Productivity Hacks for Academics

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The start of a new year is a great time for introspection about our habits and processes, and for adjusting or renewing our patterns.

Academics have unique challenges in terms of work productivity. We have competing priorities (those imposed from our roles as well as our own projects), different types of work (teaching, research, committees/service), different timelines (semesters, quarters, fiscal and calendar years), as well as daily family/friend obligations, sicknesses, and self-care needs.

How do we make the most of our limited time?

In this more personal post, I’ll share some of the tips and strategies that I’m committing to strengthen as the new year begins.

Empathy first

First of all, it can be helpful to give ourselves a break. Our work is filled with stories of vacations spent grading and catching up on email, creating our own working hours (meaning always), and now even the popular idea of burnout is in itself burning people out.

As I talk with colleagues, it seems that many of us became accustomed to a slower pace of productivity during the last few years. We are finding it hard to accomplish as much as we used to in pre-pandemic days. As we often preach about learning – less is more – and doing fewer things with quality may be the better way to go, even if it feels frustrating.

When you’ve been to the point where you barely have time to eat and take care of basic needs each day, the “status of being busy” can feel overrated. I now try to say that my life is “full” rather than busy. I do a lot of what I enjoy. I feel overwhelmed at times. But I’m intentionally trying to pull out of the busyness competition with others – and with my former self.

Prioritize your big rocks

I am a fan of goals, plans and lists. I have yearly goals and quarterly goals, aspirational goals and personal goals, and related weekly and daily agendas. For some people, this sounds stressful, but for me, it is calming. I feel much better after writing down schedules and plans for my work.

As a result, I make a lot of to-do lists. I used to list all the small, manageable tasks first, with the harder and longer tasks at the bottom. As expected, I loved checking off and completing all the small items, but the big items remained untouched.

I have since flipped my to-do list, as a way to focus on my big rocks, those goals I have that I truly value most. By putting those goals at the top of my list, breaking them into smaller pieces, and doing them earlier in the day, I can make slow but determined progress on larger projects over time. I have found that many of the smaller items still happen or don’t actually need the amount of time I would have given them.

Power hours

In order to get those smaller items done, I’ve embraced the idea of a weekly power hour. This is be a set time to plow through a logistical to-do list of small items. Knowing that I will get to those tasks each weeks means I can get them off my mind.

A power hour can also be used to get something finished, even if it’s not your best work. There’s that great quote, “a writing project is never done, it’s just due.” A power hour goal could be to pull together my notes and complete a draft from 2:00-3:00 and commit to having something created by 3:00.

College educators can be perfectionists, and many of our projects could go on forever. Sometimes we just need a deadline to say something is done or that we’ve spent enough time on it.

The magic of 30 minutes

To achieve the larger goals – writing projects, proposals, multi-year initiatives – a common writing technique is to set aside 30 minutes a day, similar to the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve been a fan of this approach for many years and it’s truly amazing how much progress can be made in just 30 minute blocks (like this blog post!).

The magic is that it doesn’t feel overwhelming to just do 30 minutes of something. I set a timer and often move to a different space when possible to keep the mindset of “it’s only 30 minutes.”  I often don’t even open up my document until the timer starts, and still feel very productive by the end of this short period of time. When necessary, I can add additional 30-minute blocks each day when multiple projects are happening.

Reset day

Finally, one of many ideas I’ve gained from the productivity guru Katie Linder is the idea of a Reset day. When you are feeling particularly overwhelmed or drained, perhaps designate a day to reset – which could include anything from getting some exercise or outdoor time, spending time with a loved one, indulging in self-care, or completing a few long-neglected tasks.

I have found it helpful during a reset day to spend time revisiting my values and big rocks, whether that means reflecting on an ongoing project, or setting some goals and intentions for the weeks ahead. If you don’t have the space for a full day, consider an occasional a 2-hour block to recharge some aspect of your life.

Ongoing reflection

These strategies would not be successful without ongoing reflection about how effective they are in the first place. Sometimes we need to be reminded about a lapsed practice, or a larger goal. This year I’m committing to quarterly check-ins and bi-annual mini-retreats on various aspects of my work.

And sometimes a strategy just isn’t working or a project just isn’t going to happen. I’ve had one moderately-sized project on my list for about 2 years. If I haven’t gotten to it by now, and I’ve been surviving ok, I need to reassess. Should I outsource it somehow, or just decide to live without it? It’s time to revisit my goals, return to empathy, and try something else.

What are your best tips for staying productive amidst competing demands?