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. 

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