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"Productivity" During Disruption

Mon Jun 1, 2020 at 07:30 AM

In the U.S. generally and Michigan specifically, much of the world came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020. As all of us were trying to make sense of what was happening and what to expect, some of us expected that our pace of work should continue as normal, if not hasten, due to virtually all travel and events being canceled. Some instructors expected students to continue as usual, only now from home. Dr. Aisha Ahmad, a scholar with abundant experience working in disaster zones, quickly reframed what our expectations around productivity should be. Her widely distributed Twitter thread eventually became a Chronicle of Higher Education article: Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.

Even if we have fared relatively well during COVID--family and friends healthy and still employed--almost everyone’s routines have been disrupted. Even our very sense of time that grounds our routines is off. Routine is a constant in productivity studies: whether it is when we wake up, how we start the day, rituals, meals, and more, routines ground us, help us focus faster, and even aid sustained creativity (Duhigg, 2014; 2017). As a result, we may feel unproductive for what seems like no reason.

Major, ongoing disruptions also incur many disruptions along their way: news updates, resurgences, political backlash, illness in our family, job insecurity. COVID-19 has disrupted the routines, support, and other foundations of our productivity. It will continue to disrupt in ways that affect us disproportionately--most recently the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. A contentious presidential election is on the horizon, and many expect a second wave of COVID-19 in the next year. 

First and foremost, productivity should not be our top priority. Rather than being about doing as much as possible, productivity now should be about doing what we can and protecting our precious well-being. So how can we do this?

When Productivity Is Disrupted

Nonjudgmentally acknowledge changes in routine and motivation, and adjust accordingly.

Taking a cue from mindfulness practice, it is productive to nonjudgmentally reflect on our productivity. Over the past week, how has your to-do list compared with what you can actually do in a day or week? When have you felt your best or worst? This practice is about acknowledging reality and matching our expectations accordingly. Some productivity influencers recommend tiered tasks lists so that our immediate to-dos are a fairly short list. If we continually overload our to-do lists, we will meet the end of each day disappointed with a feeling that we haven’t done enough, which could erode our energy and motivation. 

Having a productivity system helps create this feedback and reflection. In the past I have shared my productivity calendar system, which has worked wonders consistently for three years in keeping me focused and setting boundaries to my work. When the shelter-in-place order went into effect, the productivity calendar system was unusable, as all of the boundaries between work and home “smooshed,” to use activist educator Sherri Spelic’s term. 

With that, I made a survival productivity system: two new Google Tasks lists called “Today” and “This Week.” This helped me prioritize what needed to be done most, and keep the Today list to five or six tasks. It was more realistic, and I instantly felt a boost to my motivation and energy. I highly recommend we all have a survival productivity system for whatever life brings: illness, tragedy, trauma, etc. 

When child care becomes an option for my kids again and my work day looks a little more like it used to, I’ll return to my regular productivity system, with my survival system on reserve. 

Attend to well-being, and get our spaces in order. 

Aisha Ahmad says that when we are stressed over an event like a pandemic, our cognitive resources are spent on survival, leaving less for the high order thinking our professional work requires. The only way past this is through it: making sure our house has what it needs, planning for potential scenarios, acknowledging our worries and attending to them patiently. If we take care of our basic needs, our energy will eventually shift to research projects and preparing courses. 

Create or brush up the productivity system.

Productivity systems are not emergency-proof, but they certainly help us survive stressful times, adapt, and bounce back faster. These systems give us feedback when our energy has changed and helps us adjust accordingly, rather than letting nervous uncertainty ball up in our mind more than usual. (According to Levintin [2015] among many others, our brains are terrible at holding more than a few to-dos in our short-term memory.) Perhaps part of “getting our spaces in order” also has to do with our digital spaces such as email and files (Shaun Moore provides helpful tips in his Digital Organization Guide, and Bonni Stachowiak’s The Productive Online and Offline Professor provides so many tools and strategies).

Center purpose and connection. 

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, who wrote a book on faculty productivity and is writing a book on burnout, has a valuable perspective showing us that being productive doesn’t save you from over-extending yourself. In her recent Inside Higher Ed piece, Beating Pandemic Burnout, she recommends always keeping purpose at the heart of your work. Hustling to achieve goals can be different than being led by purpose. Acknowledging and thinking on that purpose can increase our energy and motivation, but also help us recognize where we may have gone astray and how we should prioritize our efforts.

That purpose is likely connected to other people, whether our students, our colleagues, or the stakeholders of our research. It is easy to get overwhelmed with course design, ed tech tools, and pedagogy buzz words, but we should always prioritize connecting with our students and supporting them as they learn through our courses. Pope-Ruark says maintaining this connection is important for avoiding burnout.

Even before COVID-19, our lives are vulnerable to disruption. Productivity during disruption is about staying healthy and safe so that you are ready to work when the time is right. Let us be kind to our students, our colleagues, our collaborators, and ourselves and adjust productivity expectations accordingly.

References and Resources


Books on Productivity

  • Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.
  • Levitin, D. J. (2015). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Dutton.

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About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Banner image by Markus Spiske from Unsplash. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.View all CETL Weekly Teaching Tips. Follow these and more on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.