Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Pushing pennies

Several times a year I’m asked: ‘how do you get it all done?’, ‘Are there two of you?’, ‘Do you sleep?’ and similar variations concerning productivity.  I always find the questions awkward and embarrassing to answer. In part, because from my perspective I don’t particularly feel overly productive, though I’m fully aware my output profile is different to most. In part, because some of the answers are not really what people want to hear: I think they’d prefer it if I said I worked all-hours and didn’t sleep, whereas I probably work no more hours or maybe less than they do. Anyway, I thought I’d write a post I can refer people to, which elucidates how I work and why I manage to get things done relatively efficiently. They are certainly not my ‘rules’ for others to follow or aspire to, nor an attempt to promote a way of working. They are simply an explanation. They are not in any particular order, though I think the first, second, and the last are key.

1.    Structured rest
In some ways, this is the factor that most people have trouble believing. I’ve only recently discovered the term ‘structured rest’, and that many other productive people also practise it (as detailed in the book ‘Rest’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang). Basically, it means balancing and structuring rest and work in a strategic way: on the one hand, taking plenty of rest (do not work evenings or weekends; always take coffee breaks and lunches; always get a full night’s sleep); and on the other hand, finding a work pattern that enables efficient and productive working (for example, blocking time, even if for relatively short periods, and working in a concentrated way during them). I know from early on in my career that if I don’t get plenty of rest and 8-10 hours sleep a night my productivity nose-dives and working more hours to try and meet deadlines is counter-productive (Pang’s book spells out a range of benefits from structured rest). I’ve long practiced structured rest, though sometimes not always for rest reasons – I take coffee breaks and lunch as much for social reasons, so they have a double benefit. That’s not to say that I don’t end up straying – instead of working 9am to 5pm sometimes that can slip to 6pm or 7pm to catch up if I’ve taken on too much or spent time chatting in the corridor or in meetings; occasionally I can spend half-an-hour later in the evening to check-in on email, or mess about on social media. But generally, after a day of concentrated work, I’m pretty tired and don’t feel like working. If I have over-stretched and have multiple competing tasks/deadlines, I try and rejig the prioritization rather than working extended hours. While I might occasionally stray into early evenings, I always try and protect the weekend. My worst slippage is vacations and taking longer work-free breaks, but I’ve been working on that. Importantly, structured rest means doing something other than work, not using the time for work-related activities such as reading an academic book.

2.    No procrastination and pushing pennies
The other key aspect and counterpoint to structured rest is structured work. In fact, without it, the rest part will have little effect (and vice versa). In the blocks outside of coffee and lunch, I tend to work in a very concentrated way. That means I have a list of tasks that I know needs to be completed and I get on with them with the aim of getting them completed that day. I describe it as pushing pennies: each day I nudge several tasks forward until they eventually fall off my desk. I always try to factor in some time to deal with matters arising and to leave some time to write something more substantial than email or administration. I don’t procrastinate. If there is five minutes between meetings, I’ll write a few sentences or attend to email. The only way things get done is if I do them, so I work at them. And I take my breaks to recharge. I should also point out that there is fluctuation in the workload and nature of tasks that have an effect: there’s a noticeable dip in my outputs in the eleven years I was director of a research institute, for example. Nonetheless, when I’m at work, I work.

3.    First draft and practice
In the ‘Rest’ book, Pang discusses the notion that you need to have undertaken 10,000 hours of structured practice to become highly proficient at something, such as playing a musical instrument. I have long since put in my 10,000 hours of writing practice. The result is I can write quickly and my first draft is normally pretty close to final draft. I also write non-linearly (e.g., two sentences in Section 1, then three in the Conclusion, then two in Section 2, etc.), so I don’t need to have pre-constructed the narrative order, and I write and edit simultaneously (constantly moving text around and refining as I write). I can pretty happily write a 700 word blog post and publish it within an hour. In that sense, I can write like a journalist rather than needing longer gestation periods. This is partly good fortune on my behalf, but also due to practice and confidence rooted in experience (that confidence has been hard won: like a lot academics I had imposter syndrome for quite a while).

4.    Last 10 percent
Early in my career someone said to me that ‘the last 10 percent takes 90 percent of the time.’ My means of addressing this has been to largely avoid the last 10 percent on submitted pieces of work. I am not a perfectionist. I also know that close to zero papers are accepted as is and require some level of revisions. So my aim has been to submit a paper when I think it makes a substantive contribution and meets the standard required, hopefully with minor revisions. I let the reviewers guide me on the last 10 percent polishing. Similarly, with teaching I get the lecture or class to the point where I think it effectively gets over the key points and necessary material (though see point 8). Avoiding the last 10 percent saves a chunk of time and effort and frees up space for doing other things (this is, at its heart, a time management strategy). I’m not compromising on quality here. I want my papers to be as good as I can make them, but I sidestep procrastination and a false search for a perfect paper, and let the reviewing process work for me. I want my teaching to be effective, but over-preparation of materials has a marginal payoff (how classes are taught is just as, or more, important) (though again see point 8).

5.    Don’t wait for the hook
In general, when I start to write a paper I have a feeling that something is interesting and worthy of attention but I’m not always sure of the reason for that feeling. I might have no strong sense of the hook or argument. I start to draft the paper with no clear idea of what I am going to say and simply trust that the process of writing about it will reveal the hook. I think through writing. If I listen to a paper at a conference, or read a written version, and then go for a walk it will do little for my thinking. But translating the ideas of others or the analysis of my data into a written narrative makes fireworks go off in my mind. My own thinking emerges and erupts as I write. I just trust that something good will emerge as I work away. What this means is that I’m never hanging around waiting for inspiration and I don’t suffer from writer’s block.

6.    Saying no
Even with a structured rest/work regime occasionally things can get a little out of hand. Deadlines can converge or I can take on too many things. I am always busy, but it can slip towards being harried and stressed. Over time I have had to get much better at saying no to additional work. This is never easy to do, in part because academics take part in an informal exchange economy of reviewing each other’s work and collaboration. I am now much more strategic about what work I take on, though I still say yes more often than I should. If this is a particular concern for you, I have written a separate blog post ‘Rules of thumb for making decisions on requests for academic work’ which sets out some advice. 

7.    Collaboration
Collaboration certainly helps, but it also a double-edged sword. More workers make light of the work, but there can also be too many cooks. I collaborate a lot. Most of my papers and books involve one to three other authors. In my experience, writing collaboratively – especially in small groups (as opposed to being name-checked as a one of thirty co-authors on a paper) – can be just as time consuming as working by oneself. Any time supposedly saved by each person writing a half/third/quarter is countered by time spent discussing, arguing over, or editing the work to form a coherent argument and narrative. Where collaboration generally pays off is in improving the quality of the argument; all of my collaborative papers are, I think, better than if I had written them alone. I only claim authorship if I’ve made some kind of substantive contribution, and I forego being named on papers where I’ve only done development edits or am simply the PI.

8.    Doubling up
Where I can I try and double up work. For example, if I am going to research and deliver a new course then I might as well write or edit the accompanying textbook, or use the research for the basis of a new paper. And I will use some of my previous research to inform the textbook. As well as producing a book, it means the course is pretty thoroughly prepared which has a payoff for the students. I might also use blog posts to form the basis for a research paper, or for a newspaper op ed, and so on. 

9.    Rules of the game
After 20 years as a journal and book editor, reviewing papers and grant applications, and sitting on evaluation committees and boards, I have a pretty good idea as to what is required to get by in academia. I use that knowledge to play the game strategically in terms of selecting journals and pressing the right buttons to get a grant. I also have a reasonable idea as to what I think will achieve some level of impact, which I detail in this blog post.

10.    The joy of it
While obligation is certainly a factor that drives part of my work ethic (I want to makes sure I do my fair share and deliver on-time), by far the biggest motivation for writing is the sheer joy of it. To think through and learn new things; to make sense of data and develop an argument; to have new ideas that demand exploration; to stitch together an entire thesis. Writing begets reading, one of my other passions. And reading and editing other people’s work keeps me relatively up to date with current debates and provides fresh inspiration. Writing is invigorating. I’d do it even if I couldn’t get any of the work published; just for the pleasure of spinning words and ideas.

To repeat: This is not a set of rules to follow or aspire to. It is an explanation as to how I get things done. I’ve written it purely to provide a reasonably detailed answer to a question I’m commonly asked, not to promote a particular way of working.

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