I'll admit, I've been struggling lately with my academic writing. I'm in the process of turning my thesis into journal articles and submitting them for publication. It's something I want to do, but I've also been feeling a lot of pressure because I want to apply to PhD programs this year, and I know how important the length of my publication list is. Even though I know I need to be reading, and I want to be reading to scratch the itch of curiosity that brought me to academia in the first place, I've been focusing on the writing because that is the product I will be judged on. And so I spend a lot of time unproductively staring at a draft of an article.
In my stuckness, I turned to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega. I think of Raul (I asked if I could call him that) as the guy who studies water use around the world — he's a scholar of natural resource governance and public policy — but academics in a wide variety of disciplines follow him because he is the Muse of Good Scholarly Habits. So I asked him about his reading to writing ratio:
I speed-read, but I normally read about 1-2 hours a day, and write 1-2 hours during semesters I teach very little or have no teaching load (I now don't have semesters where I have a very low teaching load).
— Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) May 11, 2018
I was stunned that it was roughly a 1:1 ratio. What I also found interesting was that, even when he has more time, he spends a maximum of four hours doing that work. I've seen that figure — an upper daily limit of 3-4 hours of deep work — elsewhere. I went on to express the angst I'd been feeling. To which he helpfully responded:
NO, NO, NO. Don't fall into the pressure trap. Don't give into the pressure. Read as much as you need to, write as little as you need to produce what you need.
— Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) May 11, 2018
And that's when everything clicked: the work of scholarship, indeed, the work of life, is largely prep work. And in this case, the prep work — reading and learning — is the most joyful part of the process. No wonder I was having a hard time!
I'd been skeptical of this idea; indeed, I'll admit that even though I've followed Raul since forever, I'd been skeptical of the time he spent on process. And, as much as I've wanted to implement David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) method, I was skeptical of how much time the method itself took. Although I buy and read productivity book after productivity book, I've always balked at these disciplined approaches.
And yet I know Raul is highly productive. Not just that, but Raul is happily productive. He clearly knew something I didn't.
And then I realized where my resistance lay.
It comes down to framing. Oh sure, my father always talked about productivity as "Work smart, not hard," but in implementation, it was "Work faster so you can work more."
If I finished my homework early, I had to undergo the aversive, painful process of him scrutinizing my homework, quizzing me on the things I studied, or editing my writing, so I would stretch everything out until it was late enough that I thought I might reasonably escape.
Sometimes, I would hide a fiction book inside my textbooks so it looked like I was studying.
He tried timers. He made me watch hours of videos on study methods like SQ3R, and then scrutinized my implementation. I always overachieved, but I never got more efficient, because there was never a payoff. The few months that he worked nights were perhaps the most productive of my early school career.
That was what separated Raul's method from my madness. For much of my life, good habits had resulted in less happiness. For him, good habits had always resulted in more happiness.
also, because my parents framed discipline as "efficiency that leads to more fun" since I was very little, it has stayed with me
— Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) May 3, 2018
This is why I became a motivation researcher: I had always struggled with getting myself to do things, and even to know what it was that I wanted to do. What I learned from my theoretical framework (self-determination theory) was that you can't make yourself do anything. Oh sure, you can for a short while, but it always falls apart. You'll find a way to cheat the system, as I did when I hid a book inside my textbooks to drag out my homework. You'll skip the parts of the process that are crucial but that no one will reward you for. And you will never be happily productive.
That's why reading productivity books never made me more productive; I was targeting the wrong part of the process. I first had to find a meaningful-to-me reason to be productive, and then I would willingly experiment and adopt whatever habits and methods seemed right for me. And I had to continually reinforce my own reasons over the "pressure trap," which is (I realize now) why GTD incorporates a frequent review of visions and goals.
Why are we really doing this? Surely it isn't to get straight A's, get into a grad program, or get tenure. Surely it's because, deep down, we love this work and we want to keep doing it. We should start by making sure we keep the work lovable.
One thing that seems to help is the idea of prep work as streamlining, and this is what Raul was getting at with his admonition to read lots and write only as much as you have to. Here's another helpful framing that's stuck with me for months:
Sometimes housework is less annoying when I think of it as doing a series of favors to Future Me.
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) December 17, 2017
And with that, I am off to read some articles so I can spend as little time as possible on my writing.