Monday, October 29, 2007

Thoughts on Efficiency

Several recent commenters asked me for more information about how I manage to be so ‘efficient’. Just to be clear about where I am on the efficiency spectrum: I do tend to get things done in a timely way (= efficient) but I am not a neat or extremely organized person (= less efficient than I could be).

In thinking about it, I didn’t really know what to say in terms of what would be interesting or useful or even accurate, so I asked a colleague to help me. Perhaps that is one example of how I am efficient: I ask people to help me and/or do things for me (?).

First, I asked my colleague if he considers me to be ‘efficient’ and he immediately said yes, he does. I asked him in what ways I am efficient and how/why I am that way, recognizing that the second part is an impossible and loaded question.

He mentioned the following, in no particular order of importance:

- I don’t procrastinate. I would amend that to say that I don’t procrastinate very much. I tend to ‘just do it’ when confronted with various tasks (reviews, committee work) and fit them into interstices of time. For such tasks, I tend to get them done on the time scale of days or weeks rather than putting them off and letting them pile up. I think he’s right, but since these tasks are endless – e.g., whenever I send off a review, the Editor Gods somehow know to send me another request for a review -- getting them done sooner doesn’t mean an end to the work, which is infinite.

- I don’t get distracted by things or wallow in negative emotions; ‘things’ includes unimportant things (e.g., obsessing over my rude and patronizing colleague) and important things (e.g., major life events that might be depressing or upsetting). That is, I don’t shut down in the face of obstacles. This is in part luck, as I have never had to face anything too dire. My family and I are healthy and thus far life crises have been few and manageable. I think this might be important on a day-to-day basis, though. I have some colleagues/students who are entirely stopped for days/weeks by such events as taking a pet to the veterinarian or getting their car repaired. I find great satisfaction in getting things done, so I like getting things done, even when faced with minor obstacles.

My colleague, who does not describe himself as efficient (accurately, I would say), and I also talked about how it is that we are able to work well together. Just because I am rather efficient, doesn’t mean that I can only work with other efficient people. I am definitely annoyed by people whose inability to get things done on time negatively impacts me (e.g., anecdote from last week about the committee member who didn’t read all the files by the meeting time), but in terms of scientific collaborations, I enjoy working with many different people. My colleague’s analogy involves gears of different sizes but that work together to get something done.

He also asked me if I make lists. I do not, with the exception of when I have a major deadline looming, such as a proposal deadline or departure for a major trip. In general I don’t need lists (yet), but my avoidance of lists may also have a deeper reason – my mother is a List Person. She makes lists while driving. Her phone conversations with me involve her reading to me from a list of conversational topics she pre-planned (and wrote down) before our conversation. Her visits to me involve her leaving lists for me – things I should do, things I should buy. My mother is great, but I don’t want to emulate her List Mania if at all possible.


Ianqui said...

I don’t shut down in the face of obstacles. This is in part luck, as I have never had to face anything too dire. My family and I are healthy and thus far life crises have been few and manageable. I think this might be important on a day-to-day basis, though. I have some colleagues/students who are entirely stopped for days/weeks by such events as taking a pet to the veterinarian or getting their car repaired.

Man, I am so glad to hear someone voice this opinion. I feel exactly the way you do, and I have to admit that it make it hard for me to relate to people (students, mostly) who do shut down like that. I have no role model for the compassion I'm supposed to feel in those situations because I just would never handle it that way myself. I never know what the line is between extending courtesy to these people and telling them they need to get it together.

Anonymous said...

A senior female professor at my institution took me out for lunch and gave me all her efficiency secrets some time ago. One that I thought was particularly good was to volunteer for service roles that don't require meetings with lots of other people. Roles that she could conduct via email.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Great post! Thanks for honoring our requests. I think the two points you made are rather significant work habits. I remember how I felt when I worked in a restaurant in high school/college. You just couldn't put anything off, ever, whether it was the normal food fetching or cleaning up a tray of dropped plates. The deadlines are immediate. It sounds like that's how you opperate.

Anonymous said...

I am a reasonably organized person (I confess to making lists, though not as obsessively as your mother), so if I may add a comment here:

Part of my efficiency combines two of your above items. I (make myself) get things done because I know how badly the un-done task list in my head, will make me feel. The negative emotions of inefficiency tend to compound the inefficiency. Conversely, getting things done feels good, and helps and encourages me to do more of that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts. One of my profs told me that his main efficiency trick was to be willing to delegate even with some tasks that he knows he's good at and enjoys, even though he might perform those tasks better than the person to whom he delegates, simply because time is time. Of course I hear some people complain that he delegates too much, but he runs a good lab and chairs our grad program, works 8-5 in lab (plus reading etc at home) and makes dinner for his family (incl 2 kids) most nights of the week. So maybe it's worth it to have some "delegatees" complain.

I'm curious how you make decisions about helping people in the lab vs letting them figure stuff out. Seems it's a waste of your time, and their brains, to go help people immediately all the time; but a waste of your brains, and their time, to always put off their questions to another day. Any thoughts on the relative "efficiency"?

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, FSP and ianqui, you've both just dropped a major notch in my book.

If you don't know how hard it is to be efficient in the face of shut-down-inducing obstacles, and you need a role model for compassion in those situations, how can you be a role model for me?

Lucky you.

Anonymous said...

ianqui, fsp-- were you always that way, or did you acquire that trait? I'm wondering how you learn it.

Female Science Professor said...

Perhaps there is a misunderstanding about what is a shut-down obstacle and what is not. I thought I had made it clear that I was talking about routine things like taking a car to the mechanics.

Anonymous said...

little routine things don't shut me down, but it took me months to get over a major somewhat life-altering event. I don't understand why I couldn't just go back to normal after things related to the event were in the past, but I just didn't. Part of it was health issues that came as a direct result of stress, but that cannot account for all the time I lost. The experience helped me a bit with the compassion thing.

Anonymous said...

When my first marriage broke up, I was a wreck at work. I got done what I had to for my classes, and was pretty good at meeting deadlines that were going to cause other people extra work or trouble if I missed them, and I went to meetings if someone else scheduled them, but anything that didn't have a deadline--my own research and writing, even keeping my house clean--simply did not happen. I never thought I would shut down like that, but when my time came, that's how it was. My research students suffered from my mental absence and I didn't get any grant proposals or papers out during that time.

But I still don't really get the people who take an entire day off for a routine dental appointment, or will never allow any meeting to be scheduled before 9:30 am.

Ms.PhD said...

FSP, I agree that taking the car to the shop is not worthy of note, much less shutdown.

But ianqui had a post on her page about a student who had a "major family crisis" and the main concern seemed to be whether it could possibly be a real, since it didn't seem like a valid excuse for getting a D in ianqui's class while managing to pull B's in other classes.

This just shocked me. I mean, I know there are students who lie about these things, and I can't say I have enough personal experience with it to know how often that happens. But, I mean, if you've led such an easy life that you can't relate to people who haven't-??

I never got the impression you lacked compassion, from your blog, but sometimes I wonder if people really understand until they have a 'major crisis' (or three or four), the way some of the other commenters mentioned it changing their perspective.

After tenure it seems there is a lot of leeway built into academia for people to shut down. I've known many faculty who do this regularly, albeit usually for major things like divorce, sick relatives, etc.

Before tenure, however, there is no extra credit for making it through despite considerable hardships. There isn't even a slot on your CV for "major obstacles overcome."

Maybe there should be.

Andrea said...

I confess to being one of those people who shut down when faced with minor obstacles. But as I self-monitor (because I am also one of those people who will ask "what the hell is wrong with me, this shouldnn't be this hard to handle?") it is usually a case of the straw that broke the back. It's not so much that the car has to go to the mechanics as there is so much piled up, behind and in emergency status (and not because of anything I can control) that this new "crisis" drives me over the edge. I now take it as a sign to "slash and burn" my to-do list and then miraculaously, I am fine again!

Anonymous said... I just found out of these awards for Faculty Career Flexibility:

It seems like this would apply to the sort of situation you are talking about:

"The University of Wisconsin, Madison, was recognized for the Vilas Life Cycle Professorship Program, which provides financial support and personal attention to faculty who encounter critical junctures in their careers that affect both their research and their personal lives."

my university just got a semi-humane maternity leave policy (or it is in the works, I'm not sure). When I had my baby, it offered the minimum unpaid leave as required by law (essentially sick leave and vacation leave, unpaid), and no mechanism to deal with the fact that people have to teach for the whole semester.

Ms.PhD said...

andrea ann,

When I say "before tenure" I should probably make it a description and an acronym, e.g. "before faculty = B.F" since, as a postdoc, there is nothing equivalent to a tenure clock and only very fuzzy definitions of how long it should take. Either you're too young for a faculty position, or too old. For example, I've heard some people say that if you've been a postdoc for 6 years, you're already 'stale' and therefore would not make a good faculty member.