Friday, September 30, 2011

Mock productivity

Imagine yourself at mid-day: clipping along, fast-paced, mentally feeling proud of your efforts as you move through the massive emails and return calls or head to committee meetings. You've taught two classes already, held office hours, attended a committee meeting, revised a quiz for class, and returned phone messages before addressing the emails. Somehow, those emails grow and time slows down before you feel your pace slacken, your motivation wane. You really just want to get through these emails and get to work. Real work. Except, you didn't actually accomplish that much before noon, did you? Sure, you were euphoric, you felt accomplished. But think about it. When you get to the end of the day, will you reflect on what you DID accomplish or will you realize all of the important things you DIDN'T work on? Was the effort truly productive?

This feeling of working hard all day only to end up in bed at night wondering how I could put in so much effort and get so little accomplished has haunted me on certain days. I find myself growing frustrated, blaming others, and wondering how anyone survives this last year before the tenure review.
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Truly, though, the problem is mine. I am involved in way too much "mock productivity" -- work that FEELS like productive efforts, but does nothing to move a project, article, or event forward toward completion. This "mock productivity" may be a fact of faculty life. It may be a necessary part of our world. We have to expend a lot of effort just to get to our actual work! There are many mornings where I work diligently for a few hours just to get to the point where I can really work. The point where I can open the data set, dig into the literature, examine a teaching lesson, prepare materials for a grant. The "work" side of faculty life is hard to actually get to due to all of the other items that can, easily, creep into our days. There are several culprits: email, distracted methods of working, and poor planning. Chief among the tasks feeling most like productivity in disguise (dubbed 'mock productivity') involves email. With a large number of students, advising a student club, working on collaborative projects, general departmental and institution needs, and (let us NEVER forget the service...) committee communications, the emails seem to require half a day!

No matter how I rant about it, or how I seek someone to blame, the mock productivity is my own fault. I own it. I have a tendency to ALLOW time-stealing culprits to transform efforts toward genuine productivity to become mock productivity. I do this by being "on" all the time. Students drop in, a committee session is called, a colleague needs help with a situation, I get pulled into an impromptu meeting in the hallway. I am distracted.

Lastly, I'm always connected to my email and when that 'ding' happens I feel as if I simply must respond. I want to answer quickly and therefore, remove the email. It feels like marking an item off a list when I hit the "delete" button. But, even though I rationalize that a fast response now means I am less likely to have a bulky in-box later, this is poor logic. The email distraction eats away at time. Before you know it, you're completely derailed.  

I am, therefore, distracted easily by a phone call/email (or random shiny objects that will promise an escape). These distractions let me break away from tasks requiring more involved thinking or that are higher pressure...(procrastination?!). Lastly, I need to continue my growth when it comes to planning. Though I have recently dedicated email-free, phone-free research power hours (see Research Power Hour entry), I haven't done the same for my other faculty duties such as teaching and grant writing. I need to, perhaps, make most of my day an email-free zone and only address emails at certain, dedicated times. Though that may seem to add bulk to the in-box, it will, in all likelihood, keep me more productive on bigger projects.

Managing these time-eaters, these "mock productivity" items/feelings, will certainly help me reach the work I really want to do. Kyvik (2010) noted that the increase in academic publishing does not change the trend that a few faculty members typically do most of the publishing/research work. Those few are likely embracing the word "no" more frequently and can be more focused on their research productivity (see Super Power of Productive Faculty entry). They are, likely, protecting their time better.

As Lackritz (2004) reminds us, burnout is a common experience in higher education -- particularly for those with a high number of students and a high amount of activities to manage. But working on the type of work YOU find engaging can actually stave off burnout. In fact, faculty members who spend their time on the work they find most meaningful, have less of a risk to experience burnout, according to Shanafelt et al. (2009).

Be reflective. Where are you spending MOST of your effort?. Is it on the work that is truly meaningful, the work that will be "counted" when it is tenure/retention time, work that you find rewarding? ... Or is the bulk of your effort spent on false feelings of success? On mock productivity? 

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Lackritz, J. R. (2004). Exploring burnout among university faculty: Incidence, performance, and demographic issues. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(7), 713-729.

Kyvik, S. (2010). Productivity of university faculty staff.  International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd edition, 455-460.

Shanafelt, T. D., West, C. R., Sloan, J. A., Novotny, P. J., Poland, G. A., Menaker, R., Rummans, T. A., & Dyrbye, L. N. (2009). Career fit and burnout among academic faculty. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(10), 990-995.

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