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Productivity Comes in Time

Yesterday, I took my son to his first baseball practice of the season. He’s 7-years-old, so he’s played a few seasons and – like most boys – is much more interested in hitting the ball as far as he can than anything else.

So, it came as no surprise when he walked up for his first at-bat and swung so hard and ugly that he spun himself out of his cleats.

From behind the fence, I reminded him, “I don’t need you to hit it hard – I need you to make contact. Power comes later. Get the basics down first, the rest will come in time. Just breathe and do what you know how to do.”

He walked back to the plate, looking deliberate as he checked his stance and grip, and he took a slow breath. His next swing was picture perfect – it was a full swing, sounded good, made it to the outfield, and set the tone for the rest of his afternoon.


It’s a safe bet that, as you set out to start analyzing your data and writing your dissertation, you may feel the need to ramp-up your productivity. When this surge of motivation hits, many students go through a typical list of ways to improve their output. Typically, they look at:

  • Being more organized

  • Managing time better

  • Setting goals and deadlines

There are countless systems and tools to help you do these things, and all of them work. I should qualify that statement – all of them work at the right point in time.

If you’ve tried increasing your productivity by tweaking any of the above, you probably found that you got an initial boost but then may have slipped back into your old habits. This may lead you to the conclusion that you are the problem (after all, the system worked for plenty of others and even helped you for a while). But usually it’s neither you nor the system that’s the problem, it’s just that you are using the wrong tool at the wrong time.


If you work on a production line, you want to have as efficient a system as possible. Your goal is consistent output. You have production quotas, schedules, and procedures to make sure the output consistently meets demand.

This is fine when you have a defined product and a defined, repetitive production process. But that way of thinking doesn’t work when it comes to creativity (which includes problem-solving and data analysis). Creativity is often inefficient. It requires open and playful exploration of ideas, many of which you may never use. Things become even more difficult when you realize how difficult it is to quantify the output of creative time because it doesn’t produce immediately measurable results.

So how does this apply to your doctorate? At earlier stages of the analyzing/exploring/creating/writing process, take the time to explore dead ends, waste time daydreaming, take risks and make as many mistakes as possible, and be less focused on rigid productivity. But, if you’re two months away from your submission deadline then you should be focused on productivity, with the singular goal of getting it finished on time. That means you’re past the point where you can spend time exploring new ideas and, rather, should be consolidating the ones you should have already explored in depth.


There is a time and a place for everything. Productivity systems and tools are useful, but only when applied at the right time. But because research so often requires finding creative solutions to difficult problems, we need to give equal consideration to the skills of creativity, letting go of the rigid timetable-and-goal-oriented approach, and taking time to play. It’s only once you’ve done that exploration that it’s time to narrow your focus and get productive.

The bottom line: Just breathe and do what you know how to do. The rest will come in time.

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