Saturday, July 19, 2014

(Very) Early-Career Productivity, Part 1

Following the Greats

As I mentioned a few days ago, my newest hobby is reading about others' productivity - specifically, the habits that help them maintain steady research output in the face of competing academic priorities. Habits that consistently top their lists include writing every day (usually #1), creating/sticking to a detailed schedule, setting short-term goals that are designed to help them meet long-term milestones, and keeping track of everything with lists. 

All of this reading has gotten me reflecting on my own keys to productivity. Although I'm just starting my independent career, I have had a bit of success as a trainee, and I do manage to find time for non-work activities. For example, I had more than one part-time job during both college and graduate school, and I trained for my first marathon while maintaining my grades, research, and sanity. After I left my off-campus job in my fourth year of graduate study, I saw clients at more than one psychology treatment site and kept training for endurance events. 

Postdoc has been no different. With responsibilities to two PIs and a gaggle of wonderful students, I still wrote my own papers and proposalstrained for marathons, and even saw my husband sometimes. I admit that it's been more difficult in the past few years, but that's mainly because (1) my true interests are adjacent to (rather than overlapping with) those of my mentors, and (2) I'm married and living with my husband now. So working at home has been simultaneously more important and less desirable than ever.

That's my first insight: trainees and new professors rarely are efficient enough to work a 40-hour week and still achieve our goals. So we find ways to be productive away from the office. I used to loathe working from home; it seemed intrusive and unbalanced. (I laugh as I think about this attitude now.) In my second year of graduate school, I stayed in my lab office until all of my classwork and research were done, just to avoid working from home. I went to the lab on the weekends for the same reason. I could relax much more easily when home was a refuge from work. 

But as my activities shifted away from coursework and toward research and teaching (I taught my own course during my fourth and fifth years), I found that I really enjoyed being in the comfort of my apartment - even if it meant working there. I wrote my dissertation during my full-time clinical internship year; although I often stayed late at my (admittedly, lovely) office to work on it, working at home was unavoidable. But I'm also much more flexible with my workspace. Like most academics, my home office is set up as I need it, but I do well with a change of scenery. My husband and I have worked together at many a coffee shop since we met (which also was at a coffee shop).

My temporary home workspace.
Looking forward to my new campus and home offices!

More recently, I've reserved Friday nights and one other weeknight per week for "life" - watching movies or TV shows, reading for pleasure, going out to dinner or brunch, etc. A key distinction now is that I plan to work the other evenings and at least one weekend day, rather than telling myself that I won't unless I have to. (Insight #2.) I'll adjust my schedule to meet immediate needs. Otherwise, I stick to the plan. Moreover, I have a list of projects I could work on during each session. Those with upcoming deadlines take priority, but I find that I am most productive when I have the freedom to (1) choose to work on the project I'm most motivated for at that moment, and (2) switch projects whenever I fancy. This way, I rarely get burned out, even when I work in long stretches. (Insight #3.)

As with anyone blogging about productivity, I'm not reporting this not to promote myself. I easily could say that there isn't much to promote. I decided to share for two reasons. First, I returned to this blog as a place to reflect and improve, so I'm entering the conversation. Second, I find that many early-career academics feel insecure about their accomplishments, and end up minimizing them. We're surrounded by successful people; some of our best friends and colleagues are rockstars in their respective areas. As most of us tend to evaluate ourselves relative to such people, it's easy to see our own successes as minor, or even insignificant. (I study this phenomenon and am by no means immune to it.) 

What we forget is that we didn't get where we are - wherever that is - by making insignificant contributions. More importantly, those of us reading blogs like these are taking the time to figure out how to be even more productive and successful, which reflects our commitment to our work. The best advice I've heard yet is to "take yourself seriously. Starting today, approach your research and writing just like a top scholar in your field would do."

This is your life moment of the week: Don't forget that, through your efforts to learn and improve, you just might have done so. Defer to experts and keep learning, but acknowledge that you're making a place for yourself.

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