Matthew Cornell @ answers to your academic productivity questions

March 23rd, 2008 by jose

Hello everyone. Thanks very much for your great questions, and for having me here. Following are my answers, some thoughts on academic productivity, and some ideas from my consulting work with faculty. I hope you find them helpful.


Background of the problem

What’s the problem? Your jobs are hard. Positions in academia are some of the broadest and most demanding I’ve encountered in my consulting. As my client Mary Deane Sorcinelli [1] points out in her Peer Review article Faculty Development: The Challenge Going Forward (PDF),

The set of tasks expected of faculty is intensifying under increasing pressure to keep up with new directions in teaching and research. Thus, for example, new faculty members may need to develop skills in grant-writing or in designing and offering online courses. Seasoned faculty members may need to keep up with emerging specialties in their fields as well as to engage in more interdisciplinary work.

Further, without excellent self-management skills, people face significant stress trying to achieve distinction as scholars, teachers, and campus citizens. They sacrifice work and life balance, and risk burnout – a big loss for both the academe and the faculty member herself. Fortunately, there’s plenty to hope for. Clients and colleagues have told me that adopting a method to improve productivity is one the best steps academics can take to improve faculty success.

Answers to your questions

Adopting a method without its taking over

As an academic, I have a lot of projects going at once and haven’t been able to maintain the action-based ToDo list over time. How can I keep the productivity process from becoming its own project taking over my time and attention?

There are a number of issues here. First, you’ve stated exactly the irony that busy and successful people face when addressing the challenges involved. I believe a serious commitment to self improvement over time (including reading great resources like this site) is absolutely required. Keep in mind that each person will need an individualized productivity method, either a variation of existing ideas (see examples below) or a hybrid, both combined with techniques learned from experience and self-discovery. Second, regarding the process, there’s no way around giving it the appropriate amount of attention. I suggest treating it like an experiment. Make it an explicit project (with actions) and try different approaches. But try them one at a time, with a minimum of a few weeks each. Unfortunately, making changes like this is very difficult for many of us [2]. To keep it from overshadowing everything else, I distinguish between two approaches to adoption: “One Big Push” (spend a short number of highly focused days getting into the system) and “Small Steps” (a Kaizen-like [3] piece-by-piece process). Either can work, and both have pluses and minuses. I strongly suggest a combination of starting with a two-day “intensive” (mine is described here), followed by longer-term coaching (ideally over a period of months), with periodic check-ins/refreshers over time. Finally, regarding your to-do list I’d need to hear specifics about what’s going on. However, there are two common obstructions: poorly thought out actions, and poor execution: Poorly thought out actions: There’s a saying, “Most to-dos can’t actually be done.” Make each task small enough to accomplish in one sitting (say 60 minutes [4] or less), specific, and concrete. Importantly, make sure they’re independent of anything else. This means you might have to work backward through a chain of dependencies to decide the actual next step. For example, planning or gathering prerequisite information or tools might be necessary. A good test: Actions are usually “little” verbs, such as “call,” “email,” or “order.” (As opposed to projects, which are “big” verbs.) Poor execution: This is a large topic. For now I’ll just say your list of items should be attractive (things you want to do or must do), and important to your goals. Changing your list over time to match this is part of a longer term process. Books like Koch’s and Ferriss’s might help your thinking around this.

The tension between productivity and creativity

As a budding academic myself, an interesting tension is finding a balance between being organized and relatively low-stress (via, for example, GTD style methodologies) and also being obsessive, and non-productive, when searching for a break through idea. It seems that a lot of professors are either one or the other: organized, and middle of the road, or crazy but brilliant. What are you thoughts on striking that balance? Any lessons learned from your GTD for faculty pilot program? I love the question. Here are a few thoughts. First, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I suspect there are big opportunities for improvement on either end of the spectrum. On the “organized-low-stress” end, we’re asking whether being on top of all our work limits our creativity. I believe the opposite is true. My personal experience is that I had a very unexpected intellectual awakening after structuring my life, which led to quitting my job, changing careers, and becoming self-employed (I am compelled to share it). Here’s what I think is happening. Beyond simply getting more efficient (i.e., smoothly handling everything coming into your life), is that we are making room for our natural intelligence and creativity to shine. With apologies to Marilyn Paul, it’s hard to make a breakthrough when you can’t find your brain :-) In other words, the noise and pace of “our modern hyper-kinetic lives” [5] shuts down what Klein [2] calls the higher functioning of the cerebral cortex (the region in the head most susceptible to stress). This takes us to your other end, “crazy-brilliant.” Again, from Klein,

The prefrontal cortex can simply shut off large regions, and the executive function [6] suffers. This makes it hard to keep our priorities straight when we are under stress and to filter out unimportant matters. We become scatterbrained, fighty and reckless.

To me that’s starting sound like what you describe. I wonder: Are there additional breakthroughs being held back? Is it possible to do this same level of work with less effort? And what does the rest of this person’s life look like? There’s a real risk of working all hours, sleeping less, not exercising, spending less time with loved ones, and being distracted when we are with them. But hey, that’s just a lot of words. Don’t take my word for it. Try a method yourself, and see if the results offset the (initially off-putting) work. Feeling better is ultimately the best motivator.

Number one tip

What would be the number one tip/strategy an academic could use to be more productive? Heh heh heh. This is a great question, and one I ask when learning from the top people in my field. Sadly there is no single tip – it’s a process, and starting people on the road is an important part of what I do. Yes, this is avoiding answering; read more in my post The ultimate productivity tip. But to be a bit more helpful, I suggest spending some time thinking about your top one or two challenges, and starting with those. For some, just getting an effective filing system working is a big improvement. Adopting the “One Big Push” approach? Start with just the things on your desktop. Email? Get in the habit of emptying your inbox, and clear some of your backlog. For the former, start applying the “5Ds:” Do, Delete, Delegate, Defer, and Deposit (file). Regarding the latter, move all emails that are older than two weeks (say) to a new “Archive” folder, and empty out what’s left – this is often the “hottest” stuff. Finally, for any inbox (paper, voice, email) get into the habit of processing, not checking. Commit to emptying every time you touch your inbox (i.e., starting your email program). This is very different from the method most people use, what I call PUS (Process, UN-process, and Skip to the next)

Productivity methods

Could you recommend other systems or methods besides GTD, or is GTD the best thing since sliced apple pie for academics? Since starting my self-defined “M.S. Personal Productivity,” I’ve looked at a number of good systems. David Allen’s GTD [7] has been a big influence, and has has collected some of the best ideas from the last few decades. But it has its limitations, including being considered too complex, too process oriented, too hard to adopt, and too brittle. Some others worth looking at: Mark Forster’s (my interview with Mark is here), Chris Crouch’s (interview here), Sally McGhee’s (interview here), and Kerry Gleeson’s (look for my interview with him soon).

Social networking for academics

You have been using social networks (i.e LinkedIn) as an important way to stay connected and find new clients. There seems to be two kind of people: those who swear by the new social networks, and those who claim that the end is near and that they are a supreme waste of time. I was surprised finding some highly productive academics in facebook :) . Can you tell us your views on this? Another fun question. I think the role of networks like is becoming increasingly important for all kinds of work. Why? Because forming connections and nurturing relationships is crucial to making progress in what we do, no matter our jobs or fields. I love this “formula” from Networking Tips from the White House:

Life = The people you meet + What you create together

(You can read more of my tasty morsels from the Ideamatt self help formulary.) Think of the work you do, and how crucial your relationships are. Nothing – from publishing to teaching to service to research – stands alone. Regarding on-line tools in particular, I know many faculty who use them effectively – just search LinkedIn for “professor.” The key is to nurture and grow your relationships, and to be of use to others. (This is a favorite topic of mine. You may enjoy How to help people.) I’d suggest you start growing your online network right away, and treat it like a garden; plant seeds and you’ll eventually see results. Consider joining LinkedIn, think about inviting everyone you currently know and collaborate with, and add new people as they come up, for example at conferences, workshops, and while on sabbatical.

Crazy hours and the price of success

Is it possible to become a successful academic without working crazy hours? My point being – there is a limit to how far being more efficient or productive will get you. And the more successful you become, the more work that typically entails, and bigger your next action list becomes. Great points. First, the impact of becoming more efficient certainly has limits. For example, it can’t gain you more time, and it can’t get rid of work for you. There will always be too much to do, and as you point out, the more successful you get, the more overloaded your plate will be. However, a good system can help restore balance. How? First, you become more efficient in using your time – you make simultaneous progress on multiple projects, you make more principled choices of what to do in the moment, and you make good use of those small “between” moments (e.g., between classes, while traveling, or during a lull in office hours). This improved use of your attention results in feeling more satisfied in the day’s accomplishments, which makes it easier to justify going home on time and not taking work home. In my experience, however, getting on top of your work has a much broader effect. Because you get a more comprehensive view of everything you’ve taken on, you’ll see your limits more clearly and start making difficult choices like turning down low-value work, and renegotiating projects that aren’t in line with your (possibly new) goals. These choices can bring your workload back down to more reasonable (and appropriate) levels.

The relationship between being productive and enjoying life

Why do you think people want to be more productive (instead of sipping pina colada on the beach)? Because there’s an important portion of the internet posting about productivity (and people love it)! First, there’s definitely a “productivity trap” in which we get bitten by the bug and pulled into it a bit obsessively. Ditto for tools – getting the latest, slickest, most powerful tool is a distraction. So yes, those of us who are susceptible to this must be careful. However, your question goes to the main point of what it means to be productive. To me the idea is to do the most important work, with the least amount of effort, so we can spend more time doing what we love. This is different from the common time management myth of quality vs. quantity, which is really just an excuse for a dysfunctional work-life balance. Instead of squeezing more work out of already overloaded people (i.e., increasing the quantity of time spent working), I think the goal is to spend quality time working (by being effective), and quantity time at home. Thanks again for having me here.

Additional academic productivity opportunities

Here are a few additional academic-related resources you may find useful.

About the author

Matthew Cornell, M.S., is a former NASA engineer, and one of the few consultants in New England specializing in modern personal productivity techniques. He works with smart people who are overloaded by their own success. The author of many articles on self-management/productivity, personal growth, and creativity he is available for individual and group consulting, workshops, and presentations. His clients include NASA and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and resides with his family in Western Massachusetts. (soon to move to


  • [1] Associate Provost for Faculty Development, Director, Office of Faculty Development, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
  • [2] For some neat ideas about why our ~100,000 year old brains have trouble with focus and modern life, you might enjoy by Stefan Klein.
  • [3] For an introduction to this approach, I suggest the book .
  • [4] Opinions on the ideal block time vary, and certainly depends on the person’s style and current level of focus throughout the day (and week – we are not machines, so adjust as needed). Some common numbers: Peter Drucker suggest 90 minutes, which Kerry Gleeson likes (see ), and 96 minutes from applying Pareto to an 8 hour day (see Koch’s ). (Regarding the latter, trust me: I’ve found many people don’t fully understand the ideas without reading it. Simple example: the two numbers needn’t sum to 100. Buy it and read it.)
  • [5] This is what Edward Hallowell calls it in .
  • [6] He defines executive function as the ability to formulate plans, based on working memory. It has a flaw although; working memory is fleeting and fills up quickly.
  • [7] Unless you’ve been seriously out of touch, you’ll have heard about Allen’s work. Just in case, here’s the book: .
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4 Responses to “Matthew Cornell @ answers to your academic productivity questions”

  1. Lynn O'ConnorNo Gravatar Says:

    Hey Matt:
    Great post. I have only one thought to add–as an academic/research loving person, the truth is that my work is what I love, i.e., its sort of my form of recreating. I am in a great flow state when I write. Now I got bit by the productivity bug (and I spend way too much time in productivity porn heaven) so I understand the concern that it will get in the way of doing anything. And in all honesty I slip on and off the wagon and I spend too much time flaking around. But even given these weaknesses, my productivity has gone up hugely since I launched my GTD implementation. I had been sitting on so much data collected over the last what, 7 or so years. Now, with my collaborators, we already have 3 articles out for review. And this is given some hard core laziness. I think the ticket is that academic work is my recreation, and getting GTD in my life organized my play just enough to get something done.

    Thanks again for the post written for us academic types.


  2. Matthew CornellNo Gravatar Says:

    Thanks for the insight, Lynn. What I really like is how much you are already doing the work you love, and how you’ve tied in that with spreading your good ideas more effectively. Gotta’ love good artifacts (like papers)!

  3. Says:

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