Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Thoughts on productivity: Why my work isn't the same as your work and that's okay

There has been a lot of conversation lately about productivity, busy-ness, output, efficiency, and how it does (or doesn't) pertain to academic life. Work life balance is a topic that comes up with my clients, with my colleagues, with my friends and here is where it all stops for me:

Productivity isn't measurable, except by the amount of important things that you finish. 

This is important for three interrelated reasons:

  1. Looking at others schedules, their hours put in, or comparing yourself to how quickly or slowly you think others finish work is usually a quicksand trap that you can't escape. 
  2. Your experience of focus is entirely and thoroughly subjective, and therefore hard to measure, let alone compare. 
  3. You have to define what the key objectives are for yourself, and completing yours might look wildly different than someone else completing theirs. 

So let's take it point by point.

1. As much as I love Shut Up and Write sessions, and the inclusive definitions of writing that many coaches and editors subscribe to, it is hard in community to define what a good "pace" of writing is. I can write a couple hundred word blog post in an hour or so, but it might take me two hours to write a paragraph in an academic article. Your numbers might be wildly different. They probably are. And that's just one facet of things! 

When I was a grad student, I became aware of the ways in which faculty were cagey or obscured the amount of writing that they did on a daily, or even weekly, basis. Those faculty members who were most vocal about their routines (and most easily offering them up as models) were often people who had a lot of support around the administrative parts of their lives - partners, local family support, salaries that allowed them to pay for things like house cleaning and meal delivery services, living in locations that made commuting easy, research assistants, teaching assistants. I say this not to shame anyone but to acknowledge that the amount of truly available time for writing every day varies wildly from person to person. 

If a faculty member you admire, or one that advises you, tells you that the key to making progress on your dissertation is being able to spend four to six uninterrupted hours on it, every day, and your life makes that difficult, it is so easy to fall into believing that you will never finish because you can't make that requirement happen.  

I have many clients that aim to write a page a day (or read five or ten pages a day). But how that happens looks so different for each individual person:

  • Some write first thing in the morning, before their day job when their mind is clear and the distractions are the fewest.
  • Some write before bed, when the house is sleeping and they've had all day to chew on their topic and what they want to write.
  • Some write in spurts throughout the day, bouncing between other tasks and writing when it feels easiest. 
  • And still others write three pages in a long, protected block, every third day (or save them all up for a weekend day!) 

It's just impossible to accurately compare when so many factors are variable. 

2. Just recently, I complained to my therapist that I have lost my ability to focus whatsoever. And then I went on, in the next breath, to tell her how I've read five murder mystery books in the last ten days, and she reminded me that it isn't that I can't focus, it's that some tasks feel different than others in terms of what that focus looks like. 

This was such an aha moment for me! If I'm regularly completing my work, and the quality is good, but I have to use a Forest extension and time my work sessions with a pom timer to do it, that doesn't mean I'm less focused - it just means that I use different tools in that situation. As many with ADHD symptoms will tell you - hyperfocus and lack of focus are two sides of the same coin - and you have to treat each situation with tools that are specific and called for in that instance. What works for you when you're reading fiction might not work for you when you're cleaning up data. Not better, not worse, just different.

And as far as comparison goes - I may "look" focused to someone who sees me typing a way in a coffee shop, but as my free-writing software will assure you, half of the time I'm writing about what I want to each for lunch, or responding to emails that don't need an instant response, or working on scheduling social media posts when I really should be doing network maintenance for Thrive PhD. 

3. Which brings us to point three: only you truly know what your priorities are on any given day. This is why I think planning and task management is such a key, under-discussed part of productivity: who cares if you're knocking out tasks a million miles an hour if they're not the things that are most important for you to be doing right now? 

On a related note, other people often put things on your priority list, but only you get to decide if they stay there. Because I'm a human being that lives in the world, sometimes my personal life is more important than work - and that's okay! So just because I'm not "productive" in an #AcWri sense that day doesn't mean it was a wasted day - my priorities were just not with my work that day. 

Only you know what is most important - but that's a double-edged sword. You have full permission to decide what is most important on any given day, but you also have sole responsibility to make sure that your focus, schedule, and efforts are in alignment with those priorities. That's true productivity - that's the standard we can all hold ourselves too, and still be inclusive in the process.