An origin story and four truths about productivity

An origin story and four truths about productivity
Photo by Mark König / Unsplash

This is a repost of from my new Subtack publication, Intentional Academia. I'll be posting there every other Monday with articles about how those of us in higher education might regain some control over our work, our commitments, and our attention in order to have time and energy to get what we want out of both work and life. This coming Monday, I'll be starting a reboot of the GTD for Academics series that was first published here.

Let's start with gratitude.

Classes start soon (today, for me), and there are millions of things to do, but you've given this newsletter a place in all that traffic. I’m grateful for that. I'm also grateful to have the time, space, and energy to write. Where I'm sitting right now, it's 6:00am and pitch dark outside, so I am grateful for the excellent pot of coffee I am consuming to help get this article written. I could go on.

There is a lot for which each of us can be grateful, and actually being grateful about them is essential for having the kind of life a person might want to live. But it’s also terribly easy to forget to do this, or skip doing it if the crushing busyness of life and work crowds it out. And if you’re not fully present with the things that generate gratitude, you end up with a career and a life that lack flavor, purpose, direction, or enjoyment.

Does this sound familiar? It might, especially if you are like me and work in higher education. To put it mildly, our “industry” is not well known for having a healthy approach to either work or life. And if you know what I mean, you also know that this can't go on forever. At some point, something has to break: Either the cycle of overwork and burnout, or you.

As I wrote in the introductory post, that's where this blog comes in. I don't have all the answers, but here at Intentional Academia, I plan to share what I’ve learned about engaging intentionally with academia to build a career and a life that a person might be truly grateful for.

Today, I want to explain where I'm coming from and lay out the basic principles that connect all the thoughts you will see here.

A brief origin story

I graduated with a Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1997. Getting a Ph.D. was hard work, but simple: All I had to do was work on my dissertation for 14 hours a day and teach a couple of classes a year. I enjoyed grad school; it was a hard life in some ways, but I was around awesome people, and again the work did not have a lot of moving parts.

But when I started my career as a professor at a small liberal arts college, I was completely blown out of the water. I was teaching four different classes each semester, working my dissertation into a paper, serving on committees, and all the rest. It was not just more work, it was so many different kinds of work that I couldn’t keep up. I had no idea, much less any kind of system, for handling it.

I must have mentioned this at some point, because one of my sisters gave me a Franklin Planner for Christmas. It seemed so promising: A paper notebook centered around a system of to-do lists whose items had priority levels (“A”, “B”, or “C”) and numbers. For a while, it helped. But it turns out a notebook by itself isn’t a solution. Soon, my daily to-do lists consisted of 15-20 tasks that were all “A” level priority. Each day, multiple “high importance” tasks would go undone. The Franklin Planner became my personal Book of Shame, and I stopped using it. (Though I still have it, in a box in our crawlspace.)

A few years later I changed jobs, but the amount and variety of work didn’t change. Plus, I had gotten married. Before this, I had no real commitments to other people except colleagues and students, so I could get away with working nights and weekends. But now, time and attention became a zero-sum game: Giving more of it to work meant taking it away from my wife. And soon, from our daughter; and then from our second daughter.

What used to be mere overwhelm became existential uncertainty. I was doing a lot of work, but I couldn’t tell you at the end of the day what exactly I had gotten done — or why I had done it. I struggled with guilt about not paying enough attention to my growing family. I had no friends, my health was going to seed, and my one hobby — playing bass guitar — was defunct.

Like I said earlier, this approach to life and work can’t go on forever. Two things happened around the same time that put me on notice.

One day I was walking to my office and passed by my Dean, who casually said: So, I’ll see you at 2:00 today? I froze, because I had no idea what he meant. I managed to say Yes! See you then! and then raced to my office to scavenge through my overstuffed inbox, with hundreds of messages piled inside it, to find a clue. Eventually I found an email, received weeks prior, requesting a meeting that also required a written report. The meeting was at 2:00; I found this email at 12:30; I had not started the report. I managed to throw something together in an hour (requiring me to move an hour of grading to the evening, again) but it wasn’t good, and the Dean and I knew it.

I left campus that day feeling like a total loser. I wanted (and still want) to be a competent and respected professional who can be depended upon. Instead, this was just another instance of a dropped ball — a meeting missed, a commitment forgotten — that led to more work on weekends and evenings, which made me more likely to drop another ball, and so the vicious cycle continued. I decided that I’d had enough, and something needed to change.

The second thing that happened was a lot more significant.

Despite not paying enough attention to my wife and kids, family life was puttering along. Then, out of the blue, we learned that my wife was pregnant. That child, my now-14-year-old son, has been a blessing to me and to the world. But he was not planned. Our finances and our attention were already spread microscopically thin with our two daughters, so my wife and I had decided that we were done with kids. This news dropped an atomic bomb on those plans.

The arrival of my son sent a clear message: You cannot continue to live life as you have been living it, doing your work and living your life with no plan or system whatsoever, but just reacting all the time to the latest and the loudest. The whole “disorganized professor” schtick is funny and cute — until you realize that you are not alone, that you have people who are depending on you, and the laissez-faire approach to work was choking the life out of those people. You need to do something: Now.

So I decided to take some responsibility, for once. I researched “time management systems” and discovered something called Getting Things Done, and a book with the same name. I devoured that book in a week, then spent several months putting its ideas into place and figuring out how to make it work for the uniquely challenging world of higher education. Long story short: “GTD” changed, possibly saved, my life. I’m now in another position, where I’ve earned tenure and promotion to full Professor and having a life and career for which I am truly grateful.

When I talk to colleagues or read their social media posts, especially since March 2020, it all seems eerily familiar: The overwhelm, exhaustion, burnout, loss of purpose and direction. I can’t help but feel obligated to give back to this community to offer ideas, and especially blueprints, based on my experiences that might help you as well.

Four truths

Thinking through my own practices and beliefs about “personal productivity” — although I dislike that term because presence and engagement matter more to me than “productivity” — I can identify four things I believe to be true, that connect my thinking and what you’ll be reading here. You’ll probably see these mentioned by name in the future.

  1. You are part of a larger picture. The two pivotal experiences I mentioned above showed me that the choices we make or don’t make about how to manage life and work aren’t just affecting me, but everything to which I’m connected. You are the same, and your choices matter — to others. It’s fashionable, for example, to joke or even brag about having an email inbox that’s hopelessly overfull. It’s funny until you realize that every one of those unprocessed emails exerts a small amount of backward force on not just you, but the people who depend on you and about whom you care. Each one makes it just a little more likely that you’ll drop the next ball. Each one is a paper cut, and a thousand of them will kill you. So getting your email under control is serious business. It’s not about accomplishing an abstract goal or having something to post to Twitter, but about having a plan that honors the people, ideas, and activities to which you are connected and make life rich.
  2. You have more power and agency than you might think. There’s a strong narrative in higher education that says things like You are not allowed to say no to unreasonable requests or There’s no choice but to grade at night and on the weekends. It says that the constraints under which you work are not just real but debilitating — that there is nothing you can do. But that’s not true. There is always something you can do to advocate for yourself and exert control over your life and work. It may not be much. And to be clear, it may not have the extent that I have — as a white, male, cisgendered, tenured full Professor drowning in all kinds of privilege. But as we’ll see, no matter what constraints you may be working under, there will always be some simple, inexpensive thing you can do to gain just a little more territory in this ongoing battle. So we will keep our thoughts positive and work with what we’ve got.
  3. You are responsible for your own career. That narrative I just mentioned grows out of a very real culture of overwork and, frankly, exploitation that higher education perpetuates and is at least partially responsible for constructing. It’s on all of us to keep working to reverse that culture. But let’s also be clear: That culture is not going to change soon. Nobody is coming to rescue us. Instead, fair or otherwise, each person has to work with what they’ve got to make change for themselves and to advocate for others. This can be risky and difficult. But it’s necessary, given what we know about the pace of change in this business.
  4. Doing simple things consistently within a coherent framework is the key. The best way to fight back against this culture, given our constraints, is to keep things as simple as humanly possible. At this blog, we will adopt no tool, no idea, no system unless it solves more problems than it causes, and unless it can be used by an ordinary human being without requiring more training, tech savvy, time, or energy than we have to give it. Think about my Franklin Planner. It’s a neat tool; but it didn’t work because it was just a tool, not a system; and insofar as there was a system for using it, it wasn’t simple or coherent enough. Rather than yet another lifehack or “productivity tool” (which is usually just a device for making money off of people’s anxiety about not being productive) we need simple things, that fit into a larger coherent philosophy, that ordinary people under great constraints can do consistently, given intentional focus.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.