Lessons on Productivity

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Some years ago, an academic friend fell under the spell of Angela Duckworth’s work on grit. Hearing her argument only secondhand, I initially found it militaristic and anti-creative. Now, having finally read Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, I realize that I’ve been an unthinking believer in grit all along.

Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that success comes from marrying passion with perseverance. She argues that the most important element for achieving success is not talent, but a willingness to keep going when the going gets tough. The trick: Find something you love to do, and then stick to it. The empowerment part comes from her notion that we all have the ability to increase our stick-to-it-iveness.

Isn’t that how most of us do our academic jobs? We get to pick our topics, then we plop our butts in the chair and churn out the required work. We’ve chosen this profession, even though the odds of succeeding in it are getting slimmer by the day. We know going in that writing and publishing are more valued than teaching, and we understand that we will be expected to produce.

If you don’t experience academe as a calling, there are easier — and more profitable — ways to make a living. And that’s why some of us, when faced with colleagues who can’t seem to get their work done, may think of them as weak or undisciplined.

When I talk to junior faculty members and graduate students about productivity, I urge them to treat writing like a routine. Carve out inviolable time in your day where you commit to the work, I say. Find a space dedicated just to writing. Make dates with friends to sit across a cafe table and suffer together over your prose. Form a writing group. I even published a column about all the excuses I heard from folks who couldn’t get the work done.

Boiled down, my message to writers has always been: Get gritty. Once I understood Duckworth’s argument more fully, it resonated and made perfect sense — except of course when you stop to consider how most people actually live. It’s easy to stick to it when you have enough time, enough energy, and/or enough support. But not all academics do.

And that points to a more nuanced and compassionate explanation — beyond a mere lack of grit — for why so many academics struggle to do their research and writing. I learned about it when I read a 2013 book on neuroeconomics, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, written by Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard University, and Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

It’s not just the time crunch of having to write while also teaching and serving on committees. In Scarcity, Mullainathan and Shafir show how those who are overwhelmed by privation can experience a cognitive deficit. The book illustrates how the experience of scarcity — of having insufficient time or money or food — can take up so much brain bandwidth that little room remains for other mental activity.

Working under conditions where you don’t have enough can reap some benefits. There’s a sharpening effect: You focus on a task to get it done, whether that’s finishing a thesis or counting calories until the pounds come off.

But scarcity also has obvious drawbacks. In prose more Gladwellian than academic — the book’s tone has the breeziness, tendency to label, and kinds of sticky and vibrant examples we’ve become accustomed to from our man Malcolm — the authors discuss the idea of "tunneling," in which your focus narrows so much that nothing else exists. The project might get done, but everything else suffers. The authors present data that show how simply imagining you are stressed for money can reduce your IQ. They give specific examples of how people living under different conditions of scarcity labor under a mental deficit.

The book is fundamentally an argument about poverty, about why it’s so hard for those who struggle economically to get themselves out of their circumstances. Even gargantuan amounts of passion and perseverance are insufficient for people who don’t have enough. (By contract, for us gritty ones, a strictly regimented life comes naturally because we are fearful of the hell that might break loose were we to slacken and take some time off. Apparently there’s something to be said for being a control freak, though trust me on this, it’s no pony party.)

Virginia Woolf pointed out that to make art, women needed independence and resources. The social science has proved her right. Creative juices get clogged when you’re busy thinking about laundry or worried about a child with the flu. Having a room of one’s own means having mental space, enjoying a feeling of enoughness.

Abundance is, of course, the other side of scarcity, and can present its own set of problems that interfere with productivity. When we have plenty, we relax — sometimes too much. And then deadlines pop up, bills come due, weight gets packed back on, and we’re cycling downward again. You agree to give a conference paper when it’s luxuriously in the future. You work on other thing things that seem more pressing until — yikes! It’s due tomorrow. You look forward to all the time you’ll have in the summer — I’m sure I don’t have to explain how all of that free space between the end of one academic year and the start of a new one can slip away.

While not a self-help book, Scarcity does contain stealable bits for those who struggle with productivity, though it’s mostly stuff we already know. Reminders help. So do interim deadlines that allow you to make gradual progress. And accountability. People who work out with personal trainers tend to be more successful at hitting their goals if they have appointments to keep. When you’re tired and don’t want to go to the gym, it’s helpful to know someone’s waiting there for you and expecting to get paid.

The real value of the book is understanding the psychology behind all this. The authors write, "The scarcity mindset … is a contextual outcome, more open to remedies. Rather than a personal trait, it is the outcome of environmental conditions brought on by scarcity itself, conditions that can often be managed. The more we understand the dynamics of how scarcity works upon the human mind, the more likely we can find ways to avoid or at least alleviate the scarcity trap."

However, the authors confess that they still struggle to manage their time, including when they were trying to finish the book. Their deadline seemed far away, and even though they blocked out chunks of their day to work, they often spent that time doing other things, like responding to email and playing computer games.

The author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University — would argue that that’s because they needed to train their brain muscles to be less distractible.

In his 2016 book, Newport seems like a paragon of grit. To do what he calls "deep work," he writes, you need to learn to focus intensely, and without distraction. While trying to write something important, our habit of switching modes — answering emails, liking friends on Facebook, shopping, playing solitaire — gets in the way, he says, of producing "quality" work.

His "rules": Work for long periods without interruption. Embrace boredom by going for a walk or run or waiting in line at the grocery store without looking at your phone so that you can cud-chew your ideas. Quit social media, which we weak mortals use to feed our needy egos. And "drain the shallows" by refusing to be distracted by meaningless bureaucratic stuff, like responding to emails or serving on committees. He claims that if you follow his rules, you will be phenomenally productive and able to treat academic work like a 9-to-5 job. At the end of the day, you can say as he does, "System Shutdown Complete" and hang out with your family.

The book is useful, and Newport has good tips for increasing productivity. Still, while I share some of his hyper-directed work habits, his can-do persona after a while left me feeling guilty about all of those moments when my attention drifts. I’m also aware of my privilege as someone with a good job and no dependents. I have enough time and money to focus on my work, though perhaps I would do better if I turned off my computer’s Wi-Fi and put my phone on airplane mode. Like other hominids, sometimes I cheat during my writing time to watch panda videos and shop online for cowboy boots. I admire Newport’s discipline, but reading Scarcity’s neuroeconomic theory of poverty gave me greater empathy for people who lives are, frankly, busier and more complex than my own.

Ultimately, each of these books made me more reflective about my own work processes, and mindful of the ways I judge other people’s productivity. From each I extracted nuggets I can use, though I confess, I continue to answer email and shop for shoes when I’m writing.


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