What We Talk About When We Talk About Productivity

productivityOne of the more charming critiques of higher education is that it isn’t productive enough. The critique comes in smarter flavors, such as the concern that higher education is vulnerable to Baumol’s cost disease, and dumber ones, such as, well, anything published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.* Somewhere in between are the concerns of cash-strapped universities about enrollment, or promotion and tenure committees about a candidate’s file.

The recent fascination with MOOCs has led some higher education futurists to proclaim that the cost disease problem is, or is about to be, solved. We’ll just let everyone sign up for MOOCs with the best professor in each subject area, and add a few lower-cost support staff–maybe even TAs!–and there’ll be instant, massive productivity gains. I guess we’ll see. After all, no matter what Forbes and the other cheerleaders for “disruption” believe, there is a little bit more to higher education than content delivery, and MOOCs don’t really address that yet in any reasonable way. (I know, I know–it’ll all come “unbundled.” Good luck with that.)

It’s so common to complain about the productivity of higher education that it occasionally becomes hard to defend ProfHacker’s own self-description as a site offering “tips about teaching, technology, and productivity.” After all, if we’re offering tips about productivity, then that must mean that we think people aren’t being productive enough. I’ve said before that I don’t think that’s true, but it’s probably worth saying again: We’re less interested in helping you be more productive in the abstract than in solving specific productivity-related problems, especially the crippling self-punishment associated with anxieties about productivity.

It is in that spirit that I wanted to point this morning to Book of Hook’s terrific post about “smart guy productivity pitfalls”, which in large part is about how to raise your game when confronted with other smart, productive people–including those smarter/more productive than you. (I know!)

In particular, Hook explains the concept of a productivity debt, which is a problem I struggle with on an almost daily basis:

  • Never say “I’ll finish it up tomorrow” or “I’ll make up for it by coming in early/staying late/working the weekend”. This is an easy trap to get into, where you keep incurring time debt until at some point you realize you’re now three weeks behind on a task that should have taken two days. This is like racking up credit card bills assuming you can pay them off later. Which is fine, until “later” arrives and you’ve only accumulated more debt.
  • Do not overpromise to make up for poor productivity. There’s a tendency when we’re falling behind to try to overcompensate with future promises. “When I’m done, it’ll be AWESOME” or “I know I’m late, but I’m positive I’ll be done by Monday”. By doing those things we just build more debt we can’t pay off, and that will eventually lead to a catastrophic melt down when the super final absolutely last deadline date shows up. Just get shit done, don’t talk about how you’re going to get shit done.

The latter is probably my most consistent stumbling block: Not only do I build up “debt” in this way, but I will feel as if I can’t do *anything* until I can deliver something truly awesome. Which, it turns out, isn’t really all that helpful. When I find myself in this situation, I try to follow Natalie’s advice about small steps.

At any rate–do read Hook’s entire post, which also features a nice productivity blog joke.

Photo “Productivity” by Flickr user ryan_tir / Creative Commons licensed

*One thing I love about ACTA: On their website, the “title” tag says they’re all about “academic freedom, excellence, and accountability” (which aren’t really mutually reinforcing goals, but that’s a post for another day), while their sidebar says they “promote quality, affordability, and cost effectiveness in higher education.” All that academic freedom & excellence stuff goes away.

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