Being more productive is easy.
If you have a clear plan and process, then you can;
- Work harder or faster
- Work more hours
- Improve your efficiency and organisation
But this only works for routine tasks where you know what to do and how to do it.
If you have done something 1000 times, then you will have a refined process to rely upon, and you can be productive simply by working harder and longer hours. Even if you are tired, you can still be productive because this kind of routine work does not require much creative thinking.
But during a PhD, there will be many times when you don’t know exactly how to do the work, or where you have to create or learn a methodology or solve a difficult problem.
In this situation, you need to be creative, rather than productive.
Creativity involves allowing your mind to wander and explore many ideas, or many possible solutions to a problem. It is a playful state where it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes.
To be creative, you have to be able to relax while thinking and give yourself time to come up with a solution. This is very difficult to do under the pressure of a deadline, or if you are tired.
PhD work requires a mixture of productivity and creativity, but they require opposite approaches, and you cannot do both at the same time.
Productivity and Creativity in Writing
Writing requires both productivity and creativity.
When you know a subject extremely well, have spoken about it many times and are confident in what you have to say, then you can often just sit down and write. To be more productive, type faster or spend longer typing.
But there will come a point where you have to stop and think. Are you sure you know what you want to say? Or how to link two ideas together? Or how to interpret your data? Or how to explain the conclusion? These are problems which need solutions.
Maybe there are different ways to structure your argument, so you need to consider what to say next… maybe you have a lot of information and you need to decide what to leave out… maybe you need to clarify an idea or check a reference…
In this situation, it is often tempting to leave the problem and write about something else in order to stay productive and keep increasing your word count, but this is not a good idea because the problem hasn’t gone away.
Instead you need to slow down and take some time to think creatively, then you can go back to being productive once the problem is solved.
This means that your writing pace will vary enormously throughout the day, but this is OK.
It is OK to spend 45 minutes on a single sentence sometimes, especially if it is a key point in your argument and need to do some work to make sure it is accurate.
You can then speed up again, set a word count target and go back into productive mode.
You need both the fast and the slow, the productivity and the creativity, in order to be successful.
I know you're probably busy right now...
Would you like to receive my top 7 articles to read in your own time? These are some of the most important principles I think every PhD student (or academic) should know. Enter your name and email and I'll send you one per day for the next 7 days.