This is a multipart article about academic productivity of which this is the first one. The second one is here.
For a long time now, I have wondered what it actually means to be productive as an academic. I know my fair share about productivity in the world of freelance and I know my fair share of the work ethics in the academic world. They work quiet differently and I think, that we can’t apply freelance or corporate productivity to university-level work. Those who do, are continuously overworked and frustrated. In my opinion, there is a specific mindset behind academic productivity and I am beginning to start understanding it.
Productivity in a corporate world
So productivity is a clear concept: Do as much work as possible in the shortest amount of time or in other words: Getting Things Done. Different ideas behind productivity however, advertise different methods how to achieve that. David Allen describes in his book Getting Things Done how lists and priorities can help structuring your workload throughout your day. James Clear talks about habit forming in his book Atomic Habits and how these can make you more productive. Cal Newport promotes Deep Work as the only way on how we can achieve real productivity.
How you treat the result of this productivity is also up to you. You can take the extra time to relax or to work even more. In a corporate world, the latter is more or less necessary. The famous saying “time is money” holds true here, but does that count also for academia?
In my opinion, academic productivity is something else. We are not measured by money (well we are but we don’t look very good), but rather by results. Creating results however is tied to how much time we have to produce them. Therefore, the mindset behind academic productivity is different. This means we need a different approach.
The mindset behind academic productivity
A study published in 2019 finds, that rather the environment of the university you are working in is responsible for productivity than what you have learned about being productive in the first place .
Hence, where an individual works establishes an environmental mechanism for cumulative advantage, by which prestige in the past gets “locked in” via placement into more-prestigious departments, which directly facilitate greater success. This mechanism indicates a more limited role for doctoral prestige in predicting scientific contributions, and suggests that an individual’s productivity and prominence cannot be separated from their place in the academic system..
This means, that the environment, the colleagues, the office, the facilities are responsible for your productivity. At first sight, it seems, that there is nothing we can actually do about it, except change work places, right? No, I think building the right mindset for academic productivity is something that we all can do and it starts with the workplace. So what can we do?
First off, we need to be clear about what we need to be productive. For some it might mean to have more time or space. Some people will be more productive in a silent workplace and others need the constant discussion with colleagues. For me, it is actually all about a well-equipped and sorted workspace. I need my tech to run and my desk tidy. You know why? Because when my tech is not running, I’ll spend time fixing it and if my desk is not tidy, I’ll spend time cleaning it up. So my personal mindset is that of a running and clean workspace.
The workspace for academic productivity
In the end, everything that gives us peace and time to work will make us more productive. The difficult thing is, that it is hard to find the right mindset of your own. Many productivity gurus write about achieving the so-called “flow state”, where you are so into your own work, that you can’t even feel time passing by. In my opinion, this starts with the workspace your are doing your work in. To achieve a flow state, don’t get distracted. Cal Newport goes more into detail in his book Deep Work, but having a productive workspace, combined with no distractions (like social media, telephone or email) is the place to start.
Next time, I will talk about other parts of the university environment and how we can create a collaborative way of interacting with our colleagues.
If you are interested in the flow state, you can look at the TED talk by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.