Productivity as Avoidance, or How *Not* to Think about Doctoral Productivity (book extract)

by Luis P. Prieto, - 10 minutes read - 1944 words

If you are a doctoral student struggling to move your dissertation forward, especially in the face of additional jobs, teaching, family, or other obligations, the thought of becoming more productive can be very appealing – to the point of becoming a sort of obsession. After our review of (somewhat caricaturesque) doctoral productivity and anti-productivity arguments, in this post I summarize some of the ideas in Oliver Burkeman’s recent book, Four thousand weeks, which I have found very helpful to reach a balance between my own productivity obsessions and the abandoning of all hope of being any good at my daily research activities.

When I talk to people about this blog, some of them seem puzzled that, in a blog about the doctorate, I spend comparatively little time talking about research and so much time talking about a) productivity, and b) emotions. Of course, long-time readers of the blog know that productivity (via the progress in developing the dissertation it engenders) and emotions (with their impact on mental health) are critical to finish long projects (e.g., our thesis). Yet, only recently I have realized that productivity is about emotion. These two sides of finishing a PhD are in a sense the same side.

Productivity geeks (like I was/am) engage in all this tweaking of habits and systems and hacks, because they (we) think high productivity will inevitably lead to happiness (via feelings of competence, self-efficacy and achievement). The believer in anti-productivity thinks that productivity is dehumanizing and can only lead to unhappiness. And the stubborn procrastinator (or anyone drowning in task conflict) is basically dominated by fear of an uncertain task outcome or the frustration about not having enough time in the day. This productivity stuff is all about emotions!

Lately, I have come to believe that doctoral productivity (and our productivity as academics or industry employees/entrepreneurs) and happiness are intimately related but orthogonal. Let’s look at the hypothetical example (based on real people) of two doctoral students: Martha and Maya. They both are very productive PhD students, with busy lives, family obligations, a part-time job to pay the bills given the paltry doctoral student income they receive. Both are always “doing stuff”, never static, their energy and accomplishments make the rest of us feel exhausted. However, Martha is always complaining about her busyness, knuckling through tasks, sighing in frustration… and Maya, for some reason, seems to be smiling more often than not, and she energizes you every time you talk with her. I am not saying Maya is somehow a better person than Martha – but it certainly seems that Maya has a more positive life experience, even if they are equally productive (i.e., doing the same amount of tasks, to a similar level of quality).

I recently read a book that (I think) goes to the core difference between the Marthas and the Mayas out there: the mindset with which we approach our tasks and our lives. Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks1 is a book written by a self-confessed ex-productivity geek, so I you can see why this slowly-recovering productivity junkie related a lot with its advice. The first part of the book delves into our problematic relationship with productivity, as a sort of reaction to the typical productivity advice out there (especially if you search on Youtube, Instagram, Tiktok and similar sources) focusing on tricks and hacks to squeeze more tasks out of our seemingly-shrinking waking hours. This kind of advice, in turn, resembles a lot the lifehack/productivity advice with which I grew up and matured professionally in the 1990s and early 2000s.

(Doctoral) productivity as avoidance

The key overall point of this first part of the book (in my view) is that our obsession of productivity is a form of emotional/experiential avoidance: we reject and try to avoid any contact with the idea that we humans are limited beings (limited in the time we have, the effort we can exert, and the skills we have at any given point). We reject and try not to think that hard choices will need to be made (about what we can possibly accomplish) and that outcomes are uncertain, even for this reduced set of projects and actions.

In the book, Burkeman lays out the many consequences of this somewhat obvious idea and of how it drives most of our unhealthy productivity-related behaviors, beliefs and mindsets. The book then turns many of these “productivity distortions” on their heads to arrive at more healthy, humane ideas about productivity. Here are a few of the ones I think most apply to doctoral students (and researchers/academics in general).

Doctoral productivity pitfalls… and practical consequences

  1. The efficiency trap: Becoming more efficient at doing tasks will never get us a feeling of “enough time”. Once we are productivity machines, we will not be able to do all “things that really matter” (as there’s too many of those). For doctoral students, the practical consequence of this is to have an idea of the dissertation’s “critical path” (what is absolutely necessary to get a PhD, without the nice-to-haves), maybe in the form of our “thesis map”. Once you have it (preferably, discussed and validated with your supervisors), do just that – and anything else you consider really important (i.e., be clear on your values). It is OK to not be good at, e.g., answering emails immediately (but don’t be an asshole about it either, probably you value not being an asshole ;)): no PhD was ever awarded for perfect, immediate email response.
  2. Embracing finitude: The fact that our time on this planet is limited, that we will never have time to do the perfect study and write the perfect paper, is not something to be avoided with distractions. It is something to be embraced: the fact that you choose to do this particular analysis, or spend this afternoon with your family (and rejecting to improve your manuscript or the other million things you could be doing) is what gives meaning to that choice. If we were immortal or could turn back time, no choice would matter, as we could always experience all the other alternatives. This is also illustrated in the “to-do lists are menus” tiny idea we recently featured (also coined by Burkeman). Therefore, be clear on your values. Make the choice of what to do aligned with those. And face the consequences with a smile on your face and a sense of purpose.
  3. We are always procrastinating: this is a kind of corollary of the previous idea. By doing stuff we inherently reject doing some other stuff. Productivity is about helping us to procrastinate or neglect the right things, the ones that we value less, the ones that are unimportant or regrettable. Productivity also is about helping us feel at peace with not doing them. This is why thesis maps and CQOCE diagrams can be invaluable productivity tools: they clarify what to do, what is important… and the fact that the other parts of the PhD are nice to have but ultimately superfluous (from the point of view of the PhD, at least).
  4. Procrastination, perfectionism and settling: These two typical productivity problems of doctoral students have a clear emotional underpinning: procrastination is about avoiding the pain of an uncertain outcome (will I be able to crack the mathematical proof? will my hypothesis be supported by the data?); perfectionism is about avoiding the painful realization that outcomes will not be perfect (and that supervisors or reviewers will point that out to us explicitly). As it happens with our personal relationships, commitment seems to be the only antidote for avoidance: settle on good-enough, commit to non-perfect (but not toxic) relationships outcomes.
  5. Interruption and distraction are within us: Even if we blame tech companies for our tendency to distraction, there is something inside us that collaborates with the enemy, pushing us to avoid boredom or other emotional pains: of our relationships, of our thesis, of our limitations… Before social media, we were still giving in to that impulse through alcohol, drugs, or daydreaming. Doing what matters is often discomforting, if not downright painful. What Buddhist monks, modern psychotherapists and many others (including many doctoral students at our workshops) have found is that the more you pay attention to the present-moment pain, the more bearable it is (to the point that it can sometimes become enjoyable!). For example, use this mindfulness exercise to face distractions and discomfort during scientific writing.

The bottom line: How to think about productivity?

How to stop the urge for distraction, the procrastination, the drive for endless productivity? The book does not offer a silver-bullet solution, other than to “stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves”. It later adds a summarizing sentence that seems almost written specifically with PhD students in mind: “The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project […] isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation”.

This solution is at the same time unimpressive and liberating. Embrace your finitude. Do the things that most align with your long-term values… and be OK with being lousy at the rest. It is by being clear on what is important for her in the PhD and by accepting the imperfections of her outcomes and situation that Maya is able to keep a smile while juggling fifty metaphorical balls in the air. It is all the striving and expectations that “things ought to be some other way” that makes Martha constantly grind her teeth and suffer through her everyday life.

The graph below summarizes the main ideas in this post. If you were not convinced by the points I make above, I recommend you to read Burkeman’s book – he makes these points much better, more entertainingly, and in much more depth. Yet, if you’re too busy to read the whole thing, I hope the quick summary above was useful. Even just one of these mindset shifts, if taken to heart and applied continuously in your daily life for a few weeks (try putting them into a mantra card you keep handy), can change your PhD experience significantly (regardless of its impact on your productivity, which I’ll wager will not be a negative one).

An unhelpful way to look at doctoral productivity, pitfalls and corollary advice, and a more useful doctoral productivity mindset.

Main ideas in this blog post.

In an upcoming post, I will delve into the strategic and tactical advice that stems from these mindset shifts – transposed to the activities of a doctoral student. Don’t give in to the temptation of skipping past this mindset part: it is the mindset that will change how you experience your life, not the hacks and tactics!

Were these mindset shifts compelling enough for you to try them in your life? Did you notice any change? Let us know via a voice message or a comment in the sections below!

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you buy the books I pointed to using the provided link.

Header image by Bing Designer2

  1. Burkeman, O. (2021). Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ↩︎

  2. I used this prompt: “Can you please draw me a photorealist image of a scrappy doctoral student with a ragged labcoat, imagining (with a cloudy image coming out of his head) another smarter, more beautiful version of a doctoral student with eight arms, doing many lab procedures at the same time. Please use a 50mm lens focused on the scrappy doctoral student, blurring the background of a dark laboratory room." ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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