A critical aspect of our office’s work is encouraging a sustainable student experience. In this post, we'll talk about how we think of sustainability, especially in relation to the concept of productivity, and how you can maximize your effectiveness while finding balance and purpose in your work.
We'll start with two definitions.
First, I define sustainability as working and living at a pace that you can maintain indefinitely. It is my belief, widely-supported by the research, that a sustainable approach to work is not only the most efficient, it is the most effective over the long-term. Sustainable productivity means that our work and our rest are in harmony, each informing and fueling the other.
This leads to the second definition, productivity, which I define as the practice of reliably generating useful and meaningful results. This implies two often overlooked aspects of work. The first is that productive does not mean busy. Simply completing a lot of low-level tasks, or keeping busy, while at times necessary, does not mean producing meaningful or useful data, insights, or even results. The second is that productivity does not require waiting for inspiration, but rather can be reliably managed and produced by a process.
To discuss these two issues together, we'll apply three principles to three domains of life and work.
Principle 1: Our resources are finite
Whether it’s energy, time, or money, we all have a limited amount. Pushing beyond these limits can lead to trouble, and adopting a sustainable approach to productivity means that we must know our limits; accept our limits; and manage our limits. For instance, if you know that you need seven hours of sleep a night, it would be foolish to consistently push the boundaries of sleep deprivation in the search for more productivity. In fact, all the research points to the fact that not only will you be less productive, your likelihood of getting sick increases tremendously when you are sleep deprived. Accepting this means managing your pursuits so that you can reliably get the sleep you need to be most effective and perhaps saying no to activities and commitments that don’t advance your essential goals.
Principle 2: Sustainability maximizes the potential of our resources
This isn’t something many people accept as a given. Many strategic procrastinators (and I used to be one!) believe that they can’t be productive without the adrenaline rush of an upcoming deadline. However, over time, such an approach can take a toll on the work-life harmony that lends itself to optimal, sustainable productivity. Working and living at a pace that you can maintain indefinitely leads, ultimately, to much more effective outcomes.
Consider: according to productivity experts like Cal Newport, three to four hours a day is the maximum of high-level work—like writing—that anyone can do and sustain. But, let’s say you can only work for two hours a day, for five days. This means ten hours of high-level productivity per week. You can see how this would be a much more sustainable pace than trying to write once a week for ten hours straight. Not only would that be very difficult to achieve, it’s also a single point of failure—if you happen to be sick that day, you’ve missed at least two weeks of productivity, as your next writing opportunity won’t be for another week. Compare this to a schedule in which you are writing every day: missing one day means only missing two hours of productive work—a comparative loss of 20% of productivity on the week.
Principle 3: To be most sustainably productive, we need to bias our resources toward what matters most
You’ll notice that this principle doesn’t say focus only on what matters most. That is because in order to maximize your sustainable effort, you must try to keep work and life in harmony. This may mean more rest some days, and more work other days, to maintain peak performance. Thus, we should always seek to bias our resources toward our most important goals, but not be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for those same ends—an ultimately ineffective and unhealthy approach, long-term.
These three principles can be applied to the three primary domains of life, in order to achieve sustainable productivity. These domains are: sleep, rest, and work.
We begin with sleep for two reasons. First, it is often the most neglected of the three domains; second, it’s arguably the most important in producing reliable and meaningful results. So, to be more productive, start with your sleep and work backwards. In other words, first figure out how much sleep you need each night, then schedule in the rest of your waking hours, making sure to bias your time and resources toward what matters most to you.
The next domain of life is rest. The scientific definition of rest is the absence of work. However, it is important to distinguish between the simple lack of work and the presence of good rest. Good rest is any non-work activity that returns more energy than it requires, and that helps you to work more effectively. This can include exercise or sport, volunteering your time, socializing with friends, consuming media (books, television, films), participating in religious practices, or simply being still.
The final domain of life we’ll cover today is work. There are many ways to think about work, but I want you consider two things: process and deep work. The first idea is that work is a process. It’s as important to optimize how you work as it is to focus on the results of work. If you can find a sustainably productive pace of work, the results will work themselves out. So, it’s often more helpful to focus on the process rather than on the results. Plus, an unhealthy obsession with results can add stress to your work and lead to performance anxiety. Work sustainable and consistently and let go of the outcome. Put another way, you can be goal-oriented but process-focused.
Second, most experts believe that you cannot sustainably work more than three or four hours per day at your highest level of concentration—what the author and professor Cal Newport considers deep work. Deep work is any work requiring your full, undivided attention. This might be writing, planning, or strategizing. It is possible to push yourself beyond this limit occasionally—say, in pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper—but the goal is to find the number of deep work hours that you can sustain indefinitely, with no ill-effects. If you can use your deep work time to accomplish one significant thing per day, you’ll make great strides toward your goals, no matter what they are.
You can view the video version of this blog post here.
Daniel Wong is the Director of Graduate Student Recruitment and Retention for the Graduate College. He is deeply committed to the concept of sustainable productivity and how it can be applied to all aspects of academic and professional life. You may often find him on campus walking, reading, or enthusiastically discussing one of his current obsessions. He holds a BA in Biochemistry from the University of Kansas and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois.