Work happily and productively by cultivating a sense of progress

Theresa Amabile from the Harvard Business School–a ready source of good advice on working productively–wrote an insightful  New York Times editorial  that should be useful to grad students and their professor mentors. It’s behind a pay wall, but I summarize the main points after the break.

To gain real-time perspective into everyday work lives, we collected  nearly 12,000 electronic diary entries from 238 professionals in seven different companies.

The idea was to study how the attitudes of employees scaled up to generate the behavior of their companies.

Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

“I work best under deadlines” may be a good rationalization for procrastination, but it may not be the best way to do your most creative work. That requires lots of unrushed “me-time”.

A clear pattern emerged when we analyzed the 64,000 specific workday events reported in the diaries: of all the events that engage people at work, the single most important — by far — is simply making progress in meaningful work.

And one way to recognize progress, especially toward long-term goals, is to keep a diary. It can be something as simple as compiling and reviewing–on daily and weekly basis–your “To Do” lists. At the end of the day, write a sentence summarizing what you accomplished. At the end of the week, do the same. From these will emerge the narrative of your graduate career, and a way of charting your progress. Its hard to recognize the little, crucial steps as they happen, but looking back on a trail of footprints, gives one perspective.

How can advisors run labs that encourage happy, progressing grad students?

Of the seven companies we studied, just one had managers who consistently supplied the catalysts — worker autonomy, sufficient resources and learning from problems — that enabled progress. Not coincidentally, that company was the only one to achieve a technological breakthrough in the months we studied it.

This applies to all teaching: allow students to make mistakes, help them learn from those mistakes, and make sure they have the basic tools to do the job.

Remember, grad school is hard work, but it is also supposed to be fun.

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