Adventures in Extreme Productivity

Today I’m announcing the next section of this blog: Adventures in Extreme Productivity. My good friend Dr. Inger Mewburn (The Thesiswhisperer Blog) has been at me to write this for a long time. Well, that time has come.

Like all of the posts on this blog, the target audience is mostly academics and students who are interested in working smarter and/or reading a little bit about strategy and pedagogy. My work is set in the Higher Education (university) sector, but a lot of what I will write can be transferred to other contexts. So if you are coming to this blog from outside of academia, bear with me as I describe about some of the quirkiness that is Higher Ed. I’m sure you have a similar level of quirkiness in your industry.

I remember exactly…

…the moment that kicked off my interest in being more than a little obsessed about becoming ‘productive’ was when I attended one of @thesiswhisperer’s workshops on writing a thesis and she said:

You can write a thesis in about two hours a day”.

Well, at that particular time it felt like I was writing about 15 hours a day and not getting anywhere so to hear her say that really made me sit up and take notice. Inger then went on to outline some of the strategies that she used to write her thesis on time and also win the John Grice Research Prize at Melbourne University. I went up to her afterwards and asked her if she was serious about her statement and she said: “Absolutely”.


It was like I had suddenly been given permission to go out and find the best ways possible to get my thesis done in the shortest amount of time possible. Until that time I really didn’t have any idea about what a reasonable amount of time per day was to spend on a thesis and still produce a good one. I’d heard all the stories of people working all sorts of crazy hours – but mostly these were from professors who had done their thesis in the olden days before all of our amazing computer/internet/app/connectivity/majicks worked as well as they do now; or the stories were from other students who were so busy doing their thesis that they didn’t have time to stop and think about how best to go about it. They were trapped in a vicious cycle of their own making.

I decided it was time to take a break from writing words and do some thinking/research/experimentation on how best to construct my daily activities that would lead to words being written in the most efficient/effective way. I quickly realised, however, that even though writing a thesis was my main project, that it was tightly connected to everything else I was doing in my life. I had to look at it holistically.

So I became obsessed with doing all that I could to make the thesis writing process as fast and as pain-free as possible. Like many other students I had to write my thesis while contending with all the other things that were going on in my life:

  • working;
  • managing family commitments (including such things as getting married, moving house, starting a family);
  • trying to remain some semblance of good health; and
  • not going postal.

I had to look at everything I was doing, not just the writing.

In order to manage all this I turned to a range of technologies, hacks, psychology and more than a little self-experimentation* to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Now, of course, a lot of what I did is specific to my situation but there are a lot of lessons that can be gleaned from the process – and I want to share these lessons with you.

Posts written under the category of “Adventures in Extreme Productivity” will fall into one of three main areas:

1. Micro-activities – these are activities that you can undertake that are small, fast and provide an outsized boost to your productivity for minimal effort/cost.

2. Meso-activities – these are activities that you can undertake that begin to form the basis for longer-term changes and productivity boosts. Think of these kinds of activities as being routine-like. Meso comes from the ancient Greek word mésos meaning middle. Think of activities that have this designation as being a bridge bewteen the micro-activities described above and the macro-scale activities explained below. Sometimes these meso-activities might be a combination of micro-activities that build into a small system, sometimes they might be a more complex set of context setting/changing that help you to build routines that free you up for other stuff. Ultimately, they are a bridge between what you do in the moment and what you do as part of your Habitus.

3. Macro-activities – these are activities that require a significant amount of effort and/or time to enact but, at the same time, if you stick with them, provide an outsized result in terms of your ‘productivity life’.

The other thing to mention here is that ‘being productive’ means different things to different people. I’m defining ‘being productive’ as “doing those things that help you to live a fulfilled life”. For some of you, that might mean working 100hrs a week as you build the next big thing, for others, it might mean finding a way to reduce working hours to the absolute minimum so that you can use the time that you have ‘freed up’ to go and hike in the mountains. Whatever floats your boat. The point here is to recognise that you are in charge of your life and there are an awful lot of ways that you can make it work the way you want it to.

Please, PLEASE don’t undertake any self-experimentation unless you’ve thought it ALL THE WAY THROUGH, done ALL THE RESEARCH, and where appropriate, CONSULTED A RESPONSIBLE ADULT/EXPERT/SMART PERSON about whether what you are going to try is likely to hurt/maim/kill you. I survived my self-experiments, but your mileage may vary. Be smart about this.