Productivity comes last

You’ve probably tried to be more productive at some point. If you aren’t getting the output you want for the effort you put in, then it makes sense to look at ways to improve your productivity.

So you can try;

  • Being more organised
  • Managing your time better
  • Setting goals and deadlines
  • Optimising your processes

There are countless systems and tools to help you do these things, and all of them work. Or rather that should be, all of them work sometimes.

If you’ve tried increasing your productivity using any of the above, you probably found that you got an initial boost but then slipped back into your usual habits. This can lead you to the conclusion that you are the problem, rather than the system (after all, the system worked while you stuck to it).

But usually it’s neither you nor the system that’s the problem, it’s just that you are using the wrong tool at the wrong time.

The language of productivity

Much of the terminology we use when we talk about productivity, and indeed the very concept of productivity, comes from industry.

When you have a production line, you want to have as efficient a system as possible. You will have production targets, schedules and procedures to make sure the output consistently meets demand.

This is fine when you have a defined product and a defined, repetitive production process. But the same way of thinking does not work when there is even the slightest requirement for problem solving or creativity.

language-of-productivityProductivity and creativity take different approaches

Creativity is often inefficient. It requires open and playful exploration of a variety of ideas, many of which you may never use. It is difficult to set targets, because you don’t know how it’s going to work out, and some of the things you try might fail.

This is the opposite of productivity, but is essential as a precursor.

Although it is difficult to quantify the output of creative time – because it doesn’t produce immediately measurable results – many companies still recognise its value. 3M, the company behind post-it notes and scotch tape, developed a “15% time” rule, where their R&D staff could spend 15% of their time working on anything they liked, without the pressure to “produce”. Google took concept this a step further, with “20% time”.

There is a lot of creativity in the design of, say, an iPhone; many of the ideas the design team considered will never go to market. But then following that experimentation comes the creatively constrained phase of production- you don’t want someone on the assembly line of your iPhone expressing their creative urges.

How this applies to PhD work

When you are writing your thesis, if you are 2 months away from submitting then you should be focused on productivity, with the clear goal of getting the thing finished on time.

This means that you should not be spending much time exploring new ideas, but rather consolidating the ones you have already explored in depth.

At earlier stages, you should explore dead ends, waste time daydreaming, take risks and make as many mistakes as possible, and be less focused on rigid productivity.

Productivity comes last

Productivity systems and tools are useful, but only when applied at the right time.

Because research so often requires finding creative solutions to difficult problems, we need to give equal consideration to the skills of creativity, letting go of the rigid timetable-and-goal-oriented approach, and taking time to play. It’s only once you’ve done that exploration that it’s time to narrow your focus and get productive.

See also: Productivity vs Creativity


10 thoughts on “Productivity comes last”

  1. It is so true! There’s just some moments that don’t like doing anything so we try different ways to overcome it. Just like some famous writers, they find their “productivity moments” in different time of the day. [URL removed]

  2. Al post are nice and useful for evry studnt i have reed mostly but i need a kindnes and hlp from u for choosing a resrch topic

  3. Great post – very useful. And nice conceptualisation. I’d further add that setting the right thing in the right time is even harder than said here. The more I dig into research, the more I believe that discrimination become blurry, and that it probably should be this way. This is, one should get into the creative and the productive mode as often as daily or weekly. Not just creative at the beginning of a project and productive at the end of it – although as you said, those “modes” should prevail at these stages.

    I found useful to write (or draw) when the idea is not developed yet, during development, during data-processing and, of course, when writing up ;P. So, the best approach to me is to be as productive as possible at every point, but going into quick-depth-check of an idea as soon as it arises. This normally takes half to one hour. If I consider it good, I will note it down with a short summary and the references, webpages and so… to pick it up later. And then back to productive. The **hard** part is to be not too focus on productivity to allow the idea fly away nor too enthusiastic about the new thing to delay what needs to be done.

  4. I like everything you wrote under the “How this applies to PhD Work” heading. I’m nearly starting my last thesis study and I could explore so many new things that I have learned, or I could finish on time by answering the main question I set out to answer. This has been a hard lesson because I’m so interested in all the other offshoots that have come from my initial thesis studies, but I can only answer so many questions in a given time. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Great post. The problem is true to my experience, and your explanation is very helpful. A lot of writing advice focuses on productivity, but for me writing often turns into creativity when I am trying to be productive, because I realize a certain idea or transition doesn’t work and needs more thought. There may be a personal element to it, but I suspect liberal arts Ph.D.’s have the hardest time separating creativity and productivity because a great deal of the research is actually the argument you construct as you write. People in science and medicine invariably ask me “what’s your research?” and I have to try to explain it is in the reading, reflection and conceptualization.

    • I think for the liberal arts it is important to distinguish between the writing you do as part of your thinking process (which is integral to the research), and the writing you do as presentation of that research.

      By the time you start shifting your focus towards submitting, you should have a clear idea of what your research is and how it fits into the field, then start writing again from a blank page. It is very difficult to edit the stream of consciousness into something that someone else can follow!

      • Thanks for the reply. Maybe I am just learning why multiple drafts are necessary. Most of my class papers of 10-20 pages I wrote in just a few days at the last minute. I may or may not have done some freewriting “research” ahead of time depending on the paper. The dissertation is just so much more complicated, I am having to unlearn my bad habits.

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