Pondering productivity, and trying to hack it

What is your ideal self?  (In California, we were allowed to ask this type of question.)

The me that I want to be is more productive than the me that I am.  The real me, the true me, the me that I want to be… she’s organized, she gets things done, even if she’s had bad luck.  She’s also had good luck.  She needs to keep moving forward and take advantage of the opportunities she’s had and has, and work to create more opportunities for her in the future. Even if doing so makes a subset of senior people think she’s bigger than her britches.  (If she were male, they wouldn’t dream of thinking that– she never hears people complain when men make their own opportunities, only when women do.  She has not yet had the courage to ask folks to check their bias when she hears these stories.)

We’ve had several posts about hacking our productivity in the past.  Obviously it is a work in progress.

Virginia Valian has an incredible paper called Solving a Work Problem that I keep coming back to. If you have ever had writer’s block, do yourself a favor and click the link for a PDF, seriously.  One thing she says in it is that “people are not wrong about their true selves” (p. 101).  So if you think that you really are a scientist or a writer, in spite of the fact that you’re not getting as much done as you want, you still are that thing.  We are always attempting to be more productive over here.

Here’s some strategies we’re trying to use:

I wrote myself a syllabus last semester — for my writing.  Just like my regular syllabi, it had a list of dates throughout the semester and what should be done by then.  I put course outcomes on the front page and a list of recommended readings, as well as expectations for myself.  I stole this idea from a fellow junior faculty member and I think it is brilliant!  Here’s a little excerpt:

Office hours: writing will take place Monday evenings for at least 30 minutes,
Tuesdays all day (along with research) for at least a total of two hours,
Thursdays from 1 to 3pm, and Fridays from 1:30 to 4pm at [Coffee Shop].
Exceptions: travel; Thanksgiving break
On Sundays, all work of any kind must be completed by 11pm.

Class Days/Times: Lab meetings are Wednesdays from 2-3pm and I must be prepared for them. Group accountability meetings will take place (TBA)

Course Objectives:
By the end of the semester, have R. project done and S. paper under review. Continue work on 2 – 3 other projects. Have projects in all stages of pipeline, from conceptualization to under-review. Keep track of all tasks completed for annual report and binder. Abide by timeline and complete tasks on schedule, or revise schedule.

We make so many lists.  Crossing things off is motivating for both of us.  We drink coffee.

We (Nicoleandmaggie) are allies for each other.  We know each other from real life and have read each other’s writing for years.  We share our online to-do lists and question each other: “Have you started that report yet?”  We report what we’ve done that day and what we’re doing next.  This is a regular part of our daily chats about everything under the sun that we IM each other every day, which is also how our blog began.

One of us installed leech block.  Sadly our IT situation is such that some days it works and some days it doesn’t.  It’s a bit like being a pigeon in a Skinner box being randomly given treats when I hit the button.  (At home it always works.)

We strongly disagree that people who are productive and organized are unhappy.  Nobody should have to apologize for being awesome, even awesome people.  And I agree with Virginia Valian– if the you that you want to be is more productive than the you that you currently are… then don’t listen to people who tell you that productive people are all miserable.  You know you.

We continue to work through these issues each semester.  Do you have tips for us?  Pretty please?  What do you do to help yourself be productive?

p.s. This week we are cross-posting over at the scientopia guest-blogs.

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19 Responses to “Pondering productivity, and trying to hack it”

  1. Cloud Says:

    Lists, lists, and more lists…. I love crossing things off lists. Actually, I wrote a post about how I boost my productivity when my motivation is low: http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2011/09/working-through-motivational-slump.html.

    I really don’t understand the narrative about productivity making you miserable. Being productive makes me HAPPY. When I’ve had a good, productive day, I leave work in a great mood.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It seems pretty common on science blogs. Possibly there is some level of being at work that makes one miserable, but, as you have noted in your previous posts, time spent in the lab is not linearly related to productivity.

      • Cloud Says:

        Probably the misguided macho “I work longer hours than you and suffer for my science” thing. That is one of the least attractive parts of the scientific culture. I, as you know, have opted out of that. But that does tend to piss off the people who have bought into it!

  2. mom2boy Says:

    I don’t understand productive equals unhappy at all. I have a mindless job right now while I finish up school and the only thing worse than time spent being productive at the widget factory (no small feat mind you) is time spent being UNproductive at the widget factory. Ugh. Also, right now I’m supposed to be researching for an outline for a paper. I’m not being productive. As much as I love this blog, I’d be happier if I were looking up and finding relevant source material. I have no tips. Procrastination is the devil.

  3. Alyssa Says:

    I happen to think I’m an uber-productive person, and am very efficient, and I’m pretty sure I’m not miserable. Like Cloud said, I feel more happy on days where I get a lot done than on days where I’m floundering.

    I’m a list-lover too…my work to-do list is a masterpiece, if I do say so myself. It has lists for different aspects of my job, things to think about in the future, questions/comments for my supervisor to ask during our weekly(ish) meetings. I also like using bold text for the things I want to accomplish this week – I find it helps me focus.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have different lists for things that have to be done in a relatively short timeline (hours to weeks) and different, other lists for long-term planning. I even have a notebook that’s nothing but lists. And my google doc to-do list (shared with #2) is a sprawling, monstrous beastie with different colors, bolding, etc.

  4. Dr. Dad, PhD Says:

    I’m marking this so I can read it tonight. Ironically, I really need to write a paper right now and the title served as a great motivator….

  5. rented life Says:

    I’m a list maker too–I’ll make the list and then go back and rank what needs to happen first, second. Or I’ll mark what day it needs to be done by. Lists used to be all I needed, but over the last year or so it just hasn’t had the same power for me, and I’m not sure why. So no tips here, it’s been a huge struggle for me this academic year.

    I’m with everyone else on not understanding the productive = unhappy. I’m usually more unhappy at the office because I *can’t* be productive because I’m constantly interrupted by co-workers who don’t really care about being productive. I do notice that the more busy you seem to be at work the more people try to encourage you to take a break, which annoys the heck out of me.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    Lists, oh how I love lists. Being productive most definitely makes me happy. I am never crankier than when I haven’t been able to at least work on, preferably finish, a project. I have several big, ongoing projects, but I need regular infusions of accomplishment so I also have a series of smaller, quicker projects.

    But I’m in a very different situation from most people I know. I have a day job that provides both ample amounts of free time (due in part to my own efficiency and competence) and plentiful resources of the technological variety which enable me to do a LOT of personal business on the down low.

    Tangent: My philosophy, and I’ve been fairly frank about this to employers, is that once my work is done and I have made an honest effort to contribute more (I regularly do work outside my job description, also on the down low, because my firm doesn’t like people stepping across department lines), if I have time left over I’m not going to sit and be idle. I’m going to work on my stuff. I am discreet about it, and if someone needs me I will put my stuff aside and do the work stuff, but to me it makes more sense (as a past manager myself) to work on a personal PowerPoint than to roam the office looking for someone to gossip with, or sit and text everyone I know, like some underemployed coworkers do.

    Anyway, this means that by the time I get home, personal “work” is largely done and I can use my leisure time completely according to my wishes. I have a lengthy wish list and it’s mostly projects. :-)

  7. Comrade PhysioProffe Says:

    My most important writing productivity tip:

    Embrace that what seems like procrastination is frequently necessary preparation for the final act of delivering words to page. By getting mad at oneself for “procrastinating” and forcing to the words on page stage, one prevents the preparatory process from proceeding to completion.

    (2)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Until it lasts 2-3 days in a row…

      • Comrade PhysioProf Says:

        Not for me. Especially when it comes to long complex grant applications, I frequently dicke around for several weeks in the “I should be working on the grant” stage before words start hitting the page.

    • Cloud Says:

      Yes! This is a good tip. Sometimes the way to solve a problem is to stop trying to solve it and let your brain work on it in the background. When I’m working on a tough design issue or even a challenging scheduling problem for a project plan, it often looks like I’m just goofing off, because I’m ready websites or something like that. But then something clicks, I see the solution, and I can move on. Rands in Repose had a good post on this a while back. I’ll try to find it and come back later with the link.

      Taking a long walk helps, too. I solve so many problems while taking my usual 30 min lunch time walk that I no longer really even consider that time away from work.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s why Boice recommends working in brief daily sessions… but without procrastination. You work on a project then let your subconscious work on it until you come back to it.

        That is not the same as procrastination though. Especially when the bulk of procrastination (according to Boice) happens before *starting.* That procrastination is pretty useless. Taking breaks is definitely useful, but not getting started doesn’t give your subconscious anything to chew on, other than perhaps what to have for dinner.

  8. anandi Says:

    My key when I’m feeling unmotivated is to make a very short list of only 3 things I need to accomplish that day. Not three things subdivided into 20, but literally 3 next action tasks. When I get those done, I have my own full permission to skive off the rest of the day. But even doing 3 at a time during a “slump” week or more, is Getting Sh*t Done. It’s definitely more than if I just wallow in my lack of motivation and surf the Interwebs all day while pretending to work.

  9. What the Most Successful People do at Work: A Book Review | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] book’s discussion of progress on a goal brought to mind Virginia Valian’s solving a work problem.  (And, of course, there’s a huge dry psychology literature on goal setting, that we bet […]

  10. Small change is ok | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] Writing 1 sentence a day may be a suboptimal way to write a paper, but it’s hella better than waiting for the perfect time or inspiration, and sometimes it leads to an entire paragraph.  Boice is all about this with his daily sessions.  15 min of writing is better than none and leads to greater things. […]


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