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Sustaining productivity when you're already at your max

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

A lot of colleagues and students ask how I manage such a steady stream of output, despite hearing me lament that I'm "getting nothing done" constantly. As many pieces of this blog function as, I forced myself to step back and document all of the ways I continue pushing forward in my work. Some of them are personal and silly, and others are thanks to the support of others (whether they be friends or strangers). I do want to add that I still haven't cracked the code of how to do all of this and *feel* like I'm getting things done. But, deriving joy from incremental steps on manuscripts and years-long projects is quite a difficult task. If you've got any suggestions I'm all ears!!

1. Daily stickers on a calendar that permanently sits on my desk, open.

This is more complex than it seems in motivation points. I'll start with this: my favorite instagram account is a dog. His name is Otis (@otis_unleashed). Otis came out with a calendar last year, and I bought it with all intentions of gifting it to my sister, who also loves Otis. She caught wind of my plan, informed me I was crazy for buying a calendar from a dog, so I kept it for myself. I also found myself in the possession of hundreds of vintage Lisa Frank stickers from my cousin. Put two and two together...every day I write more than 30 mins I put a sticker on the calendar.

I love looking at the different stickers and tracking how many days I've written during work weeks and on weekends. Turns out, I've missed less than 10 days of writings ALL YEAR TO DATE. Wow. Effective? I think so.

2. Daily to-do sticky notes.

I wish I had a picture to accompany this, but my distain for clutter overrides my desire to track progress. In short, I write a DOABLE (read: small tasks) to-do list every day, and put the sticky note on the side of my desk all day. I love checking things off of it. If I don't finish everything, it moves to the next day's sticky. Sometimes if there's a particularly long one, it lives in my planner. My planner isn't even going on this list, that's how many tools I need to function as an academic.

3. Daily technology blackout.

Every day from 9:15 to 10 AM, all of my devices go on do-not-disturb. It helps cut down on distractions and gets me started on my day right after I arrive at the office. It even happens on the weekends, but I don't usually write during that period.

4. An app called "DONE".

You can track your progress on any habit with this app, and it's a really clean design. I set mine to track 5 days of writing per week (although I can log more), and I get to see how many weeks I've gone maintaining that streak. It's very satisfying, and completely devastating to see it drop to zero if I don't complete the goal. I also use this for working out, and I can tell you - the prospect of losing my streak has motivated me to go on a run Sunday night more times than I care to admit.

5. My "accountabilibuddies".

The two ladies on the right in this photo are part of a simple text thread where we hash out our writing goals, trials, and tribulations every two weeks. We meet virtually every other Friday at 4 PM - while none of us work together anymore (one grad student, one postdoc, one agency scientist/coordinator), we actively support each others' writing goals. It's great to have a place to champion small victories, troubleshoot annoying issues, and offer support. We got this idea from a workshop we did at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and turns out - it has a name! Writing Accountability Groups (WAGs) are commonplace, but we've made ours a little different and brought it into the 21st century with virtual-only correspondence and a healthy dose of memes.

6. Faculty Bootcamp:

A mentor from graduate school introduced me to this website, and it has been life changing. I wish I had time to attend more professional development seminars, but by far the most use I've gotten out of NCFDD is the two week writing bootcamp. The premise is simple, and it functions a lot like my accountabilibuddy meeting. The difference is that it has a reflection component and a timer. And all of my group members are strangers. It's great doing this once per quarter and I look forward to it. It may not be true, but I sure feel like I get more done with this program. It's amazing!

7. Setting deadlines with my lab group.

Sometimes, guilt is the best motivator. Telling my supervisor I'll get him a draft by the end of the week actually results in that happening. I use this for larger tasks, and use my other tools to make sure I have ways to make small steps towards the large goal. I also do this with my students that I supervise, because their time is just as important to me as my own supervisor.

8. Writing with a partner IRL.

I mean this in two different ways, kind of. First, I have a scheduled writing block with a colleague in my department - we go to a coffee shop for a ~2 hour block once per week, spend at least 75% of it writing, and overall have a great time fleshing out our ideas on paper and in words. Second, my partner is also a scientist so we sometimes write together! But we save this for desperate times, because we really don't want to spend our free time together doing this. But when we do, it is a whole-day event - complete with lots of snacks and a fancy dinner at the end.

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