Working Smart and Hard: Productivity Lessons from a Lumberjack

I come from a family of lumberjacks, yet somehow I have become an academic theologian–so I am posed with asking myself the question, what do lumberjacks and academics have in common? The former is largely “practical” and the latter is largely “theoretical.” One could say they have nothing in common, or we could come up with a pithy one-liner joke…but I have learned that they actually do have something in common. They both work really hard and smart, albeit, in very different capacities. Productivity can only come about with a planned schema of hard work, therefore, I have decided to write about a few helpful things which I have learned from my lumberjack family and academic community which help one be more productive.

If you are anything like me, you have tried different ways to be productive using the latest hardware and software, and after you use it for a while, you realize that it is probably not making a huge difference. These technologies do not necessarily help us work smarter or harder. I am not the most productive person in the world, however, I have learned a thing or two from my working class family and from my own personal experiences. I am 31 years old, have been married for 9 years, decided to go to graduate school after I got married, ended up earning three master’s degrees, I now teach high school and I am currently working on my PhD. I do not come from a family of academics–in fact, I am the first person in my entire family to even earn a bachelor’s degree. I come from a working class American family. My father knows how to use his hands with mechanics and lumber, and from a young age

My Dad cutting wood for the winter

My Dad cutting wood for the winter

he encouraged me to go to school so I wouldn’t be riddled with injury like him and our previous generations. I look upon my father with the utmost respect, he taught me to be the hard-worker that I am today. I am not more productive than my father, I simply produce different things. Just because I am an academic, does not mean I have forgot my roots as a good ol’ country boy.

Here are 10 productivity tips I find effective:

  1. Rest. This is prerequisite to everything else which I will write. Yes, by rest I mean 8 hours of sleep per night. Start your day off with restful prayer or meditation. Take naps in the middle of the day if you are working for more than 10 hours. Turn off screens an hour before bed. Take weekly Sabbaths and Quarterly Retreats. I try to have a Sabbath rest day once per week where I am not obliged to produce anything. I still end up producing things, but it is never from obligation and it is not related to my work. For instance, it might include going on a long run or taking/editing photographs for the love of it.
  2. 3 Minute Rule. If something comes up which you can accomplish in 3 minutes, DO IT RIGHT NOW! This is especially true of short emails.
  3. Drink Water. When you are properly hydrated, your body is far more healthy, energized, and ready to work.
  4. Learn to Say “No.” It is far too easy to say “yes.” Prioritize the things you say “yes” to. For me, the order of importance is 1. God, 2. my wife, 3. my family, 4. my students, 5. my friends, 6. my academic production, and 7. everything else. It may sound weird that I, being an academic, have placed academic production so low, however, I do this because people and God are way more important than any paper I could ever write or book I could read. Don’t get me wrong, I do a ton of academics, but the people are far more important–this means I often need to tell myself to stop studying. People often say “yes” because they want more respect, but in the long run it actually diminishes respect because it turns out that you will be unable to put in the required energy because you will be spread to thin.
  5. Energy Consumption. Realize that it takes more energy the better you get. In physics, the

    My Paw Paw as a lumberjack many years ago. He still works with wood today.

    special theory of relativity tells us that the faster an object travels the more massive it becomes, thus, in order to continue accelerating the object, it will require more and more energy. In fact, if the object were to reach the speed of light, the object would be infinitely massive and thus require an infinite amount of energy. If you are a perfectionist, you sometimes need to force yourself to stop, otherwise you will find yourself putting forth an infinite amount of energy, which brings us back to #4…learn to say “no.”

  6. Hardware. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you need the best hardware to be productive. My Dad and Paw Paw could both cut down a tree faster with an axe than I could with a chainsaw…they knows how to use their hardware! For me, I used to have a dual-monitor setup and I loved it. I would still love it, but at this point it is not needed (I sold it when we moved to Belgium). My laptop suffices. Beyond the basics, hardware simply becomes luxury.
  7. Software. We all have our different disciplines. If you work with chainsaws, don’t forget to use the proper amount of lube. As an academic, the main software I use is MS Office, Evernote, Dropbox, Zotero (bibliographic management), and Adobe Abbey Fine Reader (an OCR for converting documents into searchable digital format…It is really nice when you can search an entire book for key words.)
  8. Learn how to use your tools. For me it is the “computer.” We normally don’t realize our dependence on technology until it breaks. My Dad quickly learned how to repair his tools and taught me the same. If you use a computer but don’t understand it, I suggest you take a step back to understand your technology. Learn how to use
    Here I am working the woodsplitter with my nephew

    Here I am working the woodsplitter with my nephew

    software and how the hardware works. Learn how to keep it virus free. Learn how to program simple things just so you know how your computer works. Learn keyboard shortcuts. If you can avoid touching the mouse, you will save a ton of time. The next time you are at work, spy on a sloppy worker for 10 minutes and then spy on a highly productive worker for 10 minutes. I imagine you will see a drastic difference between them simply based on how much they touch their mouse. I do a lot of research and writing, so if you are in my same situation, you may benefit from a few of my favorites: Alt-Tab (or Window-Tab) to switch between tasks. Control-Z = undo. Control-X = Copy & Simultaneously Delete. Control-C = Copy. Control-V = Paste. Shift-Arrows/Pg/Home/End = Select text or multiple files.

  9. Exercise. I love to exercise. I try to exercise before I am productive. You will be more productive if you exercise before work. If you exercise after work, you will likely feel exhausted and not enjoy either your work or workout.
  10. Sharpen Your Axe: If your axe blade or saw blades are dull, you will waste all of your energy on nothing. Productivity is about energy consumption, not time consumption per se. Sharpen your blade often. Thanks for teaching me this, Dad.

    My brother sharpening his chainsaw

    My brother sharpening his chainsaw

Surviving & Thriving as a Post-Grad, Part 2

Surviving & Thriving as a Post-Grad, Part 2


Part 1 discussed obeying the fundamental laws of physics, and truly, we could relate physics and energy consumption to absolutely every facet of surviving and thriving as a post-grad. However, in this post, we will discuss procrastination. Some of us don’t just procrastinate, we have actually turned it into an art of #productiveprocrastination. fightingwithoutfightingIf Bruce Lee can master the art of fighting without fighting, then a post-grad can surely master the art of doing something while avoiding everything, right? For instance, going on Face Book would be procrastination, but getting involved in a highly intellectual debate on a Face Book wall post is “productive procrastination.” Namely, it is producing something, but it is still putting off the reality of what you need to do.

There is nothing wrong with taking breaks, such as going on Face Book for a short while, in fact, taking breaks actually improve our functionality (Please refer to this previous post). However, are the rechargebreaks you are taking increasing your actual productivity by allowing you time to recharge in very precise ways.

Would we procrastinate as much if we took better breaks? When is the last time you took a full day off to truly recharge? A full hour? 30 Minutes? 10 minutes? It is hard to locate such a break, is it not? Our down time is often filled with meaningless white-noise. If you are able to start taking true breaks, which actually recharge who you fundamentally are as a person, I guarantee that you will stop procrastinating so much. We procrastinate and perform productive procrastination because we are craving true breaks and rest. For me, there is no truer rest then when I rest in the Lord Jesus Christ through worship. I pray you find rest as well. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28)

Surviving & Thriving as a Post-Grad, Part 1

Surviving & Thriving as a Post-Grad, Part 1

Obey the Fundamental Laws of Physics

Will obeying the Laws of Physics actually help me in the pursuit of higher education? Read on and you will believe! The numbers and equations are not scary, I promise :)calculus

Case Study: Pretend you are driving a McLaren F1 (a $1million car…I like this dream), you hit the gas and its 627hp V12 engine mightily roars. Right out of the gate you can accelerate 0-60mph in 3.2 seconds, incredible! But what happens as your speed increases? To simply accelerate from 180-200mph (a change of merely 20mph, one-third the original change) it takes 7.6 seconds! It took more than twice as long to only accelerate one-third the original change! And as your speed increases it becomes ever difficult to continue increasing your speed. Max speed ever recorded in a McLaren F1 is 243mph, and I am sure the driver kept trying to push the accelerator harder and harder just so he could reach 244mph, but it never happened.

Why was he unable to go faster? It is because he could not supply enough energy! His engine only had 627hp and the fuel consumption rate was incredibly high.

Now let’s take this to the next level: you are flying an amazing space shuttle and you are approaching the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). As you go faster, you realize that you need more and more fuel just to go a little bit faster. It keeps getting more and more difficult. You soon realize that you can’t reach the speed of light, and you conclude this because you finally come to the realization that you need an infinite amount of energy to move this fast. I repeat, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass to the speed of light. The speed of light is the upper limit for the speeds of objects with positive rest mass. (Thank you Einstein, this is all solvable through his famous equation.)einstein

So what? Who cares? I’m bored; let me go now….you are so close, hang in there!

You have been a student for many years; after all, you are in graduate school. There was a time when little energy was needed to get you through. You would even sleep during lectures because you already knew it and you were the guy or gal who would always ask questions trying to stump your professor.sleeplecture And then, you started advancing and realizing that you needed to put more energy into it, and it was hard! And then you saw the next step and it seemed so close, but it took like 20 times the effort or more. Your thesis and dissertation will feel as if you are trying to travel at the speed of light. Thanks for the encouragement, right? But wait, it gets worse!

Consider now the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: in an isolated system, that system will tend toward disorder unless energy is added. Do you remember what your bedroom looked like as a teenager? I prove my point!

This is helpful because it makes us realize that the energy needs to be focused. If the McLaren F1 had a bad exhaust system, then the fuel which was being fed into the engine would not all correspond to usable mechanical energy in that isolated system. There would be wasted energy, and because the energy would be lacking, the system would obviously tend toward disorder. This is why it gets worse. If your energies are not focused onto the Thesis or Dissertation (or whatever the goal may be), you will tend toward disorder! And this is fatal; you will never achieve that goal which you had set out to achieve.

A Lesson from my Dad

My Father is a wonderful man.  He taught me how to enjoy learning, how to never give up, how to love a woman (he and my mother have been married for nearly 35 years now!), that a rolling rock gathers no moss, that family is more important than a career, and many other things. One lesson which he taught me stands out above the rest. He taught me this lesson through the telling of a story–like many of his lessons–thus I will retell the story as accurately as I can recall.

father and son

Two lumberjacks were both known for their incredible skills at chopping wood. The first was a young man of 23 years old, incredibly powerful and athletic. Everyone knew him to be one of the best lumberjacks, and he prided himself in that. The second man was an old hand of 70 years of so. He grew up in the trade, coming from a long line of lumberjacks in his family. He was a humble man, and kept to himself for the most part. However, he was so good at what he did, people would still come to him for advice.

Now it came about that there was going to be a wood chopping competition, namely who could chop two cords of wood the quickest. Both of these men were selected to go head to head. And so it began.

At the beginning, both men were keeping on the same pace. The young man because his strength, the old man because his craft had been perfected. After some time, the old man started falling behind a little, so he sat down to take a break. The young man saw this as a wonderful sign and went even harder. The competition kept going, and the old man would take breaks every half hour or so, meanwhile the young man only took a few. The young man could taste victory. However, the young man began to get very tired, and the old man began to overtake the young man. This infuriated the young man, so he began working even harder, but the old man was still somehow beating him. In the end, the old man won the competition. The young man and the spectators were completely dumbfounded.

The young man walked up to the old man and asked, “How on earth did you beat me, you were taking breaks every half hour, I just don’t understand?!?” The old man replied, “You thought I was just sitting down and resting, but in reality, I was sharpening my axe.”

Work smarter, not harder. Don’t forget to sharpen your axe. Why is this the best lesson I learned from my father? Because I think of this story nearly everyday. I work incredibly hard at what I do, but I still takes breaks to “sharpen my axe.” For instance, this last month I have been preparing for oral exams and my thesis defense. The mental energy that goes into this is incredibly exhausting. I put 8-12 hours of study in per day, but I still “sharpened my axe.” For me, this was in the form of playing worship music on my guitar, taking cat naps, and going on daily runs. In other words, I created a balance between my mental, physical, and spiritual life and successfully accomplished what I needed to. Thanks for the lessons, Dad.

What is a valuable lesson that you learned from your parents?

cut tree