Thanks for the warm welcome, Mitra! This is my first blog ever... so please make allowances. Here goes!
Americans tell me I am productive. This amuses me. In Australia, I am only moderately so. To keep our jobs, we must maintain a base level of publishing. We nearly all work in large state-funded comprehensive universities in 40:40:20 roles, and research productivity is part of the bargain we made in return for public money. British scholars operate under similar conditions.
I have been properly busy for a few years now as I’ve cycled through a series of administrative roles at my university. This busyness that has led me, finally, to start organising myself into productivity. So, in this first blog for the LHB, I’ve listed a few productivity tips that work for me—all of which, of course, are borrowed from others.
1. Research and write every day! The first and most important rule is to work on your research project (or one of your research projects) every working day. ‘Research Friday’ is a dream that collapses endlessly into either procrastination or crisis. In any case, if you’ve not worked on your project for a whole week, it will take you a good chunk of that time to get your head back into gear.
I try to get to work by 7:00 in the morning from Monday to Friday and block out four solid hours in my diary. A better me would not check my e-mail during this period. That version of Lisa would have her third book manuscript with a publisher rather than still in draft. The real me never quite makes it to 11am because I do check my e-mail, people drop in, I get really, REALLY hungry, and/or I start fretting about the long list of other tasks for the day. The whole arrangement has usually collapsed by about 9.50. But this is much better than nothing.
‘Stealing’ this time helps you to remember that research work is a privilege. Sometimes I collapse at my desk, turn on my computer and sigh. Lately, I stop to remind myself that this is the part of the job I love best. Then I get on with it.
2. Use rare writing days properly! Even if you follow tip 1, of course you should take whole writing days whenever you can. Turn off your internet connection and your phone. Do this with a friend so you can police each other. Organise to read each other’s work while you are at it.
3. Work when you can! If you end up with unexpected time, pick up a quick research task, run to the library. Use every bit of time you can find with headspace to get something research-related done.
4. Do other stuff smarter! I have some unspoken rules about administrative tasks. Book 15- or 30-minute meetings rather than defaulting to an hour. Fill out routine forms in no more than 15 minutes. Skim read meeting packs to find out what is important, then spend 30 minutes to 1 hour reading and responding to the important parts—and don’t do it so far in advance that you have to repeat your work. Draft an important policy document in several one-hour bursts, sending it for feedback in between times.
Make good lists. I’m still working on this. I’ve been using a combination of Trello and my whiteboard. My sister—who is also an academic—swears by OneNote. I prefer the whiteboard because I like rubbing things out. One of our best professional staff members writes long lists on paper in tiny perfect handwriting and crosses tasks off in order as she does them. A list helps because it reminds you not to use busy work as a crutch or an excuse.
5. Move forward! The same colleague who told me to write every day also told me to pick up where I left off the day before without reading yesterday’s writing. For me this is harder to do than not checking e-mail. A key strategy here is not to end by wrapping things up. Always start something new towards the end of your writing burst, so that you have something to get on with when you next sit down to write. Set yourself achievable, minimum daily tasks: like a subsection, half a subsection, or describing a key event or idea.
6. Write before you are ready! David Armitage passed on a very useful adage when I was writing my dissertation: “writing is a form of research.” So my fifth suggestion is to write early. It’s not realistic to read everything or find every archival detail before you set pen to paper. Once you have found a story to tell, start telling it. That process will reveal what you need to know, what tendrils you need to follow in the archives, which branches of additional historiography you need to read.
7. Don’t get stuck! Sometimes you can’t do what you set yourself to do. Words don’t come to you. Here are a few tips that I have used or heard from more productive people:When I was finishing my dissertation (which, like most Columbia Ph.D. students, I timed perfectly to coincide with my eviction from cheap campus housing), I had four chapters open at once at all times. If I was sick of writing about case law in the 1820s in New South Wales, I swapped out and wrote about frontier violence in Georgia. Of course, this can be its own form of procrastination so treat this as a “candy tip” (only do it sometimes). Eventually, you do have to sort out the bits you hate, tighten the arguments that are eluding you, pin things down.
- Make yourself write for five minutes, it might turn into twenty.
- Make yourself write for twenty minutes, it might turn into three hours.
- Sketch out the subsections and chapters of your book in advance (even though you will throw your plan out later anyway). If you can’t write a word on your appointed task, write a word about something else.
- If all else fails … do something else writing-related. Read an article and fold it into a paragraph. Tidy your footnotes.
8. Meet (realistic) deadlines! I’ve just failed spectacularly on the deadline for my third book. This is the first time I’ve been more than a few weeks late on anything in my career (I think…). But it was a stupid deadline. Being as punctual as you can is not only courteous, it helps productivity. If you have to get it done, you will do it more efficiently. And people will know you mean it when you set deadlines for them.
9. What’s your next big thing? If you have a great idea for a next project, use an opportunity to write a grant or fellowship proposal to explore an archive for a few weeks. If you have the time and luxury, follow some tangents in the archive. Gather ideas for later. Talk to people about your ideas and what you’ve found. This might slow down your current project a bit, but it will mean you are ready to go with your next big thing when it’s done. Thinking a book ahead is a fun way to work.
10. E-mail less and smarter! As I am an e-mail junkie who really needs to reform, I am stealing my first piece of advice from Mitra, who felt my blog was incomplete without e-mail advice. She suggests stockpiling your e-mails for a whole week and answering them in a single afternoon.
I can’t do this. So I suggest the following more modest goals for those of us who can only dream of Mitra’s admirable self-discipline:
a. Do not e-mail during your research time, maybe try only to do it once or twice a day. You may have to build up to this with hourly chocolate rewards, or by taking your laptop somewhere where there is no internet. Waiting for a few hours is not bad practice anyway because you can stockpile instructions for a professional team member or see all sides of a crisis before wading in. 1 e-mail is better than 10... and so on...
b. If the e-mail requires a paragraph, pick up the phone! You can explain yourself faster and more efficiently (and enjoy other intangible benefits) by actually talking to other humans.
That’s it from me this week. Next week I will write about collaboration….