On Productivity

One of the weirder experiences I had at the Nordita Workshop for Science Writers a couple of weeks ago was having people ask me "How are you so productive?" (or the equivalent). That caught me off guard, because I don't feel like I'm especially productive-- in fact, I tend to feel like I'm falling behind on things I would like to get done.

And yet, this image is kind of at odds with objective reality, a sort of tenured-white-guy version of Impostor Syndrome. I mean, I'm not Neil de Grasse Tyson, but I've actually got a pretty nice career going as a C-list public intellectual. And, of course, I'm a tenured professor, which is a pretty sweet deal in its own right. If I stop and think about it, it totally makes sense that people are asking how I manage to do what I do.

So why do I need to stop and think about that? Well, for one thing, my day job is in academia, where a lot of the stuff I do doesn't really count. From a pure academic standpoint, I've got two articles and a bunch of talks, and that's it. Yeah, there are some books, but those are trade books, so they don't fully count as scholarship. And as much as I try not to fall into that worldview, well, I'm surrounded by it every day, so I wind up feeling like I'm not publishing enough.

Some of it is also that I'm comparing myself to an unrealistic set of people-- I dropped Neil de Grasse Tyson's name above, and I'm not within two orders of magnitude of his stature. But it's hard to avoid using people like him (and Brian Cox, Sean Carroll, Michio f'ing Kaku, etc.) as reference points. And non-scientist friends like John Scalzi. A lot of the people I follow in social media circles are getting to do lots of cool stuff that I would like to be invited to do, but haven't quite been able to break into yet, for a variety of reasons.

And, of course, even outside the academic context, I keep falling into the trap of not counting the blog. This is largely because there's no good way to quantify that-- I did the Ten Years Before the Blog thing a couple of years ago, but even looking through all that stuff didn't quite stick. And I have a rough sense of page view statistics and that kind of thing, but those numbers are kind of unreal.

So, it's all too easy to get hung up on the frustrating stuff, and lose sight of the awesome opportunities I've already had. Which in turn, makes me seem like an ungrateful dickhead; sorry about that. This post is, in part, a reminder to myself that I really need to be more aware of how fortunate I am to have the career that I do.

Anyway, that wasn't really intended as a humblebrag, though it kind of reads that way (probably inevitably, so I'm not going to work too hard to fix it), but context for my sort of startled replies when people asked about productivity. I don't really feel like I'm that productive, which makes it hard to offer useful advice.

I ended up thinking about this stuff again because of this article about the effect of having kids, which came up at lunch yesterday, because in a weird way, the kids are responsible for me maintaining any kind of productivity at all. Which is kind of backwards from how you would ordinarily think about parenthood and productivity...

As I told the several people who asked in Stockholm, my current productivity regimen is to put SteelyKid on the bus at 7:30, drop The Pip off at day care, then hit Starbucks for an hour or so of writing time before coming to the office to deal with classes and administrative nonsense. The block from 7:45-9:15 am has turned into my most productive time of day, which would shock college-age me. But thanks to the kids, I'm wide awake by then, and I know I won't get anything done after 5pm (when I have to make dinner, pick up the kids, help wrangle them through dinner and bedtime, then get stuff ready for the next day), so I have to buckle down and get stuff done in the morning.

I also try to block out at least one day a week when I'm not teaching-- most of our classes have Monday-Wednesday-Friday lectures, with lab either Tuesday or Thursday, so there's usually one day when I have no teaching responsibilities. And I try to block that time off for non-class activities, unless the backlog of grading or class prep gets really extreme. Once I cave in and spend a writing day on grading or administrative responsibilities, though, that's usually it for the rest of the term, so I try really hard to hold the line there.

So, you know, having kids has helped my career, in a weird and indirect way. It's been a major grind, though, particularly the last year or so. Which leads to another aspect of my quasi-impostor-syndrome with regard to productivity, namely that I don't have a new project already lined up for once Eureka is out.

Each of the last two books, I started thinking about the next book right around this time-- coming up with relativity-themed dog dialogues, working on the proposal for what became the book-in-process. Right now... I'm just trying to catch my breath. I have a couple of really vague ideas that may or may not be useful, but I haven't had time to try to develop them. And there's a sense in which I don't want to start, because I'm tired of being frantically busy all the time. I have some stuff to put together for Eureka publicity, and a cool side thing that's nearing completion (but not ready to go public yet), but after that, I'm seriously tempted to spend my non-class days napping for the next several months.

Which I won't do, of course, because I insist on comparing myself to unrealistic standards. The current lull is pretty much a slow-motion adrenaline crash, and in a bit, I'll come up with some new thing that will suck up my writing time. If nothing else, I'll probably try to write up some of the pedagogical stuff that I have kicking around that could probably turn into some low-level publications.

Anyway, I'm not sure I have much of a point to make, here, other than, as I said, acknowledging that I'm extremely lucky to be doing what I do. And I need to make a more consistent effort to remember this, because otherwise, I'm likely to make myself crazy.

More like this

"Michio f’ing Kaku"

I don't believe that is actually his middle name.

I get your position on the matter, without being able, myself, to adequately vet that opinion. But I would at least consider that he does a pretty good job of selling Science to non-Science people, which is universally necessary. I mean, he's at least as good at countering Jenny F'ing McCarthy, no?

By William C Hendrixson (not verified) on 09 Sep 2014 #permalink

Was that a question you'd only get in Stockholm?

People ask me that all the time. It's somewhat of a mystery to me because, much like you say, if you look at the bottom line, I'm not doing all that much. I think maybe what they don't see is what I don't do. I do not, for example, watch TV, and haven't seen a movie since, ehem, 2008 or so, and that was on a plane. I rarely read a book that isn't pop sci (and these days most of what I read is for reviews, not that I want to complain because I get the books for free and sometimes I get paid for the review). I'm not into video games (never have been) and I'm generally not much of an online browser or surfer (I get bored very very quickly). If I go out for a walk I take a notebook with me (and normally use it at some point). I sometimes get up in the middle of the night. I always get up early in the morning so I have an hour or two before the rest of the family wakes up. Etc. And in the end I barely manage a normal researcher output.

I think I should stop comparing myself to unrealistic standards like you, who seems to be writing every day even though you have two kids... ;)

Hi Sabine, it's great to be able to read above how you schedule your work and other commitments. It must be difficult comparing yourself to other colleagues - it was Laudau I think who said that Physicists are ranked on a logarithmic scale. All I can say having read your total output is wow! Firstly your phenomenological work is great-it's interesting and testable science, then your blogs particularly Backreaction, are an important source of information about working science for a lot if us. In addition to this your posts and outreach on social media such as Facebook are helping to keep the public and others interested in what I physicists are trying to achieve. For myself, I think of you in the same space as Carlo Rovelli, Garrett Lisi, Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, Sundance Bilson Thompson, Susskind ... and the other great physicists making physics part of our Culture.

By David Horgan (not verified) on 09 Sep 2014 #permalink

If many physicists share your reaction to M(f)K as a spokesperson for all other fields of physics, as I suspect is common, can you imagine how meterorologists, geologists (eathquake, volcano), astronomers, biologists, physicians, etc react when he pontificates on All Things Science on the TV news?

Their heads must explode.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 10 Sep 2014 #permalink