How to cultivate personal productivity as a Qualitative researcher?

Jun 09, 2022, Jiten

We live in the age of information overload, and several distractions consciously challenge our attention throughout the day. An average office worker receives 121 emails per day and sends around 40 emails for business purposes. And then there are work-related calls and messages. We see about 6000 to 10000 ads every day, as per an estimate based on a study done by Yankelovich.  

How do we practice productivity in such challenging times? 

What are the good practices that leaders might be following that we can learn something from? 

Last month we spoke to a few qualitative research veterans to understand their perspective on personal productivity amongst qualitative researchers and how they remain productive and produce the client mesmerizing reports that they are known for. This article summarises the learning.

What is productivity, in your opinion? 

That's an interesting question to ask. I think there is a tendency to look at productivity just as speed or output, right. But when we talk about the deep work productivity that would be useful in qualitative research, it could take up speed but without compromising quality.

When I joined Lintas, we were given this Diary, which was called the AQT Diary. AQT Meant Actioning Quality on Time. And deep productivity is really about bringing together that semiotic myth of quality and time. Deep work is like that state of mind where you become like those famous batsmen we talk about. They get their eye in; they can see everything very clearly. And you are in the flow. I think people confuse activity with productivity. So, there was this big debate in Psychology some years ago where people kept saying that people will have to be multitaskers to be productive. And what they found out now is that multitaskers are not necessarily productive. Who is productive? People who do multiple activities, but at the point of time they do each activity, they do only that activity.

  Nirupama Kaushik  

It all boils down to planning. I think the first is not only planning your day; you know what task is supposed to happen. We have to deliver a project of 22 focus groups in 4 weeks. Planning for the project begins right at the beginning. Even how the analysis will get done, Who will work on it etc.? We plan to make sure that it's all happening in time. Even before researchers start writing the presentation, I will spend time with the team and help them discuss the findings. I think you plan almost anything that you do. I mean, it's not only to do with qualitative research, but it is an important thing even in life. For instance, I never step out of the house to shop without making a list. Because I might come back buying things that I don't need and have forgotten what I need to buy. So for me, planning is absolutely critical. 

  Sakina Pittalwala 

How do you plan your day to ensure you can do 'Deep Work'? Do you create any rituals, habits, or Practices within your routine to boost your productivity?  

I don't have a time of day to be most creative or productive. For me, it is unpredictable and has everything to do with the other things on my mind or what's going on around me to get me in a state of flow. However, the deadline cannot be held hostage while I am waiting for this to 'happen' naturally. So I try to create flow moments by clearing my calendar and mind, stimulation via taking a break or a cup of coffee, and inspiration by talking to a colleague. 

  Sharanya Sitaraman 

I like to ease into my day. And a lot of my time is about absorbing. That is also around some routine - sorting the room, checking my plants, watering then, playing the morning prayers, making my filter coffee, browsing the news and social media feed. Technology plays an enabling role - prayers are played from the diverse playlist, all browsing is happening on my tablet, and plants get clicked for the latest bloom, which can go on to my Instagram. So my entire morning routine is about awakening my senses - not so much about work directly.  

 Radhecka Roy 


I always start the day earlier. I start earlier than the rest of the team because I also know that once the work day starts, I always tend to get caught up in many things, so I always tend to start at least 30 minutes earlier. I make a long list of things I have to do that day. Even though, they are very minute things like following up with a client or writing an email to someone.  When it comes to the thinking part, my mornings are the best time for me. I don't mind waking up at even 3:00 o'clock in the morning, but I can't keep awake beyond a point. I usually do most of my thinking in the morning.  

  Sakina Pittalwala 

I find that my productivity is better if I run my morning properly. An ideal day is with all my favourite (morning) routines, including brewing filter coffee correctly, there might be an exercise element. And it may not be necessarily a workout. My l idea of an excellent exercise would be taking a walk outside. Not trying to go from zero to a hundred and leaping into the day. And if you know how the city wakes up if you just observe nature and how it gradually becomes like that if you can do that, not just that you will be awake, you will be happily awake, and then you will be alert. I am a big believer in mood and I am a person who has been trained in music. If you were in South India, you grew up with M.S. Subbalakshmi; if you were in north, you grew up with Jaagran music. There is a reason why music is played at a particular time: vibration. For some people, it will be through religion. For some, it's a practice. 

  Nirupama Kaushik

What do you do to ensure 'Deep Work' within your team? 

Apart from planning, the other part is trying to increase efficiency by implementing systems and processes. As a qualitative researcher, where you are involved in everything, you have to dip your fingers into virtually every step of the project, barring the recruitment. I think there's a lot of efficiencies that can be brought in there, and we've done that. Whether it is in simple things like costing templates or if it's a certain type of product test then, a standardized discussion guide, Proposals, discussion guide, screener, that kind of things. What we've also done is that many tasks are very operational, which somebody who considers themselves to be a thinker will baulk at. We have kept one person in the team who basically looks after many of those operational steps. For instance, as an IPSOS Unilever team, we follow ISO. So, this person will sanitize all the client-facing documents like a discussion guide, screeners or proposal presentation and ensure that it is absolutely ISO approved. Also, as a researcher, are you in a good position to assess the costing? Probably not. There can be mistakes, or you take a lot of time. So again, we have this person who looks at the costings or negotiates whatever needs to be done and what the researcher gets in her hand is ready costing that you converge. It's even created in that table format that must be ready to stick into the presentation.  

There's a lot of financial compliance that needs to be done on projects as well, so again, this person is only tasked with all the operational aspects of the project, where our researchers either don't have the eye for the detail or don't have the inclination. We do a lot of regional work for Unilever. International RFQs are completely templatized. For example, certain costing heads will not change. Specs like recruitment, moderation, project management or facility hire. And then, in that same costing sheet, there's another tab where you can add the peculiarities. Which are intrinsic to the project that you are doing. For instance, to purchase products from the market. Your primary costs are untampered, and it comes back in a format in which you can include every single thing. So you can literally pick up the cost from there and quote it in your proposal. 

  Sakina Pittalwala 

In qualitative research, we always work with smaller teams with certain limits. I think people initially like to surround themselves with the people who are like them. I think the principle of deep productivity is that you surround yourself with people who have similar cultural values and passions. But, in skill sets, they compensate for what you don't have. that is the way in which collectively the team will become more productive, It's like a potluck. Everyone is bringing something to the table. Nobody gets to have a free lunch; no one person should be burdened with the cooking all the time. But yeah there will always be a person who is the chef who has planned the menu and then there are people who are playing to their strengths. Also, I think like every other discipline, for qualitative research also if you want to be productive, you must keep your knife sharp. To keep your knife sharp, you will do quite a bit of reading and quite a bit of exposure. Also, you should have a lot of hobbies and interests outside of work. When people say then how do we interpret our findings- there is data but then, there is you yourself. The other day, I was talking to my team for debriefing on a men's category.  There was this discussion that `the consumer said this, but the consumer did not say this’, I told him you are a man, you wear these clothes. If you applied yourself to this and put yourself literally into the consumer's shoes at that point in time, you could open up the answer. Without biasing- because the data has to  come from the consumer, but the interpretation instinctively will come from you, so I think the personal productivity is really how you bring your experiences to bear upon your work. One point of the connectivity is having a deep understanding of different people's skill sets and interests and bringing that what we call the dream team. This person knows the category, that person knows the consumer. This person is interested in this etc, etc, I mean in an ideal world you would have multiple teams like this. In the real world, you just have the same person doubling up for many other things. So that is one way at the work level you would do it. But your personal productivity will depend on your own renewing things yourself. You are renewing yourself all the time .

  Nirupama Kaushik  

How do you practice 'Deep Work' (Presentation Writing)? 

I divide up Deep Work into 2 – 3 separate mental processes:

Chewing: Slow thinking, letting things fall into place slowly, allowing ideas to sink in and develop, perceiving patterns. 

Sketching: Drawing out connections with clarity, and creating a logic-flow.

Writing: Storytelling, visualizing, slide production.

I feel each of these needs its own time, space and mood, and I try my best to cater to these three mind spaces differently. 

  Sharanya Sitaraman 

I always spend a lot of time for the 'story' of my work to fall into place. And for that, I need my creativity and lateral thinking unlocked. The rest then flows easily.  

I would say that this thinking, reflective, immersive process is somewhat critical for all qual practitioners. Unless the insights and story don't come together, you don't have your output. And for me, that is about time to reflect, let the disparate bits of observations sit in my consciousness - before they come together for a revelatory breakthrough. 

 Radhecka Roy  

Any document that I'm personally writing that's a piece of thought. I spend a lot of time on the thinking, I do not start writing. I first think about what I want to do, how I'm going to do it, and how I'm going to say it. I create a detailed flow on the pen and paper in an old-fashioned way. Or on a word document, depending on whatever is handy. I create a detailed flow - Virtually slide by slide. So if I'm doing a 20-slide presentation. I would almost put down OK slide one. This is what I'm going to be doing, what I need to be saying, this is what I need to be leaving them with, then I move to slide two and so on. And I do the writing much only at the end. I never do the typing or the deck creation. Because for me, I don't believe I'm a very visually talented person, I will otherwise just get stuck on getting the look of the presentation. I tell my team, but if you're writing a discussion guide,  your time is best served. If you spend 3 hours thinking about what you need to be asking, because once that is, that flow is all set, putting the question into proper words and asking a question is not difficult at all.  That part will take you maybe an hour, and it's my own personal experience that if I need four hours to do something, I would probably spend 3 hours thinking of how to do it and in one hour I will then actually produce it, quickly. If your thinking is clear, your document will be clear. If your document is clear, then very obviously, you're thinking was clear. 

  Sakina Pittalwala  

I think different things work for different people. In qualitative research you cannot have something where you are not invested personally. You need to be very invested in what you are doing to get to that productivity level. you know, it's like certain dishes you cook them up 70 percent and 30 percent you put on simmer. That 30 percent simmer is the deep productivity. So what I need to invoke the simmer and who do I need. Do I need to go through this alone?  When people tell you to sleep over a problem, it is literal. Your brain cells regenerate themselves in the night and the connections that they form in the morning first, you had a good night of sleep is different from the decision that you would have taken you to know in a moment of stress. For others, it is brainstorming in smaller groups. Deep productivity is trying to give yourself certain places of connection. Certain zones of calm and reflection and certain zones of action in a day. And not to leap into action without having to benefit from reflection.  

  Nirupama Kaushik 

Does technology has a role to play in us being productive? 

I am a die-hard 'calenderiser'. I put every task on my Outlook calendar and assign time for it. And move it to a different spot if it takes longer or I don't get to it. Things that don't make it to my calendar never get done, and things which do gets done… well, this article got written, didn't it? I now use digital whiteboards such as Miro. It helps connect thoughts in a flexible way and represents the though process more intuitively. Also, aids collaboration, as colleagues can add their thoughts in. 

  Sharanya Sitaraman 

My use of tech also is not so much directly on work  but things that set me in my most creative mode and primed to work best. So music, the basic notes app on ios, split-screen options, sometimes use of apple pencil to make my jottings. I have used a few apps in the past - but most fade away after the initial novelty.  

 Radhecka Roy  

The tools that I use are the available ones on outlook, which is part of the mail. I mean, it's almost like the option is either you write it down, or you type it in, so I type it in, and that's good because it also keeps sending me a reminder. If you are a person who has a genuine time management issue, I don't think these kinds of tools would help, but I think these tools are more for people who are well organized and want to become better organized. There are a lot of things that are blocking you from performing on time. There could be anxiety. There could be lots of other kinds of stress. So until and unless you don't sort those out, these tools cant help you. Like every year, we have this thing about there are all these candidates for time management training. Jab to conquer. Tum jaake baat karoge, jabtak unka sochane ka tareeka nahi badaloge, kuch hone waala nahi hai. 

I am sure I would benefit a lot from the tools because I am otherwise quite organized, so maybe this will show me more ingenious ways of becoming even more organized. 

  Sakina Pittalwala  

I think there is a lot of technology in work already like share point, which comes in very useful so that we are not reinventing the wheel every single time. But my personal usage will be much more only about keeping you know productivity where I  tend to be much more old fashioned and I tend to go the long hard way of writing things down. I would say all of the technology is just means to an end. There is a number of Apps which I think are essential to me in terms of keeping track of my family or keeping track of my goal, I mean Google Reminders and so on.  For me, it is not so much about productivity, because I think I can manage the productivity part; it is just about helping you see what the lay of a day looks like, and then prioritising and keep reprioritising, but I don’t think that technology can take the decisions for you. 

  Nirupama Kaushik

Do you think qualitative researchers are more pressed for time or personal productivity compared to other knowledge workers? 

I think; definitely. I don't know about other knowledge workers, but I'm assuming see, a lot of it has to do with the fact that today women have staffed many qualitative researchers. Women have lots and lots of other responsibilities. If you just look at this girl, the operations girl in my team, she's married, has a kid, and lives with her in-laws. She has so many responsibilities at home alone. Besides, being Hawkeye, she pays attention to all the little details that she is in charge of. So obviously, I think it's very challenging for women and I think the nature of qualitative research is also such that you're like, you have your finger dipped in virtually every little thing that goes out, unlike in quantitative, where there are lots of people managing everything else. But I might also tell you that I have seen some of the best and most efficient time managers amongst qualitative researchers. If you love the job, you become accustomed to what your job demands. You learn how to manage everything else around you so that you're becoming more productive. I think the qualitative researchers are the most hard-pressed. And I also feel that they're probably the most efficient time managers and not everybody.  

  Sakina Pittalwala 

I would have to say they are not pressed for time uniquely but pressed in a different way from other knowledge workers. What happens is that in the qualitative, the work we do is heavily tapping into people's lives. So that could be emotionally very difficult. I used to head a protocol that I used to run for Unilever for several years which was just based on deep one on one conversations, the first half-hour, we would just let them open up through something profound from their personal life and go on to have that conversation. So in the first few months when I was on that Protocol I would just come back to the hotel room and would just blankly look at the TV Screen because of the emotional burden. Eventually, you learn how to switch on, and switch off. Qualitative Researchers are good at making people open up because of their passion and their ability to open themselves, which is why people tell them things. But passion is a double-edged sword; it means that you are also emotionally vulnerable. But that can also be a huge burden to your productivity. Qualitative researchers who come back from groups and interviews get stressed out. And it will be a terrible waste if I tell people to become cold and unemotional about what they do, because those same things make you an excellent Qualitative Researcher. So what you need to do is not to have a lot of emotional patterns of upswings and downswings. You have to learn how to detach from your work and connect back. You have to respect the emotion of what someone has said and yet you shouldn't become personally involved in that.

  Nirupama Kaushik


If you make it here, thanks for reading. Here are some common patterns and action points: 

  1. All the veterans talked about the importance of reflection and the importance of building thought clarity. Spare some time for reflection before your start all your ‘research’ documents.  
  2. Starting your day right has profound implications on our quality of work.
  3. Develop hobbies that can give you exposure, and make you articulate. This is the way you keep your knife sharp.
  4. Adopt systems and processes to reduce the time on repetitive tasks. 



Jun 09, 2022