Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Keys to Productivity: Discipline and Self-Confidence

Colleagues often ask me how I am able to publish consistently, to be an effective teacher, and to have a family. I am not sure what the exact answer is to this question, but I think it has a lot to do with two things – discipline and self-esteem. I am a pretty disciplined person when I want to be. And, I have a reasonably high level of self-esteem – at least I do not consistently doubt my own abilities and potential.

To me, it is funny to think of myself as a disciplined person. I was often a troublemaker in school and had to be “disciplined” by authority figures. On the other hand, when I want something, I have always worked for it and gotten it. In high school, I wanted all sorts of things my parents would never buy for me. So, I worked part-time to buy my own Coach bag, designer jeans, brand-name tennis shoes, and to get my hair and nails done. I never did very well in school. But, my last year in high school I decided I would give school a shot and finally earned decent grades. In college, I did miserably my first semester. But, once I decided I wanted to do better in college, I did.

It is also funny to think of myself as disciplined because I am also quite rebellious. I have always done what I want to do. I think, for me, the trick to being disciplined is convincing myself that I am the one who wants to succeed. If I really want something, I do not see it as a sacrifice to work to achieve it. This is important, because I do not like to sacrifice anything.

At this point in my career, being disciplined means that I sit my butt in front of the computer first thing every morning and write for at least one hour. Most mornings, I write for more than an hour. As I write consistently, I have a lot of material to work with, and am constantly sending things out for review. That is how I publish so much.

However, I think that the other element – self-esteem – is equally important. I am not sure why I have high self-esteem. However, I have come to notice that I do not doubt the quality of my work as much as many of my colleagues seem to. Or, at least, I am not that worried about what others might think about my work.

I think that my relative lack of concern over what others think is due to the fact that I have been through a lot in life. I have not had a hard life, but I have had a very full life and have seen a lot – both as a youth in Washington, DC and traveling around the world as a young adult. I spent most of my adolescent years hanging out on the streets in DC – going to clubs where shootings were common, attending friends’ funerals on a consistent basis, seeing the effects of crack cocaine on my neighborhood and on my friends’ parents, and watching many of my friends go to prison. When I was fully immersed in the life of the streets, self-confidence was a tool for survival. If I let my guard down or appeared weak, I was at risk of being jumped or at least being the butt of jokes.

I only spent about five years hanging out on the corner, going to go-go’s, and cruising around DC looking for fun. But, those were formative years – from about 14 to 19 – and many of the lessons I learned there have stayed with me.

Once I decided to focus on college and to leave that life behind, I found myself embarking on a whole different voyage. I began to travel all over the world. I spent a total of four months in Nigeria, a year in England, a year in Paris, and eight months in Lisbon. I also spent seven months traveling around Latin America just before beginning graduate school. By the time I got to graduate school, I felt as though I had lived and learned a lot. I was 25 years old, yet I spoke four languages and had lived on three continents. I saw myself as a person with a lot to contribute to sociological debates, and was not easily convinced otherwise.

The first year in graduate school was hard. It was not the haven of social justice I had imagined and my life experiences were not valued in the way I had expected. But, I made it through the first year and slowly found my allies. The few professors in the department who supported me did so fully and I took their encouragement to heart.

I was not particularly prolific as a graduate student. But, I was reasonably fast – I finished in six years even though I had three kids and did a year of fieldwork in Peru. With one publication on my CV and a half-written dissertation, I was lucky to get a job when and where I did.

Before getting my job, I had already begun to submit articles for consideration at journals. My first year on the tenure track, I began to apply for grants and fellowships. Many people wait until their article is “perfect” or their grant application is “impeccable” before they begin to submit. Not me. I send articles out when I finish them. I send grant and fellowship applications out when the deadline comes around. I am not careless about this; but, I have never let self-doubt get in the way of me submitting something. If I am not sure about the quality of something, I send it to a colleague and ask for honest feedback.

I get rejections – all of the time. But, I have learned that this is part of the process. You write an article; you submit it; it gets rejected; you submit it again; and you repeat this process until it is accepted. The same with grant applications. One of my colleagues just got a very prestigious grant – she told me it was the seventh time she had applied with the very same project. Her fantastic project was rejected six times. Confident it would win one day, she kept applying.

Self-esteem also helps a lot with teaching. I almost never over-prepare for class. I am very fortunate that I teach classes in my field. This means that I am teaching material I know very well. I know this and I know that I do not have to read and re-read tons of background material to prepare for class. Two hours before class begins, I sit down and review and/or revise my lesson plans. Then, I go to class and teach. It works every time.

Being productive, you see, is not necessarily about being brilliant. It has a lot to do with being disciplined enough to sit down and work and self-confident enough to submit your work for publication and/or funding.


  1. I have found that, for me, part of the self confidence you describe is a feeling inside of myself that I have something important to say. I write consistently (though not every day) and publish quite a lot because I feel like my work reveals interesting insights that others in my field can benefit from knowing. If I don't write, no one has access to the neat things I find out in my research.

    I came to your blog through a tweet by @divaprof. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Hi Ann Abbott! That is a great way of looking at things! And, so true. If you don't write it down, no one will read it!

  3. Brilliant post Tanya as always! This really hit home with me. I wasted the first year of a multi-year postdoc stalled in self doubt. I wanted my first submission to be perfect. I ended up redoing the theory of my chapter entirely and still waited around for 'informal feedback' from established people who work on similar topics. That cost me 9 months plus 3 under review-I did not trust the theory in my dissertation. 3 months later I got rejected, the reason being the theory-the new fancy one I'd concocted-was artificial. the second year, I knew better, I went back to the theory I already had in my dissertation and landed in a top journal. had that acceptance come sooner I would have done better on the market, perhaps. Still got an R1 job but I could have had options.
    One fear I am facing is in terms of self doubt about teaching. I fear that I'm not the charismatic football talking stand up comedian type prof kids will like. For one, I am a woman and for another I am foreign so I can't talk football or baseball for that matter and my jokes are foreign or will go over their heads in the manner of Big Bang Theory:) I am fluent -having spent 12-13 years in US and 3 in UK-but have an accent that is sort of international. so all these cause self doubt. Any tips or books you could recommend on getting over this? also everyone says the first year one overprepares-no way around it, spending up to 12 hours prepping for one seminar/lecture. (my teaching load will be mostly seminar style with some of them a combo of seminar/lecture and mostly teaching graduates or seniors or some combo). Thanks Tanya!sorry to rant:)

    1. Hi! There are several teaching books, but I haven't looked at them recently to be able to suggest one in particular.

      As for teaching, I really think self-confidence is key. You have to know deep down that it will be okay.

      Spending 12 hours to prepare for a lecture is ridiculous. Instead, prepare a 10-minute lecture and a list of questions. If you engage the students from day 1, they will learn that they need to come prepared.

      Also, show films, have the students do group work. Have the students lead discussions.

      Of course, all of this will only work if you aren't teaching 100+ students.

  4. Hello Tanya, many thanks again. No I am not teaching any mass courses. In fact, the graduate seminar can have as few as 3 students and probably averaging around 10. The senior seminar is capped at 45 and probably has 30 on average. I'm repeating one course in spring semester and then the graduate /undergraduate special readings course will also probably be small-most special topics classes are, at my PhD alma, we'd be 10-15 tops.
    So other than the senior seminar, strict lecturing as in powerpoint and writing lectures and memorizing them is out of the question. One fear I have is that I needed to practice my job talk every day sometimes twice a day for 4 weeks before memorizing it and there's no way I can do that for every lecture. nor is it advisable I gather as it'd become routinized.
    I also did a calculation: my contract specifies teaching as 40 % and research as 40 % so that gives 20 hours for teaching. it's 6 hours in class, 3 hours office hours. If I were to take 10 hours prepping for one lecture, that goes way over the 'ideal' 20 hours for teaching! I know the first time round one takes much longer but the goal is to get it down to those 2 hours. Only with 2 hours do the numbers add up to approx 20 hours for teaching, not counting grading weeks..