The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Productivity in Academia : An Interview with Dezene Huber

I never intended for interviews to be a regular feature here. But after my discussion with Dan Benjamin, I realized how informing it can be conducting an interview—and enjoyable. It seems the easiest way to really gain insight into a person and the subjects they specialize in.

So here is the second ever interview in this space, and a third is in the works as we speak. There has been some discussion lately on the merits of interviews, and how a lot of bloggers use them as a tool to drive traffic.

And while increasing traffic is always in the back of a blogger's mind, I initiate an interview for a different reason. Mostly to satisfy a curiosity. The interviewee is an expert on some subject, or has had an experience in some area that I want to know more about. He/she doesn't have to be famous at all—they simply have some knowledge/experience in a certain area.

So without further explanation, I'd you like to introduce you, dear reader, to Dezene Huber. I've known Dezene for several years now as we attend the same church. More accurately, I've known of him—we met, but had never really interacted at all. Until Twitter.

Dezene joined Twitter early this year, and for the past six months, I've gotten to know him via this digital tool. He's crazy funny and very intelligent. And I quickly discovered we share some interests, mostly around productivity and tools one can employ in that regard.

He also works at our local university. I was curious about the presence of GTD-mania in an academic setting—do professors and students know of this whole sub-culture? Do they make use of it in some form or another?

So I went straight to the source. Here's what I found.

The Interview

So to start, I was curious about your email signature:

Canada Research Chair in Forest Entomology and Chemical Ecology & Assistant Professor

It appears you do research and some teaching. But can you give me some more details about your position at the University? And what exactly is it that you do?

I am a professor in the Ecosystem Science and Management Program at the University of Northern British Columbia and I teach mainly into the biology and the biochemistry and molecular biology degrees. "Assistant Professor" is my specific academic rank. During the course of their careers, professors typically transition from Assistant to Associate (that transition usually coincides with being granted tenure) to Full Professor.

I am also a Canada Research Chair. The Canada Research Chairs program is a federally funded program that provides for bringing new professors into the academic stream and also retaining current professors. Is specifically allows Chairs to apply more focus to research at their institution. My research involves interactions between forest insects (forest entomology) and the plants that they eat as well as communication and information gathering by insects via chemical messages (chemical ecology).

My research program at UNBC involves – among other things – studies into the evolution and heritability of tree defenses against mountain pine beetle, detoxification of resin compounds by another bark beetle, cold tolerance for winter survival in mountain pine beetle, naturally derived repellents for western pine beetle, and genomic studies of a couple of bark beetles. Several excellent graduate and undergraduate students work out of my lab, and they are the real boots on the ground in terms of research activities.

I also teach a number of undergraduate and graduate courses during the regular semesters. And, like any faculty member, I work on several committees and pursue research funding opportunities as they arise.

Cool. It sounds like you would be very busy with varying tasks from day to day. What is your overall opinion on the whole GTD sub-culture?

Productive people have been implementing ideas like these for years. It just took someone to codify them in the popular literature to turn "being productive" into GTD.

So, if longevity is any indicator, the basic aspects are very sound - very tried-and-true. Define your inputs. Write things down. Process things as you get them. Prioritize. Review. Etc. All of that makes great sense. And chances are, our great-grandparents were using these techniques without having a nifty acronym to apply to them.

What really amazes me, though, is the cottage industry of gadgets, software, and even stationary that has grown up around the concept. I have tried many of the software packages and for the most part I found that the effort that I had to invest to use them reduced my actual productivity. I was working at using them more than they were working to serve me. I've looked at many of the paper-based solutions, and they just seem like a pain to implement compared to a good old-fashioned list and whatever note-taking method fits your learning style. Admittedly many of those products must work for others' particular systems, because people buy them. They just don't seem relevant to my system. Which brings up another point.

It's very tempting, in the current GTD atmosphere, to try out every new thing that zips into your RSS feed in the morning. And, of course, there is an element of geeky fun to that, which probably serves to propagate the industry to some extent. Every now and again one of those ideas or products will actually fit into your routine. If so, use it. But, if you can judge within five minutes that Acme GTD System is just not your thing, ditch it. Don't try to make it work. It's not likely to be useful for you anytime soon.

And, since Grandpa successfully used a pen and paper for much of his "GTD" system, that is still the most important part of any system today.

Ha. Well said.

In the same vein then, do you find that GTD has propagated to the academic environment—do you find other professors or students using GTD? And if yes, do they struggle with the same propensity to 'fidget with their 'system' rather than actually get things done?

I don't think that I've ever heard that acronym uttered in the halls of the academy. I do know that other profs - and students - each have their own way of doing things. Some methods are obviously more successful than others. And some will settle in on something similar to GTD, because it is an obvious solution to proper time management.

My first GTD-esque experience in the Ivory Tower was during my Ph.D. My senior supervisor - who is a very successful scientist - told me about his grid, which consisted of the standard two-by-two table of urgent/non-urgent by important/non-important. He prioritized by:

  1. Urgent/important
  2. Non-urgent/important
  3. Urgent/non-important (so why is it urgent??)
  4. Non-urgent/non-important (so why is it on my desk?)

He also kept a meticulous work area and had a careful filing system. I try to emulate both of those, although my filing system is my computer and backup hard drive, rather than cabinets.

As for the grid, I believe that that could be taken as being the basis for the GTD system of today.

So, a shorter answer to that longer ramble is: "yes, some people do use it, but I doubt too many people call it by its current acronym."

It's cool that you had a someone to model, a mentor so to speak, in the area of organization\productivity. Can you describe your own system in a bit more detail?

Tools (in no particular order of importance):

  • An actual inbox on my desk as an inbox. Black. Plastic. Boring. But it works. (with email and people appearing at my office door being the other main inputs)
  • Sarasa Zebra pens, sometimes Pilot G2
  • Mirado (Papermate) pencils, mainly
  • Mead spiral or Rhodia small pad as my to-do list next to my computer
  • Rhodia larger pad as my on-the-go note pad in my MEC sling pack
  • Moleskine reporter as my journal (also in sling pack)
  • Nikon Coolpix L10 is the cheapo digicam in my sling pack (Sonly DSC-H2 for better, planned shots, but too big to lug around). Good for recording stuff, or if I just feel creative
  • Honkin' hugest possible iMac at work, MacBook at home, small iBook G4 for traveling
  • for work email
  • Gmail for personal email
  • iGoogle as start page
  • gCal as work and home calendar, because my wife and I can easily share access and put work and home events in different categories. She can see what I'm up to at work and can know when I'll be home or if she and the little guy can come up for lunch, etc.
  • gReader for RSS (Yes, I'm fixated on Google. It's just easy and works)
  • iWeb for my personal webpage
  • iWork, in general. Though I do fire up the MS Office on occasion as well (particularly Excel). Gdocs is getting better. I imagine that I'll eventually shift more that way
  • My favorite all-time app, Papers, by Mekentosj. Freakishly fantastic. Keeps all of my zillions of PDFs in an organized, searchable, citable state.
  • Favorite scientific databases/search engines, Google Scholar and Web of Science

Questions that I pose to incoming stuff:

  1. Is it urgent?
  2. Is it important?
  3. Can it be done easily and quickly?

If yes to 1, is it urgent because you forgot about it until the last minute? If so, I'll need copious help from you to do it.

If yes to any, then it gets priority. The more yeses, the higher the priority.

If no to all three, it'll go on my to-do list, and may languish there for awhile. Sorry. That's the way that it goes.

Office ambiance, to keep me sane:

  • No windows in my office. I put up lots of my photos of our garden or our trips to various scenic locales to attempt to substitute for real sky and trees.
  • iTunes classical CDs or Classical Minnesota Public Radio (I don't know why I'm fixated on that station, probably because their weather reports remind me of ours here in Prince George)
  • A kettle for boiling water, a travel mug (DNA-themed, of course), and Rooibos, peppermint, or chamomile tea, depending upon my mood at the time. No caffeine for me. I don't want to be THAT productive.
  • If my work space isn't tidy, it drives me nuts.


My most important work assets are the great students in my lab and collegial atmosphere in the department. Both help me in ways to numerous to detail.

My biggest rule — no work-related email when I'm at home (unless working from home during the day). If it's that important, phone me. You have my home and cell number. If it's not important enough for **a phone call**, we can deal with it in the morning.

I think that that about sums it up.

We've talked a little about your tools and process. What does an average day in the life of Dezene look like? What's your routine?

Wake up. Eat breakfast with my family. Commute by bus to work, usually listening to a podcast on the way.

My podcasts vary, but they run the gambit of politics, religion, science, and literature. I've recently discovered iTunesU which offers lectures from interesting professors on myriad topics. Listening to those gives me teaching ideas as well as allows me to broaden my horizons to subjects that I find interesting, but which don't specifically relate to my own research.

When I get to work, I brew a cup of herbal tea and deal with my morning email onslaught. After that, things are extemely variable. As a professor I have teaching, research, and committee responsibilities, so it depends what's on my plate at the time. The trick is balancing things so that zillions of small distractions (a form to sign, an exam to remark, etc.) don't overwhelm. You need to find time on occasion to get large blocks of work done. One tactic that I use is to (mainly) not check my email more than a few times a day. I don't have an automatic "ping" every time something comes in, and my email window is usually behind other windows, so I can forget about it. That tactic alone reduces interruptions dramatically.

Of course, there are times when frequent email checking is required. If I am drafting a manuscript or proposal with a colleague at another institution, email tends to fly back and forth rapidly. But, generally I like to adhere to minimal email interruptions. By slowing my response time, I also find that I slow the counter-responses. I often make the analogy of a hockey team consciously slowing down the pace of the game for strategic reasons. The other team may try to speed things back up again ("hey, have you seen that email from me?"), but consistency in this tack eventually wins out.

During the day I like to take some sort of short break at least once. I often eat lunch at my desk (I know that that's bad!), so writing in a journal can be a break, as can a short walk around campus.

At the end of the day, I take the bus home (with my iPod) and have dinner with my family. I am a firm believer in eating together as a family.

I also generally do not check my work email at home. We have a separate home email account for family and friends. The only time that I might break this rule is if there is a large project that is coming up to a hard deadline. Otherwise, nothing is so urgent that it can't wait until the morning, so I don't need to know about it now. And, if it is extremely urgent, my name is in the phone book and my cell number is in my email signature. Call. If it's not urgent enough to warrant a voice call, then it can wait.

Cool. You've stated that pen and paper work for a productivity tool. What about your Macs—do you feel that using an Apple computer makes you more productive?

Well, just like the choice of other parts of a system, the choice of computers is a fairly personal thing (although I do realize that sometimes that choice is foisted upon people by their organization). I have used Windows PCs and Macs at various times in my life. I have only ever owned Macs, though. And, I began using Apples back when I was in high school (which is getting to be so long ago now that it's frightening to think about). So, while I'm familiar with both systems, I sort of grew up with Apples and feel most comfortable on them.

With so many web apps coming on stream these days, I am beginning to wonder if we'll even worry much about one operating system or another in years to come. About ten years ago, when the first iMacs started showing up (with no floppy drive!! Gasp!!!) I would use my Bondi blue iMac at home at the PCs in my lab when I was at school. Even though I was more than able to transfer files from one system to the other with ease, without the use of floppies, none of my Windows-using friends seemed to believe that my choice was actually a viable option. In the intervening ten years, things have gotten even better than that, and I've seen more people convert to the Apple cult because they don't perceive the need to worry as much about file transfer and compatibility. I'm sure that web apps are going to simply accelerate the trend of people understanding that they are free to choose the operating system that they like the best.

So, what do I personally like about Macs? I'm sure that most of these items have been covered elsewhere, so, at the risk of being boring, here's a partial list:

  • Less crashes, more robust system
  • I prefer the GUI
  • Spaces
  • Time Machine
  • I'm not as much of a UNIX geek as I once had to be, but I still like the fact that I can tweak things in Terminal
  • Less viruses
  • iWork is less crash-prone than similar Office applications (though I do need to do a lot of exporting to .doc, .xls, .ppt, or .pdf files for sending files to colleagues)
  • I generally feel that I am working "smoother" in an OSX environment compared to when I occasionally fire up my Windows laptop

You've mentioned in the past via Twitter that you are or could be considered a Luddite—in jest by the tone. All kidding aside, would you ever consider a more simplistic, Amish\Mennonite lifestyle seriously? Is life in North America more complicated than it needs to be?

Life in North America is absolutely more complicated than it needs to be. Granted, there is a great deal of technological complexity that makes our lives better. I would not want to do away with that. What I would like to see an end of, though, is the I-gotta-have-that-now culture. And that culture is what is getting us into trouble economically and environmentally. People borrow and spend well beyond their means and to support all of the purchasing, corporations are allowed to run rampant over the environment and produce products that do the same. And while there is much lip service to cleaning things up, most people are likely very unwilling to make the lifestyle changes that will see that happen.

Mark Twain once said, "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising." He lived in the 19th century. Two centuries later, and we still succumb to to slick advertising. I'm not enough of a historian to know what people got riled up about in Twain's day, but we all know the scenes in this era, which the media love to play up to push even more hype, of people camping out for days for the latest gaming console or doll or whatever. And, of course the corporations selling those things aren't dumb. They work the hype for weeks prior to the release and then make sure that there is a shortage of the item to really get the rabid masses foaming at the mouth.

My family believes in simplicity and satisfaction with what we have. Simplicity and satisfaction mean that we are able to adhere to another family rule - that of living well within our means. By doing so, we can avoid - as much as possible, barring extremely dire circumstances - using up others resources to take care of our emergencies. And, even better, we can give from our excess to those who are really in need. Many needy folks live right around us here in North America. But just the fact that we live in this country means that we are in something like the 95% percentile in the world for wealth. Even the poorest person in Canada is much better off than the majority of people in our world. So, along with local charity, we also send a good portion beyond Canada.

Now, simplicity does not mean that we live some sort of unabomber lifestyle in a log cabin. I am typing this in GMail on a 2.4 GHz Apple, for heaven's sake. What it means for us is that we live in a modest house, that we try to grow at least some of our own food, that we don't buy next great thing as soon as it hits the market, that our last iBook lasted eight years and was only retired after the computer world completely passed it by, that we own one car that we rarely drive, and that we make conscious decisions about what we consume.

Satisfaction means that we don't try to make material possessions the source of our joy. Rather, the things that we already have and that mainly cannot be priced - God, family, friends, nature, and experiences - represent the true foundation of our lives. Beyond that, we live in thankfulness for food, shelter, and clothing and our good fortune to live in a free country of opportunity. If every gizmo and gadget that we own would suddenly be taken away, our lives would be a bit more challenging and a bit quieter - but, would that be such a bad thing?

Could I be Mennonite? That is a funny question on a number of levels. First, because I do have Mennonite heritage. My second middle name is a Mennonite surname derived from my mother's side of the family. I suppose that that may be part of the influence on my personal ethic. Second, because I've often half-jokingly said that I'd be happy just moving out into such a situation, to which my wife always replies, "you just want to do that because you want to wear a uniform." While I am not in agreement with some of the more extreme expressions of Anabaptism - that is, the attempt by some branches of the movement to completely separate themselves from the rest of the world - I do agree with many of the basic tenets of the mainstream Anabaptist movement. I've covered the ideas of simplicity and satisfaction, above. Beyond that I believe in community, sustainable living, and shalom, or peace (sometimes termed non-resistance). Like many others', however, I believe that this expression of Christianity can be lived out in the modern world, and my family and I try to be intentional about pursuing that ethic.

Wow. Interesting comments. I agree on our lifestyle and how rich we Canadians are—and I think it's important to recognize that some of the choices we make with our wealth harms those who are not in that 95th percentile.

Your response also leads nicely into my next question. As a person of faith and a person of science, how do you balance the two?

Short answer: I do not see a need to balance the two, because they are not in conflict.

Long answer: Science represents a way of knowing. Hypothesis, experiment, observe, revise hypothesis, continue. It seems to be a particularly good way of figuring things out, because with it we have done things like cure (and prevent) diseases and improve supplies of food and safe drinking water. And because of it we no longer live in fear of unknown "demons" that haunt the corners of a world that we do not understand (referencing a book titled, "Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan).

On the other hand, some pretty horrible things have stemmed from science as well. The classic example is nuclear weapons. But, I'd be hard-pressed to say that Einstein should have just kept his mouth shut about relativity. His theories have been put to great, peaceful uses. And further developments in physics, thanks to his contributions, may someday give us workable quantum computers (an Apple G12?) or clean fusion energy. However, people have taken what he learned and have put it to an evil purpose. He simply discovered something about the world that was as true as could be understood at the time (which is as true as anything in science can be) and told us about it. It is up to those who then apply those results to think about the application.

I do not believe that ethical dilemmas occur at the discovery stage, but at the application stage. Scientists have a responsibility to openly discuss the ethical implications of applications that may arise from their discoveries. And they also must be careful of the applications that they pursue in the name of pursuing new truth. But, the sheer pursuit of truth in the natural realm (or what seems to be truth at the time) is a noble activity, and people of faith should desire to be a part of it.

Fair enough. Do you feel that the majority of your academic colleagues agree with that sentiment? Or, to put it more plainly, do you experience persecution from your peers at the university because you are a Christian?

Of course I can't speak for my colleagues, but if I had to guess, I would say that yes, many would mainly agree with something along those lines. And, no, I do not experience persecution, nor do I expect to. Our department - our university in general - intentionally maintains a very open, free, and respectful working environment.

The motto of UNBC is drawn from the Carrier language. It is 'En cha huná which roughly translated means "he/she also lives." The saying is attributed to the Carrier elders who use it to remind others that each person has a view point and perspective that is worth listening to. I am glad to say that that motto really does exemplify the atmosphere of respect found within this university. For more on the motto, and UNBC in general, see here.

As always, interviewing someone was a lot of fun. Thanks to Dezene—his answers were insightful and show what an intelligent guy he is.

It's great to see how people in other professions get things done (lower case).

If you enjoyed this interview, here are a few others: