Why should academics be productive?

Why should academics be productive?

A few months ago, I stopped into the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up stuff for dinner. I ran into one of my math department colleagues in the produce section, and she was a bit surprised to find me there. "So," she said, "you do eat."

I asked her what she meant, and she explained that my reputation for productivity at work --- not just for how much I get done but for how much I think, write, and talk about productivity --- had led her to believe that I must be giving up a lot of normal human behaviors (like apparently eating). I assured her that the opposite is closer to the truth, that when I leave campus, I pass through a wall of separation past which no work is allowed. In fact, I explained, the whole reason I obsess about productivity is that I want to eat, sleep, watch soccer, hang out with my family, etc. as much as possible.

I was thinking about this over the weekend, after writing yet another post on productivity in academia, which I imagined produced some serious eye-rolling in some readers (Good Lord, not another post on GTD!) as well as reading this really good article on the dark side of productivity. I felt like it was time for a post where I explain the why behind my thinking on productivity, and why I think it's important for academics in general to think about it too.

Let me start with what I think productivity is not about.

Productivity is not simply about "efficiency", that is, getting more work done in the same amount of time or less. Yes, a productive person can be more efficient at work. But to make efficiency the chief end of productivity is to reduce human beings to machines. Well, we're not machines. We are human beings with a desire to do meaningful work, sure, but also desires that go far beyond work: We want to have meaningful relationships with friends and family. We want to rest. We (especially in academia) want to learn and pursue knowledge. We want to enjoy our life's experiences and have sides to our humanity that are not attached to something that's put into a tenure file. All of these are incredibly inefficient from a work standpoint, and they are a large part of what makes life worth living. If productivity is just about getting more done at the office, then it's the most vain and inhuman pursuit of all time (besides possibly Instagram).

Productivity is also not supposed to be an end in itself. Speaking of vain pursuits, the purpose of productivity is not so that you can post about it and elicit wonder from other people about how awesomely productive you are. That would be like working out solely for the purpose of posting selfies of your hyper-toned abs to Facebook. Believe me, I'm keenly aware that I can sometimes lapse into this (productivity-bragging, not toned abs) when I write posts about productivity, and I apologize for that because this helps nobody.

So what is the purpose of being so obsessive about attentive to productivity? I can only speak for myself, but I think this might resonate with a lot of my faculty colleagues:

We are human beings with a fundamental human right to balanced, enjoyable lives. The purpose of productivity is to make sufficient time and space in order to fully access that right.

Let me give some personal background on this.

I've written before about how I got started with Getting Things Done (GTD) based on a funny episode in the hallway with a former dean. But there's more to it than that. Around this time --- a time during which I was hopelessly inundated with tasks, projects, massively overfull email inboxes, etc. and no concept, much less a system, for dealing with it --- my wife and I got a surprise: We were having a third child.

Our oldest two were 2 and 4 years old at the time, and we were stretched to the limit. Our finances were tenuous because we'd moved into a house that was too expensive for us, and my wife and I were working all the time to make enough money. Our time with the kids suffered;  there wasn't much of that time and when we did have time for the kids, we were exhausted from work, and we didn't give them what they needed. Especially with my faculty work, and primarily because I had no system for doing it, I was working almost every night and weekend to stay afloat, taking even more time away from wife and kids. This exacerbated existing stresses at work, and I was bringing that stress home and transferring it to my family.

And into the midst of all that, a new baby was coming, with all the sleep deprivation, financial strain, and additional stress that comes with it. One day, I realized that the way I was handling life and work simply couldn't go on. I had to get on top of my time, information, projects, and finances or everything was going to fall apart.

In this heady environment, somehow I came across David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and although this sounds lame and creepy, that book changed and possibly saved my life. By putting into practice the principles of GTD, I learned how to align my work choices with the identity I wanted to have; I learned that I indeed have work choices and can, and should, say yes to some things and no to others, and how to go about doing so; I learned how to exert control over my work so that my work could get done at work and not migrate like an invasive species into my home life. Thus I was able to start being fully present both at work with my colleagues and students, as well as at home with family, without worrying about either one when I was with the other.

This was not about "efficiency", blog posts, or social media likes. It was about survival and about laying claim to my God-given right to have a life I enjoyed. It was also about the fact that I have precisely one chance and a terribly short amount of time to raise my children, and if I foul it up because I couldn't figure out how to put boundaries around my work, then I would regret it as long as I lived.

One thing I did not do in the process of learning GTD was believe the defeatist narrative that chronic overwork and absurd disorganization are simply part and parcel of an academic career. This, I have decided, is for the most part a story we academics tell ourselves[1]. Yes, we academics have a lot of work to do and it will constantly expand to fill the space that we provide it. Which is precisely why in academia we need to think more about how to put boundaries around that work and limit what we feed it.

This is why I write so much about productivity here: I am trying to get a message across to my colleagues, a message of good news that the way that academia tells us we have to live our lives --- centered around and fixated upon work --- doesn't have to be this way. If we are willing to choose a path of greater resistance, we can excel at our work, do excellent research, teach effectively, and do outstandig service work to our instutions without having to fork over every moment of life to the job.

The person who tells you otherwise is lying. The person who tells you, explicitly or otherwise, that you don't have the right to a balanced and enjoyable life, is lying.

So, in one real sense, you could say that the purpose of productivity is happiness. Intentionality about one's work is supposed to serve the larger good of making us all more balanced, satisfied, and therefore happy. This isn't easy, and it's not the default attitude in academia. (When's the last time you saw "happiness" as the intended outcome of a faculty initiative?) It takes work to keep your inboxes at or near zero most of the time, to build up a trusted system for managing your tasks and projects, for keeping that system maintained through consistent weekly review. It takes work to say "no" to a work request when you know it might make the other person mad or disappointed. But it's the kind of work that puts the rest of our work in its place --- the right place, a limited place, so that the rest of our lives can flourish. And in thinking and writing so much about all this, I hope to bring some happiness back into a world of higher education that I think sorely needs it.

Both we and the people who mean the most to us will be thankful for our pursuit of that work.

  1. As I write this, I am fully aware that some academics are in situations where overwork is not just a false narrative but perhaps inevitable. I'm thinking about contingent faculty, for example, working four or more different gigs and barely making ends meet. For people in that situation, I would just say: You still have the right to a balanced and enjoyable life. The goal for you is to find places where you can do something, and then do it, to reclaim that right. And if this becomes not just difficult but impossible, then realize it's OK to walk away from the career if you save your soul, as it were, in the process. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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