The prerequisites of productivity

Imagine a relatively peaceful period of time in the lab, with no submissions, conferences or talks looming in the near future. This would be the perfect time to make some serious headway on your research. But instead of reading literature, planning out your next steps or starting a laborious experiment, you spend your day checking the latest articles in Nature (the image of the black hole was cool), organizing your bench, commenting your code or taking an extra-long lunch break.

Although these types of activities are definitely important, if they’re used a means of procrastination, they can stand in the way of your actual goals by taking up a lot more time than they really should.

Now imagine your day during a stressful time in the lab. Maybe the deadline for an abstract submission is getting nearer. Maybe you have a presentation to prepare or experiments to complete for your paper’s review. Rather than spending what should be days to write a page, you manage to do it in a single hour. Rather than drinking coffee during an incubation time, you’re running two other experiments in parallel.

The main differences between these two scenarios are your level of productivity and your level of stress, with the former greatly influencing the latter. Although you might be able to complete the same amount of work overall, you would be considerably less stressed, and your work would be of a higher standard, if you maintained a stable and unwavering level of productivity.

What causes fluctuations in productivity?

Well, you might have guessed it already. The main prerequisite for being productive is having a deadline. Having a fixed deadline automatically gives the task a sense of urgency and brings is to the front of your mind.

Intuitively, we try to avoid feelings of urgency in order to mitigate our levels of stress. This is especially true for academia – one of the major perks of our jobs (which sometimes feels like the only perk) is that we are effectively our own bosses 99% of the time. Taking full advantage of this freedom means that we strive to make our daily work as pleasant and stress-free as we can. However, we can’t avoid deadlines in academia altogether (the most salient deadline being the PhD thesis itself). And if we accept this fact and think rationally, it makes a lot more sense to be in a constant state of moderate urgency rather than having infrequent bursts of very intense panic.

A second prerequisite to productivity is accountability. Even if we’ve decided we need to finish a task by a specific date, we need to feel personally responsible for its completion. If we’re working on a collaborative task, we might believe that someone else will step in and complete it. This is especially true when we’re less experienced at our work.

As an example, let’s say a certain piece of equipment in the lab is faulty. If everyone assumes that someone else has more expertise working with that instrument, no one will believe they’re knowledgeable enough to solve the problem on their own (or even call the manufacturer to explain the issue). As a result, the (likely expensive) equipment might sit around untouched in the lab for months or might be discarded altogether.

Accountability also explains why external deadlines are so much more powerful than the ones we set for ourselves. If we’re personally set a task by our PI or another researcher/institute, we can’t procrastinate without facing the repercussions, whether they be a missed deadline, or the embarrassment of having to explain why we didn’t manage to complete the task in time.

To illustrate how deadlines and a sense of accountability promote productivity, consider how your PI works. He/she completes tasks quickly, focusing on the important ones first. How are they such monsters of self-control? The answer is that they aren’t monsters (usually), they simply have plenty of tasks with plenty of deadlines. Since there really is no one else that can solve their problems for them, they have complete personal accountability for their tasks, and so they take initiative.

So, two major prerequisites for productivity are solid deadlines and personal accountability. Now how could you integrate these into your work routine to boost your efficiency?

  1. Welcome external deadlines. Having tasks with an absolute end-date that you are personally responsible for gives you the necessary level of stress to avoid procrastination . So, despite your natural tendency to be a ‘free’ academic, don’t spend your time avoiding deadlines, but welcome them.
    • Take advantage of conference abstract submission deadlines to summarize your work.
    • Sign up for talks (in conferences, academic retreats etc.) whenever possible to force yourself to make presentations slides and practice talking regularly.
    • Set individual deadlines and regular update meetings when defining a group task, rather than leaving it as a mutual ‘abstract’ goal (this is beneficial for any group task, be it completing an experiment together or decorating a PhD hat for a labmate).
    • Request a deadline when someone sets you an individual task. Even if it’s a completely arbitrary date, the apprehension of having to explain why you’re not finished in time will hopefully help to keep you accountable.
    • Have regular meetings with your supervisor to keep track of your work. If your supervisor isn’t the type to have frequent meetings, initiate them yourself. Make sure to say what tasks you plan to accomplish in the near future so that your supervisor can follow up in the next meeting. If you’re worried that your supervisor will doubt your independence, think about how they might feel if your work hasn’t met their expectations half way through your PhD in a thesis committee meeting :D.
  2. Don’t set deadlines too far in the future. According to Parkinson’s law[1] “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”. If we say we need a month to complete a certain task, it will take a full month, even if it could have been done in a single week. So don’t be tempted to give yourself sufficient breathing space by setting a deadline too far in the future. The ability to set reasonable deadlines (ones that keep you busy but not overwhelmed) gets better with practice. To start off, you could try thinking of a deadline that you can definitely meet, and then chop off 20%. The more you do this, the more you learn how much time you actually need to finish different tasks, and the better you’ll get at setting deadlines.
  3. Become an expert. Believing that you know how to complete a certain task best means that you won’t rely on others to complete it for you. Examples of this are learning how a piece of lab equipment works in depth, learning how to use software for illustration, data processing or statistics, or learning to code scripts for data analysis. In the end you’re a biologist, so you don’t need to become a world expert in any of these (and definitely not all of these), but you should strive to be a ‘local’ expert in at least some important techniques. During your PhD you’ll naturally become an expert in a handful of methods (hopefully), but don’t leave it to time. Recognize which techniques are important for your goals and actively learn them. The more skills you have, the more independent and productive you can be. Plus, being apt in different methods is important in itself, and not just a means to writing a good thesis.
  4. Don’t commit to deadlines you can’t meet. Many people find it hard to say no to others. Even if a certain task is really appealing (for instance, writing a blog post), sometimes you simply don’t have the time. Don’t be in denial about the number of things you have on your plate at a given time. If you’re busy, don’t take on more unnecessary work. And even if you do have the time, it’s also perfectly fine to prioritize other tasks (doing nothing is also a priority). You can always say you might consider the task in the future, but it’s also okay to refuse.
  5. Manage and work towards your deadlines strategically. Naturally, tasks with a deadline should be prioritized over non-urgent tasks. And unless you’re trading stocks or assisting in open heart surgery, it’s unlikely that you need to answer an email, WhatsApp or text message with any urgency. So, take control of your work day and prioritize time-sensitive tasks regularly. This is especially important if these tasks are the type that require a lot of concentration (as most are). And since willpower is a limited resource[2], you should use your best working hours for the tasks that require more discipline. Leave your emails, phone calls and mindless experiments (if you have some) for the end of the day.

And with that, I’d like to congratulate you for successfully reading to the end, but that’s enough browsing through random blog posts. Get back to your real work!

  1. Cyril Northcote Parkinson, naval historian and management theorist
  2. Ego depletionRoy Baumeister

Dimokratis Karamanlis and Tal Dankovich

PhD candidates, Neuroscience, University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG)

Leave a Reply