On Being “Productive”

I often find it hard to do everything I want to do. Sometimes what I want to do is what I am supposed to be doing, other times what I want to do is work that goes beyond my current job description. I am very much aware that I am very privileged to have the job I have, and that this being an academic job of a certain characteristics I am also very privileged to be paid to do things I actually enjoy very much (often “enjoying” is an understatement, as I get paid to do work I truly love doing).

One of my constant concerns is how much effort it requires to remain “human”. I suppose most people in very high profile jobs have armies of minions who do all the chores that the rest of us have to deal with in order to not fall into complete chaos. I am also fascinated by how much time and energy is invested in doing necessary work that does not necessarily feel “productive” in its definition of “generative” and “creative”.

For many being creative is what happens doing hobbies, not everyday work, or the work that pays the rent. I believe we can be creative doing almost anything, and it’s a bit of a shame that the definition of “productive” has been co-opted by managerialism, to the point that the adjective is endlessly deconstructed in treatises and postings composed with academic top-of-the-range laptops and tablets in every corner of higher education institutions in the ‘developed’ world. One has to be careful these days about using the adjective (“productive”) because one may come across as some kind of managerial bureaucrat robot working for the Dark Side™.

There is a tension then, between “work” and “creative, generative work”, and a tension between enjoying the work one does to get paid and not enjoying working for free/working when you feel you shouldn’t be working even when you fully enjoy the work you are doing. It should not be a requisite to enjoy a break from work to have to fully dislike the work one does. In other words, holidays/breaks should not only be for those who dislike working on what they work. If you enjoy working on what you do, you shouldn’t be expected to work all the time on it just because you enjoy it. Or: enjoying your work does not mean you don’t need to have a break from it.

This is also connected, in my brain, with the idea that one needs to be working all the time. All the time. Do people in academia really work all the time? And, how many hours of the time we say we are working are we really being productive, in the sense of being generative and creative? Of course these could be research questions, but I am not asking these questions as a researcher, I am just asking them because I have thought about these and because I want to ask them. I feel it’s important to think about these things, about why we as academics, at least some of us it seems, spend so much of our time worrying about not doing enough, or about doing too much, or about any of its combinations.

On 10 April 2014 I created and shared a one-question “quick and dirty” poll on Twitter, asking the following question:

In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being “productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise?

I received 7o responses during a period of 20 days. Then I stopped receiving them when the retweets stopped.

As today is a bank holiday Monday in the UK and we spent it mostly doing work (work as in, ahem, “work”) I thought it would be nice to share the results before more time passed. The survey was supposed to be quick and dirty after all.

Here’s how the responses look:

Results, pie chart and table In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being "productive", in the sense of "generative; creative", in the field of your professional expertise?
In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being “productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise? [Click to enlarge]
Between 1 and 3 hours 13 19%
Between 3 and 5 hours 34 49%
Between 5 and 8 hours 16 23%
8 hours 2 3%
10 hours 1 1%
More than 10 hours 3 4%
Other 1 1%

[“Other” had the clarification “it depends on the day”.]

I found it frankly astonishing 3 respondents said that they were “”productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise” in average more than 10% a day. Needless to say I also find it hard to believe anyone would be in average “generative; creative” in their own field for more than 8 hours a day. So many other things need to be done during an average day that the thought of a professional being “generative; creative” in a professional field for more than 8 hours in average means, to me, they probably don’t have to deal with any of the other things that require our attention every day.

Anyway it is clear I am not doing anything scientific here. It is not my intention. I am just sharing these thoughts with you because I felt like it.

I refuse to think I am lazy (I am not, I am one of those who feels he is working all the time after all), I’d like to think I am just being honest that other stuff that is not necessarily “generative; creative” takes a lot of time, and often it is just basically necessary to remain “human”. Perhaps the rise of “life-logging” will mean that we can perhaps start seeing more metrics about how much time we spend doing some stuff, like taking out the rubbish, walking between say the toilet and the desk, deleting spam emails or editing blog posts. People like Thoreau, Whitman, Darwin, wrote they were being productive when they walked. They were not being “productive” by sitting at their desks worrying about not being productive.

But I digress. Let’s get back to work.