What is it about productivity?

My blog has experienced a significant dry spell recently. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Or perhaps, if you happened upon my blog and considered following me, you decided not to when you noted this dry spell. My site stats bear this theory out, and the thought occurred to me many times during the dry spell. Each time I told myself I needed to just sit down that day and write out some of my ideas (which were plentiful, if half-formed). Then, inevitably, I would turn my attention to one of the many other items on my never-ending to-do list. (There are actually multiple to-do lists.) What is it makes some of us so consistently productive and others, well, not so consistently productive? I’ve turned my attention to this question increasingly over the last couple of months in an effort to increase my own productivity. After all, the dissertation is lurking and it isn’t going to research and write itself as I finish my coursework and prepare for comps. I’ve discovered that all of the things that interfere with productivity are connected to the patterns of daily life us humans build up over the course of our lives.

The occasional news article and blog post contain some useful pointers (see especially the blog Zen Habits), but one of the resources I’ve found most helpful in my effort to recognize and change my daily habits to the benefit of my personal productivity is Paul J. Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Although the book contains sections that are geared primarily toward aiding students of psychology, most of it is beneficial for anyone seeking to get more done–academic nerd or not. Silvia begins by telling readers they are lying to themselves when they offer excuses such as “I’ll just binge write to make up for a lack of regularity” or “I need to do a little more research before I begin” or even “I need to get a nice comfy office chair before I begin writing on a regular basis.” The number one method Silvia argues in favor of is devising a regular (i.e. daily) writing schedule and sticking to it, no matter what. I speak from personal experience when I say that this is a heck of a lot harder than it sounds. There always seems to be something that demands I subvert my writing schedule and give it immediate attention. But Silva utilizes a variety of psychological studies and findings to help readers along.

Among the most useful tips are (1st) Give in to the fact that you need to have a regular writing schedule in order to be consistently productive. As a recovering binge writer, I often find myself trying to weasel out of my writing schedule with the temptation to “make up for it” later by writing a lot all at once. Of course, not only is this no fun; it also doesn’t always happen, which naturally carves a big, fat hole in my productivity and writing goals. The same goes for sticking to a regular study schedule. Over time, I discovered I was edging away from (i.e. avoiding) my writing schedule by doing study work “first” such as grading quizzes or reading for seminar. Granted, I was still getting work done, but not my writing. This goes along with Silva’s (2nd) most useful tip in my eyes: track your productivity and daily habits.

So this part seemed really, really anal to me at first but I probably wouldn’t have owned up to the ways I was avoiding my writing schedule without it. Silvia recommends tracking your writing progress by creating a spreadsheet for your daily goals. I’ve applied this not just to my writing schedule but to other healthy habits I wish to develop too, such as doing yoga every morning, indulging in a calm breakfast reading the news before rushing off to campus, taking time for afternoon meditation, and so forth. You’re probably thinking this sort of personal monitoring via spreadsheet sounds silly too, but Silvia cites behavioral research studies that illustrate that “self observation alone can cause the desired behaviors” (Silvia, 39). Think of monitoring your personal productivity as a strategy comparable to that of developing a monthly budget. I’ve noticed that whenever I have not met a daily goal and have to enter an all-caps “NO” into my spreadsheet, I work extra hard the next day to be sure I don’t repeat the undesirable behavior. And I remind myself that it isn’t about the spreadsheet: the daily habits I have listed are personal goals that, if achieved, I know will improve areas of my life.

Silvia goes on, in other chapters, to offer other tips for motivation and even some suggestions on improving your writing style. But there is one thing he doesn’t discuss that I would like to see addressed: the ways many academics keep their methods for personal productivity to themselves–like some closely-guarded secret that, if divulged, would somehow bring the world down on their heads. Maybe this is because we all assume people should, by the time they reach graduate school or enter a career, already know how to be the most productive they can be. I suppose this could be true for some people, but I don’t think it’s true for most and there’s almost always room for improvement. I think the true reason many academics–and graduate students in particular–don’t or won’t discuss their productivity tactics is because they fear it will lead to more competition. But I’d rather compete for funding and jobs with the kind of people who openly try to help me be the best I can be than with those who are only looking out for themselves. So I’ve shared some of what I’ve found useful here, and I’ll also be promoting an upcoming workshop for UNL history graduate students on the topic of “Maintaining Sanity as a Graduate Student: Organization, Study Habits, and Stress Relief.” And, as always, I welcome your comments, dear reader, on how we can all be more productive. See you next week.

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