Sunday, July 20, 2014

(Very) Early-Career Productivity, Part 2

Self-correction. Yesterday's post meandered a bit more than I intended - owe it to more ideas than I could manage in one post - so I'll summarize. Although I haven't been nearly as prolific as Jeffery Bilbro* was as a trainee, I've had success. And I don't find myself lost in the swamps of procrastination or paralyzing impostor syndrome. I do rely on habits that facilitate my productivity, but I've never taken much time to clearly identify them. Doing so will help me stay organized as I transition to an independent position.

Yesterday, I identified these keys to productivity:

(1) Learning to work away from my office. I've accepted that I will not finish all of the tasks that are important to me while I'm "at work." I use evenings to work in the comfort of my home (which often doubles as time spent with my husband, who also is an academic); on the weekends, I haunt my favorite coffee shops and seek out new ones. I've even been known to read in my favorite big-city park. Although I'll have fantastic work spaces at my new house and campus, changing my environment every once in a while may boost my creativity.

(2) Related, planning my off-campus work time. In order to make my free-time work time worth it, I treat it like I would my at-work work time. I may work at a more leisurely pace, but I think ahead and make progress on my ongoing to-do list. The distinction I make between at-work and free-time work is content-related, rather than qualitative: unless a deadline looms, weekends are for my research only. This way, even if I don't make much progress on my research during the week, I know that I will over the weekend. (I recently committed to working only one day of the weekend, and I look forward to my rest-running-cleaning-life day each week.)

(3) My work quality declines if I slog for hours through the same project, so being flexible with the content and order of my work time helps me stay sharp. We all have many, many projects active at any one time, and some people find it helpful to prioritize in succession (e.g., spending two weeks of reserved work time for one project before moving on). I will rotate through multiple projects in a single two-hour block. I work on one until I reach a natural stopping point or tire of the task I'm on. When primary analyses are done or I don't want to stare at SAS code any longer, I switch projects and write, edit, outline, or read for a while. And vice versa.

Today, I add these to the slate: 

(4) Keeping multiple to-do lists. I have a Gmail tasks list that syncs with Google calenar, a huge whiteboard, lined Post-Its galore, a fancy notebook, and a paper planner. (Though I don't use the latter very often, there is something that I like about the old-school method.) Not one of these lists is comprehensive; I write down new tasks whenever and wherever I think of them, and merge periodically. I'm highly unlikely to forget the most pressing tasks, even if I don't write them down. And as I'm rarely out of reach of all of these lists at once, I'm also unlikely to forget the rest - no matter how small. Keeping multiple lists frees me from using "the list" as a procrastination tool.

(5) Listening to podcasts. I've always admired those people who can immerse themselves in their topic(s) of choice and remain well-informed about other areas. I often get so caught up in a set of projects that I forget to stay up on new work in my own area! Twitter helps immensely, as does listening to podcasts; the latter is easier and safer to do while commuting (walking and taking the bus), and I can learn quite a lot in a short period of time. TED talks are an obvious choice. I'm partial to WHYY's weekly The Pulse, which covers health, science, and innovation in my region. Next up is New Books in Psychology.

(6) Making time for projects that excite me. I love what I do. So much so that I didn't sleep a full night for a week before I started graduate school - I was that excited. I do have those periods every once in a while; they're short-lived, and they get overwhelmed by pressure to finish something for someone else. (Hazards of postdoc.) Recently, I started blocking out regular time for reading and outlining ideas for more theoretical work. I got back to writing Introductions and Discussions, rather than only Results sections. (Hazards of being a stats nerd.) And I'm back to being excited. This state is confounded by gaining more independence, but I could have done more of this all along. I'll keep that in mind.

More to come. Share your keys to productivity in the comments!

*It's been said that he had 17 publications as a graduate student.

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