Friday, February 09, 2007

My best two months of research

After classes ended last spring, I tried a remarkably successful experiment with scheduling my work. This experiment was informed by two observations.

1) About five hours. Let’s see, I had seven years of graduate school, two years of being a post-doc, and eight years of a faculty position. That’s 17 years of sociology (which makes me wonder why I still feel new to it?). I think that it’s time for me to admit that I can’t do much more than about five hours of “real” research a day. By this I mean solid, focused research-related writing, reading, or data analysis. Oh, in a pinch I can do more for a day or two, but day in and day out, it’s probably five hours--tops. I wish that I could do more. I think everyone else can do more. I try to do more. I’m a bit embarrassed that it’s not more, but this is my reality.

2) Parkinson’s law. Parkinson's law states that work expands or contracts to fill the time given to it. That is, if you have a day to get a project done, it takes a day. If you have a week, it takes a week. (Obviously there are bounds to this in terms of feasibility, e.g., planning to get a Ph.D. in a month probably wouldn’t work).

Last spring/summer, when I was done with classes but the boys were still in school, I decided that I would do five hours of “real” work a day and nothing else, only research—reading, analyzing, and writing. No lecture preparation, no committee work, no surfing the web. When I was done with this, I was done for the day and could do anything I wanted, which usually meant building a patio or otherwise working in the yard (two things I really enjoy).

Going into this, I thought that I wouldn’t get much done but that I would be happier. Wrong. I got so much done! I used the time to go through old research projects, most in draft form (where I too often leave them), and get them submitted to a journal. I got five papers submitted in two months! I would write from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., knock off, and come back the next day ready to go.

I have been thinking about this because since then I have fallen into a routine of nine hours at the office a day, and I’m getting much less done. Obviously I’m teaching now, but still—my productivity is much less, so I’m trying to figure out how to structure my time better. Maybe one day for teaching (plus showing up for classes on other days, of course), one day all service work, and three days for research.

The operating principle here is one of managing energy rather than time. On various occasions I have gotten tons done in a short period of time—usually right before a deadline or after a relaxing three-day weekend. I want to recapture that on a regular basis.



vikram aka pogo said...

Hello Sir
I really liked this post primarily because of the inherent honesty in it. I also feel the same. Parkinson's law is an eye-opener to me.

jt said...

true, true, true. which is why you hear over and over again from academic-types who have just transitioned to parenthood for the first time: in many ways, having a kid actually makes you more productive. it really does.

Ben Dubow said...

I have found the same thing true in my work patterns, especially in the areas of writing and sermon prep.

For me it is not only hours-per-day that matter but days-per-week. I can put in huge numbers of hours/days and actually get less done.

Energy management, not time management, is really a pretty significant break-through for me. I need to thank and elder from my previous church for turning me on to the book/idea. I then heard Jack Groeppel speak about it at Willow Creek's Leadership Summit two years ago.

All that said... I am going home now, away from work... making chili.

Gotta manage the energy.

Brad Wright said...

These comments are helpful to read. Frankly, I was expecting comments like "get back to work, you piker" or "I write 10 hours a day, it's easy".

Perhaps those who feel this way are just kind enough not to say it. Or, perhaps they are too busy doing real work?

Good point about parenting--it certainly made me more productive. It increased focus & motivation... when I had a kid in grad school I felt that I *had* to get a good job to support a family.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Mary Kay Ash [yes, that lady, of the pink Cadillac/billions in cosmetic fame] used to say "a focused hour is better than a dreamy day."

A body might be able to take an 8 hour work day, but real brain work is draining in less time. You found the secret to your productivity. Congrats!

"Mary Kay on People Management" is a gem of a quick read, too.