Productivity is always on my mind nowadays. 2016 has not been a productive year. I have been busy, but not feeling productive. Naturally, as a problem solver, I took out a scratch pad and started to get to the bottom of this.

1. How is productivity measured effects my feeling. I have been busy doing experiments and tackling lots of different projects, but in the academic world the ONLY measure of your productivity is publication. Since I have been working for a big projected for three years without publishing it, it is hard to feel productive. What bugs me more is that for months I was working on this “last” experiment – yet every results I get I have to do more experiments to back it up, so it is like the “last” experiment never ends! if you are an academic you will know what I am talking about, haha.

2016 has been feeling like a drag for another reason too. Since last December, I have switched to some long-term experiments with much longer turn-over rate. In another words, these experiment requires weeks to get any results and if you have worked in bench science, you know that 90% of the time the result is not positive and you have to just adjust your hypothesis. But with the feedback time this painfully long, progress is 10x slower. And the down time in between is not a bliss but rather stressful.

I also took a couple months writing grants and attending conference meetings. These things take time. I have attended eight (8) conference meetings this year. And for each one, I need to prepare abstract and book all the travel, prepare for presentations (usually takes a few days), travel for half a day to a day to the meeting site, then spend 1-4 days at the meeting, travel back completely tired. Writing grants and attending meetings easily took three months out of this year, and these are generally not counted as productivity because it is hard to see immediate returns.

2. Not feeling productive also have a quite negative feedback on motivation. When I feel like that I’ve not accomplished enough, I feel less rewarded and less interested in work, then I am actually less productive. It did not help that we experienced down-sizing at work this year. Even I personally got a promotion, having NOBODY to talk to at the office does makes me down. Sometimes I do not say a word the entire day because there is no one around. And I am not feeling intellectually challenged at all.

I have realized the loss of productivity, or rather the feeling of it, back to April. So I scheduled myself lots of work in May and tried to surround myself with students and trainees to restore my enthusiasm. May to mid-June is easily my busiest 6 weeks ever, yet I felt more like a table tennis player in defense mode, busy at hitting back all the shots coming at me without actually accomplish a goal.

After coming back from our California trip early July, I started breathing again. Now it is time to take back control of my work and to feel positive again. And this is the five step process I am taking:

1. Set realistic long-term goals – I tend to set too ambitious goals and sometimes even I accomplish them, I do not feel good about myself due to the struggles. I am planning to stay at this work for a few more months and let us be realistic, all I can finish is my current publication. So everything I do need to fit into this goal.

2, Break long-term goals into bite-size pieces – it is important to break down a long-term goal into daily goals that I can comfortably accomplish. In this way not only I will not procrastinate due to intimation, being able to get a solid step closer to my long-term goal at the end of everyday will also keep me energized and motivated. Academic work is very much like freelancing – you are working at your own pace and responsible for your own productivity, so negative feeling toward yourself never helps. And self-motivation is the biggest challenge.

3. A solid morning routine helps. I started a new habit this spring which had been fruitful for my work – ten minutes in the garden in the morning. That involves setting up the coffee maker at night, so I can wake up to the smell of fresh-brewed coffee, and roll off bed to have my coffee in my garden for ten minutes each morning. Walking in my green garden with my dogs hopping around really made me relaxed and my mind was just so fresh that I knew what I wanted to/should do that day, and I could not wait to hop in the car to do it. And when I arrive in lab, I do it immediately regardless how many other obligations are waiting for me – I attend the priority first. This method had worked so well, until the summer heat came in. We started getting clouds of Asian mosquitoes in late April to the point that I had to spray myself with layers of deet every time I need to do something in my garden. So I stopped the morning routine and just cannot get the same inspiration in the house anymore.

So maybe, what I need to do is to take a short walk on campus every morning (sounds like a good excuse to get coffee) and really clear my mind like what I did in spring in my own garden. Nevertheless, I need to force myself to attend the goal of the day first, before being distracted by emails and errands.

4. Keep work interesting. What I work on is actually very interesting. But like I said before, not having any body to bounce idea back and force with really kills the passion. I need to talk about it more, and energize others as well as myself.

5. Last but not least, let it go at the end of the day. I cannot tell you that how much times I came back home upset because I did not get the experiment work the way I wanted. I constantly think about work, and more often than not, it beings me insecurity and fear rather than joy. Academia is a world of competition and there is no job security. Therefore, people overwork themselves to climb a ladder that only exists in their minds. Lots of my colleague take sleeping aids, and almost all of them drink toooo much beer to unwind in the evenings. I do not use any methods yet I have been waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about work and cannot fall back to sleep again. I have not found the best strategy (except chemicals like sleeping aid and beer) to let it go easily, so if you know, I love to hear your thoughts!

Scratch paper is full and I think I diagnosed myself. Case closed. 🙂