One of the biggest mistakes research students make is believing that improving their ‘productivity’ is the route to academic success

In practice, they often find that principles drawn from productivity approaches (originating in manufacturing and business) are at best ineffective in a research context, and at worst, downright paralysing and oppressive.

That said, if a productivity-based approach suits you, your way of working, and your project then it’s fantastic that you’ve found your

But if not, if you’ve tried Getting Things Done (GTD) or other systems, and found them wanting, or if you’re drawn by the siren call of the gurus who promise order, mastery and success, I want to share with you an idea that pulled me up short this week, as I was reading ‘Our Dreams Make Different Shapes’, the new book from two-times Creative Thinking World Champion, Dan Holloway. He asks:

‘What if knowledge is not the sum of all you know, but rather the product? … That is to say suppose that instead of it being everything you know added up because each thing is separate, it’s all about the connections.

Let that sink in. Apply it in practice to your preferred method(s) of academic self-punishment; here’s how it looks applied to some of mine:

  • Writing more words an hour, for longer, won’t necessarily make your work better
  • Sitting longer in a library, staring at a bigger stack of books or papers than yesterday, won’t necessarily help you synthesise the contents better
  • Making yourself get up ridiculously early won’t necessarily mean you get more done during the day

Radical, isn’t it?

But I’m a research student, not a ‘creative’?

Regardless of your discipline, #YouHaveOneJob in your PhD (although you probably have far more than one across the whole spectrum of your life) and that’s to make an original contribution to knowledge, to nudge forward humanity’s collective understanding about the world (or beyond) and what it is to be human in it.

If that’s not creative work, I honestly don’t know what is. (As an aside: yes, therein lies a tension – at least in the UK – between the purpose of a PhD research project, and institutional/funding council policies and priorities about the length and nature of the doctorate.)

Discrete elements of a PhD are certainly repetitive or secretarial (record-keeping, formatting footnotes, data entry and so on) and, by all means, find your way through these as productively and efficiently as possible.

I’m suggesting being intentional about where you allow this approach to bleed across into the powerful, sometimes painful, process of creating.

If you agree that a significant part of doctoral work is creative in nature, it’s worth exploring Holloway’s contention that creativity lies in the connections. If that rings true for you, how can you encourage yourself to make connections, recognise and appreciate them for what they are, and foster them when they emerge?

Do you know that creativity is a skill you can develop and improve measurably at?

The book has really practical suggestions about how to go about this, and is well worth the read.

If resources mean that’s not possible, I offer an extract from the 1960s children’s museum run-away adventure ‘The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Finkweiler’ (E.L. Konigsburg) as food for thought:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.

TLDR: Creativity can be developed: if nothing else, experiment with deliberately ‘practising the pause’ in your active learning/research and see what emerges.

Connect with me on Twitter to let me know how this resonates for you!

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