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

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