No Silver Bullet: Don’t Mistake Productivity Methods and Tools for Actual Productivity

As the epigraph to this blog states, this really is for my own understanding. I sound preachy, but when I say “you,” I really mean, “I.” And when I say “we,” I really mean “I,” too.

When I was applying to grad school, the stress of the experience led me to buy two books: Graduate Study for the 21st Century by Gregory Semenza and How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia.* Among the many lessons that I got from these books, one was very clear: you cannot use the work habits of the average undergraduate and succeed in grad school. Both writers, but especially Silvia, take aim at the “binge-writing” model employed, if truth be told, not only by undergrads, but probably most grad students and professors. Binge-writing is when you’ve got a piece of writing due and you write it frantically at the last moment in big chunks, if not all at once. You turn in the piece, breathe a sigh of relief, and then proceed to to the exact same thing with the next piece of writing. In other words, it’s the writing “technique” of procrastinators.

Lots of people who binge-write give the excuse that they “work best under pressure”–that they binge-write by choice. I used to say that same thing myself. However, considering how miserable binge-writing is, and how detrimental it is to the quality of one’s work, I can’t help but feel that this is really an excuse for unpleasant behavior that we don’t know how to change. Writing a 5-page paper in a day, a 15-page paper in a week, or a 40-page chapter in two weeks might work well as a party trick, but it gets old after the 50th time you’ve done it. The longer the papers get, the more research they require, and the greater amount of personal investment you have in your writing, the more miserable and unsustainable binge-writing becomes.

All this is well and good, easy to comprehend intellectually. Newly converted to the doctrine of No Binging, I was able to send my grad school applications off a few weeks early because I followed Semenza and Silvia’s advice. I entered grad school determined to leave my binge-writing ways behind. And yet, I’ve been in grad school for four years now, and have rarely succeeded. I’m not the world’s worst binge writer–I have never turned a paper in late, and have asked for an extension only once–but over and over again I keep coming up against deadlines and thinking, How did this happen again? How did I manage to leave this much work undone until the last minute? This is because, although I understood Semenza and Silvia’s advice, I failed to register that there is a giant gap between understanding something and actually putting it into practice.

Thinking about productivity is very pleasurable. Just think of all those poor saps who are binge-writing! But I know better! Thinking about being productive allows you to indulge the fantasy that you are productive without feeling that you actually need to confront your work habits. Have you noticed that productivity websites like LifeHacker will suck up just as much of your time as any other website? That so many people in the comment sections on LifeHacker spend so much time scheming about productivity that you can’t help but wonder if it’s cutting into their actual productivity? Have you noticed that searching for productivity apps and trying them out takes up just as much of your time as searching for other kinds of apps? Have you noticed that we read a lot of books and articles on productive habit-formation without actually forming any productive habits?

The search for all this stuff is the search for the silver bullet. We keep looking for the one thing that will do all the work for us–making the perfect writing schedule, finding the best productivity software, creating the best work station in your office. But here’s the problem: silver bullets don’t exist. A to-do list app will not write your dissertation. A timed sequence won’t either. Neither will citation software, a website blocker, a better note-taking system, a reward system, a new desk, a writing group, or a brilliantly-schemed workflow. The only thing that will write a dissertation is you, and the only way you write a dissertation is by writing it.

I ended up in the binge-writing trap so many times despite my best efforts–and I still do–because I was waiting for the silver bullet. And when it got down to work time, I didn’t recognize the tedious, painful, confusing process of work for what it was. What’s this? It’s so uncomfortable. It’s boring and it doesn’t make me feel clever. I’ll just wait to work when I find more time/get a new desk/a study group. So I would put off the work for another day until I couldn’t put it off any longer.

This is not to say that the right software, writing group, or writing schedule won’t help you. They will, but they’ll only help if you recognize them as supports for work, rather than replacements for it. Plenty of things do actually help me be more productive: my computer with the big monitor, RescueTime, Zotero, and my tablet, on which I can run RepliGO Reader and LectureNotes. But these things would be useless if I tried to let them do all the work for me. The best thing I can do to write a dissertation is to learn to sit with the discomfort of working, to accept that writing is painful sometimes and exhilarating at others, and to not let the fantasy of productivity derail my work.

So here’s another try at not getting fooled again.


* Silvia’s book has one argument: the only way to write a lot is to write on a schedule. It’s aimed at professors and grad students, but I actually teach parts of it to my freshman writers because apparently nobody ever teaches them how to manage their time, or their stress. No wonder so many undergrads take binge-writing with them to grad school. A non-binge-writing model is, in truth, not always possible for undergrads because of the way that their workload is structured. But I at least like to let my students know that there are alternatives to drinking a bunch of Red Bull and writing a paper in one sitting. Silvia blows open many of the pathetic excuses–which he diplomatically calls “specious barriers”–we use to keep from writing. Those include: “I don’t have time to write,” “I’m waiting for inspiration,” “I need to do some more research, ” and “I just need a better computer first.” He also cites studies that have been done on academic writers, which show that people who “wait for inspiration,” or who only write when under a deadline not only write less than people who write on a schedule, but also have far fewer creative ideas.

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