Friday, January 15, 2010

On Productivity

My apologies for the blog's being quiet lately. For one thing I've been busy with interesting work that has taken a lot of my time. For another, I've (not yet terribly successfully) been trying to spend less time on the internet, and finally, I'm feeling a little bit discouraged about the whole blogospheric thing right now. I haven't yet decided to nuke the blog and the whole web 2.0 thing yet but am at least considering it.

But, that said, I did get a couple of interesting questions from readers over break, and I thought a modified version of my answers might be useful to one or two people. The questions were about how to be productive after graduate school and about how to maintain research productivitywhile not neglecting your family. I don't think I live up to my own answers here, but as I have managed to maintain a slow trickle of articles and books while raising two young children, I have a few "well, it worked for me -- at least sort of" suggestions.

The single most important thing that I discovered about productivity is so stupid that is probably shouldn't be written, but it was an eye-opener for me when I figured it out:

(1) Your academic work is a job.

One of the reasons many of us go into academia is that we love the structure (or lack of structure) of the system: you have to be there for classes, but after that you're on your own in many ways to do what you want to do and when. It's one of the best things about academia that you don't have to punch a clock, that you can do a lot of work from home if you want and that you can define your own goals.

That's all great. Now put in 40+ hours per week. Every week. And make up hours lost to vacations, etc.

We all think we work long hours in academia and go out of our way to tell people that it is not a cakewalk. And that, to some extent, is true. Hours in the classroom take up far more energy per hour than hours in many other jobs. Just as a Broadway actress can use a whole day's worth of energy in a three hour show, you can blow a lot of your energy budget for a day with a couple of big classes that need to be kept awake and enthusiastic. But if you actually check up on yourself and keep track of how much time that you are working (as opposed to half-working while alternating between grading papers and Facebook), you'll find that you can probably do more to get to that 40-hour level of productivity.

But there's a more positive side to "treat your job like a job" as well, although this is extremely hard to do in academia: When the job is over, it's over. Get to your 40 hours however you need to, and then do something else. (I am absolutely terrible at taking this advice, but when I do, I'm happier and over all more productive).

(2) Un-divide your attention

(I am terrible at this, also) A stack of papers that should take two hours to grade will take six hours to grade if you've got Facebook open while you do it. Walk away from the computer and plow through the papers. Also, don't cherry pick: the amount of time you waste paging through the papers looking for a good one to grade adds up to an enormous amount of wasted time. You're going to have to grade the bad paper anyway, so just discipline yourself into grading from the top of the stack down to the bottom. I recommend physically unplugging your ethernet cable when you're writing. Yes, it's a pain when you could easily google a citation but is worth it when you are just slightly prevented from flipping over to Firefox for a second to check on junk. Keep your focus.

This applies in spades to your family and is perhaps the one area where I've been having a little more success. Your family won't begrudge you your work time if, when you're not working, you're giving them your undivided attention. I am still working on this, but I have tried to make it a rule that from the minute I pick the kids up from the bus to the minute they go to bed, I don't do academic work. That doesn't mean that they are getting undivided attention all the time, because there's cooking, dog walking, cleaning, errands, etc., but at least I'm not zombified at the stupid computer. Undivided attention is much more effective than trying to do multiple things at once, badly.

(3) Push forward in multiple directions

This next principle of productivity seems like a contradiction to the previous one, but really what I mean there is not to try, say, to write an essay and surf FB at the same time. When it comes to running projects, I am a very big believer in having more than one thing going on at a time. Some of the projects will be long-running, others quick. I started co-authoring a paper on Guthlac on Dec 28 and we are going to be ready to send it to a journal by Feb 1 (it isn't just a note but is about 30 pages now). On the other hand, the paper that may or may not get published by PMLA has gone 14 years and uncounted iterations between original research and now (and it still has to get approved by the editorial board). Having a lot of different things in different stages is good as long as you can also finish them off when the time comes. This usually involves a transition between regular, steady work and a crazy push to get to the end.

(4) Read, and read way outside your field

This has been the area where I've been relatively successful lately: instead of staring blankly at a word processing window, walk away from the computer and read something. Read it in hard copy, in a book if at all possible. Too often after we finish our dissertation research, we stop reading. I remember the exact moment when I figured out how to make How Tradition Works fit together: I was sitting on the floor of O'Hare Airport at 6:20 a.m. on the way back from Kalamazoo, and I was reading Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform and a light went on. I really think, if it's at all possible, that you should take the semester before a research leave or a sabbatical and do no writing at all: just read. It not only catches you up on what's going on in the field, but it inspires and encourages you in a way that writing doesn't.

Also, read not only in your field and not only what other members of your field are reading. This has been my biggest boost to productivity: reading mathematics, seemingly unrelated philosophy (i.e., not 'literary philosophers'), books about beekeeping, the Shakers, people living on islands, biology, engineering, medicine -- break out of your bubble. It's useful not only because you can see how other people solve problems, but because you will be less of a lemming than the other people in your field (and, if Facebook is any guide, English professors are pretty lemminglike when it comes to political opinions, idiotic Farmville or the meme of the day). There's an enormous amount of really interesting stuff out there, and it's incredibly valuable to see how smart people think. Reading in other disciplines also helps you to avoid being colonized by "single answer" memes: you'll be a lot better at being skeptical about whatever today's tedious orthodoxy is if you come across people addressing related problems in different ways. For example, it's hard to take "the social construction of the body" as seriously as you did after you read some books about developments in surgery and see how much effort, technique and creativity has gone into solving problems that were, not long ago, impossible to address: the "physical construction of the body" seems awfully more important. Reading widely has the very salutary effect of reducing some of the English professor's tendency towards hubris.

(5) Use your deadlines

My final piece of advice is to use deadlines to manipulate yourself. The problem with our academic research is that although we operate with inflexible deadlines all the time (the class has to be taught, which means you have to be there and ready to teach it) the deadlines for our research are often far away and flexible. An inflexible deadline will always beat a flexible deadline, and so your research time gets swallowed up by class prep, meetings, etc. But you can overcome some of this if you use deadline flexibility to your advantage. For example, let's say I have to write three syllabi and also I want to get a paper finished. The syllabi have to be done before the semester starts. The paper? Well, it would be nice... But what I do is refuse to allow myself to work on the syllabi until the paper is finished. This takes all the stress of the syllabus deadline and transfers it to the paper deadline. I know that I'll get the syllabi done, because I have to, so if I make myself get the paper done first, I'll end up with it all done. (I don't think, by the way, that this is an entirely healthy way to live because it can be extremely stressful, but it gets the job done).

So those are my five principles for productivity. And now I am going to put some of them into play by unplugging the stupid internet and trying to crank out a page or two before I have to pick up the kids.


Steve Muhlberger said...

So you found FB a little too addictive, eh?

Pallav said...

nice post!

Rivqah said...

Hi Prof Drout!
I'm a last-semester MFA student in Philly, and I found your work after getting into listening to audiobooks in the studio. Last semester I listened to your Anglo-Saxon World course three times, and I just now finished History of the English Language (and found this blog while searching to see if you'd done any middle english aloud in addition to the anglo saxon aloud). I love your perspective on English history (as I've recognized for awhile that etymology and language are really exciting to me, and English history has been the general subject I've been into). Just wanted to say how impressed I am with the courses (and also how pertinent this blog post is for me).
And if you ever happen to hear of a place for someone in the visual arts in any research/projects in this field, I'd be so appreciative if you'd let me know.
Thanks again for the courses and all the free online resources!
-Rebecca Miller