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Productivity Tips

How to do more and better research and get your life back

Chapter 1 from ‘The Productive Researcher’ by Mark Reed 

The one thing most researchers want is time; time to write up our latest work, and time to feel like we have a life. Surely, that’s not asking too much?

Fortunately for me, it appears that time is on my side. Something strange seems to happen to time when I work, and until recently, I was unable to explain it.

It was genuinely baffling. Journal articles, books and projects just seemed to happen. I had this really weird recurring argument with my most prolific co-author: “you have to be first author on this one”, I told her, “because I hardly wrote any of it”. She would reply that I had to be first author because she felt like she had hardly written anything either. Based on workload models, I had a full teaching allocation in every position I held until I took my current position a year ago. Yet, I have had time to run an international spin-out company, work as Research Lead for a conservation charity, run a podcast, blog and magazine, manage six Twitter accounts and advise the United Nations and governments around the world, based on my research. Over the last 18 months, I published 2 books, 14 peer-reviewed articles and submitted 15 six and seven figure grant proposals (four of which I have won so far, bringing in over £2M and externally funding over half my salary), whilst being Director of Engagement and Impact for my school, sitting on various University committees and working groups, and training more than 2000 researchers.

This has all happened without working weekends, and only working two evenings a week.

Maybe it’s a British thing, but over the years this became increasingly embarrassing for me. There were two reasons for this. First, researchers who didn’t know how much I worked assumed that there must be something wrong with me; I must be a workaholic or on some kind of “spectrum”. I could see them pitying my wife and family, and feeling grateful that they had more “normal” lives. The second problem was that those who did know how much I worked kept asking me to mentor them. They would come to me with great anticipation, only to discover that I had no idea how I did what I did. 

In an attempt to work out what was going on, I began reaching out to colleagues with similar experiences. Talking to them, I began to realise that we were doing a number of similar things.

To test the theory that was beginning to form in my mind, I did what any self-respecting researcher would do: I started reading. I read broadly, using my personal experience to form hypotheses that could link ideas from very different disciplines. I also reached out to some of the world’s most productive researchers, based on their publications and citations, according to Elsevier’s SciVal tool, and asked them how they did what they do. Their answers and the answers that emerged from my reading, both confirmed and extended my thinking. In this short book, I want to share with you what I learned.

My goal is not to squeeze more productivity out of already over-worked researchers. Most of us feel performance-managed and measured to within an inch of our lives, by ever more demanding employers, who operate increasingly like businesses. Where did the time go, to just think? I don’t want to work any harder than I already do; I want to work easier. I want to be more productive so I can get my thinking time back, and have more free time.

A lesson from a man with very white teeth

As an interdisciplinary researcher, I looked for evidence from a wide range of disciplines to test the insights I gleaned from the researchers I interviewed and my own experience. As a result, many of the insights in this book are quite different to those that are often repeated by the business and economics authors who tend to write books about productivity.

As I extended my reading to this popular genre, I found much that was helpful and much that made me cringe. At first, I thought I was just being an academic snob: “stop telling me you’re going to change my life and show me your sources”, I felt like yelling at many a page. However, as I pushed through my snobbery, I realised that I was cringing at a set of assumptions that was implicit in much of the genre. (Okay, I have to admit that some of these books were not so “implicit” about getting rich overnight and using your newfound riches to become an experience junkie and travel the world).

Whether explicit or implicit, the one thing that these books all seemed to assume was that we all want to optimise every part of our lives: our minds; our bodies; our relationships; without ever asking why. Why do we need to change ourselves? Why do we need to be healthier and more liked? Where do these messages come from, and who is profiting from telling us the answers? For me personally, the answers to these questions were revealing. I’ve never wanted more money than I needed to give my family a safe and nurturing environment. I am no longer trying to gain the approval of my peers. I don’t have any expectation of long life (I come from a line of men who have died of heart attacks in their forties). 

Then, I actually met one of the authors who had made his fortune from the productivity industry. In a “meta” twist, he had written a self-help book aimed at people who wanted to get rich by writing self-help books. With a dazzling white smile, he explained that there was a reason why he wrote “best-selling” not “best-written” books. For a fee, he went on to reveal his secret formula: speak your book into your phone, get it transcribed online, launch it in an obscure category on the Kindle store where nothing is selling, get “best-seller” status in that category, and then market yourself as a “best-selling author” to earn speaker fees.

The irony, you will tell me, is that here I am, writing a book to help researchers become more productive. The irony is not lost on me. However, despite being shocked by what I found at the core of the productivity industry, it helped me articulate how I do what I do. I realised that it had very little to do with productivity techniques; I could try all the techniques that had ever been devised and get no further forward, if I lacked clarity of thinking.


The problem with techniques

The problem with techniques is that there are so many of them, and no single technique will work for everyone. Most researchers already have multiple time management and productivity techniques to choose from, and have already worked out what works for them. I don’t want this to be a book of techniques; the world is already full enough of them. Instead, I want to show you how you can think differently. I want to challenge your thinking, so you can discover the power of the techniques you already know.

Most of the people who tell me they have a problem with time management don’t actually have a problem with time management. Most people who say their teaching and administration is getting in the way of their research, don’t actually have any more teaching and administration than the most productive researchers had at the same point in their career. It is often easier to externalise our problems than it is to address their root causes.

There are many causes of procrastination and low productivity, but one I find hiding at the root of many researchers’ frustrations is a fundamental lack of confidence. It is the ghost of the reviewer telling you everything that's wrong as you write, or the belief that what you produce must be perfect or you will be judged, found wanting and not given a second chance.

The solution is not to look for a new writing technique or time management system, but to try and tackle the source of your fear. Often, this fear is deeply buried under a career of expert pronouncements and international accolades that you have gathered around yourself to protect you from that nagging inner voice of doubt. Some researchers just find it difficult to focus; a lack of clear, value-driven motivation can make distractions more attractive than the task in hand. The solution is not to look for a new, more interesting job or project, but to tap into a deeper motivation that empowers you to get the job done faster and more effectively. 

In this book, I want to help you find ways to achieve your research aspirations without becoming a workaholic. To do this, you may have to face issues that are rooted deeply in your experiences so far as a researcher. The longer you hide from these issues, the more you are likely to fall short of your aspirations. You can blame others or you can blame yourself. Either way, the danger is that you feed into a negative narrative that further disempowers you.

I speak from experience. I grew up with a chronic lack of self-confidence due to abuse I suffered as a child. This fed directly into my early career as a researcher. I had a panic attack in the middle of my first lecture in front of over 200 students (one of whom started heckling me). The first paper I submitted as an academic was rejected with a one-liner from the editor saying, “this reads like a bad term paper”. My first grant application was slammed as “pedestrian science”. I crashed and burned at one of the biggest opportunities of my early career in front of a packed hall of researchers, policymakers and research funders, when I panicked and went completely blank during the panel debate. The Chair, Sir Howard Newby, then head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England prompted, “I think this one’s for you Mark”, and to my excruciating embarrassment, all I could say was “I know”. Not long after that, I messed up in front of the entire world (literally), when I failed to prepare for the fact that my talk on deliberative democracy might provoke a hostile political reaction from the Chinese policymakers attending the 9th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

On bad days, experiences like these fed into a negative story I told about myself. However, I was fortunate that there was a deeper narrative I was always able to tap into. I first heard that story from my grandmother, who told me about my great-grandparents and their parents, who had been some of the first missionaries in central Africa. She told me about the suffering they had borne and the challenges they had overcome for the sake of their convictions. The sub-conscious narrative I learned as a young boy, listening to her stories, was that it was inevitable that I would do something on a similar scale. As a child, I didn’t ask how. I just believed that I too must be capable of something great. As an adult, I drew on this more and more as a counter-narrative to the story of shame I frequently found myself mired in. If, as a result of my research, I could do something to make the world a better place, then I felt like I was somehow counteracting the bad things that had happened to me when I was growing up. I had found a deeper purpose, which I then harnessed to drive my research. 

How to do more and better research,

and get your life back

I want to help you find new sources of motivation that can inspire you to reach new, values-based goals. I will do this by sharing a number of generalizable principles that emerged from my reading and interviews in part 1. Then in part 2, I will show you how you can apply these principles in practice. Although I have written this book specifically for researchers, as I’ve discussed the book with friends outside academia, I have found that many of the key messages resonate more widely. However, if you are reading this and you are not a researcher, you may want to skip over a few of the contextual details. I have written the book from my position as a University Professor, but I am mindful of the very different challenges I faced 12 years ago as a PhD student. Whether you are an early career researcher or more experienced, the principles in part 1 of this book should be both relevant and powerful. Although some of the advice in part 2 appears more relevant to experienced researchers, learning how to say “no” and manage distractions early, may prevent you from losing the motivation and focus you currently enjoy.

The principles in the first part of the book are derived from the literature, interviews with researchers and my own experience. They are more than just theory. They have emerged from lived experience and are designed to be lived. I will show you ways to (re-)discover clear and empowering motives and (re-)write your internal narrative, so that you achieve a kind of productivity that isn’t about meeting targets or keeping your employer and peers happy. It may not be about writing books, papers or grants, or climbing the career ladder; it may not even be about your research. I want to focus on a kind of productivity that gives you a sense of satisfaction on a fundamental level, and that is as much about who you are outside work, as much as it is about who you are as a researcher.

The researchers I interviewed knew exactly why they were doing what they were doing, every minute of every day. Your reasons, like theirs, don’t need to be profound or complicated. They just need to connect to who you are as a person. Some of us are doing this so we can give our children the childhood we dreamt of having. Some of us are doing this to find a place of creative solitude where we might eventually find peace, or some deeper meaning. Some of us are fueled by an insatiable curiosity to understand the world around us, or our place in it, and we become more enthralled the deeper we delve.

Part 2 of this book focuses on practical methods for applying the principles outlined in the first part. While the aim of these chapters is to provide practical guidance, the focus remains on changing how you think, and illustrating how each of the principles in the first part of the book may be put into practice. Throughout the book, I’ve developed exercises you can use to apply what you’ve learned. I have developed most of these over a number of years and have used them in mentoring, coaching and training sessions with colleagues who have found them transformative. 

I have illustrated the book with stories from my own experience to show the real life applicability of the principles outlined in part 1. In doing so, I don’t intend to hold myself up as an example to follow. Rather, I hope to show that I am just as fallible, error-prone and human as every other researcher. Each of us has many barriers to overcome if we are to reach our goals. I hope that by sharing part of my personal story, I may spur others to find new ways of overcoming the unique barriers that face them. I hope that by integrating insights from my own experience with lessons from the literature and from those I interviewed for this book, I have developed principles that are sufficiently broad and deep to apply in your own unique circumstances.

Why now?

I believe that researchers need these ideas now more than ever before. More and more PhDs are being awarded, but the rate of funding and jobs isn’t keeping pace, which is driving increased and intense competition. Finding ways to become more productive may help early career researchers secure a long-term academic role. For those who have secured such a role, the pressures are different but no less intense. More than a third of UK academics responding to a 2012 survey said that they worked more than 50 hours a week. Two years later, that figure had risen to 41%, and by 2016, academics were working 51 hours per week on average. Figures are similar in the United States, with postdocs working 51 hours per week and faculty staff working 55 hours per week .

For most of us, that would be fine if we felt we were actually achieving what we wanted. Sadly, most of us are familiar with the feeling of leaving work with a “to do” list that is longer than when we started the day. As a result, most researchers I know regularly work many evenings and weekends. This is often the only time they can find to do some of the most important parts of their job, like writing, after their working day has been eaten up by endless administrative tasks, teaching and emails. An ex-colleague of mine recently told me how he had taken a 40% pay cut by going part-time so he could get his evenings and weekends back (he now works 40 hours a week).

It doesn’t have to be like this. It is possible to do more and better research, and get your life back. It took me half my career to work it out, but I now know how I and many other researchers have done it. This book explains how you can do it too.

Read the full version of this chapter and buy the book at:

Some of the world’s most productive researchers have some unexpected things in common. I interviewed four of the authors with the highest average citation count across their papers in SiVal’s broad subject areas between 2011–2015. The analysis, published by Times Higher Education at the end of last year, only included researchers with many publications in the period, so those who had garnered many citations with only a small number of papers were filtered out. I asked them all how they had managed to write so many, well-regarded papers in such a short period of time. Two things stood out to me from their answers: 1) their focus; and 2) what they focused on. 

Every one of the researchers I interviewed was a single-minded prioritiser. I say “single-minded” because they had their priorities so clearly in their minds at all times that they would not let anything else get in their way. This did not mean that they were single-minded at the expense of the people around them—quite the reverse. One of the things that surprised me most was that each of the researchers I interviewed talked explicitly about the values underpinning their success. They did so unprompted. I was even more surprised by the values they cited. These people were at the top of their game and revered within their disciplines, and the two most common values they cited were humility and trust. 

Rather than being full of pride about their achievements, I heard stories about the importance of being approachable and open to criticism. Researchers told me how they empowered and trusted others to work effectively with them. As a result of these values, there was no heavy heart at having to break off from their work when a colleague was in crisis, because this—their team—was their work, and they did not see themselves as any more important than their most junior colleagues. They could still remember what it was like to be under the same pressures. From this place of empathy, linked to their values, helping their colleagues became a core priority.

Frede Blaabjerg, Professor in Power Electronics at Aalborg University Denmark, told me that in his mind, “there is very little difference if the person is a PhD student or a Professor. I open a conversation based on a person’s research interests, not their position. People are often shy when entering my office, but usually leave feeling that I am approachable. This is because I know that I don’t have all the answers; I can admit when I don’t know something”. Professor Blaabjerg directs the Center of Reliable Power Electronics and is Vice President of the Danish Academy of Technical Sciences. According to Google Scholar, he has over 1000 publications that have been cited almost 60,000 times. “Encourage and build others up”, he told me. “Trust people and they rise to the occasion”.

values dictate success?

Do your values dictate your success?

Adapted excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Productive Researcher by Mark Reed

Professor Gwojen Hwang has turned encouragement into a habit. “The habit of encouraging people is a key to success,” he explained to me. “One needs to know that the process of publishing a paper is time-consuming and challenging. Many researchers might consider giving up a study or a paper when facing the comments from reviewers. They need encouragement as well as assistance during the research process.” Professor Hwang researches e-learning at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, and is one of three social scientists in SciVal’s top 10 most prolific and cited researchers, with 101 publications cited on average 20.6 times each.

It was clear that these researchers were a number of steps ahead of most of the other researchers in their disciplines, and yet they did not believe that their success made them any better than their peers. These researchers weren’t undervaluing their expertise or experience, and were often called upon to provide constructive feedback and point out errors, but they did so with a spirit of humility. Cornelia van Duijn, Professor of Epidemiology at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, explained how she sometimes has to “correct other people’s mistakes, but you don’t want to hurt people or imply you are superior. Humility is important; you need to tone down your superiority.”

According to Elsevier’s SciVal analysis, Professor van Duijn is the second most prolific and cited researcher in the world, with 195 papers cited on average 52.5 times (she has over 1000 publications if you include conference papers). She says, “I am not a person who is obsessed with power—that is not what is driving me. What I like more and more is that I see the big picture. If you don’t see the big picture you can’t see what the next step is for the research. It is like a jigsaw of 20,000 pieces or more, but when you are working with genes, the numbers are much greater and more complex. These are puzzles with no photograph on the box. You start with no idea how to make sense of it. We’re not there but we are getting now to the point where we can start to see what is the picture. We’ve got 20,000 pieces coming together and we are still not quite sure what picture they are making up. That is the excitement.”

Professor van Duijn spoke to me a number of times about the importance of listening skills. She argued that the key to being able to listen deeply to others is humility. Without humility, our natural reaction to constructive feedback is to defend our position and so protect ourselves from the possibility that we might be wrong. Only with humility can we be fully open to the suggestions of others. By listening to advice from colleagues, she was empowered to make decisions that improved her work-life balance. Her reputation for being able to make decisions based on deep listening gave her influence as more and more people turned to her to help resolve issues: “Be humble and decisive: humility with rapid decision-making is the key to influence in a large consortium. Democratic decisions may not always be wise, but in most cases it works very well. I am often asked to be a judge in situations where people can’t decide something. Maybe that’s why people follow me.” 

One of the reasons that listening is so powerful is that it opens a channel of empathy. As Michael Nichols puts it in The Lost Art of Listening, “being a good listener is imagining yourself into the other person's experience.” Empathetic listening doesn't require us to agree with everything the other is saying but even if we violently with what they are saying, by listening with empathy the other person feels valued (their opinions are valid, even if you think they may be wrong) and understood (even if you disagree with what you have understood from them). By listening, you can empower people to clarify what they think and feel, enabling them to move forward. So much of our conversation with others is in “answer machine mode”, composing our thoughts while the other person speaks, just waiting for the answer machine “beep” when they finish so we can jump in with our next thought. In contrast, responsive listening, “hearing and acknowledging other people’s thoughts and feelings before voicing your own”, suspends your own interests for long enough to enable you to actually learn from the other person.


These researchers appear to have a presence of mind that enables them to resist the mental clamour to correct embarrassing but inconsequential mistakes, or to have the last word, or be seen to be right if it means humiliating your colleague. Instead, these researchers are travelling an alternative path that rises above the petty point-scoring of much of academic debate, to see the bigger picture. Despite spending years painstakingly piecing together their particular puzzle, these researchers are prepared to start again if it becomes clear that they are wrong. “You need to hold lightly to your own views, and trust your team”, explained Mike Lai, Associate Professor in the Department of Logistics and Maritime Studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Professor Lai is an editor for three international journals and on the Editorial Board of four others. According to Google Scholar, he has had more than 200 publications since 2001 (including seven books), which have been cited >11,000 times. He told me: “The one most important thing you can do if you want to be productive as a researcher is trust in your team members. If you trust the other person’s judgment you can save yourself a lot of time by acting on their advice. As a researcher, I know how much I don’t know, which makes it easy to trust and act on the knowledge of my team. Have an attitude of gratitude and think positive, even if you are being criticised; try and address their comments rather than fighting them. In Chinese, we say guan xi or “harmony”. We can be productive because we don’t argue; we are using the time others spend arguing being productive.”

One of the reasons these researchers were able to hold their priorities so clearly in front of them at all times may be because they came from the heart, not the head. If I were to ask you to write a list of work priorities right now, there is a good chance that you might struggle to recall them all if I ask you to do the same thing a month or two from now. If instead you look to see what priorities are already in your heart, linked to your most important values, you will be able to look again in a couple of months time and see exactly the same priorities. In the same way, the researchers I interviewed were able to tell me their priorities instantly, without hesitation, and had been pursuing them consistently for years.

The new smart

Setting powerful career goals: the new SMART 

Adapted excerpt from Chapter 5 from The Productive Researcher by Mark Reed 

We all know that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound (SMART). This is a good start, but from listening to the researchers I interviewed and reading the research literature, I have discovered a more empowering and evidence-based approach. I now create goals that are Stretching, Motivational, Authentic, Regardful and Tailored: the new SMART.

1. Stretching goals

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham summarised 35 years of empirical research on goal-setting theory in their 2002 article in American Psychologist, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation”. They found that the most difficult goals led people to produce the highest levels of effort and performance. Their meta-analysis showed a direct, linear correlation: the more difficult the goal, the more effort and performance they measured, until they reached the natural limit of human ability for the given task. People who set stretching goals were between 60–70% more likely to achieve higher levels of effort and performance than those who just tried to “do their best”. 

The reason for this, they argued, was that there is no concrete reference point for a person’s “best”. Therefore, a range of levels of effort and performance could be considered to be acceptable as a person’s “best” under the circumstances. At first, they wondered if it was the lack of specificity that prevented these people from reaching their potential, but when these people were asked to set specific goals, there was no discernible difference. The reason for this was that people set a wide range of specific goals, from realistic to stretching. It was the people who set stretching goals that showed the greatest effect size in their analysis.

Even if you only get part of the way there, Locke and Latham’s research suggests that your progress will bring you rewards such as external recognition or an internal sense of satisfaction, which will lead to an increase in your confidence and sense of self-efficacy, which in turn will then increase the likelihood that you build on your progress to get even closer to that stretching goal. So the first step to develop a new SMART goal is to stretch yourself.

2. Motivational goals

Some people are motivated by the very fact that their goals stretch them. Stretching goals can, however, be demotivational if they are unrealistic. For example, if you set yourself the stretching goal of learning to fly, you would realise before you hit the ground that you had reached and surpassed what is humanly possible. Even if you set yourself a goal that is theoretically possible but extremely stretching, such as travelling to outer space, then you may become so intimidated by the goal that you never take the first step towards achieving it. Rather than being inspired to action, you may be debilitated by the fear of failure, judging your current position and performance in terms of how far you are falling short of your goal.

The solution, argue Locke and Latham, is to focus on what you need to learn to be able to reach your goal, and to turn these learning goals into milestones that progressively take you closer to your stretching goal. They review research showing how people who focus on learning goals tend to perform better than those who focus on performance goals. As a result of this learning, new ways of reaching your goals may become clear, and you may gain new competencies and awareness that enable you to exploit opportunities to reach your goals in creative new ways, which you might otherwise have missed. Now, instead of focusing on whether you are any closer to space travel and being disappointed that your dream is still far beyond your reach, you focus on whether you gained one of the skills you know you will need if you want to be able to travel into outer space.

Often the thing that holds us back is not a lack of resources or ability, but a lack of ambition. We need aspirations that are inspirational enough to push us to the next level of thinking and action. The second step to developing a new SMART goal is to find highly motivational goals. 

3. Authentic goals

For your goals to be authentic, you need to set them yourself so they genuinely represent your aspirations, and believe in your ability to reach them (the concept of “self-efficacy”). Locke and Latham showed that those with higher self-efficacy, set higher goals than people with lower self-efficacy, were more committed to their goals (whether they set them themselves or were assigned goals by a manager), found more effective strategies for reaching their goals, and were more likely to respond well to negative feedback.

Being authentic doesn’t mean I have to rebel against the norms of my peers or the expectations of my managers (although that is of course the academic prerogative). Instead, I look for win-wins where I can pursue authentic goals that also meet some of the key needs of the colleagues I work with. For example, in my own institution, I am expected to bring in research money, yet I could do much of my research without significant funding. More authentic for me than pursuing funding, is the pursuit of benefits for society. However, by trying to achieve these goals primarily in the context of funded research projects, I have discovered that I have the resources I need to generate higher quality evidence and more significant and far-reaching impacts than I could have otherwise achieved, whilst meeting the aspirations of my department.

Self-efficacy can be a real challenge for many researchers. Researchers are already among the most educated people in the world. Yet many find it hard to believe that they deserve the “expert” label that is put on them by the media, their students and peers. High-achieving individuals who are unable to accept or internalise their accomplishments are often said to experience the “imposter phenomenon”. Sufferers have a tendency to dismiss evidence of competence as luck or a result of having deceived others into thinking that they are more competent than they really are. As a result, they live in constant fear of being exposed as a “fake”. While some researchers live in this reality for much of their working life, it is more common for researchers to doubt their self-efficacy on a more reactive basis, for example, after negative feedback or failure.

Kumar and Jagacinski, writing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2006, reviewed literature showing that people who worry about being an imposter tend to report higher levels of anxiety, perceive they are less competent than their peers, do not expect to perform well and have more negative reactions to failure than people who do not experience the phenomenon. These fears prevent them from aiming as high as their potential. In some cases, the imposter phenomenon results in self-sabotage, for example procrastinating over the submission of an article that is never perfect and so never gets submitted and avoids attracting any negative feedback.

Whether you would describe yourself as an impostor or not, self-doubt may still be preventing you from setting authentic goals that represent your true aspirations. You need to believe in yourself before you can allow yourself to dream of the positive things you might do, before articulating these as goals (as opposed to the negative things you might do, which you may articulate as worries). The third step is to avoid adopting someone else’s goals, and instead, develop your own goals that are authentic to your dreams and abilities. Find personal strengths you can believe in, and build your goals on this concept of self-efficacy. 

4. Regardful goals

The researchers I interviewed for this book all had goals that were based on their values. The values that their goals were based upon all shared one common characteristic: they were other-regarding, rather than self-regarding. If you want to set regardful goals, consider how your goals interact with the goals of others around you and affect them, and how achieving your goals might provide win-wins for people who are important to you.


For example, you may need to achieve your goals as part of a team. The first element of a regardful goal in this context would be understanding the strengths and motives of your team members in order to delegate to, or request help from, those who are likely to gain most themselves from helping you achieve your goals. The second element of a regardful goal in this context would be to articulate and agree your goal with the team, and then be accountable to the group for your progress towards each of the learning (rather than performance—see “stretching goals” above) milestones you set for yourself on your journey towards your ultimate goal. If you are working alone towards your goals, you might want to think about the knock-on benefits for your immediate colleagues or your family if you were to reach your goal, so you are working towards something that is other-regarding, rather than just self-regarding, and so more likely to stand the test of time, through those wobbly moments when you don't regard yourself as highly as you ought to.

Goal-setting is usually an exclusively self-centred exercise. However, the researchers I interviewed turned traditional logic on its head and set goals that deliberately built up others in their teams, rather than themselves. They did this because of their regard for the others in their team, rather than doing it out of regard for themselves. Yet, as a result of the other-regarding nature of their goals, their teams respected and gave back to them, powering them to success. The fourth step is to develop goals that are other-regarding rather than self-regarding. Consider how achieving your goals could create win-wins for others around you. 

5. Tailored goals

Finally, SMART goals need to be tailored to your unique strengths and abilities. The more effectively you tailor your goals to your strengths and abilities, the more likely you are to set authentic goals that are stretching enough, motivating and genuinely regardful of others.

There are two steps. The first is to make sure your goals build on, consolidate or enact your values and identity, rather than taking you further away from them. The second step is to tailor your goals to your unique strengths and capabilities. Goals are often designed to solve problems or address weaknesses. However, focusing on problems and weaknesses can be disempowering, feeding into the negative stories that we (and others) construct about us. I am not encouraging you to disregard, disown or hide from your weaknesses and failings. To do so would clearly be unbalanced and unhealthy. However, it is possible to accept and be aware of our weaknesses, while choosing to focus on our strengths. Reviewers and colleagues will remind us of our failings on a regular basis anyway. For most researchers, the greater challenge is to construct, evidence and embed positive stories about ourselves that can empower and motivate us. The final step therefore, is to tailor your goals to your unique values and abilities. Make sure your goals build on, consolidate or enact your values and identify, rather than taking you further away from who you are or want to be. Make sure your goals build on your strengths, seeking these out and reminding yourself of your capabilities as you seek your goals.


Not all goals are created equal 

Values-based goals, which are Stretching, Motivational, Authentic, Regardful and Tailored, can drive sustained action. These are not like other goals you might have set yourself in the past. You have imbued them with the unique power of your most important values. These are therefore goals that you care deeply about. They are the sort of goals for which people will make deep personal sacrifices. They are the sort of goals that can mobilise teams and continue motivating you when all else seems lost. Ultimately, they are goals that happen.

Read the full version of this chapter and buy the book at: 

Building high-performing interdisciplinary teams: moving beyond the Tinder approach

Mark Reed

Around the world, research funding is increasingly moving towards directed calls for proposals to tackle real-world challenges. These challenges tend not to respect disciplinary boundaries, so calls for explicitly interdisciplinary research are also on the rise.

The automatic response of most university managers is to organise their staff around thematic institutional structures, sometimes in dedicated spaces, and to play matchmaker with academic CVs to build teams of relevant, leading experts who can beat the competition to get the funding.

I call this the Tinder approach to team building: add someone to your team with a left swipe of the finger, or swipe right and move on. The Tinder approach to interdisciplinary team building has the same fundamental problem as the dating app: you make judgments about who to work with on face value, based on how attractive and compatible their CV looks. The result is well-funded but potentially dysfunctional teams. They may get the research done eventually, but are slowed by the friction of team members pulling in different directions, misunderstanding each other and, in some cases, by interpersonal conflict.If you want a high-performing interdisciplinary group that really gets the most out of everyone in your team, I believe that there are three fundamental points you need to get right.

1. Compatible personalities

You don’t need to all be the same (far from it) but you want to avoid having people on your team who constantly rub each other up the wrong way. If you have a team of people who get on and actually like each other, the chances are that your team will enjoy the work—and happy people always perform better than people who are constantly arguing.

2. Compatible ways of generating knowledge

There are a wide range of compatible ways of understanding what knowledge is, and what constitutes valid knowledge, or “epistemologies”. However, some epistemologies are less compatible with each other: there is little point in trying to get a committed post-modernist who believes that there is no such thing as reality to work with a reductionist in search of universal truth. They may have deep and meaningful conversations, but the chances of them being able to design or implement research together successfully are slim. 

3. Compatible values

It isn’t enough to have people who can get on well and think about research in compatible ways; you need to build teams of people motivated by compatible values. Again, that’s not to say everyone in your team should be motivated by the same set of values. However, you are likely to run into problems if you have a team of people who are fundamentally motivated by altruistic values and want the research to make the world a better place, if they are being led by someone who is fundamentally motivated by ego, and wants the research to boost their power, influence, legacy and career (or vice versa). An equally common problem is the curiosity-driven, risk-averse researcher who loves focusing on the details, who is driven to distraction by a principal investigator who wants to see only the big picture and is prepared to gloss over details and take risks to make an impact.

The problem with my approach is that it takes significantly more time and effort than the Tinder approach. However, from bitter experience I can tell you that you can save yourself a huge amount of time in the long run.

Building high-performing

I learned the hard way when I was confronted with the unenviable task as an early-career researcher of having to throw a senior academic o a project because of their personality and values. It is much easier to confront a challenging individual when the issue is less personal, such as a lack of expertise. The fundamental problem with this professor’s ego manifested itself by him talking and talking, loudly and without allowing anyone to interrupt. He constantly brought the meeting agenda back to his own work and how amazing it was. He seemed unaware of the evident frustration of everyone else sitting round the table, and the fact that we never actually discussed or decided anything on our agenda. His overbearing personality and inability to listen to others meant that no-one in the team warmed to this professor, and people’s frustration turned to dislike.

Eventually, as project manager, I received complaints that we couldn’t do the work if we kept this person on the team. These problems surfaced before the consortium agreement had been signed with this professor’s university, and so I was able to explain that it wasn’t working and that I was going to have to give his work to one of my other colleagues. He was far from happy, but accepted my decision. The team went on to be the most successful interdisciplinary project I’ve ever managed, publishing over 50 articles in top journals and spawning multiple follow-on projects.

Avoiding creating incompatible teams is the easy option: removing problematic team members is the tough option. So, is it possible instead to simply work with a challenging team? If this is about simply ignoring the issues, then you are storing up trouble for yourself. However, by confronting the issues in a constructive way, it is often possible to understand, accept and, in some cases, even value your differences.

These conversations typically work best one-to-one, but having an open conversation with your team may help flush out other problems you need to deal with. By understanding where the fundamental differences lie, it may be possible to anticipate and avoid conflicts. For example, if my ‘big picture’ PI knew that a colleague was unhappy with the way his work was being represented, the PI would be able to check how his work was represented in future and proceed only after they reached agreement on the level of detail to be communicated. I am continually learning from my mistakes as an interdisciplinary researcher, and don't always have the luxury of getting to know people as much as I would like before joining their team. Calls for proposals seem to be giving researchers less and less time to bid, leading to rushed team-building.

This is often compounded by the geographical spread of team members, and in my case, limited availability in my schedule for informal, face-to-face meetings. There is only so much you can do with the time you have available, and my approach is clearly an unachievable ideal in many cases.

What concerns me is the way that interdisciplinary teams are so often designed in ways that preclude people from really getting to know each other first. This is true of the “sandpit” approach that so many funders seem to favour for building consortia. Of course, sometimes these marriages of convenience turn into highly successful and long-standing collaborations. The problem is that it is a high-risk approach.

Although slower and needing more effort, taking time to find people with compatible personalities, epistemologies and values is much more likely to deliver a high-performing interdisciplinary team. 

The story behind the photos in The Productive Researcher 

The Productive Research engages more than just the mind – it engages you with its photography and tactile cover. The look and feel of the book was the brainchild of Joyce Reed and Anna Sutherland, Fast Track Impact’s photographer and graphic designer. Throughout the ‘Productivity Tips’ section of the magazine you’ll have seen some of the photos used in the book; and like many of the book’s readers you may be wondering “what’s with all the trees?”. For this issue of the magazine we interviewed Joyce about the inspiration for her work. 

So, what’s with all the trees?

This book was the culmination of Mark’s thinking and journey through his life as a researcher. Really it was a message to the world about how he had managed to juggle life and work, and live it as a coherent whole. As I was reading it, I started to think about overarching things like ecosystems and life cycles, and something that was living and evolving. Then the idea struck me that it was all about a forest; this ancient thing that lives and grows, and goes through cycles itself. This was the perfect visual idea because Mark loves trees of all kinds. If you want to find Mark chilling out in his ideal place, you’ll find him under a tree, walking through a forest or looking at books about trees. 


But why all the obscure angles?

It was really important to me that the deep concepts in the book were revealed through the approach I took to the photos. The book takes you on a journey to deconstruct, analyse and then reconstruct how you can make your work more productive as a researcher. I wanted to mirror that in the visual journey you take as you progress through the photos that start each chapter. Each of the close-ups are of a different part of trees within the same forest. The final chapter then reveals a whole tree in the context of the forest it is in, pulling together all the images that came before it. I also wanted to convey the idea that when you pull together all the different parts of the tree and look up at it, you’re not just looking at a tree; you’re looking at something that is reaching right to the sky, to something bigger and beyond itself. 

The front cover has confused many people. Is it a stag’s antler, or one of those ink blot tests where you have to work out what you can see in the random patterns?

Our designer, Anna, cleverly thought this through. It is a relief of the markings of the tree that appears on the inside leaf, which is meant to give you a clue about what is actually on the cover. As soon as I saw it, I loved the mystery of it because the whole idea of the photos is that they take you on a journey of discovery. It makes you ask, “What is this? It looks beautiful, but what is it?”. I also like how she designed it so that the letters of the title look a bit like the canopy of the tree.

What about the whole tactile feel of the book?

Mark had created this piece of writing that was supposed to take people on a deep journey that would enable them to do high quality work in less time, and so get better work life balance, and get back to the original reason why they wanted to do research in the first place. I loved the stories in the book and the depth of thinking it provoked, and felt it was worthy of standing out and being notably different to other books researchers might read on this subject; it started me on a process where I went around my own house looking for books which made you feel they had something special inside them. I’d put a lot of texture into the photos, and the hessian seemed an obvious choice to match the feel of the photos, giving the book a timeless quality. I really hope that it gives people the feel that this is something that will be with them for the long haul, not just something they would read and recycle. 

Story behind the photos
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