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Economist Stephen Kinsella: On Focus, Productivity, and the Lure of Twitter

Focus, productivity, and Twitter addiction

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Meet Stephen Kinsella.

Dr. Kinsella is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Stephen is a weekly columnist for the Sunday Business Post and, in addition to 4 books, about 35 journal articles and winning around 9.2 million euros in research funding, he has also written policy pieces for publications like the Harvard Business Review, Foreign Affairs, and VoxEU. Stephen builds and estimates macroeconomic models in his academic work and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Stephen has two PhDs in economics but admits he still manages to make sense. Sometimes.


How did you come to be a Senior Lecturer of economics? How did you get started and where are you now?

I came to economics more or less by accident. I was in a general business degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and found the economics subjects very interesting. I had a number of excellent lecturers. I went on to do a masters and Ph.D. in economics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and another masters and Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research, in New York. I came back to Ireland, and to Limerick, when my first son was born. I’ve been at the University of Limerick ever since, and was promoted from Junior, to College, to Senior Lecturer in that time. I’ve been very lucky.

Right now I’m on sabbatical, which is a kind of research leave, at the School of Government at the University of Melbourne in Australia. I love it here.


As an academic and writer, how do you stay productive, motivated, and focused?

Economics never stops changing. My favourite definition of economics is from a book by Nikaido called Growth and Cycles, 1996: 
“Economics is not only a social science but also a social thought, a product of society itself that reflects a need for coherent images or portraits by which its members can comprehend what is going on and better guide their actions within the system as a whole.”

The motivation to keep writing comes from looking out the window and wondering why things are happening the way they do. Right now I’m really worried about Australian wages. It turns out they are not growing fast enough to cope with the increases in debt we are seeing across the system. The worry would be if a substantial shock came along, exactly how could the economy cope? That’s something important to study and work on. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of austerity on economies like Ireland. If you’re interested, I did a podcast about that work for the FT here.

In terms of productivity ‘tools’, the best one ever invented was a deadline. I write a weekly column and have never missed one in 7 or 8 years of writing. So that helps. I also have many co-authors who kick my ass if I’m late and I can be relied upon to kick theirs. Academia is an output-focused discipline so getting things done on time and to a required standard is very important.

Academia is an output-focused discipline so getting things done on time and to a required standard is very important.


Working with students who care about these issues is also always super helpful.

The other main tool to keep me motivated is a story from my days as a student. I was working on an essay about transport economics and not getting on very well. I was sighing and making cups of tea and just generally not writing. My father, who was a taxi driver in Dublin, asked me what was wrong. I told him I thought I had writer’s block. He told me he didn’t get f****king taxi driver block and to get back to work. So I did, and I’ve never had it since.


When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?

I have three kids and a wife finishing a Ph.D., so I pretty much have to keep 9 to 5 hours. I get up at 6.30, and try to make it to the office by 8. I’m writing early, and schedule any meeting I need to after lunch. I try to get out the door at or before 5.


At what point did you realize that tech, apps, and sites were taking a toll on your productivity and time? Or, when did you know that you had to do something about it?

I was running a large funded project and felt that I was spending far too much time on email, texting, and Twitter. So I downloaded RescueTime for a month to see what my habits were. I was astonished. If you are what you frequently do, I am an emailer and twitterer, not a writer or academic. This was stressing me out. So I looked around for something to help with the fact that I’m clearly addicted to checking email and twitter. I found the Freedom app.


What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your productivity and/or writing/working process?


Cal Newport’s Deep Work codified a lot of really useful behaviors for me on getting the most out of writing. I also experimented with a Punkt MP01 phone (which I detail here).

David Allen’s Getting Things Done was a life saver as a Ph.D. student with a kid on the way.


I ‘batch’ a lot of my reading online using the Reeder RSS app and the Papers app for technical papers.

I have found it is a lot easier to write inside ‘system’ style programs. For longer work I use Scrivener. The new version is awesome, but I’ve been using some version of it since 2009 I think. For statistical and programming work, I do it all in Rstudio.

Daily I use a combination of the Things app on my computer, mainly to stop me stressing about email, and a bit of paper. A screenshot of what I’m looking at right now shows the major buckets of my day and when I think I’ll get to them. There’s lecture notes on a course on austerity I’m teaching to write, a literature review on a paper about knowledge flows in networks, and some papers I want to read.

Scheduling-wise, I use the Freedom App to block a large portion of my day, 5 days a week. So Monday to Friday from 6 am to 3.30pm, essentially I don’t have an internet on my laptop, which is a MacBook Pro I’m not too sold on anymore. I think the MacBook air might have been the greatest laptop ever. I really like that present me has taken the choice away from future me. If I need to look something up at some point, I just write it down.


What project are you currently most excited about?

I’m working on a book called the Strength of the Weak. It’s about how small states adjust to crises differently than large states. We are not all America or China.


What are your biggest distractors?

Twitter, twitter, and twitter.


How do you prioritize the things that matter most to you?

Deadlines, and mental anguish. There’s a semi-serious attempt at writing consistently in my week that I like and try hard to adhere to.


How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?

I don’t. I don’t think the concept of balance is helpful in this context, but I do feel overconnected and overwhelmed a lot of the time, I’m trying to be better at it, but for some reason, every time I delete twitter from my phone, I end up reinstalling it.


What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive and focused on the things that matter most to you?

I have tried to meditate many times and failed every time. There is not an ounce of calm in me. I cycle in and out to work, roughly 20km a day, so that helps keep the body together I guess. I love wine. Wine does not love me.


To learn more about Stephen and his work, you can visit his site at or follow him on Twitter @StephenKinsella (when you’re not in a Freedom session, of course!)