Do Any of These Productivity Tips Work? I Tried Them All and Here's What I Found

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We all know the stories: the tech workers who live at their desks, the San Francisco lawyers who think leaving work at 8pm is an “early night” or the professors who send emails at 3am before turning in for a quick nap. Many Americans are workaholics on the hunt for ways to be more productive.

I’m certainly not immune as an English lecturer who teaches full-time at two colleges while trying to juggle writing my novel, coordinating a summer institute for teachers, blogging and, occasionally, still enjoying my life. If you told me that there was a magic pill or robot or new trick that would make the grading, emails, lesson prepping, and meetings actually go faster, I know I’d be first in line.

At the end of last quarter, faced with two of the year's busiest weeks, I decided to try an assortment of productivity tips from articles, books and blogs. Here's what was hogwash, what could potentially work and what was actually useful.

The Hogwash

I have never officially worked in a typical office so I’m not entirely sure that some of these tips apply to me. Case in point: the tip to delegate. Sure, I have teaching assistants, but they aren’t allowed to grade papers, answer emails, or attend meetings. I’m obviously not going to assign my students to grade their own papers, so the tasks I can mostly delegate (like staple your essays together so I don’t have to) are relatively useless. Same with the go paperless tip. Sure, I’m an English nerd who loves the smell of printed books, but I’m no Luddite. I’ll grade some things online, but I’ve also realized students are best at correcting typos by reading a printed page. I find grading printed final papers saves time, since there are fewer errors to correct.


Two other tips that made me less productive were more surprising. Several sources I read disagreed on whether you should act immediately on phone messages/emails or shelve them for set times of the day. I tried both.

Acting immediately made me feel like Dug, the talking dog from Up. I couldn’t focus well on anything, while paying attention to the nearly constant pinging of my three email accounts. And responding only at set times almost caused a student stampede to my office as they had urgent questions that needed to be answered before their papers were due. For me, responding whenever I transition from one task to the next seems to work best.

The suggestion of having someone keep you company during unpleasant tasks was also a disaster. No teacher enjoys hours of grading so the possibility of chatting with my dear friend and fellow teacher online (she’s a professor in Michigan) proved too great a temptation. We’re better off sticking to our tried-and-true method: during grading crises, we pace each other with brief check-ins each hour to make sure we stay on task.

What Might Potentially Work

Starting new practices during a highly stressful couple of weeks probably isn’t the best idea. That’s what I’ve discovered with the establishing good habits tip. If I want to inhale a stack of Thin Mints at noon to help me get through the next seven hours of student presentations and club moderation, I go for it, even if I crash at 9pm from all the sugar. I also wish I could say I tackled the small stuff first, but nothing feels particularly “small” to the students I work with during finals week. I also couldn’t fully plan ahead because I needed to finish my work first before even thinking about editing syllabi for next quarter.

However, I did remind myself of two main habits I used to follow more religiously: stop multitasking and don’t sit at your desk all day / exercise. I tend to get obsessed with trying to do multiple things at once, like when I nearly spilled my fresh cup of tea all over the handouts I had just pulled from the machine as I tried to wave at a colleague. Lesson learned: not everyone can walk and chew gum at the same time. Especially not me.

Despite horrible allergies and the worry that taking a 30 minute break might make me stay up too late, I still managed to drag myself out for a quick walk / run around the block twice. I felt happier, moved faster around my classrooms, and was more willing to have productive “butt in the chair” time in the afternoons after my workouts. While I don’t think I’ll be signing up for another 10k anytime soon, it was a nice reminder that I need to continue to take care of myself...

What Proved Semi-Useful

…which was the most useful lesson I got out of the productivity tips. Sure, I was smart and found ways to mechanize repeated tasks (i.e. I sent a class email instead of copying and pasting the same answers to individual students) and kept myself organized so I didn’t waste time looking for things like my keys at the end of another 13 hour day.

But, mostly, I focused on making sure I was a happy and productive instructor. I set a timer so I could see progress on tasks when I felt like giving up for the day. And treated myself afterwards to more than one well-deserved episode of Parks and Recreation before bed.

Overall,  I tried to channel my inner Oprah and be mindful. Sure, I didn’t enjoy the seemingly-endless line of students growing outside my door as my office hours were ending, but I realized the larger goal: helping students grow. I didn’t exactly have time to keep a gratitude journal, but I did find and repeat a mantra to myself (a slightly different one than in Dead Poets Society) as I worked, which helped keep me sane.

What was it?

“We'll always have summer break.”



What’s been useful for you? Leave it in the comments!