Georgia Vullinghs |

Productivity is a word that is being passed around a lot at the moment, but what is working productively? Let’s be clear: being productive isn’t about time spent at your desk, being constantly ‘busy’, or producing screeds of writing. I’m one of these people that likes to have a lot going on, but if you feel like you need to work 60 hours a week to get things done then there is a problem. In academics especially, it can be easy to end up feeling like there’s always something else you could be doing, but it’s just as important to make time for meeting friends and taking part in activities you enjoy. These things shouldn’t be considered as bonus extras. This is where I think productive working comes in. With the right approach, it is possible to do a good amount of work and all of the other things you want to without being a time traveller. Now, of course that involves working hard, part of it is also about being reasonable with what is expected of you. So in that sense, productivity is using your time efficiently to produce good work, and a reasonable amount of it, in a shorter space of time. Not so that you can do even more work, but so you can go and do all the other important things in life!

But how to get there?


Set Goals

Having something to aim for gives you a better sense of how much work is required of you.

I like to set a range of goals. For example, thinking long-term, I’ve got that chapter draft due at the end of the month. I also break that down into weekly, and even daily goals for myself. This makes work seem much more manageable and makes it easier to focus.

Set your goals at a level that, yes, you need to push yourself to reach, but isn’t back-breaking. If you find you are constantly missing goals, maybe you are giving yourself too much. While I think goals are a great way to motivate yourself and track progress, we also all have days where things don’t go to plan, so don’t beat yourself up about them! Just reconsider how to move on, and set a new one. Think of a goal not just as a dreaded deadline, but as an end-point which allows you to stop working for the day or week.

Hello guilt-free coffee and cake with friends!


To be fully productive when working, you need to be totally focussed on the task in hand. So switch off email or message notifications (responding in a few hours when you’ve finished really isn’t a problem), minimise interruptions, and get down to it.  Approaching work in this way for about two hour blocks, for me anyway, produces more work, at a higher quality, in a shorter space of time. Leaving you free for all the other things you want to do! This also applies to other tasks like teaching prep and conference organising. They’re all aspects of your academic career and doing them should fit alongside your research time.  You can use lighter tasks to break up heavy work, but ultimately, try to just deal with one thing at a time, giving it your full attention. This way you’ll get through that to do list much more efficiently.


Know Your Rhythm

Figure out when you do various tasks best. My brain can tackle difficult reading or writing early in the morning but by 3pm, I’m nodding off at my desk. So that’s when I might plan to check emails, pick up books from the library, or fill in that easy but time consuming expenses form. Listen to yourself. While self-discipline is key, sometimes that writing you planned to do just isn’t happening. So take a step back and do something else that is equally useful. You’ll be using your time much more efficiently than staring at a blank screen.


Switch Off!

Separate bursts of intense work with proper breaks. Take 5 minutes to walk in the corridor, make a cup of tea, or say hello to a colleague. At lunchtime, try not to sit at your desk. I’ll admit, I’m terrible for eating and working, or, if not working, browsing Twitter. But doing this your brain and eyes never actually get a rest. Really switching off for half an hour at lunchtime will prepare you for a more productive afternoon. ‘Evenings’ and ‘Weekends’ are also important. Monday-Friday 9-5 doesn’t suit everyone, but designated free time in the week is something we all need. This is the time you can rest and catch-up on all the social things you want to do. Plus, if you know this will be designated free time, you’re more likely to work productively to keep it that way.



Finally, reflect on what you’ve done. Sometimes, it can feel like there is a never ending list of jobs to do, articles to read, chapters to write, and funding applications to make (not to mention keeping any sort of social life alive). I find it really helpful to take time to reflect on what I have achieved. Whether in a day, a week, or a month, doing this gives you a little feel-good reminder of how well you are doing, because it’s probably all better than you realised. But it also gives you time to think about where to go next, what’s needed of you, and how to get there. Doing that will mean you can focus your time and energy on tasks that actually need to be done, set new goals, and approach the work productively.

I hope this post has provided some help to get you into the right mind-set for a ‘productive’ working style. For tips on more practical things that can help, like organisation systems and apps, check out these other posts.


Georgia is a a first year PhD student researching Jacobite material culture with the University of Edinburgh and National Museum of Scotland.   You can find her on twitter.

Image 1& 2: Flickr.