Categorising the kinds of work you do

I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and efficiency recently. Reading yet more articles about startups working a 4 day week/ the 4 hour work week / the 2pm project, it occurs to me that these are all based on assumptions about the kinds of work we are doing, and the contexts we are doing it in. That is, they only work when our jobs are creative, academic or strategic. That we do knowledge work. And it is absolutely true that if you are writing a thesis, problem solving, making difficult decisions or inventing new things, these processes are hugely effective.

However, it doesn’t help us when so much of our time is spent (and should be spent) on other kinds of work. And it also doesn’t help us value or think about the work of other kinds of workers. Some time ago I read an article by Paul Graham about the ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule‘, about how creative work needs long uninterupted flows of time while managers work in short blocks of meetings.  When these two schedules need to come together, they can cause clashes.

Over time I’ve come to see these distinctions are useful across all kinds of work and workers. For example, when I was a teacher who also did eLearning, I often had to manage the competition between my  ‘teaching time’ and ‘project time’.   I’ve also been thinking about ways in which managers are not our competition as workers (like all managers, I am also a worker), and the ways in which a receptionist, security guard or child minders’s time is also worth valuing and considering. So I chewed on this for a while. And then this matrix came to me in the middle of the night (yes, I know, that’s how my brain works). I’m going to share it with you, and hope it helps you too.

The Task Matrix, by Katherine Firth
The Task Matrix, by Katherine Firth

So, Broadly, I find there are three kinds of work, and each of them can be done at varying levels of intensity or engagement.

1. Presence work is about being there, in body and mind. The most important thing is that you turn up and stay for the duration. Sitting in a meeting is presence work, so is being on call, and so is counselling. Much of presence work can’t be sped up, hacked or made more efficient; but it’s also not helpful to extend it beyond your set times.

So if I give a lecture, I need to start at 2.05 and finish at 2.55. There’s no benefit to me starting before the students are there, or going on over time as the room needs to be free for the lecturer using the room after me. There is also no benefit trying to ‘cram in’ more than 50 minutes worth of material. In fact talking faster and overfilling my slides is counter-productive to student learning.

Therefore presence work is about being available during a set time. How much time you can do it for in a day depends on the intensity.

For example, my partner used to occasionally have the hospital chaplain on-call pager over the weekend. From Friday night to Monday morning, he had to have the pager with him, and not drink. That was it. It was very very rarely used, but he had to be available to go into hospital if anyone needed it. So he could easily do 24 hours of presence work, do it well, be useful, and stay sane. In comparison, I can’t teach for more than about 5 hours in a day before I start to wilt.

2. Process work is routine and easily quantifiable. The most important thing is that you do it consistently well. Entering data is process work, so is most manual labour, and so are emergency procedures. Process work takes a set time for each iteration, and once you are competent, it can’t be sped up without loss of quality.

So if it takes 2 minutes to enter a new student record, and I have 400 students, then it will take me 800 minutes (or over 13 hours). If I rush it, I will make mistakes which will make more work for everyone down the line. There’s no need for me to take 4 minutes per record either, if I can get it right in 2. If I take regular breaks and go home on time, it will take me about 2 work days to process all the records.

We know your ability to do a process deteriorates after about 8 hours of work in a day. So there is no benefit I stay late and try to do it all in one day because I will make mistakes and take longer to do each iteration.

You can do repetetive, manual processes for about 8 hours in a day. But  undertaking difficult processes that are also emotionally charged (like the procedure for managing a harassment complaint) can only be done for shorter times before you are exhausted.

3. Production (or making) work is perfectly suited to productivity literature. Problem solving, process improvements, inventions, design, decision making, planning, strategy, writing, thinking… these are all production work. What matters most in production work is that what you produce is excellent.

Academics are generally defined by, and rated most by, their production work. How much research did you do, how innovative was it? How often did you write it up and publish it? How many grant applications did you craft? Students are also, of course, defined by their knowledge work. If the task is to write 1,000 excellent words, then writing 1,000 excellent words in 2 pomodoros is obviously preferable to taking 2 weeks. In the same way, writing 20,000 first draft words in a weekend is obviously preferable to writing 20,000 first draft words in 4 months.

Again, intensity matters here. I make routine decisions and process tweaks all the time. They are judgement calls and innovations, but they feel routine enough to be almost processes.

If I’m writing, I find the less time I spend, but the more intensively I spend it, the more effective I am. This is why it’s better to work for 2-4 hours on high intensity production work and then spend the rest of the time looking after all the things that improve productivity: exercise, regular meals, frequent breaks, avoiding stress, and getting enough sleep


Almost no-one has a job that is only one kind of work or another.

Mapping your tasks onto the matrix, by Katherine Firth
Mapping your tasks onto the matrix, by Katherine Firth

A lecturer might have an office hour that students rarely attend (low-intesity presence), go to team meetings (mid-intensity presence) and some workshops (high-intensity presence). They might have to take an attendance role (low-intensity process), upload their grades to the LMS (mid-intensity process), and follow up on a case of plagiarism (high-intensity process). They might advise the one student who did turn up to the office hour on how to improve their essay (low-intensity production), prepare a new lecture (mid-intensity production), and mark essays and give feedback (high-intensity production).

A different lecturer might adjust their ratings depending on their context and personal strengths.

It’s essential to note: presence, process and production work are mutually exclusive. You can’t do two of them at once.

If you are working with your door open and people interrupt you all the time, you are being interrupted from your process or production work. You are present with the person, and then you go back to the other kind of task. If you are answering routine emails for 8 hours, you are not working on your manuscript (and making it less likely you will have the mental acuity to get to your manuscript when you finally sit down to it after dinner). In the same way, if you are always tinkering with the process, you never get the efficiency of a consistent flow.

Process improvement: Is it worth the time? By XKCD.

So don’t try to multi-task, or always discount one kind of work for other kinds. Try to get a balance, and try to do each of these kinds of work well.


Mapping your week is really effective to see how you are working. Just this week I’ve seen posts by a tenure-track professor , an academic ecologist, and an new project by Chris Bigum on Public Click Pedagogy, about tracking their time.

Mapping your time onto the matrix might help you work out if you need to be working differently, or doing different kinds of work, or varying the intensity of your work to stay sane.

It also helps to make visible many invisible parts of the academic work week—like mentoring, and taking books back to the library, and catching up with colleagues in the corridor, and writing up the meeting minutes. (And yes, this is often less prestigious work, and gendered female or associated with ‘admin’, ‘service’ or ‘teaching’ rather than ‘research’: so this matrix is also a social justice tool).

Tell me if this is helpful / confusing / useful for you, and how!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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