Thursday, January 16, 2014

on productivity

"Be productive" is certainly one of the mantras following me around since I started my PhD. Being productive in the sense of using my mental and time resources well, not slacking around and procrastinating too much, creating some measurable and valuable output. Being productive sounds very easy and I've been to tons of time management seminars and alike to identify and avoid all the things stealing my time and draining my brain. Still, it's a constant process of improvement and failure and a lot of "tomorrow I'll get started". My productivity is a very sensitive fairy. Easily influenced by external circumstances, tiredness, hunger, the degree of productivity follows a certain pattern throughout the day with it's daily maximum fluctuating a lot. I've always envied people who seem to be able to be very present and concentrated throughout the whole day. I'm not as you can see in the graph below:
Whoosh's productivity trend throughout a normal working day
I am one of the people who have to get their most important stuff done in the morning, otherwise it'll not get done at all. Too bad, this conflicts with my desire to sleep a lot. Coffee and naps play an essential role in this pattern and if I'll ever have my own research group there will be a quiet space somewhere equipped with bean bags or hammocks for everyone in need of a nap*.
While this is the general trend of my productivity, the daily maximum can vary a lot from day to day. I'm usually less productive if we have a 40°C day with high humidity or if my office mates decide that 26°C is the perfect A/C temperature setting (I'm more the 21°C type). I'm less productive if something or someone bothers me or if I have too many different things on my plate as well as when the mental pressure to get something done is too low.
But the one thing that can overrule most negative influences on my productivity and keep me working even through bad food coma dips is progress. Seeing the progress of my experiments or paper writing or whatever I'm doing is a huge motivation to keep me going. Sometimes even tiny progress steps are enough to motivate me for another hour of work which I would otherwise have spend in zombie mode. 
So I have to take care that I get in a motivation creating mode as soon as I enter the office. Which means I have to avoid all the pitfalls that distract me from my important tasks. I've mentioned writing to-do lists before and how well it served me during my PhD but somehow failed me now that I am a Post-Doc. I still use to-do lists a lot but I needed to take them to the next level. It is not enough anymore to write up my to-do's for the day in the morning of the same day as this list would be too biased by my momentary preferences and the more unpleasant chunks of work would get pushed away further and further.
So at the moment my motivation strategy involves the following subjects and procedures:
  • a general paper list of all of my current projects
  • a paper list of the stuff I want to do during a particular week, which I write new every Friday evening for the following week. It contains very specific sub tasks of my general projects as well as all of my appointments and all the tiny bits and pieces which need to be done.
  • parallel to this process I give all these tasks and appointments a time slot in my Outlook calendar - esp. time slots reserved for checking and answering my emails! In the beginning I thought it was very strange to structure my big writing tasks as well as tiny stuff like expense reimbursement paperwork with fixed time slots, but after giving it a try for a week I found that it gives me a better feel for how long each task takes and it is quite rewarding when I'm done with a task earlier than planned. And Outlook still allows to shuffle time slots around if necessary.
  • as there is always a long list of things on which I can't continue working because I wait for other people's replies, I create follow-up notifications to remind myself to remind others
  • on Friday evening I additionally clear of my desk
So before I leave the office on Friday I have a good overview of what to expect next week and I have a non-messy desk to come back to.
  • I'll certainly do some work on the weekend, but as all of the tasks will be all on my list for the next week I can cross them off directly on Monday morning on my paper list - yeah!
  • Monday morning (and all other mornings) then starts with opening Outlook, but not on the Email page but on the Calendar page. I try to start working on the task I've given myself, which might be an urgent one, but most days I can give myself 2 hours of writing time before I do anything else, before my office colleagues turn up and before the first hunger-dip in my productivity level hits me. 
  • The first time I check my emails is after I'm done with my first time slot of the day, which is then usually followed by a coffee break.
  • Every task that is finished is then crossed of my paper to-do list - for some reason this visual progress is very important for me to realize what I have done during the day
This kind of pre-structuring of my work has helped me a lot to get going right when I sit down in front of my computer instead of wasting a lot of time checking emails and thinking about what would be the best task to start working on. There are very few days when I can perfectly stick to my plan. But even after a disruption it's easier to just refer back to the plan than to start thinking again about what would be the best use of my time right now.

So forcing myself to create tiny progress steps helps a lot to keep up my motivation and with this my productivity. 
Since I'm working more from home now and with the LittleOne arriving soon, all this structure has fallen apart and was replaced by sleeping longer, enjoying nice breakfasts with my partner, taking regular afternoon naps*, spending an increasing amount of time with my GP and midwife on all the standard check-ups they do here and going through the baby stuff we've got from friends and family. In between I'm writing on my big proposal, asking for equipment quotes, checking the proofs of my latest paper,... .  All very much unstructured and driven by my momentary mood and less productive than it could be. A new structure will be needed at some point, but if and to what extend that's possible with a newborn - we'll see. Not sure LittleOne will fit into Outlook time slots! So any tips and tricks how to handle work with a newborn are more than welcome!

* This post for example was supported by a food coma nap from 2-3 pm!

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