Monday, February 25, 2019

From Work-Life Balance to Like-Dislike Optimization

The ongoing impassioned debated about work-life balance recently reminded me of something a McGill Professor, Joe Rasmussen, send to me soon after my arrival at McGill. “I never work at work,” he said. By this what he meant was that “work” was writing research papers, and he never did that “at work” – meaning at McGill. Instead, while at McGill, he would simply talk to people and do other administrative tasks, meet with students, BS with colleagues, teach, and so on. As a brand new Professor with relatively few responsibilities at McGill and a young child at home, this flabbergasted me. McGill (“work”) was where I went to WORK – meaning write and think. Now, 17 years later, I find that – like Joe – I almost never work at work. Instead, the real work happens at home where I have plenty of peaceful quality time to think and write. When I go to “work” now, I mostly do those same things as Joe: teach, have meetings with students and colleagues, attend seminars, do administration, and so on. All of the real “work” happens at home in evenings after everyone else has gone to bed, or on weekend mornings when the kids are off at sports (while my wife visits her horse), or on those 1-2 days a week when I don’t book anything at work and so can stay home to do some work.

Image from here.
Perhaps this work-at-home time sounds like a recipe for an unhealthy “work-life” balance – the kind you hear criticized all the time on social media, with respect to both hyper-prolific scientists or, simply, everyone that is an academic. Yet I don’t think working at home means I work more. Sometimes I don’t even go in to work at all, and most days I schedule all my meetings during the middle of the day, so I can go to work later in the morning and leave earlier in the afternoon. So, presumably, to calculate how many hours I work, I would have to keep a closer accounting and sum up the time I spent at work and the time I spent working at home. Yet all of this begs the question “what is work”?

From work-life balance …

If you work Nine-to-Five at some job you don’t “bring home”, then I suppose the accounting is simple. When you were at work you are working – apart from formal coffee breaks and lunch hour. When you are at home, you were not working – you are “living.” The commuting time is a bit trickier, of course, because one could count it as work (because you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t work) or life (because you might read a book or watch a video or whatever on your way to work). Many jobs, however, aren’t Nine-to-Five because the work you do at work benefits from additional work you do at home – so people bring their work home and are now presumably advancing at work at the expense of their life. I certainly bring my work home, so perhaps I have this problem.

Yet I obviously don’t work all of the time at home, so I suppose I would need to count only the specific time I was working at home – and then add that on to my time at work. But that hardly sounds like a fair accounting given that – at work – sometimes I am not working. I might be taking a walk, or checking the news, or checking up on sports, or simply BSing with colleagues. Should that “life at work” be subtracted from the time I work at work? And what about the time I am “working” at home but, depending on the task, intermittently watching a comedy program or a new video by my favorite band, or whatever. Considering this mosaic work-life partitioning, the accounting gets pretty fine to the point of absurdity.

And what about when “work” and “life” overlap in the same activities. My work involves a lot of field work – and that is something I love doing. If I wasn’t “working” in Alaska or BC or Trinidad or Galapagos or Uganda or Chile or Argentina, I would be outside in the “field” anyway – and, without work, I would probably not be able to visit those places that I love to visit. So, do I count field work as “work” or “life”? (People I know outside of work often ask me if my latest destination was “work” or “holiday” and I always hesitate because nearly every trip is both in one way or other.) For me, then, field work for work IS life and how would I divide time between the two. And what about those activities at McGill that I really enjoying, like discussing ideas with students and colleagues, attending very cool seminars, and so on. Should these fun work activities count as work? The point of all of this “what if” postulation is that I think the traditional accounting of “work-life” balance is not helpful and we need a new way of thinking about balance – or, in fact, optimization.

… to Like-Dislike Optimization.

I propose that instead of worrying about work-life balance, we should worry about maximizing time investment into activities that we enjoy – both at work and in life (which can be the same). With respect to work, I have some very clear duties that I do really dislike: making multiple choice exams, grading exams, dealing with students who are whining about their grades, filing in activity reports, preparing expense reports and travel advances (and then fixing and resubmitting them, and then fixing and resubmitting them yet again), checking/printing/signing/scanning/emailing financial reports, anything associated with Animal Use Protocols or collection permits, attending administrative meetings just because I am supposed to, and so on. I think we should stick these types of onerous – sometimes soul crushing –activities in a “things I dislike” bin that we try to minimize without shirking our duties too much. 

At home, I also have a set of things I similarly dislike, such as vacuuming, washing floors, doing taxes, meeting with banks or financial planners, GOING TO THE DENTIST or doctor, waiting in lines or on hold, arguing with my family about anything, and so on. Of course, most of these things must be done, and so I will do them; but only because I have to do them. (Again, part of the reason is to avoid shirking responsibility that someone else in the family would then have to take up.) I suggest that all of these “things I dislike”, whether at work or home should be in a single bin that we will seek to minimize.

The juxtaposed bin is then, of course, “things I like” both at work and at home. These things I like include doing things outside (field work, hiking, fishing, photography, climbing, diving, kayaking) and inside (lecturing, writing papers, climbing in a gym, attending awesome seminars, talking about science, reading about science or Middle Earth, watching movies about science or Middle Earth, reading to my kids, and so on). For this bin, I can sometimes make what amounts to extra time by creating an intersection between multiple activities: next week I am taking my students and kids in the field where we will do and talk about science while taking pictures and watching wildlife.

Cedar and Aspen helping with field work (and camping and hiking and wildlife watching and photography) in Haida Gwaii. My earlier post about "Work-Life Fusion".

Between the “things I dislike” and the “thinks I like” bins is a intermediate bin of “things that are OK” but must be done either to minimize things I dislike or maximize things I like. For me, we here have raking leaves or shoveling snow, writing research grants, sitting on planes or in cars, reviewing manuscripts for journals, attending boring seminars, etc. This bin can be viewed as the route by which we maximize the transition away from “things I dislike” and into “things I like.”

Accounted for time in this new way, I would say that I have a great Like-Dislike Optimization. Indeed, I suggest that many academics who would seem to have a bad Work-Life Balance do, in fact, have a good Like-Dislike Optimization. Since much of my work overlaps with my personal interests – field work and reading and watching videos (every BBC Earth video – over and over) are good examples – much of what a cynic might call “work” is, for me, “life” – and I therefore like both. Moreover, some people just like to work: getting things done makes them feel good about themselves or puts them in a position to do other activities they might not otherwise be able to do. Who are we to gainsay them?

The key point I am trying to make is that tabulating hours of WORK per day, from which hours of LIFE are calculated by subtracting from 24, is not the right way to think about your activities. Instead, the right way is instead to think about how much of your time falls into the “Things I like” versus “Things I dislike” versus “Things that are OK” bins. Then try to minimize things in the dislike bin and maximize those in the like bin. There is no need to feel guilty (or to make others feel guilty) when they work a lot – as long as they like it.


Notes and caveats:

Of course, I am not saying that it is easy to achieve Like-Dislike Optimization, just as it isn't easy to achieve Work-Life Balance. Sometimes the things you dislike simply must take up a lot of time - and some people have more unpleasant responsibilities or constraints than others. I am simply saying that - when possible - we should seek - lives and jobs (BOTH) that we like; and, for a given life and job, we should seek - to the extent possible to spend more time doing the things that make us happy and less time doing the things that make us unhappy.

Also, it is sometimes (often?) the case that optimization isn't just an immediate concern. That is, long-term "like" optimization sometimes requires a bit more of the "dislike" and "OK" stuff in the short term.

* A previous version of this post used "Hate" rather than "Dislike" - but Hate sounds strange out of context, and perhaps too severe: hence, the change.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Personal Reflections on Balance and Productivity

By Steven Cooke


I am fortunate to deliver a fair number of research seminars at various institutions and in that capacity seem to find myself having lots of “pizza lunches” with grad students and post docs.  After hearing about what they are up to, it is inevitable that someone will ask me a question like this… “How can you publish so many papers - I can only assume that you don’t sleep?”  I also read the paper published on hyper-prolific scientific authors, and found it (especially the appendix) interesting and alarming.  Some of the most productive (in terms of paper output) researchers were very willing to share that they credit such productivity to getting little sleep and working virtually non-stop.  Having a large research group and other things like that fed into it too but in general one walked away with the idea that all of these individuals lacked any level of reasonable (a subjective term) work-life balance.  My concern is that such a message would be exactly what would be remembered by early career researchers and in doing so go down a similar path.  That was the basis for my tweet that has been variably considered to be an audacious humble brag, an entirely tone-deaf statement, or perhaps a genuine statement regarding the importance of work-life balance.  

Everyone can judge as they will but it was done with genuine hopes of dispelling the myth that the only way to “do more” is to “put in more time” and in doing so trade-off one’s health, wellness and relationships among other things.  A few tweets only gives one so much space to dig into what is surely more complex than what I initially tweeted and I am grateful to Andrew for giving me a platform to reflect on the last few weeks of twitter banter share a few more thoughts here.  Beyond the twittersphere, I have also engaged in extensive off-line discussion with friends and colleagues regarding these topics which I have found useful.  I think it is fair to say that my tweet generated more discussion than I could have imagined which I will take as not a pat on the back but rather an interest within our community to discuss a variety of topics I touched on in the tweet.  So – let’s keep the conversation going!

Andrew asked me to think about trade-offs – what am I trading off to achieve the “productivity” judged by paper output.  A few things about me…  I study fish and got into science because I loved fishing.  I continue to be an avid angler and thus there is an inherent blurring of work and pleasure.  I read fishing magazines for enjoyment but it also helps me to understand what is happening in the real world.  I go fishing for fun and almost always take a data book with me.  However, I also get to spend many days a year fishing for research and therefore, in effect, get paid to do so.  I can take my kids to work and hand them a fishing rod and they are in heaven (and I am collecting data; in this picture they are catching bluegill off our dock that we subsequently tagged as part of a spatial ecology study). 

My family is my life – I spend most of my spare time doing the things we all do – being a taxi driver, getting groceries, tidying the house, fixing things that are broken, cooking, and of course playing with my kids.  I don’t watch sports on TV and aside from the odd binge-watching session I don’t watch much TV at all.  My favourite hobby is cooking (which also is useful activity for feeding the family and my biggest creative outlet) and I also like running and cross-country skiing.  So – Back to what I am trading off…  Well, along with being active in research comes lots of travel and so I do spend significant time away from home.  I try to avoid being away over weekends and when I am away I work my butt off.  When colleagues at a meeting go on sightseeing tours I often pass and instead look forward to coming back with my family in the future.  So, I often sacrifice taking in all of the touristy sites on my work travels and would rather hunker down and get my “work” done so that when I get home I am fully present and engaged.  Admittedly, when at home (or wherever) I am a daydreamer so I could be playing with my kids and then suddenly have an idea for a project or paper that I have to jot down before I forget – but I suspect I am not alone. 

Having a big team does mean that I have to keep my eye on email when on vacation (to deal with safety issues, mental health issues, thesis roadblocks, etc.) but I also do an awful lot of vacationing where I combine work and play.  My wife is a teacher so we enjoy spending our summers together with our kids.  Cottage life means I get up and check emails in the morning, have a few phone calls with team members, and might do an hour of writing in the heat of the day when the kids nap or read.  That is my balance – rarely disconnecting totally but rather having extended summer holidays (2 months) but with the cost being a few hrs of work each day.  I consider that a win and love that type of balance.  Swimming, fishing, cooking, playing games, exploring the forest, exploring the shoreline, catching frogs… and a little bit of work.  Maybe I would be better off if I entirely disconnected but I would rather have most of the summer with family and have to spend some time each day dealing with essentials to keep the ship afloat. 

I am sure there are other things I trade-off subconsciously.  For example, I wish I had more time to troll the literature.  I do love finding and reading new material but my reading list is long so I am often forced to scan.  Relatedly, I wish I also had more time for “fun reading”.  The reality is that I spend so much time looking at a computer screen or paper (e.g., thesis, report, grant) that I don’t really like to stare at more pages at the end of the day.  I also wish I could spend more time in the field with my team. I think I am pretty decent at this (I refuse to accept the idea that I am only an administrator) but it is still difficult to live vicariously through my team.  I want to be there to help them – to experience new environments with them – to understand the cultural context for our work.  I am always a phone call away but wish I could still spend 100 days in the field as I did when I first joined the professoriate.  Realistically this has been more constrained by having kids than publishing a bunch of papers or having a big lab but nonetheless – is something I wish I had more time for.

As raised during twitter debates after my tweet, unequitable access to resources can underpin one’s ability to publish a high number of papers while having reasonable work-life balance.  All I can do here is humbly note that I am fortunate to have a lab that is well supported and won’t pretend that this is an easy issue to address.  I do my best to ensure that we celebrate outstanding scholars and don’t judge them solely on their number of papers.  I take this role seriously and make sure we focus on the full picture when thinking about tenure, promotion, hiring, awards and grantsmanship. 

In terms of context – I am in privileged position – I have an incredibly supportive and loving partner (who has her own professional career) – this is core to everything.  I should also add that we support each other – I work hard to minimize traveling during her report card writing periods.  We respect each other immensely and work as a team – a partnership.  I should be clear that one can also do it alone but I can imagine that there are different struggles, especially if a single parent.  I am also a tenured full professor with a Canada Research Chair (CRC) position such that my in-class teaching load is relatively small.  To be clear, it is not that I dislike teaching, but I don’t have to do much of it (that is the spirit of the positions).  So – I have more of my work time that I can devote to various aspects of research including writing and mentoring.  This privilege begets productivity and productivity reinforces privilege – a feedback that is certainly in itself worthy of further discussion. 

I also have an AMAZING team as I’m sure we all like to proclaim as mentors – dedicated learners and problem-solvers.  Their creativity and passion inspire me and I love nothing more than to celebrate their many achievements.  Over the years as a lab we have discussed whether we are too focused on publications but every time we conclude the papers are needed to formalize and share what we have done. However, we also recognize that publishing papers is insufficient if we are to influence others with our work.  For that reason we consider peer reviewed papers to be the foundation for #scicomm and even engage in research (with social science collaborators) about knowledge mobilization (see here). 

I am also incredibly fortunate that I work at an institution where it doesn’t ever feel like one has a “boss”.  I have never had an administrator sit me down and try to influence my research in any way (e.g., do more of X) nor have I done so with other faculty members when I have held academic leadership roles.  I am used to working in an environment where there is room for everyone to excel – whether it be in teaching, mentoring, outreach, service, research, etc.  Moreover, we celebrate people who are good at these things – not just those doing research.  We don’t have merit-based pay – we have a collective agreement guiding financial compensation with it simply being a function of time in the trenches (save any special retention packages if one has an offer from other institution).  I hear about the high pressure and toxic work environment experienced by colleagues at other institutions and it is foreign to me (again, a blessing).  There is so much mutual respect within my institution that we lift each other up and recognize that we are all different and give in different ways.  I am so proud of all of my colleagues and make it a habit to acknowledge and congratulate people who have done good things – especially things that do not have to do directly with research.  When I think of the real change-makers of our time, I don’t go to the people with the most papers, the most students, or the most citations – I go to the people who I think have the best idea and are accomplishing great things – whether in the classroom, in #scicomm, in research, and in knowledge application.

The “60+” papers led to the assumption that this was all output from my lab.  I did a quick look at the papers from last year and about half come from collaborations with researchers at other institutions and many of those do not involve my lab members.  When I reflect on how those collaborations came to be, it has often been over a shared approach to science – the ability to go from idea to paper without it getting derailed.  I think people that like to write (and I LOVE TO WRITE) end up attracting (or being attracted to) collaborators who also like to write.  Being an active and responsive collaborator is critical.  Too often it is assumed that collaboration is easy – a notion I disagree with.  There are a number of folks I only collaborate with once and others that become “regulars”.  The reasons for either outcome are varied but the ways I judge are 1) was it fun/stimulating; and 2) did we achieve something worthwhile (training a student, solving a problem, writing a paper, creating a website – whatever)?  It needs to be both or I am out! 

There is an assumption that with a big lab, one must not be able to give the same attention to trainees as someone with a small lab.  That may be true if time is a useful indicator of mentoring ability or quality.  The reality is that there are some small labs where the mentor is horrible and big labs where the mentor is excellent.  I will leave it to my peeps to weigh in re the quality of the mentoring I provide but I will comment on my approach.  It is very personalized – some students have no interest in sitting down together for a 1 hour formal meeting once per week and reach out as needed.  Some reach out when they hit a wall and that may be on a Sunday evening.  By understanding individual learning styles, motivations, and other quirks (some need carrot, some need stick) I can customize the mentoring to their needs.  I will also add that I am not the only mentor or supporter in the lab.  Encouraging team members to share, collaborate and socialize is a great recipe for creating a broader support structure for all team members.  Mentoring of big teams could easily be an entire blog so I am going to stop there! 

My thoughts on “productivity” have been greatly influenced by Chris Bailey and I hope you check him out at A Life of Productivity Chris graduated with a business and marketing degree from my institution (I have never met him) a few years ago and took one “off” year post graduation to conduct a series of experiments on himself to understand what factors influenced his productivity (called “A year of productivity”).  The idea has since morphed and grown into “A life of productivity” and Chris now coaches others on how to be more productive.  I routinely visit his website and find myself nodding my head in agreement with everything I read. 

One of my favourite posts is one where he summarizes the top 10 things he took away from his year of productivity (here).  In particular, I fixated on Tip # 9 which he calls “boring” and I call “life-changing”.   Quoting Chris, “Over the last year I experimented with integrating countless habits and productivity techniques into my life, but at the end of the day, the three productivity techniques that worked the best for me were: Eating well; Getting enough sleep; Exercising.”  And there you have it.  I do my very best to do all of those things.  When I don’t, things fall apart at work AND at home.  This is something that I have experienced in very real ways during my studies and career yet it really only gelled and became one of my “mantra’s” upon following Chris.  I will note that Tip #9 does not say that one has to have balance in other ways (e.g., maintaining positive relationships with family and friends) so it needs to be merged with ones like his Tip #4 where he describes how working too much or too hard will shatter productivity.  My life is such that when I do have time to write or think I have to have laser focus and be productive in that time, so I very much subscribe to the notion of working smart, not long.  For what it is worth, post-kiddos this has really become a truth! 

His tip #1 is a doozie – one I think we all need to consider. That tip states that “Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish”.  I can’t think of a more meaningful statement and in fact this mirrors some of my own thinking in a paper in which  a colleague and I wrote about abandoning the quantity-quality debate regarding publications and instead think about “influence”.  I work along the entirety of the fundamental-applied spectrum and I train problem-solvers.  Sure,  I am proud of the work we produce and share but I am more proud of the influence that the research has had.  I fully subscribe to the idea that we need science that is blue-sky/discovery/fundamental which may or may not lead to tangible “applications”.  However, I am an applied ecologist so if I am pretending to do applied work, it better be relevant to end users.  This comes full circle in terms of how we “assess” each other.  Our assessment tools for research “productivity” are flawed and focused largely on the quantity-quality issues with it being difficult and uncommon to consider broader impact (or using Chris’s working – accomplishments).  

Here are a few other “tips” to complement those provided by Andrew (How To Be Productive) and Chris Bailey.  For the purposes of this discussion I am using “writing output” (papers or grants) as the measure of productivity which is solely to provide more focus to the tips but fully recognize the flaws in doing so.

Don’t force it.  If you are not in the mood to write, forcing it will rarely be fruitful.  Of course, you can’t put off writing that thesis or grant application forever but just because you identified a window of time to do writing doesn’t mean that will be an effective use of that time. 

Don’t spend too much time AT work (and find your writing zen spot).  The more time I spend on campus, the more behind I get with my work.  I obviously need and want to be there for interactions with my team members and colleagues.  To that end, I use my time on campus to interact with people.   Writing (even collaborative papers and grants) is an individual activity and for me I can’t do so on campus.  I bet I have not written 100 words of a paper or proposal on campus in the last decade.  I do edit the work of others while “at” work but I do not write.  My zen spots include a favourite chair at home, airplanes, early mornings at the cottage in the summer, and the back corner of a wine bar or pub (writing from a riverside pub during trip to Australia in fall 2018 depicted in photo).

Beat to your own drum. What works for Andrew and I may not work for you.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  Do great science.  Share your work.  Figure out what you love to do.  I have sat on enough hiring committees and grant selection panels to know that there is no formula to success and no simple or singular way to measure or assess productivity.  Yes, some people will count papers and look at impact factor, but what I see is efforts focused on scholars doing great stuff – not just writing papers, not just teaching, not just outreach (etc.) – some balance and combination of the above.   What I do see is that people with piles of papers and nothing else not ending up with interviews (at least for academic positions).  Maybe this is influenced by the amazingly positive work environment I have at my institution but I have also seen the same play out elsewhere.  It is about the intangible “fit” and it is about WAY more than papers.  I also would like to think we are in an era where hiring committees are looking for people with a semblance of work-life balance to serve as role models for their mentees. 


Each January I start the new year with sending an email to my team with some personal reflections on the year-gone-by and the year ahead.  Here are a few excerpts which highlight well the trade-offs I consider sufficiently worthy to discuss with the team.

(Sent January 4 2018 – I cut out the first part where I gush about their passion and accomplishments).

… As time goes on I think of myself more as “the synthesizer” – I take what you do, and work done by the broader learned community, and try to weave it together with some of my own creative juices into a meaningful story (sometimes with lessons for others…).  I also find that through time I am learning MORE from you than I did when I first started out as a prof.  I suspect this is for several reasons – one being that we now have the financial resources to be able to stray more widely from my “core”.  I also suspect that as I age and take on more leadership roles (plus family duties – I am now officially a hockey, gymnastics and x-country ski taxi driver) and have a larger lab that I am not there for as much of the day to day of field research (early on I was). This is something I struggle with – especially because I LOVE field work so much.  But – this is also a natural progression which I know has occurred with all of my mentors (Dave Philipp is an obvious exception as he is doing more field work that most of you and he is in his 70s…).  Although I can’t be as hands on, I do need to be accessible to you and this year I endeavour to do a better job of keeping up with all of your field activities through VERY regular calls even if I can’t be there.  There have been a few field projects that have gone sideways over the last few years and that is on me for not providing sufficient support (which might mean a more senior field person to assist).  I look forward to ongoing conversations re how I can BEST support YOU!

One area of improvement I am looking for as a lab (me included) is to be less last minute…  We seem to always be making a dash to the finish line – whether it be a thesis, a conference presentation, a scholarship application, a letter of reference, etc…  I would like all of us to do a better job of looking ahead and planning so that we can reduce the stress that comes with having things pushed up against deadlines.  You will see more pokes and prods from me (especially for students re thesis progress)  this coming year.  From experience I can assure you that there is nothing more stressful than having to write an entire thesis under the gun.  I also think we need to do this to be fair to our partners – especially the great adjunct profs and collabs who support us.  They should not have to suffer because we are throwing things at them last minute.  So – this is both for your personal sanity but ALSO as a courtesy and out of respect for our collaborators. 


FINALLY - I will end with a tweet from one of my favourite change-makers – Elena Bennett from McGill.  It is a perfect way to close my blog and start the discussion. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Preferred Procrastination Procedures of Productive Professors, PhDs, & Postdocs

Here is the original blog post:

Here are some of the responses - more on the way:

Thursday, February 7, 2019

How to Be Productive

A kerfuffle recently broke out – as kerfuffle's often do – on social media when fisheries scientist Steve Cooke tweeted about how high productivity was not mutually exclusive with a happy and healthy family life. The tweet was an indirect response to the recent analysis by Nature regarding “hyper-prolific scientists” and how they were so – and whether they should be so. Steve is without question a hyper-prolific scientist in his field, publishing 60+ papers per year. His basic point in the tweet was that his hyper-productivity did not mean he was somehow a bad parent or didn’t have proper work-life balance.

Twitter was outraged (or entertained) in various ways, with some saying a tradeoff must be present somewhere (maybe he is a bad supervisor) and others saying that perhaps a tradeoff wasn’t evident because Steve was just “better” and the rest of us shouldn’t strive to be hyper-productive because, even if Steve could do it, the rest of us couldn’t and shouldn’t. These two criticisms basically boiled down to the classic arguments about tradeoffs in the evolutionary literature: either they must exist (put more effort into reproduction and you can’t live longer) or they don’t exist because individuals vary in “quality” (some individuals have more energy and so can put more effort into reproduction AND live longer). Theoretical and empirical studies have variously supported both ideas.

High variation in quality among individuals (top) makes the otherwise tradeoff (bottom) disappear. From Reznick et al. 2000 TREE 

This post will not be an effort to explain Steve in one way or the other. (Steve responds here.) Different people work in different ways and whatever is working for Steve is great for him. Whatever works for other people is great for them. Rather, my hope will be to help people who consciously want to be more productive without a greater time investment (don’t sacrifice your work-life balance). Given that each of us inherently works differently, a first important question might be “is it possible for advice from someone to actually make someone else more productive?” My first response might have been “no – it is mostly just intrinsic (over or under) confidence or intrinsic metabolic rate or the type of science or whatever that makes the difference.” But then this response would immediately be checked by the realization that I have received advice in the past that was, in fact, helpful with regard to productivity. Hence, I will attempt some bits of advice that might help some folks (who want to be) to be more productive – without implying that productivity is necessarily a good thing or a thing that one should attempt to maximize. (In fact, I am really encouraged by the stories surrounding how Ghent University in Belgium will entirely change its faculty evaluation system.)

The Leung Principle
Some years ago, I ran into a colleague, Brian Leung, outside my building. I asked if he was going to that day’s meeting on “something or other.” He said “no.” I was surprised, responding “But aren’t you a part of that initiative.” “Yes,” Brian said, “but I divide tasks into things that will proceed without my input versus things that require my input to proceed. I do the latter first.”* I see considerable merit in this philosoph-practical division. Sometimes meetings are called just because meetings are perceived to be important. Sometimes comments are requested just out of courtesy. There really isn’t any need for you to be there. Don’t spend massive amounts of time on things that don’t require your help AT THE EXPENSE of things that do require your help.
  • * From Brian: "ha ha. I remember that. At the time, a few loud voices were trying to do stupid things at [removed to protect the guilty]"

Don’t be the bottleneck
In any collaborative project, there is always that one (or two or more) people that hold everything up. Don’t be that person. If you are a grad student, send that paper to your advisor even if isn’t perfect. If you are leading a paper, send it coauthors early on. And, if coauthors send you a paper, read it right away (I sometimes fail here) and get it back to them. Don’t be the bottleneck.

Image result for old professor
The bottleneck? Image from here

Maximize the effort-to-payoff function
In any project, the curve for effort-to-payoff is not linear. Often, the payoff is an asymptotic function. That is, an increase in effort early on leads to massive improvements but the same increase in effort later provides only marginal rewards. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! Realize when hammering your head against a problem or a manuscript is not going to lead to large payoffs – and send it to a collaborator or submit it for reviewer feedback. Get it off your desk. 

Prioritize the high-payoff projects.
First-authored papers are much more important than co-authored papers. Thus, make sure to put your maximal effort into first-authored papers. For collaborative projects, sure, “don’t be the bottleneck” but at the same time don’t put massive amounts of effort into a collaboration AT THE EXPENSE of first authored papers. And write a review paper or two – they are easier to write, they are easier to publish, they are higher cited, and they help you place your empirical work in a theoretical (or simply broader) context.

Just don’t do it
Academia is a crowded mix of competing tasks – but only some help you to be productive. Learn to (respectfully) say no to very time consuming administrative tasks, unless administration is what you want to do – or unless that administration will substantially enrich the research or teaching potential of your unit. Don’t organize every graduate student event. Don’t volunteer for every departmental committee. I realize it can be hard to say no when there is a power imbalance, such as when your supervisor asks you to do something. However, my experience is that most supervisor are quite responsive to well-reasoned and respectful denials to do some requested task or other; as they also often are to a general discussion about being over committed

Study something you like
If you don't like your research, you won't like doing it and you will be less productive. Don't do a project you don't like. If you aren't excited about your project, change it. Or, if you absolutely must do it, spend your free time (or your even working time) planning that cool new project you will do next. Personally, this strategy is one way that I manage work-life balance - my field research often involves my family and my personal time is also in the field (hiking, fishing, photography). I know that this approach is also part of Steve Cooke's strategy: he studies fish and he loves to fish. Work-life fusion, if you will. 

Aspen and Cedar collaborating with me on research.

Serial multi-task
By serial, I don’t mean do many things at the same time – unless that works for you. What I mean by serial is that, if you have multiple projects on the go, try to stay on the maximal effort-to-payoff area of the function. If one project is slowing, send it to coauthors, and work on the other projects. If one project looks like it will have a higher payoff overall (first authored papers), then work on that first.

Do something else
If you just can’t stomach working on that damn paper again, then you won’t do a good job and you won’t be efficient. Do something else. I haven’t written a blog recently because I just wasn’t in the mood. But tonight, the muse struck me and now I have cranked this out in short order (hence the typos) – because it was where my brain was happy at that moment. If you simply can’t work on that manuscript anymore; hell, answer those pesky emails, enter those data that must be entered, read that paper your advisor mentioned, write that research blog. But, when productively procrastinating like this, do things that you were going to have to do later anyway.

Or just do it
All of the above advice goes out the window when you absolutely must do something now – even if you don’t like it, even if is low payoff, even if, etc.  In such cases, just do it, dammit. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be done – then you can go on to what you want.

Drink less
Czech ornithologists that drink more beer publish less. Are the rest of us any different from Czech ornithologists?

From Grim 2008 in Oikos

Drink more
Czech plant ecologists seem to show exactly the opposite pattern to Czech avian ecologists - see here. Personally, some of the most inspiring and productive academic moments I have had were over drinks.

With Brian Langerhans and Katie Peichel
Dan Bolnick, me, Katie Peichel (again), and Rowan Barrett.

Fuck it
Go for a walk. Binge watch Game of Thrones. Read a book. Go to the climbing gym. Play guitar. Cuddle the cat (or dog). Play with the kids. Do the weekly ironing. These mental breaks will make you more efficient when you get back to work. Here is a compiled list of cool procrastination techniques of ecologists and evolutionary biologists. 

Image result for sam tarly reading
Sam working on his thesis.


Then again
Many of the above suggestions might seem like encouragement to be selfish. In some small way, they are. If you are to be productive – and if that is what you want to be – then some degree of selfishness is necessary. Otherwise, you will spend all of your time helping others and not be productive yourself. That is fine, if that is what makes you happy. Go for it. But – if you are striving to be more productive – then you have to focus on your own productive work.

Monday, February 4, 2019

It takes a "village"

- by Dan Bolnick

It has been claimed (including on this blog site), that to get your academic job you may need to be flexible about where you live. See, for example:

Faculty jobs are few and far between, and you take what you can get. Postdocs even more so. The result is that academics move around a lot. As a kid of an academic (my father was an economics professor who sometimes went off to consulting for US AID), we lived in North Carolina, Washington DC, Jakarta Indonesia, North Carolina again, north of Boston, then Lusaka Zambia, all before I went off to college and missed my parent's sojurns in Lilongwe, Maputo (where my dad is working at this very moment on a short-term post-retirement assignment), Fairfax Virginia, and Harare, before they moved back to Massachusetts. Since leaving the nest, I moved a few times too: from Zambia to Massachusetts for college, to Tanzania for Peace Corps, to California for grad school (I did my brief postdoc at UC Davis also, so didn't move), then Austin Texas, and now just recently Connecticut. 

Moving does many things, among them separating you from family and from friends. From your support network. I've lived either on a different continent than my parents, or >1/2 way across the continent from my parents, since I left for college in 1992.  I like my parents a lot, and enjoy seeing them, but the consequences of this mobile life only really began to sink in when my wife and I had kids. Sometimes, you just need family around. Hilary Clinton famously wrote that "it takes a village to raise a child". Usually that village is your extended family. Moving leaves the village behind. That's not a reason not to move, but it is a cost. The solution: find your village, in some form. 

This post is about a time when having the village around made a difference. Not a life or death difference, to be sure. The hurdle here is minor, but real. It is a tale of dual careers, work-life (im)balance, moving and family, and the compromises we choose to make.  It is also a glass-half-full or half-empty story. You can see this as a story of why academic life is complicated, but to be fair the following story would have been at least as challenging had it involved another kind of job. I see it as a story of why academic life is wonderfully flexible... but still benefits from help.

When we lived in Texas, our nearest family was an 8 hour drive away, my own parents a half continent away. Moving to Connecticut was partly about pursuing an environment I want to live in (fall, snow, better hiking access, etc), and partly about being closer to family. My in-laws moved from Oklahoma to join us, and my parents are an hour and 3/4 drive away. Close enough (because they are retired) to drop what they are doing and come to our rescue. In return, as they age, I'll be close enough (as an only child) to return the favor. So now, for the first time as a parent of a 10- and 7-yr old, my wife and I have family right here. Its very nice, it turns out. 

Here's how that played out, in practice. My wife was away at a working group meeting in coastal Georgia, playing with lemurs on an island. And simultaneously I had scheduled to have a prospective PhD  student visit. So normally in Texas I just wouldn't do this, because I can't take care of my kids and host a prospective properly at the same time. Here, we went ahead because my in-laws could meet the kids after school, take them to dinner then a magic show in town, then home to bed around when I got home from dinner with my lab group. That's the plan. Simple enough.

This week started bad: Kid1 got the flu.  Then I did. But we had our flu shots, and the fever passed within 1-2 days and we were fine. Okay, all systems go for the prospective visit (albeit with lots of hand santizer on my part). But then Friday morning one in-law is down with the fever also. Questionable whether they can get the kids in the afternoon. At the same time, I'm on my way to get my prospective student but her plane is delayed, which squeezes my intended morning meeting with her down to just a late lunch. Would I even have time to get her to campus and get back home to meet the kids?  Then the other in-law decides he can leave his sick spouse alone okay, and watch my kids. Okay, all systems go. I get the prospective student, we have a great lunch conversation,  then I drop her off with others for some meetings on campus. We'll have more time to talk at dinner. That's when I got the phone call: kid2 isn't feeling well. 

Here's where I start thinking, is it fair to leave a healthy in-law with a flu-ridden child? Probably not. Which means sprinting home and abandoning my prospective student who spent ages in airports & planes to visit. Not a good choice.  *** to be clear, this isn't a disaster scenario, nobody's life is at risk, it's just... suboptimal ****.    Then kid2 perks up, says she's okay for dinner and the magic show. No fever apparently.  All systems go.

I stay on campus for dinner with my lab. We have a good time, good food and conversation. Then I head home, to find kid2 running a fever. 

Here's where things stood: I was now home alone with a flu-ridden kid, my wife is away. And the next morning there's the departmental grad student symposium. My prospective student will be there, and we were hoping to have some more time to talk specifics of research directions. I really should show up, it'd be bad form to miss my first EEB UConn grad student symposium, and to leave my prospective student hanging. But... sick kid and spouse away.

My mom comes to the rescue: she drives down and is here at 9 AM Saturday morning, with lots of hand sanitizer, a face shield for herself and kid2, and a risk-accepting attitude. By 11 AM I'm in the car off to the department symposium. And I have fun talking with colleagues, hearing talks, and a great 2 hour conversation with the prospective student.

Kid2 is still recovering today (Monday) at home. My mom is still here watching her, and my wife returns home this evening. I wouldn't have been able to come to campus today without my mom's help. 

So that's the story. Nothing really epic or horrible. I know people whose kids have cancer, or whose parents are ailing, who face much more serious conflicts, often without the parental support network. Really, this is a story of privilege.  I am privileged that my kids have 4 grandparents, two living in the same town and 2 less than two hours away, all retired but healthy enough to be available. That privilege isn't accidental, we uprooted our family across the country to get it. But the benefit is real.

I want to be clear here that this isn't the only solution: you don't have to live near family to make it in academia. I mean, I went 10 years as a dual-academic-couple-with-kids in Texas, and we managed. Where there's a will, there's a way. You find your support network, you make your local village however you need to. But it is absolutely true that academics move, and when we move we make compromises between the many costs and benefits that we wish to have in our lives. 

If I didn't have the multi-layered support network, this would have played out very differently... because one set of in-laws got hit with the flu, I used two layers of safety net in dealing with my spouse being out of town and having a work commitment.  Had I lacked one or both safety nets, it would have been okay-ish.  Okay, in the sense that I could have told the visiting prospective student: sorry, I've got a sick kid. I know you flew all this way. I know I spent $300 for you to visit. But I can't do this today.  The result would have been disappointing for us both, a bit expensive for me. She might have decided this wasn't a place to come for grad studies, changing her life path and my own lab group.  But in the end, it can still be okay. So my final lesson is that although work-life balance can be challenging, and sometimes events happen that destabilize a balance you thought you had figured out, overall our line of work gives us great latitude to make on-the-fly adjustments to our schedules. Sick kid so I need to work at home? Okay, can do. A few emails to rearrange meetings, and its done. There are many careers where that is far, far harder.  

So see this story as a glass half full one: academia is a career path where work-life balance is a challenge, as it is in every career. But it comes with great flexibility. That said, if you can live near family... it helps.

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...