Working hard versus working efficiently

By Joern Fischer

Prompted by some not-so-efficient moments I encountered in my recent academic life, I thought I should write a few words on the difference between hard work and efficiency. You can double the hours you work by a maximum of 100% (from 8 to 16 h a day), but efficiency varies by a much greater margin between individuals and institutions.

At an institutional level, here is my hit list of some of the most notoriously inefficient processes, with some counter-examples:

  • Reporting on things that nobody wants to hear about. Believe it or not, but many people actually complete time sheets on projects funded by the EU! To an Australian (for example), this is hilarious… (or tragic) … the Australian Research Council – Australia’s most prestigious funding body – has extremely minimalistic reporting requirements. This shows that excellence is not necessarily contingent on overly detailed reporting procedures.
  • Over-regulating administrative procedures, such as job appointments. People joke that in the US, you have advantages if you know people on the selection committee – whereas in Germany, this could work against you. This is because for professorial appointments, people who have worked with somebody are not allowed to participate in the selection procedure for that person. This means that favouring friends becomes impossible (a good thing), but it also means that some of the best people end up missing out because nobody ever speaks up for them! References are not considered important for tenure-track appointments in Germany, for example. What’s worse, people external to the university get a say on the appointment of professors in Germany … again, to make things more “objective”. But appointing people is not an objective process, but a process of choosing the best person for the job. (In short: I think German professorial appointment procedures make little sense.)
  • Accounting systems that remain hidden from the user. For a personal bank account, we can log in and check what our balance is. For research accounts at many institutions, we have to ask administrators to look for us. This wastes two people’s time.
  • Stamping, double-stamping, and triple-signing of everything. This still happens at some institutions. Again, I note that this happens about three times more (yes, that’s a 300% waste of time) in Germany as opposed to Australia (the other place I am familiar with).

At a personal level, here is my hit list of inefficiencies, with a list of alternative strategies:

  • Fretting over little things. In any process, you reach seriously diminishing returns to effort at some point. Once that curve levels off, it makes no sense to continue shuffling and re-shuffling bits of words – unless this is very fast to do. It’s important to recognize when diminishing returns are happening, and then “let go” and give the task to somebody else (a co-author, collaborator, or a journal).
  • Poor communication resulting in needing to work more later on (when people are unhappy). In an effort to be efficient, many academics communicate the bare minimum. Ironically, this often leads to misunderstandings, and then wastes a lot of time later on. I think it is advisable to spend quite a lot of time on regular communication, with everyone you’re working with, to build a culture of trust and make it clear what’s important and what needs to happen.
  • Ignoring one’s own timelines. Timelines are there to help us manage our workload. The most impressive example I have seen is a friend of mine, who finished his PhD with a hard deadline. In the end, he set himself tasks for every half day, did those things, and then moved on – no matter how perfectly or not he had achieved a given task. Learning to do this is essential to not get drowned. People who make timelines, but then ignore them, tend to be delayed with everything.
  • Trying to do the wrong thing at the wrong place or time. Everybody is different. It’s key to know yourself, and know what you can do well, where, and when. Some people need a change of location to write. Some need a quiet place to read. Some need a walk in between activities. It doesn’t really matter, but the key is to know for yourself what makes you efficient. Simply working long hours until late at night is not necessarily the best recipe (in fact, often it’s a bad recipe).

With these things in mind, it should be possible to be productive, while working a reasonable amount of time – if our institutions allow it. It should also be possible to stay physically and mentally healthy. And all of this, in turn, should make for a better chance to contribute something sensible to the world.

(One last note: there probably is a downside to too much of a focus on efficiency. If every minute of your day is planned diligently, it’s possible there is no resilience left to deal with surprises. So … that’s probably worth thinking about. But for things you can control, it’s probably a good idea to do them in a way that maximises “output” (this could be ideas, friendly communication, or papers) relative to the time used.)


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