How to do more and better research and get your life back:
Excerpt from The Productive Researcher
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, or working beyond my contracted hours.
Maybe this is a British thing, but over the years this became increasingly embarrassing for me. There were three 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 when I attempted explain to these colleagues how much I actually worked, they didn’t believe me. I have had a message at the bottom of my emails for some time saying, “I work two evenings a week, so if this email arrives outside office hours, please do not feel you have to reply until normal working hours”. If I worked five days a week including two evenings, then I must be underestimating my working hours. I thought they had a point, so I downloaded a time-tracker app and logged every minute of work I did for five representative weeks. To my astonishment, when I did the calculation to work out my hours per week, the answer was 37 (of all numbers). When I drilled into the data, I discovered that on Mondays and Fridays when I work from home, I work surprisingly little (often just four hours). Still colleagues objected though, arguing that the levels of productivity and success I was experiencing would not have been possible without someone (they suspected a woman) at home looking after children and household. However, until I moved to Newcastle University 18 months ago, my wife worked away from home three nights a week doing a 36 hour week as a hospital doctor, and with limited childcare options, when she was working I had to be at home to put children to school and bed, and all the other things a parent needs to do to run a house in the absence of their partner. As a result, I had to say “no” to multiple opportunities that would have created childcare issues for us as a family.
The third problem was that those who eventually believed me, or who already knew 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.
If you are serious about becoming more productive, you need to become serious about taking time off – properly. Become more productive to spend less time working. Spend less time working to become more productive.
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 were 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 generalisable 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 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 us 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.
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 here