Friday 18 August 2017

'The Productive Researcher' by Prof Mark Reed: a Review

Prof Mark Reed
One of the most common reasons that academics give for not applying for grants is a lack of time. Buffeted and battered between the thousand competing demands of modern academia, grant writing always seems to come a poor 562nd.

And yet some manage it. It’s this mystery that Prof Mark Reed sought to resolve in his new book, The Productive Researcher. To do so, he ‘reached out to the world’s most productive researchers...and asked them how they did what they do. Their answers and the answers that emerged from my reading, both confirmed and extended my thinking.’

At this point I can picture many of you arching an eyebrow and imagining that the answer lies with teams of postdocs and some very understanding spouses. But for Reed it’s both far simpler and far harder. For him it is, as it was for TS Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).’

Because the productive researcher needs to strip everything back to their prime motivating force. Why did they started in academia in the first place? It is only ‘by understanding why - really why - you are a researcher [that] you can become increasingly aware of the motives that lie behind your motives.’  And only when you understand these can you start to properly prioritise your workload.

‘You have the power to set a new course and decide who you want to be,’ he explains. ‘Only through sustained, consistent decisions to do the things that are most important to you and to say ‘no’ to the things that distract you from that ultimate purpose, can you rediscover or become the person you want to be.’

Well, yes and no. Sure, it lies in our hands to carve out the working life we want, but we have to be realistic about the context in which we work. Most researchers would dearly love to strip away the superfluous and frustrating duties which occupy 90% of their day, but don’t have the capacity to do so.

This is where Reed comes into his own. ‘My goal is not to squeeze more productivity out of already over-worked researchers [but rather] to work easier, [to] spend less time working, to become more productive.’ In order to do so, he suggests you need to do two basic things: maintain motivation and focus, and change some entrenched habits.

Maintaining your Motivation and Focus

Whilst you need to identify and focus on your prime motivation, it is easy to get sidetracked or disheartened. To keep going you need to be flexible in maintaining your motivation. He uses the analogy of a ‘smart grid’ to explain the necessary flexibility.  ‘A smart grid flexes to the different sources available to it, storing energy when plentiful...and switching power to a different source when one stops producing energy...making the supply of energy more stable and reliable.’

Once in place, set yourself ‘value-based goals’ rooted in this motivation. Visualise your future ideal, and work on your skills and attributes that will enable that to happen. ‘You achieve the goals you value most,’ Reed suggests. ‘Rather than trying to change your values, understand the values that are most important to you, and find goals that arise from these values.’

There’s no denying that Reed’s suggested methodology requires considerable mental clarity. However, the sense I got from reading the book was that the clarity comes with practice and learnt habit, so that in time it becomes second nature. Once it has done so, you will have the necessary motivation to change the way you work, and thereby become more effective. 

Changing the Way You Work

The second half of the book looked in more detail at some ways in which researchers can be more effective. Reed does not want to be prescriptive. ‘The problem with techniques is that there are so many of them, and no single technique will work for everyone,’ he suggests early on. ‘I want to challenge your thinking, so you can discover the power of the techniques you already know.’

Thus, the techniques he suggests are illustrations of what has worked for him. They are more an encouragement than a recipe, more Jamie than Delia. These include:

     Learn to say ‘no’: ‘the art of being a successful researcher with some semblance of work-life balance,’ argues Reed,  ‘is less about what you do, and more about what you choose not to do.’ It’s crucial, then, to learn to say no...The more successful we become, the more important it becomes to hold onto who we are and where we fundamentally want to go.’ You need to overcome a natural sense of guilt. Rather than thinking you are letting others down, think about your own motivations, ambitions and goals, and the danger of letting yourself down.
     ‘Doing less to do more’. More controversially, Reed suggests that we should be less perfectionist. Skim read, and fit writing in with other tasks. ‘Don’t wait for uninterrupted time to write,’ he argues, as it’s an increased rarity. Instead, break up the writing tasks to fit with the odd moments your life might afford. In addition, work with others in ‘writing circles’ to produce ‘good enough’ work that can benefit from a ‘hive mind’ of multiple inputs.
     Break the tyranny of emails and meetings. Nothing seems to eat up spare time than emails and meetings, but Reed suggests that ‘the problem is not the volume of emails we receive, but how we perceive them..The tyranny of email is very real, but it is entirely self-made.’ We therefore have to recognise that we have control over when we answer them, and most don’t require an immediate answer. Similarly, with meetings, whilst we may feel pressured to take part, would anyone notice if we, say, only went to every other one, and cited pressing work to send our apologies to the others?

Reed finishes by re-emphasising the need for rest. He quotes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang: ‘Rest is work’s partner. They complement and complete each other. You cannot work well without resting well.’

It’s an often overlooked truism. It’s all too easy to push ourselves as hard as we can because we don’t recognise any other way of working. However, by keeping focussed on our underlying motivation and goals, and by thinking more creatively about what’s important and how crucial it is to be perfect, we can free our minds and our lives and, by so doing, actually be more productive. ‘Is there something more important I should be doing right now?  Ask yourself this final question again and again and keep coming back to it.’

Overall, this short book is a useful and necessary reminder that, in modern academia, we all too often put the cart before the horse. Duty and function can take precedence over the real purpose of a university: to act as a haven for thought, a vital refuge for those pushing at the boundaries of knowledge, a crucible of creativity, and a place to inspire and teach the next generation. And Reed is at pains to say that empathy, collaboration and mutual support are equally important as part of achieving your goals. His book is not a call to encourage selfishness, but rather a plea to make sure that the cart and the horse are properly aligned.

‘Remember why you first wanted to be a researcher. Remember your most inspiring achievement as a researcher. Remember who you are. When you remember why you are doing what you are doing, you will do it for the right reasons, and you do it better.’

Mark Reed is Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University. This review was of a pre-print, and the text may change prior to publication. The Productive Researcher will be published by Fast Track Impact in the autumn, and will be featured in the Fast Track podcasts from next week. A review of his Research Impact Handbook (2016) is available here.