Tips for the productive researcher

This page is intended to gather tips about being productive as a researcher.

Please be warned that depending on the kind of institution where your work, or the country where you work, those tips way be more or less suited for you.

General advices

Emails

Email is probably the best friend and the worst enemy of the modern researcher.

Some advices:

  • Emails are not designed for urgent requests. I only check my email twice a day, once at the beginning of the morning and once at the beginning of the afternoon
  • I use Sanebox to sort my Inbox into two different inboxes (three actually):
    • The main Inbox, that receives all the most important emails
    • A Secondary Inbox, that receives the less important emails, automatically filtered by Sanebox
      • If you move an email from one inbox to another, Sanebox learns the new rule and will automatically move any subsequent similar email to the proper inbox
    • A Personal Inbox (because I redirect all my email to my “personal” email account), that receives all the emails that are not work related
    • If you have an Exchange email address and use Outlook as an email client, the Focused Inbox works similarly (but with only the Main and Secondary Inboxes, there’s no way to easily add a third inbox)
    • I also created a Newletters folder, where I redirect, well, newsletters with the help of a set of specific automated rules
      • iCloud allows to create such rules, but Gmail, Outlook.com and many other providers allow for similar capabilities
    • To organize my emails, I created a Todo folder where I move emails that requires some kind of action that I cannot undertake right now (for instance, a call for paper, etc.)
    • Sanebox is not cheap (7$/month), but I think it adds tremendous value as it helps me to focus on the most important emails first
      • If I don’t read right now the new ToC alert sent by my preferred journal, it’s not a problem
    • Last but not least, I have configured my email account on both my iPhone and my iPad. But I deactivated notifications, to avoid being disturbed when I have other things to do (like, working on my research…)

Twitter

Twitter can be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing, because you can be in touch with amazing researchers, in your field or elsewhere. A curse, because it could burn your time, your attention and your energy at a pace you wouldn’t believe can exist.

This set of “advices” is based on my own experience. Use them at your own risks!

  • Completely cutting away Twitter is probably not a good idea, as it is a great tool to network and be exposed to new ideas
  • Choose carefully who you follow. Avoid troll accounts, or accounts that you know are highly susceptible to piss you off
  • Come to Twitter with a precise goal: do you want to get your daily dose of general news? To react politically? To improve your research skills, and do some networking?
    • You should be aware that Twitter business model is based on advertising. It means that Twitter has a huge incentive to do everything to make you browse its website. Be aware of this
  • The latest version of iOS and Android are shipped with a functionality to limit the time spend on a given app. If you spend too much time on Twitter (or in any other app), use it!
  • Avoid to check Twitter (or your emails) right before sleeping
  • A lot of people are wrong on the Internet, but you don’t have to use your precious time to answer and to correct them all!

Literature

Curating your literature is a huge skill any researcher has to know.

  • Use a reference manager!
    • Zotero, Mendeley or another one
    • I personally use ReadCube: it’s a paid service (35$/year), and it’s not the simplest, nor the fanciest, but its integration with metrics for papers, and the recommandations, are a huge gain of time and helps to identify relevant papers
    • Mendeley’s suggestions are also a great tool

Note taking

I use more and more OneNote to take my notes, with my iPad and an Apple Pencil.

  • It takes less “space” than pen and paper notes, and allow you to have all your notes with you all the time
  • But you need to organize your notebooks properly in order for your notes to stay accessible
    • That being said, well organized pen and paper notes are equally useful!

I tried Evernote and Apple Notes, but so far I think OneNote is the best note taking app. And it’s free!

Health and work-life balance

I know, it could be a bit surprising to have a few words about health and work-life balance in a “Productivity” page. But I precisely think it’s an underestimated factor of being productive: if you have your job, and if your job is slowly destroying your mental and/or physical health to the point you are not willing to continue anymore, any productivity tip you may read won’t help.

There is this widespread fallacy in academia saying that a good researcher is always working. No! Some people can work all the time, but I don’t see why they should be taken as a reference point. It is unhealthy, and prone to generate burnout. Being a researcher is already hard, but there is no need to add even more difficulty by having unrealistic work expectations.

It is especially true considering that individual productivity is subject to decreasing returns: you cannot be overly productive 12 hours a day, at some point your brain and your body will start to get tired. So know how much you can work, and adjust your working day accordingly.

Another aspect is that I don’t see why academia should be only made of people that are able to “overwork”. Slow thinkers and “strategic workers” can also add significant scientific value. A metaphor could be drawn from Lionel Messi: he’s not the player who run the most on a soccer field, but he knows where to place himself in order to make significant damage to the other team.

  • Don’t overwork!
  • Get a life, outside of your job I mean: have friends, do sport…