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.


  1. Nice post!
    "Are the rest of us any different from Czech ornithologists?"
    Yes, Czech plant ecologists are different from Czech ornithologists :)

  2. Haha great reference to the acquisition versus allocation tradeoff. I think Reznick et al. borrowed that from Van Noordwijk and de Jong 1986

  3. Great post! By the way, the picture of the "Bottleneck" seems to be Henryk Arctowski, who certainly had an uncommon life, but did not (at least as far as I know) have a particular reputation for "bottlenecking" :


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...