“The Hold Steady 071010 (192f)” by Flickr user Neff Connor / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

This is a guest post by ProfHacker author Jason B. Jones, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. Jason’s personal site is about.me/jbj and tweets from @jbj.

Why think about productivity systems at all? Why try to think about ways we can be more productive? Doesn’t that imply we’re not doing enough, or that we’re wasting time?

Most people I know are pretty busy, and in fact find themselves burdened more and more each year by ever-expanding, often nonsensical expectations that have little to do with the core academic missions of teaching and research, or with governance. Moreover, decades of the aggressive defunding of public higher education has usually meant that this expanding amount of work has been done by fewer resources and by fewer people.

So I don’t want productivity talk to mean, “hey, you’ll be able to get those reports filed and fundraising calls made after teaching your four classes and meeting your fifty advisees. (And don’t forget to get that book manuscript polished.)”

After all, I’m not a dean.

But a lot of academics–even very active, highly productive ones–punish themselves about their failure to produce. This doesn’t seem like posturing, or false modesty–the academic superego is famously severe, which I’m not sure does anyone any good.

I wanted to close our week of thinking about productivity with five reasons to think explicitly about your own system:

  • You will never get it all done. The more you succeed, or the more things you do well, the more opportunities will present themselves. Thinking about your system can help you make decisions about work based on your values.
  • Since you can’t get it all done, one can easily fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t do anything. (“If I can’t get caught up on X, what’s the point?” “Since I’m behind on Really Important Thing X, I should also let minor responsibilities 1, 2, and 3 slip.” And so forth.) But no one ever wrote a book, or taught a class, or even revised a department’s curriculum in a single step. Focusing your productivity system on next actions can help you fight through procrastination-driving despair.
  • A lot of academic work is either self-defined (what am I trying to publish here?), or a bit formless (how will I know I’m a good faculty senator?), or cyclical (it’s a new semester!), or some combination. This has some real strengths, but it also means that it can be hard to measure progress. Having a goal-focused productivity system can help you recognize when you are done, as well as whether you are successful.
  • Relatedly, the inchoate nature of academic work can make a certain kind of self-delusion seem like the soul of productivity. (Cf. Middlemarch‘s Edward Casaubon.) Everyone knows people who complain perpetually about their busyness but who never seem to get much done. There’s a Craig Finn line I like: “My attempt at reinvention’s getting wrecked by the facts.” Focusing your productivity system on measurable goals is a useful reality check, and can help you identify where you’re getting bogged down.
  • Even though academic work doesn’t always seem collaborative, your work usually depends on others. Similarly, sometimes you are the “other” on whom others depend. There’s no trick for getting other people-people who are often insanely busy-to take their necessary actions. But, as Finn says somewhere else, “We are our only saviors.” Having clearly-defined actions in your productivity system can help you focus on what you need to do and to get the stuff dependent on others out of your head.

I tend to think about productivity as a species of belief, a concept I borrow from soccer. The system is there to silence the haters in your head, the ones telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing, or that your work’s terrible, or that you’re missing crucial steps. It’s not there, necessarily, to help you do more things, but to have the focus to do them well.

This has been pretty meta, so I’ll close with three practical tips:

Do you have any advice to add from your own approach to productivity? Let us know in the comments below!


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