chunks (not just when you intend to have them done). Block these in on your calendar. Adjust as appropriate for smaller-scale or shorter-term projects.

  7. See #8 from Dr. Meghan Duffy’s post about productivity (aimed at profs, but lots of transferable advice; Duffy 2015).

Build and leverage a routine.

  1. Make shifting gears part of your plan/working habits.

  2. Switch tasks, perhaps on a half-day basis or on some frequency that helps you (a) keep your attention/motivation, and (b) capitalizes on your level of focus during different times of day. E.g., write in the morning while you are fresh. Code in the late morning. Revise, provide feedback to others, and have meetings in the afternoon.

  3. Expect that anything you do in the evening is a draft and will need a review before moving forward (even emails).

Establish daily writing time (min. 15 minutes).

  1. Consider this non-negotiable, like a doctor’s appointment.

  2. No editing/revising. Just write. No looking up references. Just write.

  3. Dr. Megan Duffy specifically recommends: “Figure out when you write best and block off time for it then” (Duffy 2015).

  4. See Dr. Taray Gray’s Publish and Flourish, a small, chapbook-style book, for a detailed approach to daily writing (Gray 1999).

  5. See also the flip side, with academics acknowledging daily writing doesn’t work for everyone (Duffy 2020; Sword 2016). But, do note that it is worth trying for several weeks before “writing off” this approach.

Track yourself.

  1. There are unhealthy myths about how much time people in academia have to work, and Dr. Brian McGill powerfully debunks them (McGill 2013).

  2. By tracking ourselves, I, Meghan Duffy (Duffy 2014), and many others have gained insights that jive with McGill’s (Duffy 2015; Duffy 2015 in comments).

  3. I approach it like a lawyer or more, noting every time I start or stop/change tasks. I’ve been tracking my work since November 2011 and have discovered essential insights:

  4. I used to switch tasks every 5-10 minutes. My awareness of that led to behavior changes that resulted in more getting done.

  5. I felt less guilty about taking time off, once I knew how much I was working (short story: plenty).

  6. I began to more strategically prioritize project- and outcome-focused work, deprioritizing time to meetings, administrative work, and the like.

  7. Here is my time tracking template, which you can modify, with all the formulas built in. Note that you’ll need to update the Projects tab and may want to adjust/delete some of the column headers. Other professionals use free apps like Toggl or a more complex system of tracking and planning (e.g., @Dr._KatieG1 and @MARspidermonkey on Twitter, links in refs).

  8. Dr. Meghan Duffy writes: “Yes, I am a huge fan of tracking hours! The post Jeremy linked to has more on that. But I was really surprised when I first started tracking my hours at how little I was working. It’s sort of like a fitbit, I guess. It’s easy to overestimate how much you’re doing, until confronted by data indicating otherwise!” (2015).

Have an accountability partner.

  1. Works best if done daily. Start an email thread. Report the number of minutes you spent on the intended task, the number of words you drafted, or the amount of time spent on other major parts of a project (e.g. data management, analyses, de-bugging code, etc.).

  2. See Tara Gray’s Publish and Flourish (small, chapbook-style book) for a detailed approach (Gray 1999).

Develop a consistent process for tracking your reading.

  1. Cornell Notes Method – a powerful note-taking method that preps you for writing and synthesizing, as you read. See Firth (2012) and Jensen Fielding (2018) for details.

  2. Trello – can prioritize papers to read; has hierarchy functionality, etc. Can also be used for task and project tracking and planning.

  3. Bibliography – See resource from Bethann for keeping an annotated bibliography (Merkle 2020).

  4. Reference management software – e.g., Zotero and the like. Your campus librarians are a great resource for identifying and considering the options.

Schedule email & social media activity.

  1. Set specific blocks of time per day to check email.

  2. Close email systems outside of those times and shut off notifications.

  3. Use apps for self-control and motivation.

  4. Focusing/limiting access apps such as StayFocused enable you to eliminate distractions. They establish externally enforced limits for how long you can spend on certain sites or apps.

  5. Set limits for all social media and any other sites/apps you know are time syncs for you. Start with the most draconian options, such as not being able to change the settings until the next day. Consider setting max limits for access per day (e.g., mine are set for 10 min./day for Twitter on my phone and computers, via both Chrome and Firefox browsers). Similarly, I realized a while back that even though I couldn’t spend all day on social media, I was checking my email with the same sort of impulse. So, I took all email off my phone. Works wonders – every time I have the impulse to zone out on email, the StayFocused app reminds me to spend my time doing something that matters to me instead.

  6. Consider setting limits for the times of day or times of the week you can even access the apps or sites that distract you from making progress on major projects.

  7. “Cheerleading” apps can help develop solid habits toward focusing, persevering, and even establishing and celebrating achievable mini goals.

  8. There are apps that provide rewards (such as pictures of kittens) if you write for a certain period of time or number of words.

  9. There are “nuclear option” apps that start deleting your text if you stop writing while working within the app. (No good for me – I get distracted and the stress of losing my work would fry me…but some people swear by this method.)

  10. There are apps that provide timers for feasible blocks of writing or any other kind of work approach (e.g., 20-minute Pomodoro units followed by 5 minute breaks).

Be ready for your attention to wane.

  1. Your focus will slip. When it does, make a plan for your next steps within the specific task and broader project. Then, shift gears.

  2. This tactic works best in combination with some mix of approaches 2-4 and 8.

Find an “alt-coffee shop.”

  1. If you find working at home challenging/need a change of scenery, are actively social distancing (so not going to the office), and/or used to be quite productive at locales like coffee shops or libraries, seek out places that have the same functionality for you.

  2. Dr. Beronda L. Montgomery has a great piece on writing outside as an alternative to coffee shops and the like (Montgomery 2020b).

Block off time in your schedule for tasks that are important but that would otherwise be easily postponed.

  1. “I find it much easier to say no to a meeting if I have to physically move the little box in my calendar that says I was planning on working on a proposal or manuscript or whatever at that time. It took me a while to realize that being free at the time of a particular meeting didn’t mean that I necessarily had time for that meeting” (Duffy 2015).

  2. Other folks say they treat these times like medical appointments or other responsibilities that they would never skip or reschedule.

Track tasks that need to be done.

  1. Getting tasks out of your head, and into a planning structure, clears brain space.

  2. To-do lists may or may not work for you. This may be the case because you don’t organize things that way, or because they do not motivate you. (If you find yourself making piles of lists or an ever-growing list without accomplishing anything on it, lists themselves may not be a productive tool for you.)

  3. See point 8 above for tools that can be used for task tracking/planning, etc., as well as Katie Grogan’s planning/project management threads on Twitter.

Build rituals to signal you are working or ending your work time.

  1. For some people, it’s something like turning on a particular lamp on their desk or stating something specific at the end of the workday (Duffy 2015, Newport 2016).

  2. Of course, if you’re not always working in a set space, your rituals need to be portable.

Build/Tap into Community

  1. Think of yourself as a professional as much as possible and appropriate.

  2. Find ways to build your skills while contributing to causes that are meaningful to you (in the academy, within your profession, and/or in your community). Doing so will enhance your sense of purpose when you are struggling, feeling behind, and the like. Doing so will also build interpersonal connections that cannot be underestimated.

  3. While you may be in the equivalent of an apprenticeship, you will learn and grow more if you seek out opportunities to contribute at the far edge of your capacity.The ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ maxim applies here. Volunteer in the highest capacity for which you are invited or can invite yourself. This doesn’t mean time commitment, but rather, level of contribution. For example, as soon as possible, you should be one of the people organizing things and making decisions, versus being in the audience.That said, take time to read the essential advice from Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein about the balance between advocacy and technical proficiency as a graduate student (Prescod-Weinstein 2019).

  4. Do not underestimate how important it is to build your (reciprocal) network while you have the credibility of an institution behind you. The people you meet and work with now will be important for the rest of your life, often in unforeseeable ways. See Dr. Inger Mewburn (Thesis Whisperer) for her critical take on networks (Mewburn 2020).

The people in your cohort are a brain trust.

Your peers are essential resources and will likely continue to be throughout your career (within and beyond academia). Things to consider:

  1. Seek out “aspirational” peers to learn from. These might be people who are just a few months or a single career stage ahead of you or who you admire for their capacity in particular areas.

  2. Build and sustain accountability processes with your peers.

  3. Establish a regular schedule for trading writing (in digestible-but-useful chunks).

  4. If you’re in grad school: Develop a self-run journal club or course on a topic that several of your peers and you want to better understand. (If you want, identify a faculty member who will list the course as a special topics seminar, so you can count it toward credits. Realize that the faculty member will be teaching overload by doing so, so you should plan to run such a course without them if possible.)

  5. Even in a social distancing environment, you can establish a co-working routine and vibe by having a “silent book club” (get on the phone/zoom and read “next to” peers), or “write-ins” (same idea for writing), regular discussions of concepts relevant to multiple people’s projects, practice talks, and the like.

  6. When weather and people’s well-being allows, consider having walking, socially distanced meeting and/or discussions/work sessions.

  7. Consider working on group projects, to build a sense of collective effort, social/intellectual contribution, accountability, meaning, and reciprocity.

  8. Find ways to compartmentalize between work and leisure, if you build these processes in with the same people you socialize with.

Remember: you cannot do all the things at the same time.

  1. That includes not doing all these ideas for balance and productivity at the same time.

  2. Recognize that you’re likely working at the absolute farthest edge of your knowledge, capacity, and comfort zones. This work is bound to be uncomfortable, even if you’re fairly paid, well-supported, and don’t face (m)any systemic barriers or biases, caregiving or other life-stage responsibilities, chronic illness, and more. If you do, everything on the list above may be irrelevant in the face of way bigger issues that you’re grappling with.

  3. Give yourself some grace.

  4. When possible, surround yourself with people who are invested in your success in its own right (not as a proxy for their own).

  5. And, remember that it is okay to transition out of a project and/or a role or job. It’s not quitting to move on.

 

Notes

*Title revised on 3/3/2023 to better reflect the contents of this post. Original title was “Productivity can kill us, but productivity still matters. 🤔Or, some thoughts on the piles of productivity advice.”

**I’m a straight, cis, White lady with no kids and an academic spouse. While I came from a very different background than where I spend my work days now, my current situation has real bearing on what’s stressful and/or possible in my life. That impacts what insights and resources are useful to me, and that may be very different from readers’ perspectives.

 

References

Duffy, M. 2014. You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia. Dynamic Ecology. Retrieved from https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/you-do-not-need-to-work-80-hours-a-week-to-succeed-in-academia/.

Duffy, M. 2015. Strategies (and reasons) for being more productive with fewer hours. Dynamic Ecology. Retrieved from https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/strategies-and-reasons-for-being-more-productive-with-fewer-hours/.

Duffy, M. 2020. How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their (sic) downsides to suggesting that people aim for that? Dynamic Ecology. Retrieved from https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/how-much-evidence-is-there-that-we-should-aim-to-write-every-day-and-are-their-downsides-to-suggesting-that-people-aim-for-that/

Farkas, D. 2018. How to Break the 7 TOXIC Habits That Keep You Lingering in Graduate School. Finish Your Thesis. Retrieved from https://finishyourthesis.com/graduate-school-productivity/.

Firth, K. 2012. Turn your notes into writing using the Cornell Method. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2012/12/12/turn-your-notes-into-writing-using-the-cornell-method/.

Gray, T. 1999. Publish and flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar, 2nd ed. Starline: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Grogan, K. 2022. [@Dr_KatieG1 on Twitter]:

  1. Project management – https://twitter.com/Dr_KatieG1/status/1573333525281275908

  2. Career/2.5-year planning – https://twitter.com/Dr_KatieG1/status/1592243652931203072

  3. Handling overflow tasks – https://twitter.com/Dr_KatieG1/status/1582412965193519111

  4. Benefits of self-study/tracking your own time and processes – https://twitter.com/Dr_KatieG1/status/1577022854469558272

Hagadone, K. 2020. Guest post: Suggestions from a Wellness Counselor on Coronavirus and Managing Mental Health. Dynamic Ecology. Retrieved from https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2020/03/16/guest-post-suggestions-from-a-wellness-counselor-on-coronavirus-and-managing-mental-health/.

Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee. Here’s an NPR 7-minute piece with the author.

Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus On What Matters Most by Cassie Holmes. Here’s a Hidden Brain episode with the author.

Jensen Fielding, 2018. The Cornell note taking method – revisited. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/08/22/the-cornell-note-taking-method-revisited/.

Newport, C. 2016. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, Hatchett Books: New York.

Mewburn, I. 2020. Academic spy networks (and why you need one). The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2020/02/05/academic-spy-networks-and-why-you-need-one/.

McGill, B. 2013. Women in ecology and ecology discussions. [Comment]. Dynamic Ecology. Retrieved from https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/women-in-ecology-and-ecolog-discussions/comment-page-1/#comment-13526.

Merkle, B.G. 2020. Leveraging the annotated bibliography as a Writing tool. In press in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Can be accessed here: https://wyocoopunit.box.com/s/veytt33e8615qet2cmtwrnl65stjvesf.

Montgomery, B.L. [@BerondaM.] 2020a, March 32. As we reflect on & discuss “maintaining productivity” in changing times in #academic spaces, I argue [& have consistently done so] that if you rightly focus on cultivating purpose & intention, productivity will follow. Prioritize a focus on productivity, you may just end up tired. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/BerondaM/status/1242128822893330432.

Montgomery, B.L. 2020b. Processing and proceeding. BerondaMontgomery.com. Retrieved from http://www.berondamontgomery.com/writing/processing-and-proceeding/.

Prescod-Weinstein, C. 2019. Grad School Activism: While often necessary, it’s not a substitute for technical proficiency. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/01/18/grad-school-activism-while-often-necessary-isnt-substitute-technical-proficiency.

Rodrigues, M. 2022. [@MARspidermonkey on Twitter]. Thread on the toxic side of a lot of productivity and time management systems and advice: https://twitter.com/MARspidermonkey/status/1580341591075479552.

Sword, H. 2016. ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled. International Journal for Academic Development 21(4): 312-322. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2016.1210153.

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