Why I don't write much about productivity any more

Why I don't write much about productivity any more
Photo by Steve Johnson / Unsplash

This is going to be a weird post, in which I write about not writing about things – in particular, about productivity (especially in academia). I'm writing this partially to explain the lack of content on this blog in that area; partially to get some things off my chest; partially to explain why productivity still matters to me, regardless; and partially to gauge how many people care about this subject. Like I said, a weird post.

I used to devote a lot of time to writing about academic productivity here. According to my dashboard, I've published 52 articles tagged "Productivity", 42 tagged "GTD" (abbreviation for the Getting Things Done methodology), 11 that are tagged "Balance" (often a shorthand for "productivity", see below), and a handful of lesser tags. There's also an entire subsection on GTD for Academics. Most of those tags overlap, so the number of posts isn't just the sum of the tag counts; but it's still a lot.

The most recent post tagged Productivity was this one, published exactly 90 days ago. The last post on GTD was 243 days ago. I post here at least once and usually twice a week – so that's a long time since productivity has made its way to the front page. What's the deal?

I haven't stopped thinking or caring about productivity and the practice of Getting Things Done. In fact I would say that productivity is as central to my worldview, and GTD as vital in my day-to-day, as it has ever been. It can't not be top of mind: I'm navigating new and shifting work responsibilities, in a world that's volatile in general and inhospitable to higher education in particular, while at the same time trying to raise three teenage kids and be a decent husband and take care of my mental and physical health. If you enter into a scenario like that without a plan, without a methodology, and without discipline – you're roadkill.

No, I'm practicing GTD daily, listening to the David Allen podcasts, re-reading the books, using good tools, and all of that. I'm just not writing a lot about it here. Why not, if it's so prominent in my lived experience?

Reason 1: Misunderstandings about what productivity is

I think the main reason is that the very word "productivity" has been misconstrued by so many people, especially in academia, that it's become a toxic brand. "Being more productive" has come to be interpreted as doing more work with the same (or smaller) amount of resources and support. So yeah, that's toxic.

But it's certainly not what I mean by the term "productivity". My meaning is almost the opposite: Accomplishing the same or more, in less time and with the same amount of resources, and getting away with it. This might be better labeled as "efficiency" than "productivity" and there would be some truth to that. But I'm not interested in adding 10 hours of work to my week; I'm interested in subtracting time at work from my week — spending significantly less time grading, doing committee stuff, etc. while still producing the same level and quality of results, if not moreso; all so that I can stop working at a reasonable time and spend more time doing other things.

David Allen once said in a podcast that he didn't invent GTD to do more work – he invented it so he could sleep as much as possible. That's where I'm coming from. I enjoy my work, but I have zero desire to do it day and night and in all locations. I have other things to attend to. So I have a wall of separation, a set of hard boundaries on time and space past which "work" is at best an uninvited guest. In order to enjoy life without guilt, I think you have to have that wall, even though it's also important to have integration between your work and personal lives. And the cost of maintaining that wall is discipline: Having some kind of methodology, a plan, for making it happen.

The pursuit of that methodology and the development of that discipline, is what I mean by "productivity". But when I bring it up, it tends to get shot down because it's more easily interpreted as "doing more with less". We all keep talking past each other.

Reason 2: "I just can't"

It seems like ever since the pandemic started, when I bring up productivity to a wide audience, the response has not been This seems difficult, and it might be easier for you than it is for me; but it still seems like a valuable thing to think about and I wonder what I can do about it. The response instead has mostly been I just can't and you don't understand.

I fully get the fact that — as a white, male, cisgendered, American, middle-aged tenured Full Professor — I am in a way better position to implement GTD or other methodologies than others. When people give the "I can't do it because..." responses, I do try to listen and learn.

But I still stand by two claims.

First: I maintain that anyone, regardless of who or where they are, can do something to apply productivity methodologies — as I defined above — and make their lives incrementally better if they are willing to work with what they've got and make and then stick to a plan. For example, installing the habit of capturing what comes across your attention is not fundamentally different or harder for a person drowning in privilege, like me, than it is for anyone else — and while that one habit is not a complete methodology, it's not nothing, and it entails no significant financial cost or investment in time. Saying "no" to unreasonable work requests is also something that costs no money or time. (The objection there is that doing so will give you a bad reputation or even cost you your job; while I'm clear on the issue, I'm still waiting to hear from someone to whom this actually happened.)

Second: Not only can academics do nontrivial things using only the resources they have and without significant costs, we must do them, because the alternative is job hell — stuck in a position where you are demoralized and have no agency or purpose. For too many, the system in which we work suppresses that agency. But I firmly believe it's never truly gone, and the surest and simplest way to resist and ultimately reform that system is to do what we can with what we've got.

Anyway, I stand by those two claims, but it's a hard sell.

Reason 3: Productivity is impossible to understand apart from lived experiences

I've joked in the past that GTD is my second religion, behind Catholicism. Recently though — around about the time of my last productivity post — I started realizing that there's something to the "productivity as religion" idea. I find it virtually impossible to explain to someone why I am a Christian, and particularly a Catholic, because it's inextricably linked to my lived subjective experience as a human being. You would have to literally inhabit my body and mind for several weeks to get why I willingly adhere to such an obviously flawed and outrageous idea as the Roman Catholic Church.  

Productivity is similar. I can, and have described in great detail why academics should embrace productivity methodologies like (but not necessarily equal to) GTD; why I think anybody can at least partially implement those methodologies; why now more than ever, the mental health and burnout crises are a hurricane siren calling us all to take productivity seriously — at least get your unread email down to three digits or less, for crying out loud — before we all crash and burn.

I like to think that this has been helpful. I know that it is somewhat helpful to some people because I read the emails and contact form submissions saying so. But anymore, I think you just either get it or you don't, and some dude's blog isn't going to move the needle that much unless you are already mostly converted. (Indeed, my Google Analytics tells me that the Productivity tagged posts are near the bottom in terms of unique page views.)

Moreover, how I practice GTD is fluid. It's pretty canonical in some weeks and fast-and-loose in others. I go all-digital on Monday sometimes then all-analog on Tuesday. I may have 100% efficiency and energy for a while, then go through a multi-day bout with insomnia and do nothing. It's all so deeply ingrained with my day-to-day lived experiences that writing about it, like writing about music, feels like dancing about architecture.

And your point is...?  

This was a weird post, right? It feels like me whining, and that's not my intent. I've just been living with these thoughts for a while and I felt making them public would be helpful, for me and for anyone else who might be wondering where all the GTD content went.

This was all spurred by an email I got out of the blue from a reader encouraging me to package all the productivity content here into a book. I'm not sure about that, but I've given some thought to starting up a Substack about productivity in general and in academia in particular (like the one for Grading For Growth) so that those who want to hear about this can subscribe and those who don't, don't have to deal with it. If you like that idea, leave a comment or let me know in some other way.

But mostly I am content to let GTD stay as my "second religion" and keep it as something I am personally strongly affiliated with, let it percolate into and inform my daily life, and then write about that instead.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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