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.


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.


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.