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One of the things I struggle with in academia is measuring my daily/weekly productivity. Before academia, I worked in various fields and always felt productive because I could measure my productivity, i.e. cash on hand after a shift of waiting tables. Since being in academia (currently a post-doc) I struggle with measuring productivity because it comes in the form of years, not days/weeks. I set goals each week and keep a running timer on my desk when I am working -- not meetings or seminars, straight research -- and still have a hard time measuring productivity. I realize this is the nature of the profession I am in but am hoping for some advice.

Question: How do you measure your short-run productivity?

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    Why would you want to? – henning Jun 20 at 6:05
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    @henning A few things: to stay on track, motivation, accomplishment (even if small), and seeing the fruit of your labor. – Amstell Jun 20 at 16:33
  • Possibly overlapping: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/7611/… – posdef Aug 5 at 15:44
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    Read Deep Work by Cal Newport, he talks about methods he uses. – Richard Erickson Aug 5 at 17:16
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    @RichardErickson I just picked it up and it is exactly what I was looking for. The book hits on a lot of points that I have been struggling with. Thanks for the recommendation! – Amstell Aug 14 at 14:33
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If you are doing true research then I doubt that you can measure "short term productivity" meaningfully. You can keep track of how many papers you read in a week and how many gallons of a reactant you use up in a month, but they aren't real measures of progress, just of activity.

The problem is that progress in research requires insight and insight can't be scheduled. "I'm 30% of the way to a major insight in mumble mumble mumble". Well, maybe.

In some fields, other than research, you can do some things. Sometime in the previous century I was told by my writing/English professor that he knew a famous author who wrote every day, starting early, and only finished when he had made "one page" of progress toward his current project. So, he could write a short story every three weeks or a novel every year. But even there it wasn't always possible, because to make that one page of progress you might have to completely restructure your story, throwing out many many pages.

In research, you can go for a long time making little 'visible' progress. You accumulate small insights, but often don't recognize them until later. Then, hopefully, you get the big insight. Possibly this comes as you are falling asleep after a long, seemingly unproductive day, or when you are finishing up a fifty mile bike ride.

Research is, by definition, exploring the unknown. Scheduling activity is possible, but not insight. But, hopefully, you will know it when it happens.

  • Thanks for your perspective. The slow walk of research is a battle for me, so your comment helps me see the larger picture and to slow down. – Amstell Jun 20 at 16:34
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This is indeed a problem, and I think many people suffer from this (even if they may not be actively aware of this). In my opinion, the only real answer to this problem is two-fold:

  1. Break down your work into small chunks (ideally managed in a task tracker, such as Trello). This is just generally useful for planning, but specifically helps you get a bit of a feeling of achievement because it makes it more obvious to you that are in fact progressing in your research project, even if you are not submitting a paper at the end of the day.
  2. Accept that virtually any creative work (including research) just isn't the same as waiting tables, and you will never be able to hack your life in a way that you get the same short-term goals and achievements as when you do manual work. Adopting the right mindset is a long-term project for most, but in reality you will have to if you want to succeed (and be happy) in academia.

As a sidenote, the further your career progresses the more you should also work to see your "other" job commitments (attending seminars, reading papers, etc. etc.) as "achieving something". For an early-career researcher it is often helpful to focus as much as possible on their research project, but once you are on a tenure track it will again be a source of persistent unhappiness if you only consider "productive time on my project" as achieving something.

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To measure your productitiy you need a to-do list upfront. Very simple, use onenote or some other software:

  • today
  • this week
  • this month
  • this semester
  • this year

If you cannot complete all bullet points, you have to shift to longer period bullet point. This way you will also see, if you are multitasking on too much things on the same time. This is important as it is one of the main reasons becoming unproductive. Also, your to-do list shouldn't grow and grow and ...

I also don't think it is good as a postdoc to measure your daily/weekly productivity, as a postdoc is not productive on such time scales. You have to acquire funding, manage projects, supervise PhD's, publish papers, it's rather semesters and years.

If you think you have a strong problem on shorter time scales, sitting around for hours browsing randomly etc., this points rather to exhaustion, burn-out, laziness etc. as you managed to get a PhD. Then I would rather visit a physician than setting up another pressure mechanism on short time scales. Are you productive mid- and long-term?

Different people have different working styles, some think during showering, driving home about their job work and have the greatest ideas (me), some work strictly from 9-17 (most professors with family I noticed have very strict time schedules and efficient time management). Their productivity I would rather judge again on a shorter time scale, as they in general don't do so much actual problem solving (where it's unclear when the problem is actually solved, called research), project management anymore as their post-docs working with PhD students in lab and thinking 60+ hours a week on their research.

  • Some of us have supervisors demanding weekly progress reports, so... ;-) – Flyto Aug 5 at 16:43
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    @Flyto I'm from europe, there this is not common, I even didn't meet my professor during PhD every week/month. I don't think the professor would use his time efficiently when seeing a postdoc every week, IMHO ;-) Your anwer is also good, but that's what I anyway do, making notes, don't understand the downvote, may my upvote be with you :-) – sera Aug 5 at 17:11
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I am totally new to this game (coming from high-school teaching and about to start a PhD), so this is aimed at me as much as at answering your question.

I wonder if it might be useful to use a time-tracker tool (I've used toggl.com before) for a while to at least see What You're Doing, When You're Doing It, and How Much You're Doing It - this might at least give insights into the type of activity you're engaged in. Then you can tweak your priorities, your scheduling and look at how much work is going into your project and how much is responding to other people's requests etc.

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On the understanding that this measurement is for your own motivation and mental health, and not for others, then here's something that has worked for me:

While working, keep notes. (you should be doing this anyway) At the end of each month, go through those notes and type up a 1-3 page summar of the main things you did that month. File the summaries.

The summaries form a useful index to your notes - if you need to find something, the main result will be in the summary and if it isn't, you'll know what date to look at in the notes for full details. But also, the act of compiling the summary each month is a reminder of "hey, I did all this stuff". For me, at least, it's strongly motivational.

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