Monday, 27 August 2012

How to feel productive

--> Since I had my son, there have been entire days that pass by without a single noteworthy task being completed. Instead of wallowing in self-pity for my newfound lack of time to do things, here are some ways to increase the perception of productivity, which theoretically will lead eventually to actual productivity, or at least increased happiness.

I’m generally not very good with lists, namely because I typically make them either (a) on a scrap of paper with is swiftly lost or (b) in a notebook which is never subsequently opened for list perusal. But really—what is more satisfying than crossing everything off of your list and then throwing it away?

1. Make copious, short lists filled with easy tasks. Obvious examples: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast. Check, check, check! Feeling of satisfaction. Less obvious ideas: drive to work without getting in accident; find person picking nose in public during commute; drink 2 cups of coffee before 10 am. Really, the possibilities are endless!
Pretty colors, and bite-sized chunks of samples, make science fun.

2. If you must make a list filled with actual work-related tasks, be sure to include abundant sub-tasks, so that you can check them off frequently and not feel like things are dragging on forever. For example:

Bad list
  • Finish Spanish mackerel project
  • Finish beluga whale project

Better list

Spanish mackerel
  •   Plan fieldwork:
    •      Book flights 
    •      Book accommodation
    •      Buy WD40 and duct tape
  • Do fieldwork
  • Return to lab
  • Put samples in freezer
  • Spend several days catching up on sleep and recovering from bug bites
  • etc…you get the point.

3. Catch the fat rabbits first. I can’t take credit for this phrase, which I learned at a workshop, but it’s a useful visual to remember, and attempt to actually do.

First, identify what your fat rabbit is: this is the main project on your list, which stresses you out every time you think about how you’ve been avoiding it. Next, start each day by chipping away at that project.

I know that (a) it’s way easier to start the day by checking and responding to emails, and (b) you are just waiting until you have a clear week to really dig into and nail that project.

But: (a) checking emails leads to adding things to your list, pushing the fat rabbit farther away, (b) you are never ever going to have a clear week and (c) if you can possibly learn to switch on and off intense, actual work (quickly) you will be much more productive once you have children, or otherwise defined working hours.
Increase your computer power, and you might work exponentially faster!

4. Say no once in a while. I find this incredibly difficult; especially because I am lacking the ability to estimate the actual time it takes to do things. For example—and this has not been repeated—one Christmas day we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with different sets of family members in different cities. This felt productive, but really it was just insane and rushed.

I’ve seen a lot of articles lately about how multitasking, though seemingly efficient, is actually bad for productivity because it decreases focus (for instance here and here). But of course, that's because other people are doing it wrong. To follow proper Jessica Multitasking Protocol, use time spent doing something repetitive or otherwise non-brain-intensive (formatting your journal article, let’s say) to simultaneously do something enjoyable like listening to a podcast. Or, go for a walk while reading articles. Because you'll be doing something enjoyable while doing something perhaps a bit on the dull side (sorry, science, but you are often rather dry), you may find your attention lasts longer and you feel like you haven’t wasted your day sitting on my ass/wearing down your pointer finger on the computer trackpad. 
How's that for effective multitasking?

Be realistic
This is something I’m currently struggling with: setting goals that are feasible so I don’t just collapse in a heap of stress, unable to accomplish anything. I’m slowly coming to grips with the surprising fact that I can’t work 10 hours a day, spend time with my son, keep up some resemblance of a social life, and also sleep—and therefore I won’t be able to produce quite the same amount of science that once came from long days and often nights and weekends spent working. And really, that’s (eventually going to be) Ok with me.


  1. I am currently keeping a daily blog of all the things I accomplish every day. This helps me keep track of what is happening with the multiple projects I am working on, and also makes me feel sort of productive. The blog is private, so no one can see it but me.

    A couple years ago I came across a to-do list from my first year of grad school. These things URGENTLY needed to be done ASAP. When I read down the list, it was amazing how many I never got done. For example, I wanted to "Do an annotated bibliography of all pilot whale research." Whaaat? When I searched my brain, I remembered that I thought maybe I would be tagging pilot whales as my thesis project (didn't happen). Sometimes the things you don't ever get around to didn't really need to be done, after all.

  2. P.S. I love your blog. It cracks me up.

  3. Thanks!
    What a great idea to do a daily blog! Considering the number of dead-ends I end up going down, keeping track like that would make me feel much better (See? I did stuff, even if I didn't end up producing anything useful!). And, it's probably useful to go back to and figure out what you were thinking...
    Also good to know that sometimes the death of a to-do list is for the best. :)