Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

Training for the Productivity Load in Academia: How Not to Suck in Graduate School

We usually think of the development of scholars from their undergraduate days to tenured professor as a journey of continuously increasing content specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. We also think of scholars evolving increasing independence from relying on experienced professionals to becoming supervisors and innovators. These are normal processes that are formally or informally supported through mentorship. However, the ability to cope with increasing demands of productivity may be one of the most important skills that scholars develop and is frequently one of the most ignored in supervision and mentorship.

This is not to say that undergraduate or graduate students do not work hard. My experience is that they work incredibly hard and ridiculously long hours to master their craft. Ultimately, undergraduate and graduate students do not produce as much new material as experienced professors. In addition, my experience is that older professors, with sufficient motivation, can produce more high quality new findings than a younger professor. With experience comes practice and expertise. I have concluded that I can produce much more quality writing and thinking with less stress than ever before. I figure that just about the time I have total mastery of the process, it will be time to retire.

As is typical of this blog, I have no data on this process and this is only my experience. But here are some mechanisms that new researchers can use to systematically train themselves for increased quantity, quality, and ease of producing original thinking and written products.

I am sure there are a lot of readers who do not accept my initial assumption that more experienced professors can write more than highly energetic and motivated postdocs or tenure track academics. Certainly, full professors have fewer monetary or career goals for producing a lot of work. As such, many, if not most, full professors begin to slow down in terms of their productivity on their own volition. For me, I have the feeling that I still have a lot to say and study, but not that many years left to produce. So my productivity is increasing each year and I am finding the increased productivity far easier than when I first started in academia. However, this does not happen by accident.

There are two variables that simply are a function of time in the profession. First, you become extremely knowledgeable of all the literature in the field through accumulation of reading. Students need to learn the literature of the field from the ground up, having to grow from seminal articles up to current studies. Advanced professionals have the theories and important research findings as part of their routine vocabulary. This makes identification of important research topics and questions easier. Second, is simply practice. The writing, revising, editing, publishing, and persistence of publishing papers is now second nature. Most of us have found relatively effective habits. Yet, waiting to get old is not a particularly good strategy for advancing quickly.

Training Analogy

The best analogy I can think of concerning gaining the ability to produce a lot are sports requiring long-term intensive training. Teenagers and young adults have incredible physical energy and strength. However, most of the best marathoners are older — in their late 20s up to 40 years of age. Powerlifters are often older than that. Even amateur marathoners and powerlifters find that they achieve their personal best times or weights at an advanced age for an athlete, most often in their late 30s to mid 40s. They have learned to overcome injury, setbacks, life events, and many other disruptions to advance and improve their performance with consistent and disciplined training. A lifetime accumulation of training and advancement is required to get to the highest levels of competition.

Goal setting. I tell my students that the most effective way to be productive is to be consistent and persistent in production. I tell them that their goals are to write 1000 words on research and publishable tasks and read 100 pages five days per week. Most of them cannot do it. There are distractions, class work, other professional responsibilities and tasks, personal life, mental energy, and other factors they keep new students from this reasonable production goal. No one can run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds on their first day of training. You need to set a training schedule that allows you to work toward goals.

Assessment and initial goals. The first challenge is to determine exactly what your levels of productivity are now. Keep track of exactly how many pages you read that advance your knowledge for purposes of research productivity and how many words are written in a week. Assess over a three-week period exactly how many words were written and how many pages read that are directly relevant to research and this serves as the baseline. I would argue in the initial stages that there should be relatively more reading than writing, because students often are at a deficit of knowledge in terms of full understanding of the literature. A reasonable baseline might be writing 100 words and reading 80 pages per day.

Consistency. Inconsistent performance is quite common. I have students who write zero words for two or three consecutive weeks and then write 8000 words over the next week. I would argue that this is an extremely stressful approach and that typically this inconsistent pattern is due to writing only when there are deadlines approaching. Smooth the work periods into short, consistent, and feasible daily work. Being consistent is the first step towards being disciplined and mindful. The best way to train for a marathon or powerlifting is to have a consistent training schedule with appropriate amounts of rest and recovery scheduled.

Discipline. Inspiration is perfectly fine, but the discipline of reading and writing habits is more effective for achieving your long-term objectives. Schedule writing periods and reading periods. I place 30 minute Pomodoro writing segments into my schedule. I check my schedule, see that there is a writing segment on the agenda, set the Pomodoro timer and go. Also, on my schedule is rest time. Turning your brain off, having fun, and spending time with other people is required to have a quality life, rest, and recover. My own experience is that when the non-academic parts of your life are ignored, large disruptions in your home and work life are sure to follow; just like overtraining can lead to injury and burnout in an athlete. Making long-term gains if you only work when there is a deadline or when you are in the mood is not possible. Over the long term, discipline with appropriate rest and recharging is superior to inspiration in terms of quality and quantity of work.

Improvement. To move forward from your baseline, consistency and discipline are necessary but not sufficient. A reasonable approach is to create a writing and reading diary such as that suggested in Paul Silvia’s fine book entitled, “How to Write a Lot.“ Divide the writing diary into one-week segments. The goal is to achieve your quota of words written and pages read for the week. The following week, the goal is simply to write more words and read more pages. Even if it is one more word and one more page, that is successfully advancing your goals. Nearly every week needs to be a personal best until the goals are achieved. Cumulative gains happen faster than you think if gains are pursued with consistency and discipline.

Advanced goals. In any form of training or long-term preparation, there will be setbacks, discipline will fail, and motivation will be hard to find. Falling into a rut is inevitable. The first thing to do is to make sure that you have had enough rest, energy and attention have been given to the non-academic parts of your life, and you have determined that the line of work you are pursuing is rewarding and exactly what you wish to do. Even if these things are addressed, ruts will occur. In the case of athletes, they often change up their training. So a marathon runner may train using swimming, jump rope, cycling, soccer, or spirited games of tag for a change. Powerlifters may engage in gymnastics, strongman activities, or kettle bell work. The purpose is to change things up and to have fun. If you have been disciplined, consistent, and improving for a long period using the same mechanisms, then you will find that any change is rewarding and fun. The key is to keep moving forward in a positive manner. For a scholar working on reading and writing productivity some excellent activities are to form a journal club, create writing circles, or engage in timed writing sprints. I am constantly in search of methods to improve my efficiency and quality of work. Currently, I use voice-to-text recognition and try different patterns of work. The voice-to-text recognition is something I will probably continue. I find that I can write much faster than typing. I also find that my fingers get sore quickly as I age–so there is an accommodation for the physical limitations of aging. I also found that I was in a bit of a rut with some of my thinking. Therefore, I am now in a heavy load period of production: I wanted to try eight weeks of producing 10,000 words per week. This is now week three: 9987 words for week one and 7985 words for week two. My plan is to reduce back down to 5000 words per week at the end of this heavy load period. Change things up and avoid the rut.


Effective writing cannot be reduced entirely to work count. Obsession with word count could lead to an unfortunate Jack Torrance situation. Writing is a proxy variable for prolific and creative thought. One cannot write a lot without reading a lot of background information, experimenting, collecting and analysing data, outlining and organizing thoughts, and having an approach to contributing to the knowledge base of your field. The written word is solely the visible part of the iceberg. By pushing reading and writing productivity, you are pushing thinking and experimenting.

Relentlessly seeking improved performance is a fundamental trait of high achievers in any field. Nearly everyone I know in academia is a high achiever. And nearly everyone I know gets stuck at one time or another. By keeping the goals of completing a marathon or achieving a personal best lift, training has a reinforcing goal at the end of the journey. Likewise, academics train for managing increasingly heavy productivity loads that will last throughout your career.

SR Shaw

How Not to Suck When You Don’t Want to Work

“Writer’s block is another word for laziness” — Elmore Leonard.

All respect to the late, great Elmore Leonard, but dial it back a little. We all have those days. The to-do list is long, you are sleep deprived, you have put in too many consecutive 12 hour days, and there is no end in sight. You drink your coffee and open the computer, yet the blinking cursor does nothing but mock you. You have the time to write, the ideas are well outlined, and deadlines are approaching. However, your mind is blank. Meanwhile, dishes need to be done, the dog wants to play, emails continued to pile up and there are several television shows on your DVR that demand to be watched. There are other appealing options such as day drinking, inviting a friend for lunch, and the ever popular going back to bed. Yet, you say to yourself, “This is my sacred writing time. I must work on this manuscript (or grant proposal or book chapter or report). Come on words. Start flowing.” But nothing happens. Dominating your thoughts are increasing frustration, questioning your career choices, and worrying that you will never ever be able to write another word again. These are the basics of writer’s block. Sometimes you have time, ideas, motivation, and deadlines; but you just are not in the mood to work.

First, the basics. Prevention is one of the best ways to prevent holes in productivity during inevitable ebb times. Developing a habit of writing every single day creates a situation analogous to building muscle memory. So even on days that you do not feel like writing, it is still automatic to sit down at the computer and begin work. On the worst days words will begin to flow so that some semblance of productivity can be achieved. Yet, most scholars have so many activities such as meetings, administration, teaching, supervision of students, grading, budget preparation, and other professional obligations that developing a daily writing habit can be challenging. This uneven schedule puts an enormous amount of pressure to produce during those precious time periods protected and set aside for written productivity. For me, I write every day even if I can only fit 20 minutes into my schedule and produce 100 words. It keeps the habit going and words flowing.

Second, identification of the exact nature of the problem is the most important step of any problem-solving process. Putting off writing to address pressing unmet basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, time with friends and loved ones, and other acute self-care activities is often a quality investment that will lead to improved long-term writing productivity. So do it. Moreover, there must be the self-awareness to determine if the problem is burnout or depression. These are extremely serious situations that often require significant external supports from professionals and should not be underestimated, ignored, or simply worked through. Unless burnout and depression are successfully addressed there are short and long-term career consequences; and far more importantly major ramifications for health and quality of life. Identifying other internal short-term states that take away motivation such as waves of anxiety, situational stress, unresolved conflicts, self-doubt and many other factors also interfere and need to be addressed. Once you have ruled out or addressed all of these potentially severe causes of not wanting to work, there remain some times when you just don’t feel like it.

Third, you may not be in the mood to write because deep down you know that your project is not a good one. All scientist and writers tend to be self delusional to some degree. We frequently talk ourselves into believing that our mediocre ideas are valuable ideas. Having a discussion with an honest and forthright co-author, colleague, or other knowledgeable and supportive person might help you to reconsider and revise the outline or thesis of your paper. Sometimes not being in the mood is an excellent indicator that your thinking needs to change. Easy writing usually equals high-quality thinking (or, cynically, your level of self-delusion is extraordinarily high).

Most serious writers have rituals. My preference is for the least restrictive environment. This means I simply walk up to my computer and get to it. My only slightly unusual habits are that about 75% of my writing time is at a standing desk. I use the Pomodoro system where I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes and take an enforced five-minute break no matter where I am in the writing process. This allows me to be fresh and sharp for an entire day without working to exhaustion. Frequently, I use dictation software when I am tired of being at the keyboard. Dictation software has the advantage of speed (140 wpm dictation v. 55 wpm typing), posture (I frequently dictate with my eyes closed while lying on the couch and scratching my dog), and sometimes changing up the mode of written output can be a refreshing change. When the words are still not flowing at all I have a several part ritual: 1) turn off the Wi-Fi radio [no Internet] on my computer; 2) put earphones on and listen to a metronome that is timed to my resting heartbeat [about 52 bpm]; and 3) dim or turn off the lights. These activities allow for overcoming difficulties with focus. But sometimes the problems are not about the focus, they are about avoiding aversive and difficult work.

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because the project is especially difficult or challenging. I write all manuscripts and grants from a prepared outline with completed tables and figures. Usually this gives me a structure to write the prose in at least a semi-organized fashion during the first draft. Because of the advanced organization of the outline and detailed preliminary thinking about the paper, once I write the first word usually everything begins to flow. When it does not flow, then I go through the outline and write the topic sentence for every paragraph within each section. The next step is to write the closing sentence for each paragraph. Then supporting details can be filled in. This process is laborious and much more like unskilled labour than scientific communication or creative writing. As Henry Miller said, “On the days that you cannot create, you can work.”

Most typically I write using the ubiquitous word processing program, Word. But when I have an especially long, challenging to organize, or difficult project; or the words are simply not coming at all, I use the Scrivener program. This program has an especially easy to use corkboard function where you can move paragraphs and topics around in an intuitive manner. This replaces the less efficient note card approach. There is also an excellent outlining system that can be quite effective. When things are really difficult I switch to the full-page view that I have set up with a black background with blue lettering. Sometimes such a jarring change of perspective can loosen some creative juices.

Most experienced academics are experienced writers, if not born writers. True writers can’t not write. They are called to write as if it is an addiction and even when they are not in the mood. Most graduate students have yet to be afflicted with this addiction. Many scientists eschew writing as much as possible and delegate the tasks to science writers or graduate students. Personally, I enjoy and cultivate this addiction. My retirement goal is to become an unsuccessful novelist and garlic farmer. Despite my addiction and retirement plans there are still days that I just don’t want to write. It may be laziness. It may be Netflix calling. But I will buckle down and try to reestablish equilibrium in my role as a scholar.

Or I could work on my blog.

S. R. Shaw