Honest Productivity Hacks: How Not to Suck at Grad School

For a host of reasons both personal and professional (but mostly sloth), I have been away from writing this nominally monthly blog. I am feeling recharged and as if I have something to say again. Therefore, this marks the return of “how not to suck at grad school.” The goal is to create a new blog post every month. I am also giving some thought to putting together a series of short books based on this blog: how not to suck at grad school, how not to suck as a postdoc, how not to suck as a new professor, and how not to suck as a research supervisor. There may be a need for short, easy to read, and inexpensive books on these topics. Let me know what you think. I am also open to suggestions and ideas for putting such project together.

Honest Productivity Hacks: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Steven R. Shaw

Every day there is a growing number of articles, blog posts, websites, and aphorisms that promote productivity hacks. Academics, like all business people, worship at the altar of productivity. Maximizing productivity is the goal and ultimate achievement for everyone. But then, of course, we whine about work-life balance being out of whack. Hacks refer to magic shortcuts or workarounds from the basic rules, programs, constraints, and demands that limit functioning. Therefore, academics search for that one golden tip or miracle trick that will minimize long hours and maximize productivity. Such a thing does not exist. Probably the most effective productivity hack I can give is to stop reading articles about productivity hacks and use that time to get something accomplished.

There is no such thing as a hack or a shortcut. There is no replacement for time on task. However, there are always ways to become more efficient and effective with the time that we have for work. Everyone has a different style of work, life demands, professional expectations, and career ambitions that make a one-size-fits-all approach to work productivity impossible to achieve. Rather than productivity hacks, I prefer to call these efficiency increasing tactics.

Foundation

Efficiency increasing tactics are methods of fine-tuning along the fringes of a strong foundation of productivity. Typically, the foundation consists of seven stages. 1) goals: articulation of the end state or result of productivity efforts; 2) priorities: because you can only do one thing at a time, goals must be sorted into a sequence from immediate to long-term; 3) scheduling: a to-do list of goals and priorities without a time scheduled and dedicating to complete the tasks is nothing more than a wish list; 4) habit: professionals do not run on inspiration, they run on habit and discipline. Productivity requires consistent effort whether the mood is there or not; 5) execution: during the time required to work on goals there must be effort, focus, and single-minded energy directed to the task; 6) follow-up: when the task or work is complete for the day, the final step is to develop a new plan for what comes next; and 7) revisions: no set of goals, priorities, and scheduling will be perfect. Unexpected demands, bad days, and external pressures may require revising the stages of the foundation of productivity. Understanding that revising the plan is part of the plan helps to reduce stress, self-flagellation, and overall feelings of failure when events interfere with the original foundation.

Four Efficiency Increasing Tactics

Forget hacks. Here are four tactics for increasing efficiency within your foundation.

Investment. All goals require significant behind-the-scenes work to support them. Investment of time and energy is something that is always ignored, underestimated, or not considered in the time budget for any project. Investments include things such as reading literature; researching appropriate journal and grant funding outlets; receiving input from peers; manuscript preparation; troubleshooting errors in data, coding, and analysis; maintaining a laboratory or idea notebook; monitoring the most recent research; and revising multiple drafts of product. All projects require an investment of time and energy that is often thankless and necessary. Usually, the more experienced one becomes the less time-intensive the investment is. Failure to plan for this investment is why time allotted for a project is nearly always underestimated. Develop a schedule that accounts for the investment of time and you are less likely to be frustrated, timelines for achieving goals will be more accurate, and the quality of work will be better.

Focus. There may be time scheduled, but monkey mind frequently gets in the way. The focus bounces from one task to another. The basics are to make sure that you have eaten, bladder is comfortably empty, your door is closed, and you are at an ergonomically effective workspace. Remember your priorities and work on the current and most urgent project with full focus. For me, usually this is enough to stay on task. During challenging times, I switch to the Pomodoro method that requires 25 minutes of intense time on task followed by a five-minute break. If I am really struggling with monkey mind, then I take a five-minute break for simple breathing meditation that helps to manage intrusive thoughts. You can only do one thing at a time, so focus and do it well and efficiently. Only when one thing is finished, can you move on to the next thing. Thinking about the large number of projects ahead is the enemy.

Downtime. Everyone requires downtime during the day. Forcing yourself to work every second of the day is not realistic. During the day, downtime is used to play Candy crush, mindlessly scroll through Twitter or Facebook, stare into the void, or otherwise waste time. Nearly everyone needs mini-breaks. My advice is to make sure that your downtime is full and useful downtime. Semi-working or multitasking between productivity and downtime means that you are not using your downtime effectively or achieving productivity effectively. The worst of both worlds. Examples of a full downtime include a 20-minute nap, in-office yoga session, going for a walk, or another form of full relaxation and removal from activities. Most of us need downtime for mini-rest and recovery period. Make sure that you use your downtime well.

Time scraps. We all have 10 minutes or so here or there, multiple times in the course of the day. Waiting for meetings to begin, waiting for a late colleague, 30 minutes between appointments, time saved by eating lunch at your desk, and many other time scraps. Most of us waste these times and treat them as inefficient downtime. Not coincidentally, most emails and administrative tasks require less than two minutes for full completion. Before the day begins, collect mini-tasks and have them at the ready. Then use your time scraps for emails, filling forms, some grading, signatures, and administrative tasks. Time scraps for substantive and thoughtful work is possible, but requires the ability to shift focus on a dime. Most of us cannot do that with any effectiveness.

These four tactics for increasing efficiency are not hacks. There is no magic or new way of thinking. These are simply easy approaches that can make the core process of productivity work a little bit better.

Conclusion

Productivity hacks are usually ways of deluding ourselves into thinking that somehow we can beat the system to improve our work life balance. Most often this effort is a fool’s errand and increases imbalance of work and life. The best way to have a quality life and a strong career is to have developed a strong foundation for productivity and to develop a set of tactics to fine-tune your efficiency. Not hacks, smart habits.

Mental health and senior faculty: How not to suck in grad school (a post for your future) 

Disclaimer 

As always, this is a personal blog. If you want research on the matter, this is not the place. This is my place to rant and try to be helpful. Welcome. 

Mental health and senior faculty: How not to suck in grad school (a post for your future) 

SRShaw 

Twitter is lousy with comments about how academia is bad for mental health. It seems to be. Here is my perspective, a white male who has had some career success, good luck in life, and is in mid-career; but also has experienced a host of stressors and the onset of mental health issues. The nature of the stressors is serious, but personal. Not a secret, but I will keep these things to myself for purposes of this post. I hope that it is helpful for people to read that no matter how events might appear on the outside, mental health issues can happen to anyone. 

Academia as a Cause of MH Issues

I am not sure that academia causes MH problems. I have worked in far more stressful, pathogenic, and competitive environments. Remember that in my last jobs I had to make profit or my unit (with 21 employees) would be eliminated, I was threatened with a gun, cut with a knife, conducted CPR twice, attended 32 child and adolescent funerals, bitten twice, and a host of other challenging stuff I do not want to discuss. I am reasonably well tempered to stress. A paper rejection, senior colleagues with world-class toxic insecurity issues, and general unfairness and pettiness do not phase me much. I have a minor fear of beating colleagues, who abuse or harass students and junior colleagues, to a life-altering pulp, but I am a gentle soul—so that feeling passes quickly. But I get it, the sometimes arbitrary and often actively unfair nature of the work can be dispiriting, maddening, and is a stressor.       

Self selection in academia tends to collect a population of people who are conscientious, driven, and often feed on heavy workloads and stress. These traits have much overlap with anxious traits. We probably start out at higher risk for MH problems. To survive graduate school and pursue a tenure-track position or persist in adjunct positions requires a set of characteristics and skills that are far different than most non-academics require and may place us at risk for mental health issues. 

Deviation from norm. Academics are unusually smart folks (if you persist in not believing this, then you are clearly sheltered, only hang out with other high intelligence people, and are ignoring over 100 years of solid research). Typically, academics differ from the mean in intelligence, ambition, focus, and many other traits. And academia seems to be one of a handful of endeavors where a lack of social skills does not disqualify a person from achieving at the highest levels. I suspect that the more a person deviates from the mean on any trait, the higher stressors they are required to address (this is why changing and broadening norms and means in academia are valuable goals).  

High competition environments that are zero sum tend to lead to isolation, feelings of failure, and distrust of others. Adding to the isolation is the cloistered aspect of academia that creates a feeling that no one understands the rarified work and culture of the profession. The only people who understand are those who are potential competitors. Not much support.      

Senior Academic Issues 

Bad news. Many of you think that grad student or early career mental health concerns will get better when you graduate, when you get married or have life stability, when you gain a tenure track job, when you save money, when you get tenure, when you win a grant, when you make full professor. Nope. Hate to spoil your life. Mental health problems get worse. Even those of you without mental health issues still can develop problems even if all seems good from the outside. 

Worse coping. I always thought that my coping skills would improve as I become older and wiser. Not so much. For me, stressors hit harder emotionally and require more energy to cope. Regulating emotions is no longer an effortless activity, it takes a lot more of energy and work as I age.  

Accumulation of issues. Stressors do not come and go, they accumulate. The older you get, the more challenging the barnacles of life become. Stressors stick, they do not slide off, no matter how skilled you may be at coping. Every stressor leaves a heavier and deeper mark as I get older. 

Defending the old. The saying that “the first half of the life of an academic is building and creating ideas and the second half is defending those ideas against inevitable change” has some truth. Even if the destructive nature of this thinking is apparent, problems remain. Staying relevant as new ideas surpass and replace the ideas that one has learned, mastered, and has had success with is difficult and consuming. As mental energy is not what it was, the task of continuously growing becomes more challenging. 

You will be passed. Every scholar will find that their ideas are surpassed or disproved. That is what should happen. The ideas and mistakes are the foundation on which the next generation builds. It is still a blow to ego when the field has moved on and you are still alive and working. Training and socializing the next generation of scholars and thinkers is the only real way to have long term influence. So support and help those people. Simply leaving as solid a collection of errors and rubble for others to build upon needs to be good enough. 

Loss. This is the worst. At some point, you realize that you are attending more funerals than marriages and baptisms. As a side note, this is why academics should attend their students’ graduation ceremonies—a rare positive major event. There is a loss of hair, energy, mental clarity, fitness, and health is no longer taken for granted. People lose their parents, spouses, and friends drift away. It happens to everyone. And the coping with inevitable stressors of life becomes more challenging. Loss accumulates. And each one is more difficult than the last.  

None of this is terrible. I am among the fortunate who have had these things arise later in life. Many, if not most people, are forced to face these issues much earlier.   

Some Ideas for Preventing or Addressing the Issues 

Continuously build social supports. From the age of 28 to 48, I made no new friends. I never thought about it. I met many people I liked very much, but cannot call them good friends. I think men tend to do this. There is work and there is family. Not much energy for anything else. The unfortunate saying that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate” is quite true for me. These social supports are needed. I have met a truly special person in the last few years that I can safely call my best friend. I have been open to developing other close friendships. I appreciate how important these people are. I wish I had invested more energy into keeping old friends close and being open to new friends when I was younger. It makes a difference. I am lucky to have learned this later, rather than never. 

Get help sooner rather than later. Being very sad or extremely anxious happens to most people occasionally. Despite the discomfort, most often these issues will pass or are effectively coped with. When these issues affect family life, work life, or any other aspect of functioning; then immediately seek support. Perhaps the supports are informal at first. But don’t wait. Do not believe that you have always handled stress well and the present feelings are no different. Avoid common maladaptive coping skills—working more hours, drugs/alcohol, risky behaviours, and so on. When functioning is affected seek formal support, if needed, rather than assuming this too will pass. 

Keep pursuing the new. Becoming stagnant is becoming old, both physically and mentally. I am fortunate to have returned to judo training and regular gym work over the last 5 years. I am tackling a brand-new research program, I have come to learn the promise of ideas that I once dismissed, and trying to keep thoughts fresh and continuously improve. This is hard work. But it is renewing work and I value it.   

Conclusions 

This is not a pity situation. I remain among the luckiest of people. Few people have the quality of supports, privilege, and stability that I possess. The point is that there is no finish line. There is no time at which all your problems will disappear, and everything will be perfect. Every stage, even the most stable and successful bring challenges. And those issues are inevitable. Graduate students and early career researchers can continue to build supports and relationships that will prepare them for hard times now and in the future. Mental health issues for senior academics are common and only slightly different than the issues affecting more junior colleagues. Managing these issues well is a wonderful opportunity to grow and re-invent oneself and avoid the stagnant life that will certainly lead to a permanent decline. This is an opportunity and a challenge.  

Making Sense of the Avalanche of Advice Given to Students, Postdocs, and ECRs: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Making Sense of the Avalanche of Advice Given to Students, Postdocs, and ECRs: How Not to Suck in Grad School

SR Shaw

Advice is everywhere for academics. The paths, roles, and functions for new academics are so inscrutable that there is an entire library of books, academic Twitter, and hundreds of blog posts with advice on how to make the path knowable. For example, an article entitled, “23 books that fix 99% of PhD problems” (http://www.nextscientist.com/books-phd-problems/) is typical. There is the risk that little progress will be made on the research that needs to be accomplished because so much time and energy are spent reading books, developing increasingly efficient calendars and to do lists, and learning the latest planning and organizing software. The irony is not lost on me in that this blog post is yet another piece of advice on the topic of advice. A little meta-advice might be helpful for organizing the volumes of information that are available.

Advice has traditionally been the purview of old men who are too tired and decrepit to serve as a bad example. But given the wildly variable criteria for success as a graduate student, postdoc, or early career researcher; advice giving is a cottage industry that is mostly populated by well-meaning and talented professors. To some degree, the widely varied advice is a sure sign that no one knows what they are doing. Contrary to the common belief, academics are often kind and helpful to peers and students. Because we are all in this together, sharing information is most often a kind act.

Be Skeptical

There are still a few families of advice that are not particularly helpful. One is the meaningless advice that includes words such as should, must, ought, needs to, and similar judgment words. This is not honest advice. This is someone’s opinion of the way the world should be if they oversaw everything. This form of advice is rarely useful. Old man status quo advice is also not useful. This is the type of advice that reports on the way things used to be and assumes that there is a universal and one-track approach to success. This form of advice ignores the heterogeneous paths to success, diversity, changes in culture, and consideration that there might be a better way. A related type of useless advice is “this is what I do, so unless you want to fail, you should do it, too.” When advice glorifies the advisor without providing ideas that can be implemented, and there may be a different agenda than being helpful.

Beware of Cynicism

The response to much academic advice is cynicism. I recently heard an experienced academic give the advice that he has no advice to give because the job market is so different than it was 20 years ago. This was lauded as excellent and accurate advice. This is not useful advice, but it is accurate. That this comment was given such plaudits is a good measure of the degree of cynicism concerning academic advice.

Much advice from senior academics is dismissed as survivorship bias. This is certainly an issue if the assumption is that the advice is essential to discriminate successful from unsuccessful people. I doubt there is any advice that can withstand scrutiny of a serious program evaluation. This claim takes the validity and importance of advice a little too seriously.

Another popular cynical line of thought is that luck plays such a large role in academic success that any advice on behaviour is not useful. This way of thinking is not only cynical, but absurd. Just about everything in life is a stochastic process. It is true that luck plays a large role in the job I have, whether grants are funded, or papers accepted. But luck also played a role in my parents meeting, surviving an auto accident when I was two years old, being assigned an inspirational teacher in grade 6, not getting meningitis during a local outbreak, and countless events that did or did not happen and which I had no control over. Academia, like life, is a noisy system. I believe that any information that can change the probability, even a little bit, can be helpful.

Criticizing the source of information is also cynical and not particularly useful. If advice comes from people of a different age, discipline, gender, ethnic group, linguistic group, or sexual orientation; information can still prove helpful. The assumption of such criticisms is that there is that advice is necessarily universal. Only the truly arrogant and addled make the case that their advice is perfect, universal, and should be implemented by everyone. As in nearly all cases when information is intended to change behaviours to result in a better outcome, context is everything. There is likely a slightly higher probability that advice will be effective if it comes from individuals with similar life experiences and applied in similar contexts, yet valuable information can come from any source.

Organization

Communicating specific information to be implemented in a public platform is always difficult. Broad information is universally appealing, but not useful. Specific information may be useful, but has appealed to only a limited number of users. Information such as “be kind” is appealing to a large number of people, but is so vague as to be functionally useless. Specific information such as “the time spent disinfecting materials when working with preschoolers is a sound investment” is helpful, but only applies to a few people. Knowing exactly what you are looking for helps to locate narrow and useful advice that may not receive a lot of retweets and likes, but is extraordinarily useful. Broad information is like other aphorisms: may be true and are nice inspiration, but not practical advice to change your behavior.

Purpose

The true value of advice found in books, blogs, and on the Internet is what purpose that you have for these nuggets of potential wisdom. Knowing your purpose is a critical component of accepting and implementing any advice or wisdom. What you hope to gain from the advice? Where are your systemic limitations? What skills do you already possess? What goals would you like to achieve with new advice? What are the values that you wish to communicate and implement following advice? Unless you know where you want to go, there can be no filter to determine which advice is valuable and which is useless.

Change. If you are trying to change from an unsuccessful process or behaviour, then searching about the Internet and books for life-changing bits of information is inefficient and barely more useful than random. If you have inefficient work habits or ideas and wish to change, the most efficient and best approach is to have a consultant, mentor, instructor, coach, or therapist listen carefully to your needs, resources and previous efforts to address the issue, the needs of your context and environment; and then develop a detailed strategy with you. That strategy can then be modified, implemented, evaluated, adjusted, re-implemented, and reevaluated with guidance.  

Confirmation. Many times, we read bits of advice from experienced scholars to confirm that what were already doing is the right thing. Given the diversity of work habits, procedures, and processes; it is easy to be insecure about such things. If your approaches and processes result in efficient and quality outcomes, then do not worry about it. Second-guessing is not an efficient way to go through your career. There are no magic bullets for academic work. You are doing fine. If there is a need to change, then see the above paragraph.

Exploring ideas. The best reason to seek out advice books is to browse. Academic advice is very much like aphorisms for life, easy to read, witty, insightful, but rarely useful. Browse advice because it is fun and possible to find minor bits of information and tweaking of your current process. I find this to be the most useful approach to advice books, blogs, and tweets.

Conclusions

Most advice is probably useful for someone in some conditions. The utility of the advice tends to depend on context. And no one knows your context better than you. Because something does not work for you, does not mean the advice is bad. Most typically, the most effective advice requires an educated consumer who knows the purpose of the advice they are seeking and finds advice givers who tend to understand your values and context. Seeking professional advice on Twitter, blogs, or other Internet sites is a bit of a scavenger hunt. The best advice is to search for a mentor who can assist you in creating custom made process wisdom rather than off-the-rack advice from the Internet.