Back-to-School Productivity Habits (Are Not Just for Students)

Dilbert productivity

Ahh, back-to-school. The birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing… oops, that’s springtime. But the two have quite a lot in common. They’re a time for a refresh and a reset. Regardless of where you fall in academia (student, post doc, adjunct, professor), the ubiquitous back-to-school mindset offers a great opportunity to reflect on what you want out of the upcoming year. In turn, an assessment of current productivity habits seems prudent.

As researchers, students, and teachers, most of what we do rests on information. Lots and lots of it. So success in our respective fields usually entails a large degree of well-informed competence. Getting where we want to be means knowing what we need to know. And thus, we set learning goals to help us reach our academic aspirations.

Without a plan, your goals are of limited utility. You must have the infrastructure to match your desired output.

However, if there is one thing I know, it is that goal-setting alone is not enough. Like every well-meaning professional, I have set grand agendas for keeping up with my field and becoming the foremost expert in everything related to ed-tech. I’ll write papers! I’ll start a personal blog! I’ll attend conferences! Realistically though, my lengthy reading list gets lost somewhere between Thanksgiving feasting and Christmas shopping. By April I’m wondering what happened and counting down the days until summer. The moral of the story is this: Without a plan, your goals are of limited utility. You must have the infrastructure to match your desired output.

So around this time of year, it may be worthwhile to ask yourself, are your productivity habits in line to match up with your personal and professional goals? If they don’t seem achievable with the schedule or knowledge you currently have, you may want to consider adopting one or more of the following ideas.

Habit 0: Don’t Read Productivity Blogs

The first rule about productivity is that we don’t talk about productivity. Which is to say, we try not to obsess over it. Constantly skimming for articles about the latest “life hacks” and signing up for every new app that claims to transform your workflow will probably ending up putting you further behind than if you simply didn’t worry about it all.

I get the irony, but since you’re already here, we might as well make the best of it.

Which is why what you’ll find below aren’t your traditional productivity hacks engineered to save 5.2 minutes here and 3.4 milliseconds there; rather, they are habits that focus mainly on mindfulness. I can’t promise that your entire life will be transformed overnight, but given time, you will find yourself happier, less stressed, and better prepared for the demands of academic life.

I recognize the irony of starting off a productivity post with this particular piece of advice. But since you’re already here, might as well make the best of it, eh?

Habit 1: Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time


One of the cornerstones of amplifying your academic productivity is actually maintaining enough energy to want to do things. I reached for another coffee just thinking about all of the above activities I should be engaging in. Time, actually, plays a very small role in what you are capable of accomplishing.

Treat your energy as a limited commodity that must be allocated judiciously.

That doesn’t mean we don’t stress over it. In fact, we spend a lot of time talking about time. How often have you heard a colleague (or yourself) moan, “I want to read more, but I just don’t have the time!” The time-deficit argument is a mainstay of both research fields and working adulthood generally. Within academia, the concept of higher education time management has its own segment of social science research. But is the so-called “time-deficit” real, or is it imaginary, as some experts say?

I’m hesitant to offer a final word here. After all, I’m relatively sure that I don’t really have enough time for 5 journal articles a day. Academics are constantly asked to do more and more with those same 24 hours. But at the end of the day, on my second episode of Gilmore Girls, I realize that time isn’t necessarily my problem. It’s energy. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a deficit of both. But learning to manage your energy will take you a lot farther than even the savviest of time management hacks.

So how do you go about managing your energy? The first key is awareness. Simply knowing what kind of activities stress you out, drain you, or leave you feeling depleted gives you an idea of where your weak spots are. You usually can’t avoid these activities altogether, but you can limit their effect on you. Perhaps you can delegate some items, or employ a new technology to minimize tedious tasks. Treat your energy as a limited commodity that must be allocated judiciously.

Ultimately, remember this: If you have the energy, you will find the time. So focus on your well-being and the rest will (usually) fall into place.

Habt 2: Prioritize Your Professional Reading



We all have reading lists a mile long. From journal articles to blog posts to textbooks, we’ve got so much on our plate that even a Twitter feed can seem daunting. Which is why I suggest you start to take a pro-active stance towards your professional development and “personal learning” time. Contrary to popular opinion, reading lists don’t finish themselves. You do have to carve out some moments on a daily or weekly basis in order for it to happen.

Contrary to popular opinion, reading lists don’t finish themselves.

But in keeping with the idea that you should be managing your energy and not just your time, it’s a good idea to approach academic reading with “friction-free” mindset. That is, don’t just try to cram in a few minutes worth of reading whenever you think you’re in-between major tasks. Consider, when is it actually easy for you to read? When is it stress reducing, and not stressing inducing?

Some additional questions to ask when planning your most efficient catch-up time:

  • When do I have quiet time to myself?
  • When am I motivated to learn and take in new information?
  • What time of day do I have the most energy?

When is it actually easy for you to read? When is it stress reducing, and not stressing inducing?

The answers to these will be different for everyone. For some, the early morning commute provides a great opportunity to sneak in a few journal articles. For others, technical reading helps to wind down before bedtime. Whatever is right for you is the right time to read. Catching up on your field is just as important as say, doing your laundry, and you have to accept that it’s one of the things you just have to get done. But being mindful of when constitutes a good time will go a long way towards actually turning the page.

Want to supercharge your reading productivity? See Habit 3 below.

Habit 3: Maintain a Library


Let’s imagine, for a second, a world in which you finally find the time AND the energy to sit down and read, but alas, you find you have nothing left to digest. Your reading list is… gasp… empty!

Think of your library as your intellectual garden, and cultivate accordingly.

This is probably an unlikely scenario for most of you. However, there is still something to be said for making the most of your professional development time and not wasting it on searching for the most relevent piece of news. Most of us come across some much interesting content on a daily basis just through day to day activities such as checking email, chatting with colleagues, and browsing social media. A well-maintained personal library will go a long way towards optimizing your academic productivity. Think of your library as your intellectual garden, and cultivate accordingly.

Solid libraries are contingent not just upon finding but keeping interesting materials. So you need a way to save new ideas and articles. Between social media, emails, and the like, most reading occurs online. An easy-to-use browser extension is your best bet for keeping track of the wild world wide web. Here are some of our favorites:

Of course, once you’ve collected and read all of this fabulous material, you want to make sure you don’t lose track of it. You need a way to keep track of references for when you’re writing your own papers. Paperpile helps you organize your personal library via folders and customized tags. But in order to take advantage of these nifty features, you need to make a habit of actually implementing them. Make sure you schedule time to do a little “preventative weeding” and clean up your references.

So there you go: 3 (and a half) simple habits that can help you supercharge your productivity and take control of your academic career.

Want to add to the list? Let us know in the comments!