Dorsa Amir
3 min readDec 3, 2018

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Optimize, Don’t Maximize: Finding Your Productivity Equilibrium

In academia, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking everyone’s working harder than you. It’s easier still to think that working as hard as possible is what you should be doing.

Combined, these beliefs make for a difficult debut into the academic world for new graduate students, as they begin to structure their now-weirdly-unstructured time. This often takes place without much guidance on best practices, leaving students to rely on their own intuitions and biased observations as they move forward.

Left unchecked, this often turns into a vicious cycle of feeling like you’re behind, pushing yourself too hard to catch up, burning out, and then actually being less productive, thus validating your belief that you are falling behind. Combine this with the pervasive Impostor Syndrome of academia and you have a recipe for the astonishingly high rates of anxiety & depression among graduate students.

So how do we fix this? The most effective changes are likely those that reshape the academic environment itself from the top-down in ways that tone down competition and the publish-or-perish mindset that it creates. But positive change can also come from the inside-out, in shifting our attitudes and correcting our false beliefs about productivity.

One key insight is that there’s a big difference between short-term and long-term productivity. If you have an important deadline coming up, it might make sense to engage in short-term solutions like working overtime and canceling social events to focus on finishing your work on time. This most closely resembles the pace of undergraduate life, which is broken up into semesters and courses with specific deadlines and requirements.

Graduate school rarely functions the same way, as it’s the entry point for a long-term academic career. Short-term solutions don’t work here, and when stretched out over long periods of time, they are not only ineffective, but actually actively harmful to your mental health.

The goal then is to figure out how to be productive in the long-term, and the key to this is finding your own personal Productivity Equilibrium. Consider this the percentage of time you spend actually doing work during a period of time you could be working.

The pattern above is probably the modal pattern for new graduate students — a series of peaks and troughs early on as they try and fail to maintain that 100 until they (hopefully) find a number that works for them. Not plotted: the cycles of guilt, shame, pride, and anxiety that accompany every single one of those shifts.

What I learned through several tough years is that the equilibrium is not at 100. It never was. That was my own false belief, based on the biased observations of others’ work and my own bad intuitions about how to be productive.

I’ve found a number that works for me, and it’s not 100. There are points during the week that I could be working, but I choose not to. I take a break for lunch every day where I focus on enjoying my meal. I make time to see friends. I read novels. I try not to work too much in the evenings. Most happy academics probably do the same, though this is rarely an image they broadcast to the world. The problem is, in doing so, they forget that they’re shaping the expectations and attitudes of a new generation of scientists.

Am I being as productive as I can possibly be? No.
But is this a pattern I can sustain in the coming years? I’d like to think yes.

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