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Glorifying busy, the cult of productivity and the constant contradictions within academia

With the generous funding of CONACYT, Mexico’s research agency, I recently launched a project on water conflicts in Mexico. I hired a number of research assistants to my lab a couple of months ago. I am a lead PI with my co-PI being an expert in social network analysis from CentroGEO, Dr. Adriana Aguilar. One of the key elements of the project is the deployment of fieldwork to study six different water-related conflicts across the country. This, obviously, necessitates the coordination of a large research group, and one (very fair) question that my lab members asked was “how will we distribute workloads and assign responsibilities?” This is a question that obviously necessitates the use of a project management software tool. A few weeks ago, I had asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends for help finding the right project management software (I had used 5pm, BaseCamp, Micro$oft Project, but was recommended Asana, Trello, and others).

Puerto Vallarta Dec 2016 090

I offer this as as a key piece of context, because I have found myself for the past few weeks avoiding the never easy process of testing project management software that I know will be useful to my entire research team, and yet I haven’t made the time to test different project management tools. This is because, for better or worse, I have also conditioned myself to think of “producing” as “doing research, finding articles, analyzing data, writing up articles/book chapters“. It took me a while to realize that “producing” also implies “reading and grading undergraduate students’ essays, reading graduate students’ theses, writing letters of reference“. Or even testing new software. I avoid administrative work like the plague, but there are meetings that I can’t simply avoid because those short one-on-one meetups are the ones that allow me to give instructions on how funds should be allocated, deal with reimbursements, payments, etc.

Everything Notebook and travel kit

We have, in fact, glorified the idea of busyness, almost like a cult. Since grade school (see my threaded rant below), we have been conditioned to work on weekends. This is particularly true in academic life. To work all the time. Not surprisingly, my dear friend, Dr. Janni Aragon, also wrote about how we are conditioned to always being busy, since we are kids.

And I sincerely acknowledge that I have done the same, even on this blog. I have recommended my readers that they use even 15 minute pockets to do *some* writing. I have suggested that there are 7 ways to procrastinate productively. But as I’ve said before, several times already – academia itself as a profession and academic life is full of contradictions. Squarely against my “productivity tips”, I have written about how we can’t take shortcuts in academia and we need time to reflect and think and really process and soak ideas and mull over them, and think about their implications. I have written in praise of slow scholarship. This would seem, to those who don’t know me well, like a contradiction. But I believe it is not: I want to help you be a more productive academic, but I also want you to take time off, to take care of yourself, of make sure to slow down and don’t give into the glorification of busyness, don’t give into the cult of “productivity”. I have clearly said that there is no “magic bullet” for anything in academia. We are such a heterogeneous population that what works for me may, or may not, work for you.

And like Dr. Amelia Hoover Green said in her post on academia, productivity and mental health, I know that I can speak about taking time off because I’m privileged in the sense that my publication record is decent enough that my tenure case hasn’t been a concern at all. But I also want to acknowledge that this “go, go, go” mentality has had detrimental effects on my own health. I almost died of overwork, TWICE, in the last five years. This is not normal. This is not ok.

So let’s join Janni Aragon in her quest to “not glorify busy“. Busy should not be a status symbol.

One final note – I know I’m one of those people who says “I’m eternally busy”, which I definitely am. But I don’t use “busy” as a status symbol. I use “busy” as a signal to protect my time, and to teach myself to prioritize. I am eternally busy, but if an undergraduate student asks me to help him read an essay over, I WILL MAKE TIME. I am always on the go, travelling, researching, doing fieldwork, but I will connect to Skype at 3 am in the morning to have a conversation with one of my students on how she can deal with an issue at school. I am overwhelmed with the amount of work I have, but I will always make time to spend with my friends, go for a walk, or simply sit down and listen to whatever they need to share. I am fiercely protective of my time, and I know that I use the fact that I’m always busy as a signal, not that I feel like being busy is a status symbol, but as a means to show people in my life that I prioritize where I spend my time.

And sometimes, it’s important to spend that time, researching the best project management tools out there to share with my research lab members.

Or doing nothing and taking a few days off to relax on the beach.

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