What You REALLY Need to Be Productive

(Nerd Alert!) I happen to love academic productivity advice, but a lot of it is CRAP-tastic for early career academics. At best it glosses over the real systemic issues facing EC academics; at worst it is insulting.

Dog sitting in burning house saying "this is fine" meme

I personally find it oddly comforting to listen to podcasts about paper planners and read posts about finding time to write during the semester. Remind me to post a list of all my favorite academic productivity content-makers for you some day (and please leave your own recommendations in the comments below!). I’m the kind of person who finds motivation in hearing about and being around other ambitious people. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you like this kind of thing as well. BUT even I often roll my eyes upon reading well-meaning productivity advice that seems to ignore some of the most essential issues facing early career academics today. Let me be clear, you can still be productive without these things (as my own experience will attest), but I can state with certainty that it is much, much easier to be Productive if you have what you REALLY need.

A Living Wage

I cannot stress how much my life has changed since being paid (for a single job) a decent wage. As an unfunded PhD student, I was able to cobble together a living that kept me afloat through the years (with some notable breaks which I’ll write more about some day). At one point I was teaching 7 WIT sections at 3 institutions to make it work. Even though I taught as many sections as I possibly could AND took every free-lance data entry / editing / copy job that came my way, I still spent a good portion of my non-working hours stressing out about paying my bills, negotiating with my internet provider for a lower rate, praying I wouldn’t get sick because I had crap health insurance that I couldn’t afford to use. I couldn’t be sure at that time if my suspicions were correct about the money making a big difference in how I felt managing my workload, but now that I’m gainfully employed as a full-time NTT faculty member (who still keeps an ambitious research agenda), I can say with certainty that I was right.

Now, I am not constantly job hunting or seeking additional means of income. I am not juggling 4-6 employers every year. I receive somewhat regular raises even at a public institution (thanks in part to recent political shifts 🌊). I have benefits like a 401K and life insurance. Not only does this simplify my working life to a substantial degree, but it is a huge weight off of my mind. I am trying to find the right words to capture how much mental space being financially secure has freed up…but words are failing me. So when it comes to graduate stipends, funding your PhD students, or paying your adjuncts (and, in some cases, paying NTT full-time faculty as well) – please keep in mind that a living wage is essential to their productivity. Not f*cking optional.

Good Health Insurance

At least in the U.S. this is a huge issue. Even though we’ve made some strides in the right direction (and in recent years huge steps back), this remains a huge thorn in the side of the American people. I am lucky to be blessed with good genes that by-and-large means I do not have any recurring health issues. That’s probably the only reason I was able to make it through graduate school in one piece without quitting or in some other way compromising my health. There was a brief period when I had relatively good insurance on the exchange for a reasonable premium, but then the mandate went away and the exchange blew up. Thankfully, my spouse’s company insurance carried us through until I landed my current position. Now we have excellent insurance, and even though it’s been a few years now, it still blows my socks off when I realize how little I worry anymore about getting adequate medical care. Again, weight off my mind. Not to mention motivation to take better care of myself–the best productivity hack there is.

Space-Time Continuum

I struggled with this one because initially it was just “space.” As in A Room of One’s Own, but even that book points out that having a room in which to do one’s work isn’t enough, but rather a room + time + money is the essential formula. Perhaps the pandemic has shed some necessary light on just how important space-time is to being productive. As many people discovered, working from home with no dedicated space is a nightmare for productivity. Even if you’re lucky enough to live in a home with a spare room that has a locked door just for you, the distractions of being in a space/time not devoted exclusively to work take their toll. Kids banging on the door asking questions. Your upstairs neighbor is having their floor replaced. Your HOA decides to resurface all the streets that wrap around your unit. The cognitive fracturing that occurs when these things happen makes it feel like you don’t have enough time or headspace to do any deep work. I used to berate myself for not getting more done between classes when I was an adjunct. Thanks to having nearly zero control over my schedule as a member of the academic underclass, I sometimes had hours between classes (but didn’t want to fight to find parking again by going home), and yet it seemed like nothing would get done in those hours. But then I realized that all the adjunct spaces I’ve ever worked in were filled with other adjuncts, graduate students, undergraduate students. People making copies, people chatting, student conferences, etc. Even with headphones (not my personally preferred way to work), it was not optimal for productive work.

To Smash the Patriarchy

This one is especially for all my fellow womxn academics. As you may have read, our productivity tanked in the time of Covid-19. We often take on (or are asked to / forced to take on) more of the parenting/household labor AND service/mentoring than our cis-male colleagues and partners. These are some of the obvious ways that men and women experience labor and diminished productivity, but I challenge you to extend the definition to see how patriarchal expectations disrupt you from achieving your goals. Feel like you have to have a spanking clean house every week (that you do yourself)? That’s some 1950s good-housekeeping bullsh*t. Spending hours in the shower/on your hair/doing makeup every day? Just make sure you’re doing it because YOU love it and not to satisfy some male gaze nonsense. Letting that working-mama guilt force you into making 70 cupcakes or painting paper masks because the PTA asked you to? Do the male parents do that shit? Yes? Okay then let them keep making up for thousands of years of hands-off parenting. No? Okay then, just say no to patriarchal double-standards. Even insisting on adequate compensation for the work you do in your actual job is an act of patriarchy-smashing brilliance. Capitalism and patriarchy are long-time bedfellows and neither one has your best interests at heart. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

A Village

This might seem counterintuitive or even offensive to some people, but, yes, you need a good support network to be your best, productive self. It’s not that you *can’t* make it through the PhD, the job market, or ntt/tt jobs all by your lonesome, but it will be way harder than if you had a support system in place. I’m not going to say what exactly that support system should look like because it is different for each of us. Maybe it includes family, friends, a therapist, a work-out buddy, a church group, a hobby club, a mentor, a spouse or partner, your children, professional collaborators, a puppy. The point is you should think about your village often and how you can both draw from and contribute to that village over the course of your life. I personally wouldn’t have finished my PhD if it wasn’t for my husband. His encouragement-without-pressure really worked to help me over the line when I was ready to give up. It can be scary to depend on your village in this way – especially for those of us who like to be in control – but the best, happiest, most productive people I know have strong, vibrant villages. I happen to have a very large village, which I love, but villages come in all shapes and sizes. Find the size and shape that works for you. Even if you go for a large village, be choosy about who’s allowed in there. Find the people or the person who will be there with exactly what you need when you need it: takeout, a hug, encouragement, a resource, advice, a good idea, and, of course, harsh truths.


I remember this being the number one stumbling block to my productivity in graduate school. I had a lot of trouble with finding my purpose. This is even harder for those of us coming out of grad school now with so few non-adjunct job openings because even if grad students of the past couldn’t always see the wider purpose of their research, they at least found purpose in that it would get them a good job somewhere. It was hard looking down the barrel of statistically-likely joblessness and finding motivation to continue writing about such a specific topic (as one generally does for a PhD). The prospect of joblessness isn’t going away, I’m afraid, but it will honestly and truly help you (whatever stage you’re at) to have a solid purpose for your work. I don’t necessarily mean you need to find external value for your work (this is a moving target anyway), but rather that you need to have a really good “this-is-why-I-picked-this-research” story. And/or a “this-is-why-it-is-important-to-ME” story. This will help you in job applications, interviews, proposals, and grants, of course, but more importantly it will motivate you to keep going wherever you are going.

Take it from someone who knows. Someone who has felt like a total FAILURE for being unproductive in the worst of times. It is likely you are doing the best you can with what you have. Don’t let privileged productivity gurus get you down. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. Use what’s helpful to you now and leave the rest for the day you have what you REALLY need to be *productive.*

Stay tuned for (hopefully) more posts this year about teaching, composition, digital literacy, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions

One thought on “What You REALLY Need to Be Productive

  1. Pingback: Schedule Time to Think | Tawnya Azar

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