Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Can you be both Productive and Happy?

Roel Snieder, Jen Schneider


A New Take on Productivity, Time, and Finding Joy at Work

By Jen Schneider and Roel Snieder

From The Joy of Science

“Working under the commonly held belief that no matter how hard we work, it is never enough.” From The Joy of Science. Illustration by Janwillem Snieder.

In The Joy of Science, we write about how easy it is to get overwhelmed by the pressures of academic and lab life.  Recent work[1] shows that faculty often feel overworked and underappreciated, and this can be particularly true in scientific cultures, which seem to value “productivity” only in terms of quantifiable achievements.

Our own struggles with the workaholic treadmill have led us to seek different perspectives on how to do “good work.” Here, we write about two of the warning signs we’ve seen in ourselves and in others when things are out of whack professionally, and two things you can try to get yourself back in harmony.


Warning Sign #1:  You feel resentful or angry about all the work you have to do, and how little time or energy you have for doing it.
From The Joy of Science. Illustration by Jan Willem Snieder

From The Joy of Science. Illustration by Janwillem Snieder

We’re not saying you don’t have a right to these feelings. But if you find yourself stomping the halls, constantly complaining to colleagues, while in a near-constant state of stress or despair, perhaps you need a tune-up in the perspective department.

Feelings of anger and resentment can be a result of not having enough focus or agency in your workday.  If you wake up everyday feeling like you are at the mercy of an email inbox that won’t quit or of eternal committee meetings—all while you’d rather be doing something else, either at work or at home—you are constantly in a state of what Brigid Shulte calls “contaminated time.” 

Harmony tip #1:

Contaminated time leads us to feel that we can’t give our full attention to the present because we are worrying about or longing to do something else.  When we are at work, we feel guilty for neglecting those at home, or for not doing the work that is most important to us.  When we are at home, we are checking our phones for work emails.  With such work habits, we are not fully in the moment and feel detached from the activities we spend so much time on.

One response to dealing with contaminated time is 1) to be clear about who you want to be at work, and 2) to set reasonable goals for what you want to achieve each day.  But make sure those goals are in line with the kind of professional you want to be.  Maybe instead of getting sucked into an email vortex, you decide, “Today, I am a writer.”  A writer might make time first thing in the morning to work on a journal article.  Then check emails, go to meetings, or grade papers.

In other words, if you aimed to work on just one significant task each day, that could lead to a shift in your sense of accomplishment and control, and more alignment between who you say you want to be at work, and how you’re actually spending your time.


Warning Sign #2Your body is trying to tell you something.

Sometimes we nerds can get really, really good at ignoring our physical bodies because we are so focused on doing cool stuff with our brains.  While writing The Joy of Science, both Jen and Roel were surprised to learn that each of us had, at different times, struggled with mysterious and debilitating back ailments that were suddenly cured when we pulled back on the overwork.  In both cases, our backs were trying to tell us that we were pushing too hard[2], not resting enough, not rejuvenating.  They were literally laying us down in order to get us to chill out a little.  And they still do this every once in a while just to remind us that we might be overcommitting.

Harmony Tip:  Listen, then try one new thing.

Now, we aren’t saying that all physical ailments are caused by stress and overwork—of course not.  But we are saying that sometimes our physical bodies can be excellent barometers of our overall well-being.  Are there persistent physical problems you struggle with that might be connected to how you are caring for yourself?  Is that chronic 2pm energy dip trying to tell you that you need to go to bed earlier, or build in some short naptime into your day, or get some fresh air?  What small adjustments could you make to listen to your body and give it what it wants?

Our own experience tells us that adopting an attitude of gentleness towards our physical and emotional selves yields tremendous happiness dividends, and often also leads us to being more innovative, satisfied, and collegial as well. Perhaps, you could go for that 2 pm walk with a colleague, and build a personal connection in addition to getting fresh air!



Illustrations courtesy of  Janwillem Snieder from The Joy of Science.  


[1] The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Maggie Berg and  Barbara Seeber University of Toronto Press 2016 ISBN: 978-1442645561

[2] Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection Paperback, John E. Sarno Warner Books 1991 ISBN: 978-0446392303

About The Authors

Roel Snieder

Roel Snieder, author of The Joy of Science holds the Keck Foundation Endowed Chair of Basic Exploration Science at the Colorado School of Mines. He is co-author of the textbooks A...

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Jen Schneider

Jen Schneider, author of The Joy of Science, is a professor in the School of Public Service and serves as Interim Associate Dean at Boise State University, Idaho. ...

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