I am sure none of us thought we could learn anything about productivity from our lecturers and professors at uni. I can almost hear you falling off your chair laughing at the idea.
Surprises in classical research on the productivity of professors
All good research surprises. Boice’s work on the productivity of “New Faculty” packs the surprises.
What you didn’t know about academic life
First, some basics. Academic life is amazingly brutal and competitive. Young academics are supposed to write academic articles and get them published. The whole process takes forever and it is hard to know how well you are doing. But if you don’t succeed in publishing a handful of articles every year, you will lose your job, be quite unable to get another one, and have to start another career at the bottom of the ladder.
In short, you have to do difficult work, you have to “sell” it in a long process that takes years, and you are gambling everything. How would you feel? What would you do?
Trying too hard
The typical young academic panics. They promise themselves that they will work very, very hard. Day 1: the alarm goes off at 5am. Maybe they get up; maybe they don’t. If they do, they stumble to their desk and stare at their work. Their confidence plummets and they don’t do a lot.
Never mind. They promise themselves they will catch up at the weekend. They refuse to go out and on Saturday evening, they sit down at their desk, and stare at their work . . .
Oh, you know what happens next. You’ve been there. This goes on-and-on until a deadline forces them to get going and then they pull several all-nighters, make the deadline just in time, and blame the typos and shoddy writing on running out of time.
Guess what? This is a “hiding to nowhere”. And the problem is not lack of discipline. The problem is trying to do too much. This is binge-working based on a romantic notion of work.
Get over it! Work is work. Did you hear that? Work is work. You aren’t brilliant. You aren’t capable of massive amounts of work.
Very successful people work playfully. Little-and-often
You are capable of doing your work and loving it.
Boice studied academics, young and old, often watching them when they work. Productive academics look lazy. (They do, don’t they?) They move around in a relaxed fashion often because they have a little secret.
They do get up early, but so they can spend an hour or so writing every day while the house is still quiet.
They don’t jump to writing the finished article all at once though.
They get up. They sit down.
If they feel unmoved to work, they free-write. They will probably tear up what they have written tomorrow, but they get the creative juices going.
Tomorrow they come and carry on.
By working every day, they don’t have to remember where they got up to and they just carry on, adding stuff, deleting stuff, structuring and editing.
Slowly and painlessly, the work clocks up without any binge-working or panic.
With that casual hour done, they can afford to be relaxed with people, to do admin work, to be friendly to students, to read, to do lab work, to discuss ideas.
What can other-workers learn from professors?
Other work is no different.
Agile is simply the same process. We work on one project at a time. We define what needs to be done and we concentrate on it. Other priorities are shut out until it is done. But despite the rugby-terminology of scrum and sprint, we don’t rush. Burn-down is for tasks. Burn-out takes us nowhere.
If working little-and-often is so right, why don’t we all do it?
Where we fail is that we don’t have the guts to work little-and-often. The secret is a good mentor who can act as a pace-maker. But we don’t always have a good mentor. So we need to get into the habit early of working a little on our main project every morning.
Here is a set of slides I put together for first-year students with some of his observations. I link to Boice’s book is below. I do recommend it. It is a stunning piece of research about productivity with real insights on how to join that small group of people who achieved 700% of what we achieve. After that it is up-to-you.
Try it this way perhaps. If you haven’t made progress during the week, on Saturday evening, don’t cancel your plans. But before you go out, free write for 20 minutes. That’s all. Just write what is in your head for 20 minutes. Then go out. And get Boice’s book. I promise you that you will be surprised, relieved and unburdened.
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