Halloween is like Thanksgiving for candy bars.
We were talking about Halloween Trick or Treating last night, and people were talking about what they were going to do with all of the left over candy that they bought, or which their kids bring home. Nobody planned on throwing it out. They would all eventually eat it. Probably pretty quickly.
This reminds me of a study we did for the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that every year Americans start gaining more weight from today and for the next two months. The key take-away is that we shouldn't wait until January 1st to make a resolution to lose weight. We should make a Halloween resolution to not gain weight.
Below are some nice details related about the study. The Blue line is the Americans, and you can see that just before November starts, the average weight of Americans grows higher and higher until just after January, when it drops again.
Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving . . . the summer is almost over but the indulgent holiday season is near. This study we conducted found that many of us spend months getting rid of that excess weight gained during the holiday season. The study showed that according to yearly national weight patterns, it takes American’s nearly between Thanksgiving and Easter.
We also found in a similar study that the weight of Americans begin rising around Thanksgiving, and peak around Christmas and the New Year. It isn’t until after Easter, about a 5 month period, that weight patterns even out.
We also analyzed yearly weight patterns in Germany and Japan. Similar to the US, those in Germany weighted the most around Christmas/New-Year period and those in Japan weight the most during Golden Week in April – a major Japanese holiday. Each country also showed a peak in weight for New Years.
Everyone gains weight over the holiday -- starting on Halloween Instead of making a New Year’s Resolution, the best time to make a resolution to keep the pounds off this holiday season might be now.
I once saw a photo of a 35-year old man defiantly showing a tattoo on his big upper arm that read "9-11-2002 -- Never Forget." Right date; wrong year. But I don't think anyone was going to tell him that.
Today's the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was a defining moment for many Americans, as in "Where were you when you heard about World Trade Center being attacked?" Since it was so defining, it's curious why its 20th Anniversary seems to be slipping by so quietly.
One exception of this that's most vivid to me came in the form of a poem that a friend wrote a couple weeks ago and sent to me. It was written by Michael Antunes who is the Top 40 rock saxophonist (On the Dark Side, Tender Years) and actor (Eddie and the Cruisers). Michael said I could share it.
There are a lot of themes associated with 9-11: Heroism, innocent lives lost, reversals of fortune, resilience, and so on. There's a lot to memorialize, a lot to remember, and a lot to celebrate.
While I wish I saw more unified or institutional efforts to do so, it's also important that we take the individual initiative -- like Michael did -- to memorialize, remember, or celebrate in a way that is personally meaningful to us and to those we share it with.
Thinking back to the "Never Forget" 9-11 tattoo that had the wrong year on it, I'm no longer convinced that our deliberate, individual efforts at memorizing, remembering, or celebrating have to be on the right day or even have to have the exact year right. What's most important is that we do it in a way that's meaningful and memorable to us.
[This is a modification from a post I made a year ago].
The 23rd of this month is the 31st anniversary of the day when the University Registrar weighed five copies of my signed dissertation, stamped it with a red smiley face, and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Wansink.” Within 20 minutes I was shifting my Mercury Lynx into 5th gear on the 3000 mile, unairconditioned, cross-country drive to start teaching the next Tuesday. All I needed was a t-shirt that said “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘Perfessor,’ and today I are one.”
I annually celebrate this signature day with good steak, good wine, and having good friends over for a dinner party. I also celebrate it by writing down the best lessons I learned over the past year. Usually, they're the lessons I learned the hard way.
Over 30 years, I’ve written down a ton of annual lessons in 30 different notebooks. Some is advice people gave me, and some is based on my own experience – things that are useful to me and might be useful to students and friends. Maybe it will give them a boost or save them some pain.
In the spirit of counting to 30 today, here’s a sample of some of these that might be a boost or save a stumble.
Advice to Graduate Students
1. “The ‘P’ in PhD stands for Perseverance.” – The smartest and most talented people in PhD programs aren’t always the ones who graduate.
2. “It’s an N-period game.” When I had to find a new advisor and defend a new dissertation proposal with four months notice, the game theory economist who gave me this advice was implying that there are a lot of second and third chances in academia as long as you keep swinging. Related to this . . .
3. “Choose your best friend as your advisor.” I heard this from a Med School professor friend who then said “And choose your older brother to be your second committee member, and choose your favorite uncle to be your third.” We tend to choose our dissertation committee based on who’s most famous. Consider which professors most want you to graduate. [Read more]
4. Be a Visiting Professor. Suppose don’t get a good offer when you graduate from your PhD program (or you get turned down for tenure). If you “settle” for a tenure-track at a school you’re not crazy about, you’ll be perceptually anchored to that type of school by both you and by others. Being a 1- or 2-year visiting professor keeps you from getting anchored, gives you more time to strengthen your vita, and lets you swing again.
5. Do solution-focused research. Developing theory is prestigious, but coming up with a solution to an everyday problem is super gratifying. (Again, this is totally my personal preference and advice to myself.) [Read more]
6. Go to a different conference outside your field every year. Even if it’s an on-campus mini-conference in anthropology, you’ll learn a lot and it will keep you humble.
7. Leave town for your sabbatical. Moving is a hassle and there are 100 great reasons why you should spend your sabbatical at home (your spouse’s job, your kids, your doggy, your home, and so on). But I’ve never know anyone who went away who didn’t claim it was a career highlight. I’ve also never known anyone who spent their sabbatical at home and remembered anything about it two years later.
8. Writing a book is useful. Almost all academic authors are disappointed their books aren't cited more or sell more. Still, writing a book is worth it because it motivates you to organize, distill, and share what you understand about your topic, and they clarify the gaps you might want to fill in next.
9. A Leave-of-Absence is Transforming. Again, this is about moving away and clearing your head. Leaving town to take a 1- or 2-year paid leave of absence is incredibly revitalizing to every single person I've known. It either gives you amazing confidence that you can hugely succeed at something else, or it gives you amazing appreciation for academia. Maybe both.
10. Being fired is a temporary setback. Whether you don’t get tenure or whether something else in your career goes haywire, they say life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond. If things are looking too dark, contact me and I’ll help you, or find you some help.
11. Never retire. One of the great beauties of academia is you can always keep doing the parts of it you love most -- even if you don't go into work. (Here are some ideas on doing it without having later regrets.)
12. 90% of reviewers are great coaches. Reviewers have either made my papers better or they‘ve made me a better researcher. If it wasn’t for reviewers, some of my papers would have never been read by anyone other than me.
13. Create a Best Practices Guide for writing journal articles. – Find 30-40 favorite papers written by other researchers and list out the different strategies, tactics, and words you see them use (perhaps unconsciously) in their abstract, their opening-line, their first paragraph, their introduction, their background, theory section, tables, and so forth. When you’re finished distilling this, you’ll have a Best Practices guide that’s personalized to what you like in a paper and will be your writing guide. When I did this, my acceptance rate almost tripled. Also, papers became a lot easier and more fun for me to write.
14. Use a 2-2-2 strategy to unclog your pipeline. If a manuscript gets desk-rejected, I try to send it to the next journal within 2 days. If it gets conditionally accepted, I revise it and send it back within 2 weeks. If it gets a revise-and-resubmit that doesn’t require any additional studies, I send it back within 2 months.
15. Field studies are worth the hassle. They’re messy, hard to coordinate, inefficient, error-riddled, and harder to publish than lab studies. Still, they are usually much more memorable and impactful.
16. “Ideas are cheap; but execution is what pays.” Even a mediocre brainstorming session will generate 3-4 publishable ideas, and almost none will be followed up on. Edison said something like “Publishing in the Journal of [insert favorite journal here] is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Executing is what matters.
17. “You can either read a lot or you can write a lot, but you can't do both.”
18. "Write the first two hours of every day." The guy who told me this, pretty much said it like a command: no email, no breakfast, no class stuff. Before breakfast and before the kids wake up. It sets a productivity vibe for the whole day. [Read more]
19. Write down the 3 specific things you'll finish each day. Better to have three things completed than 20 things pushed ahead an inch. [Read more]
20. "Imagine your brother, daughter, or younger self in the front row of your class." This will lead you to give your class sessions more context and more “So what?” It’s also help you cut loose a bit and give the class more punch, fun, and humor.
21. "Teach for where a student will be in 10 years." The guy who told me this is a legend. The idea is to try to get students to visualize their most successful self in 10 years. If we can teach to that ten-years-from-now person, we’ll be teaching them something they couldn’t just learn from an online class.
22. Education is a buffet; be something unique. Some courses are meaty and some are refreshing; some professors are fiery and others are more chill. You don't need to be like everyone else. By being your best genuine, earnest self, and you’ll be adding variety to their educational buffet.
23. Hold class previews for participation classes. Non-native English speakers and shy students have a hard time participating in class, but class previews help them. An hour before each class, I hold a class preview and we briefly discuss the day's discussion questions ahead of time. Anyone’s welcome to show up. [Read more]
24. Ask good students who the “must-take” teachers are. See if you can sit in on a couple of their class sessions (most are flattered and only 2 ever turned me down). Take notes about the good teaching ideas you can use.
25. “Don’t become a parody of yourself.” Good teachers slowly start to exaggerate the things they’re good at, and they eventually take it over the top and become a parody of themselves. Dramatic teachers will overfocus on drama. Entertaining teachers will overfocus on entertainment. Cool professors teachers will overfocus on coolness, and so on. [Read more]
Fun, People, and Things
26. “Fun people accidently say stupid things. Don’t beat yourself up.” Some academics over-edit everything they say before they speak. If you're more spontaneous, you won’t be happy if you try too hard to change.
27. Dress-up and show-up early for Meetings. This is one way to show respect for the profession and for my colleagues. (Again, this is totally my advice to myself.) Like a US Marine Colonel once told me, "Early is on time. On time is late."
28. Don’t apologize for who I am or hide from it. I’ve had senior colleagues give me well-meaning advice that I should never mention to anyone that I shop at Walmart, play sax in a rock band, go to church, host board game nights, do stand-up comedy, or go thrifting. What you love doing isn’t worth being self-conscious over. If those things are that big of a deal at your school, you’d probably be happier at a different school anyway. [Read more]
29. The more 1-on-1 fun stuff I do with different colleagues outside of work, the more I love my job. The crazier the stuff we do, the more we both seem to love it and remember it.
30. “Max out your TIAA-CREF retirement contribution. Then add more.” The guy who told me this was a retired English professor -- who had two very nice homes. It’s not flashy or cool to save money instead of spending it, but no one over 50 regrets having done so.
Having an academic mind is a Blurse. It's both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because we are almost always looking for better ways to learn or to improve. It's a curse because we're not always very open to what others have found. We feel we have to do it ourselves, or discover it ourselves. If we hear something from someone else, we might think it doesn't apply or that we're the exception.
Ten of the lessons I mentioned are advice someone gave to me. The main reason these stuck with me was because I had just finished really screwed up doing it My Way:
• #3 only registered when I was told I was being kicked out of the PhD program
• #18 was a great idea only after I had just been fired for not publishing enough
• #20-21 were brilliant the day I got the second lowest teaching evaluations in the school
• #26 resonated only after I'd been hissed at in class after making an unfunny comment
Hopefully these might give you a boost or save a stumble. Maybe you might even come up with your own list to share with your students and friends.
Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. Good luck having many, many great years, each more amazing than the one before. Let me know how I can help.
Eating a balanced diet used to be easy when you were little. Your grandmother put a variety of things on the table, you’d eat a little of each, and – ta-da – that was nutrition! Since then, eating’s gotten strangely complicated, with the Atkins diet, flexitarian diets, paleolithic diets, velociraptor diets, and so on. Each one makes a magical case for why we should only eat meat, or never eat meat, or eat only vegetables, or eat only bananas or grapefruits or cabbage and so on. It makes it harder to eat nutritiously than it was when your grandmother said, “Make sure you take a little of everything.”
We just submitted an interesting study that shows there might be an easier way for people to eat called the Half-Plate Rule. Half of their plate had to be fruit, vegetables, or salad, if so, the other half of their plate could be anything they wanted. Steak, bread, pasta, foie gras, Pop Tarts . . . anything. They could also take as many plates of food as they wanted. It’s just that every time they go back for seconds or thirds, half their plate still had to be filled with fruit, vegetables, or salad.
Could a person load up half of their plate with Slim Jims and bacon? Sure, but they don’t. Giving people freedom – a license to eat with only one guideline – seems to keep them in check. There’s nothing to rebel against, resist, or work around. As a result, they don’t even try. They also don’t seem to overeat. They want to eat more pasta and meatballs or another piece of pizza, but if they also have to balance this with a half-plate of fruit, vegetables, or salad, many decide they don’t want it bad enough.
Nobody likes be told they can’t do something. With the Half-Plate Rule there’s nothing you can’t eat. You just have to eat an equal amount of fruit, vegetables, or salad. At some point, getting that fourth piece of pizza just isn’t worth having to eat another half-plate of salad. But, most important, you’re the one who made the decision.
Interestingly, what we found was that although it's easy to understand the Half-Plate Rule, it's not alway easy to follow if the only thing on the table is pizza or take-out food. There have to be fruits, vegetables, and salad in the house before you can eat them.
All my best in half-plate happiness and health.
Lots of new careers start in the summer. Some of them start off on the right foot, and people move quickly ahead. For others of us, there can be lots of missteps.
For new professors, summer is when you move and set up shop in a new town. I've set up a website (at AcademicsOnly.org) that can help you do this, and here's a graphic that summarizes some of the information in something you can tape to a filing cabinet. Although I intended it to be for new professors, it now seems to fit with a lot of other careers.
Congratulations on your great new job, and good luck starting off strong.
Most of our puzzling problems or potential opportunities are unique to us. This is why you can’t Google the solution without getting some pretty lame advice. Advice from the Web or from YouTube is either obvious, or you don’t want to do it, or it doesn’t apply to you and your situation.
Last month I gave a guest Zoom lecture for an online course for graduating students. Part of the lecture was how they can change habits and get out of unwanted ruts. There was Q&A at the end, and the last question was “How can a person find time to think more deeply about how to solve problems or make opportunities in their life?”
This is a great question because we all have tons of things in our lives that we would like to be better but we’re not sure how to do it. We might try half-heartedly do one or two obvious things and shrug when they don’t work. These can range from important things like “How do I find an exciting job where I’ll learn a lot” or “How can I find a great spouse,” to small, but nagging little problems like “How can my stop dog, Spot, from making spots in my apartment,” or “What should I do about all of that junk in the garage?”
But we don’t usually try too hard to solve these problems. That is, we usually don’t come up with the right answers because we don’t think in a focused, deep way about how to solve them. We moan about them, we avoid them, or we settle for an expedient band-aid solution.
Still, no one’s better able to find the unique-to-you answers to these problems better than you. If you had an easy strategy to come up with the answers, your answers might not be perfect, but they would be a huge move in the right direction.
When this person asked this excellent question in this class, I shared something with him and with the I’ve been experimenting with and modifying for couple years. It’s been working well for me and although it was a bit off-topic from my lecture. I thought it would be useful as they venture off to great new possibilities. Over the past years, I’ve distilled into three steps:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. Find 30 minutes of undistracted, nonelectronic time, and grab a journal or a piece of paper and pen. This can be first thing in the morning (best) or just before bed (next best). At the top of the paper write down “10 Actions for . . . . “ and then plug in your problem or opportunity.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem that’s Most on Your Mind. Write down 10 actions that you believe you could realistically take (if you wanted) to help start solving your problem. The more specific your answer the better. Your first 3-4 actions will come fast because they are obvious, but they’re also the actions you probably don’t want to take, or this wouldn’t be a problem. The next 3-4 are going to take thought, because you’re stretching past the obvious. The last 3-4 will be difficult to generate and might seem pretty wacky, but it’s often where your real turn-around insights will happen. The key take-away is that you must write down 10, even if a bunch of them seem too far out of the box.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. Schedule your 2-4 best and easiest ideas into your to-do list or calendar. You can do more, but usually 2-4 is enough to get you unstuck and to make huge progress.
If an example would be useful, let me show you want this has looked like for me so far this week.
Most mornings I think of one thing that’s on my mind that I’m unsure how to tackle. Yesterday was Monday and my topic was how can I change the home page for a website I’m creating for family meals. Today’s topic was how I can learn 14 new-to-me songs in four days for a new band I just joined. Here’s what the first 30 minutes of my day looked like yesterday and today:
Step 1. Find 30 Minutes of Undistracted, No-Phone time. I did them first thing in the morning. I laid on my home office couch with a journal and a pen. This was before anyone else was up, and before I turned on my computer or checked my phone.
Step 2. Write 10 Actions that would Solve the Problem. This took me about 25 minutes with the webpage issue, but it took me about 45 minutes with the new songs issue because the problem was so unfamiliar to me that I spent a lot of time holding a pen and staring at the paper. I spend a bit more than 30 minutes because I felt I was on a roll. You’ll also notice below that for the web page, I put down 11 ideas on the page (and a couple others on the next) since things were flowing.
Step 3. Pick the Best 2-4 Ideas and Schedule a Time to Do Them. For the website issue, I acted on idea last night and put the others on the calendar for next Monday (after the 3-day weekend). For the songs, I started this morning and created templates for them. I’m sure have lots of problems, and I’ll change them, but at least it will get me over this 4-day hump.
This is fairly personal, and I never shared this approach with anyone (other than my brother and wife) until this person asked during class. There might be a ton of ways you can modify it to work for you, but the main ideas are: Pick an undistracted (no phone) time with pencil and paper, write down 10 (ten) specific actions, and immediately do them or schedule them.
Here’s why this topic came to mind for a column – a full month after the original question was asked.
Last weekend a former graduate student is moving with his family to start a new job, and he has 400 things on his mind. He asked me about two questions/problems/issues he’s facing. After talking, I described this approach to him as a way of tackling the other 398 issues he’ll be facing daily once he drives the moving van into town.
He said, “I do something similar. I come up with 3-4 ideas. I just never do anything about them, and then I forget them.”
I told him the key isn’t usually the first 3-4 solutions to the problem. It’s the next 6-7 pretty great ones come up after you’ve stared at a blank page for 20 minutes. And writing them down helps with remembering. And having them in a journal keeps them organized.
Good luck with trying this out. Give it a week and email me and let me know how its working for you and how you might have adjusted or modified it.
In the meantime, I better get back to playing a lot of wrong notes so I can get them out of the way.
April 15th is the No GPS Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It's a pretty easy date for Americans to remember because April 15th is also the day U.S. income taxes are due.
My niece is a teacher who had always wanted to visit a Titanic museum, so for Spring Break we picked her up for a Titanic-themed vacation. It was filled with frisky penguins, a ghost ship captain, indoor snow tubing, a killer iceberg, swimming, and 2000 miles of driving.
There’s a number of Titanic exhibits I've seen, like in Liverpool and Vegas, but this one (Pigeon Forge, TN) was set up so you could more closely identify with the people on board. For instance, you were given a biography card of someone on the Titanic, and you kind of followed that person around – where they slept, ate, and chilled out. Super-engaging.
At the end there’s a huge biography board where you find out if your character survives (about 1/3 do), what they looked like, and what happened to them afterward.
There’s probably 20-30 rooms with exhibits and actors, and interactive things like trying to walk on a 30-degree tilting deck. Yet the two things I’ve thought about many times in the past week both happened in the very last room. The one just before the gift shop.
There’s a climatic scene in the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan when the only surviving person in the battle, Private Ryan (ill-timed **spoiler alert**) is told by his dying Captain “to make his life worth it.” The movie then flashes to present day when he asks his wife to hopefully confirm to him that he lived a worthy life.
Did any of the survivors on Titanic's biography board do anything different after they were rescued to “make their life worth it?” To be sure, some people had some pretty tragic years that followed (suicide, prison, bankruptcy, multiple divorces and addictions), and some charmed-life rich people seemed to continue to have charmed lives. There was little indication of which people might have done something different to have make their life “worth it.” Sometimes it might be only the person themself who knows it.
If we were dramatically given a lucky lifeboat seat -- like the some of the Titanic survivors -- I wonder whether we’d try to make life “worth it?” Even if we didn’t know how, there’s a good chance that simply repeatedly asking ourselves that question might guide us in a good direction.
The second Titanic thought was also brought to light in that same dark room. While I was reading that bio board, a 90-year-old 6’4” ghost of the Titanic’s Captain Smith silently came into that somber room, walked over to a spot-lighted Captains chair, gathered the 20 of us together, and told two riveting eerie stories. Actually, he wasn't a ghost. He’s Lowell Lytle, the person who has portrayed the Captain for 30 years around the world, as his 4th amazing career.
The story he told the small collected group was what happened with the “Women and children first” directive that was given as they lowered the lifeboats. Men would get their wives and children loaded in the lifeboats, and they would then all wave goodbye for the last time as the lifeboats were lowered into the ocean. Three hours earlier they were having together and Dad was telling them to turn their iPhones off, three hours later they were gone.
We often think we’ll have plenty of time to thank people we’re grateful to, or to say “I love you” to people we love. Lytle's point was that we don’t need to wait until the lifeboat’s being lowered away before we say it.
My family spent a 10-hour drive home listening to the amazing ups and downs in Lytle’s real person life (Diving Into the Deep at Encourage Books). We’ve all had lucky breaks in life that merit us asking ourselves if we’ve tried to make our life “worth it.” We’ve also have people we’re grateful for who we need to thank, and we have people we love who are worth telling daily that we love them.
Two Titanic thoughts. I'm happy we can think about them and act on them a long ways from the nearest iceberg.
It's been said that the most frequent last words of adventurous, partying males are probably:
1) “Hey, watch this,” or
2) “Here, hold my beer.”
If we heard either of these, our grizzled wise advice would probably be, “STOP, Don’t Do That!” But giving well-intended advice in less obvious situations is trickier, so we've grown more hesitant to do so. We’ve all been burned by giving advice and having someone either trigger their Eye of Death, or break a saloon chair and an unlabeled whiskey bottle over our head.
As a result, even as mentors we can start drifting toward taking a more laissez-faire role toward advising younger people about their future. We might say “I will give them advice if they ask.” Yet even if they ask "What do I do?" we can be too carefully non-committal in giving them any advice (“Well, what do YOU want to do?”).
A short time ago, I had an interesting conversation with a person who said his son had been adrift in high school. It all turned in the right direction for him one day when a teacher who he casually played chess with said, “If you work hard, you could be a high-school chess champion.” He focused, and it happened. The Dad then said something similar had happened to him 50 years ago. He had been adrift in high school – good grades but adrift – when a teacher told him “If you work hard, you could be on the debate team.” He focused, and it happened.
These two teachers had given each of them a specific vision of what they could be: A chess champion and a debate champion. These mentors didn’t just compliment their talents by saying “You’re sharp,” or “You talks good.” They gave a specific direction that an adrift student could paddle toward. These two mentors decided to Be the One who pointed them toward an island instead of noncommittally saying, "Well, what do you want to do?"
With earnest young people, it can be easy to say “Good job,” or “You’re creative,” or “You’re good at this class.” Those are compliments. Other types of compliments can give useful paddling directions. For instance, a person might be earnestly good at school but not see where to take their life other than in the general direction their parents, friends, or placement officer might have mentioned or the career one of their parents might have followed.
Suppose we took the risk that those two teachers took, and we told a student “You’d make a great ________,” or “Have you ever considered ____; I think you’d be really good at it.” They might feel a bit flattered, and a bit motivated to paddle in a direction they hadn’t thought of. Even if go in a totally different direction, if we motivated an earnest student in any hopeful direction, we accomplished more than if we would have given an easier default answer like, "Well, what do YOU want to do?"
Let’s circle back to last week’s conversation about the two teachers who stuck their necks out and make laid out specific visions to the guy and his son. Things worked out for both of them. Ten years later, the son had graduated from college, started his own business, and was coaching chess champion hopefuls on the side. Forty years later, the dad had retired as a Fortune 500 CEO to produce a movie. Partly because two mentors decided to Be the One who gave them direction.
I’m guessing that neither of their two teachers is still picking saloon chair splinters out of their head.
There's a reemerging teaching movement around this Be the One notion. Although it's sort of aimed at teachers of younger students, a surprising amount of it still applies to college students, and also applies to taking an extra effort to say the right words to graduate students at the right time. If you're teaching or TAing this semester, you can check out Ryan Sheehy's Twitter for a booster shot.
(This is one version of the blog I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
“Woo-hoo! I get to work from home!”
Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”
But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?
This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.
One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.
But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.
Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.
• Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day
(not including meetings).
• Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person
(boss or coworker).
• Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.
This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.
There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”
Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers.
After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”
There’s a human side to working at home. We can use VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.
Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help, and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after 4 days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.
And maybe call your brother “just because.”
In many of my 30 years in academia, I loved helping graduate students, post-docs, and new faculty get started (or to get back on their feet after a fall) and moving in a confident direction. Even though I didn't know very much, I still had some perspective or experience that was useful. In the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.
One of purposes of one the website AcademicsOnly.org that I started is to pool together a lot of wisdom from a bunch of us one-eyed Kings and Queens so that that our graduate students and new faculty don't have to learn it by falling off of cliffs. This website tries to pull together helpful "tools and tips on how to graduate, get tenure, teach better, publish more, and have a super rewarding career."
The first step was to begin curating some of the more credible insights and experiences from all sorts of people in academia. This way, a person could get substantive advice instead of the top ten things that popped up on a Google search. Collecting these insights ongoing process and I love it when people share things (see the footer below for all of the types of examples of things you could share if you have them).
One comment I was given was that it would be even better if I turn some of the insight pages into infographics. There are a few infographics that have been made that highlight some of the insights on a page and at least give a road map of where to click for more. One example is the infographic at the top of this post, which outlines the content on the >New Professors >Start Strong page.
Someone also suggested, "You should turn some of the infographics and blog posts into Youtube videos," so people don't have to read them. "I don't like to read," is probably something a person shouldn't put on their PhD application. Still, this is an important point to consider.
I'd love to know how this website and it's related content could be most useful to you. You can either email your insights at AcademicsOnly@yahoo.com or to my personal email. We can then schedule a call if that would work best for you.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I'm an author and researcher who discovers ways to help people be healthier, happier, and more meaningfully connected. See what works for you, and share it with others.
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