The Productivity Smile And You

Happy New Year!

If you have not met all your writing goals from last year, you might be contemplating making one of the most common New Year’s Resolutions: Get more organized and manage time better.

But how do you determine if you even need to work on your productivity? And how can you evaluate all the advice swirling around this time of year?

Over my years of working with academics, I have developed a useful framework that I share with my clients. I call it “The Productivity Smile.”
Productivity Smile Graphic

Notice that the middle of the Productivity Smile is called The Zone

The Zone is exactly where you want to be most of the time.

You know you’re in The Zone when you’re taking great care of yourself, making excellent progress on your research and writing, meeting your other commitments, and have enough support, tools, and routines in place to make it all happen.

When you are not in The Zone, you are probably losing time without making reasonable progress by leaning toward chaos or perfection.

Beware the Pitfalls of Chaos and Coasting

To the extreme left of The Zone is Time Lost to Chaos, which never feels good

Have you experienced any of the following, which we can call Time Lost to Chaos?

  • time spent searching for that reference you know you read last summer, but don’t have any notes about
  • work sessions that don’t happen because you didn’t make a specific plan
  • missed meetings because the appointment didn’t make it into your calendar
  • last-minute or missed deadlines for grant applications, conference paper abstracts, and job applications

In the rest of your life, time lost to chaos might look like

  • searching for misplaced keys, wallet, or phone
  • your car breaking down from lack of maintenance
  • scrambling for a new apartment when your lease is up
  • always saying, “I’m sorry I’m late…”

To the immediate left of The Zone lies Coasting—which is okay in the short-run only

Coasting is when, at the end of the semester, you neglect the dishes and laundry to finish a conference paper that you’re giving in January. Or when you’re too tired to floss or look at your calendar after an all-day writing binge. Or when you tell yourself you’ll look up that reference for the footnote later.

Coasting can be okay for short periods, but usually ends up creating backlogs that must be dealt with by your future self, who might not appreciate being dumped on by past self. Too much coasting and you end up losing time and money to chaos. Ouch.

Hone Your Process but Forget Perfection

To the immediate right of The Zone is Working on Process

Working on process can often serve as a necessary ingredient to meet your goals. This includes occasions when you are moving beyond your comfort zone to learn a new software program, to try a different time management technique, to organize your desk and office, to refine your routines, and so on.

It’s time to invest in process improvements under these circumstances:

  • Your schedule changes at the beginning of the semester
  • You face new responsibilities or higher expectations
  • You want to get more efficient
  • You’re trying to exit chaos or coasting

In some areas, improvement efforts can yield a tremendous return on investment. Your writing and research processes might be an apt area to apply such a growth mindset. In 10 years (a typical minimum time span between starting graduate school and earning tenure), your work capacity can become exponentially higher even while maintaining excellent self-care. But only if you work on it.

Tread with caution: it’s way too easy to let working on your process become
Time Lost to Perfection

  • Spending hours hunting for the perfect to-do list app or electronic calendar
  • Putting a whole day into crafting a plan for the week that you don’t use
  • A never-ending quest for “Inbox Zero”
  • Making your apartment look ready for a magazine cover photo

For writing projects, Time Lost to Perfection shows up in various ways:

  • Endlessly editing the first two or three sentences of a draft, resulting in a terrific opening paragraph followed by text that is barely developed
  • Circular revisions, i.e., when the final revision puts everything back the way you had things before you started
  • Waiting to write because there’s still more to read
  • Avoiding sending a draft out for friendly review because you worry about the quantity or quality of your work


Rule of thumb: Always start with low-hanging fruit when improving process

Make one deliberate change at a time. Predict what the effect of your change will be. Then observe what you do. Reflect on the outcome. Then use the results of your experiment to design your next work process experiment. [Check this chart to figure out whether working on a habit change is worth your time.]

How to Brighten Your Smile

What’s your current position on the Productivity Smile?

Are you coasting on footnoting while learning Scrivener? That would count as working on process. Does your writing tap into The Zone, while your living space has fallen into chaos?

To get your smile back, reflect on these four questions

1. Think about a time when you were in The Zone. What supports and tools made that possible?
2. What in your life could be an indicator that you’re sliding towards chaos?
3. How can you tell that you’re chasing perfection?
4. How much time do you want to spend working on process each month?

Checking in with yourself on these questions will help you keep your smile bright—and on track for that next milestone!


First published (with minor alterations) as “Smile Your Way through Your Dissertation—Finding the Sweet Spot between Chaos and Perfection,” in The All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide Issue #219, edited by Gayle Scroggs, on January 7, 2017.

Why the PhD is the best preparation for becoming an entrepreneur

Venn diagram comparing PhD and entrepreneur skill setAs a small business owner, I’ve been asked to speak at an #altac event for graduate students. I’ve attended such events as student and presenter. And I’m usually the only entrepreneur in the room. That’s a shame, because the PhD is actually kick-ass preparation for starting your own business. Why?

I learned to think for myself

Undergrads study what’s known. But grad students are expected to go find a hole in the literature and fill it by publishing before anyone else does. The PhD is the only degree that demands innovation in every field. (In the business world it’s called market research, opportunity spotting, and shipping products ahead of the competition).

I learned to speak up for my ideas

Universities are filled with tough audiences: bored students in required classes, insanely busy dissertation committee members, peer reviewers, and grant application readers. After convincing non-specialists that my project on the metatopography of Roman monumental relief sculptures was worth spending money on, it’s pretty easy to sell just about anything else. (Grant applications = marketing. Surviving Q&A after talks = countering sales objections. Teaching, conference presentations = public speaking).

I learned how to learn independently

The PhD requires you to quickly map out the knowns, unknowns, and debates relevant to any sub-topic of inquiry. I use this skill all the time. There’s always something new to learn about the world of business and the niche I operate in (also known as staying current in the literature).

I learned key tech skills

Coding websites, making spreadsheets, troubleshooting digital projectors….More to the point, I learned when tools solve a problem and when they’re just a distraction from the real work.

I learned time-management and self-motivation

Finishing a PhD demonstrates patience with long-term projects that may not result in immediate rewards. The same methodical approach applies to building a business.

Professors further develop the ability to balance research (how status is measured; key metric for being hired / retained to do teaching and service), full-time teaching (what pays the bills), and service (admin).

Solopreneurs juggle a similar triad of responsibilities: working on the business (strategic planning, publishing a blog), working in the business (providing services/product), and working for the business (admin). If any of these are dropped, the whole enterprise suffers.

"The PhD is the ONLY degree that DEMANDS INNOVATION in every field."I learned to work in teams and manage teams

The PhD has the reputation of being a degree for isolated introverts. And yes, much of the dissertation writing was a solo experience. It’s easy, though, to miss all the teamwork that happens in academe because of the reputation that we’re all lone warriors. A few quick examples:

  • Working with fellow grad students to mail out lecture announcements, and then shop for, arrange, and serve post-lecture refreshments on a $50 budget.
  • Team-teaching a large lecture course (between two to twenty graduate student instructors working with a lead professor).
  • Doing small tasks towards the completion of multi-author volumes (bibliography formatting and fixing, image permission checking).
  • Identifying museum-based research projects suitable for undergraduates, and building a website (still extant!) to showcase their work.
  • Office hours mentoring, redirecting, and evaluating student work.

I learned to navigate bureaucracies

Applying for my LLC? Not nearly as exacting as passing the dissertation format check.

Figuring out business insurance? Not nearly as intimidating as figuring out how to get access to the deep-storage areas of the Louvre and the Vatican.

I lost my fear of experts

I have a PhD. I am an expert.

 

 

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Christine Carter’s book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find your Groove at Home and Work (2015), is an entertaining literature review of positive psychology research. I found myself nodding along each time she deftly summarized the high points of a scholar’s work in two or three breezy pages.

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Are you starting to panic about the approach of the fall semester?

Maia Heyck-Merlin’s book The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time (2012) is chock-full of helpful ideas. It’s aimed at K-12 teachers, yet much of the advice is fully applicable to college-level teachers, too.

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