Friday, December 5, 2014

My academic anti-lifehacks

I'm an academic productivity hack addict. A failing one. I keep finding new apps that are supposed to help me in my work. I test them and stop using them usually within one or two weeks. I keep finding new advice that sounds brilliant, try to put it in practice, and fail. So I thought, well, whatever I do in some sense works for me. Perhaps instead I should try to figure out what it is that I do that ends up killing all the supposedly good habits I'm trying to acquire and still makes me almost efficient at what I do. So here's a list of weird academic hacks that I came up with, which kind of capture some of my main strategies.
  1. I forget my laptop charger. Every day. If I'm going to work in my office, library, beach shack, gym, or wherever  I decide to work, I make it a point  not to take my laptop charger. It will limit the amount of work I'll do on the laptop (my battery life is around 4-5 hrs), so (1) I'll focus on work and avoid procrastination when I use the laptop, because I am more aware that every minute of my battery life that I spend googling whether a cow without a head is heavier than an average tiger is going to leave me laptopless in my boring office for a minute longer. (2) The usual stuff people do when they procrastinate (such as using internet connection, watching yt videos of hunting turtles, shooting zombies, etc.) drains my battery faster than just typing text on a dimmed screen. (3)  Once my battery dies, I'll have to come up with a more old-school way of spending my time usefully - I'll read a book or a paper I didn't have time to read or build a forest shelter I always dreamt of thus awaking the little Ron Swanson that lives inside my head. Perhaps I might even consider interacting with humans without the mediation of digital technology. Scary stuff.
  2. I forget my laptop. Once a week or so. See point (3) of remark 1. Also, a break from technology will make me feel refreshed. Not to mention that once I sit in front of my laptop the next day, I'll feel more excited about spending the next few hours using it to write.
  3. I do what I want. Seriously. If there is a research task/project that I need to complete, but I don't feel like doing it (and there isn't any real time pressure so I can postpone it a bit), I don't do it. Instead, I focus on some other research/writing task that I feel like working on. If your job is your calling (and if you're a researcher, it should be, why else would anyone want to become one, really), in the end things will balance out. If there is a project I never feel like working on,  I give it up - I  can't be creative or efficient working on it and I can spend my time better being more efficient working on what I love. If in the end things don't balance out, it means I had the wrong job to start with, so it's actually good to be failing, because it'll force me to look for a carrer I'm more destined for and will be happier with.
  4. I don't plan my work. I cannot predict what I will have mood to work on even in a day or two. If I think too much about what to do, I (1) waste my time planning, (2) usually fail to accomplish what I planned anyway, because life is too chaotic and upredictable (and I tend to overestimate what I can really accomplish), (3) I feel forced to work on stuff I planned to do but at a given moment don't want to do (see the point about doing what you want), (4) get frustrated about (2). Discipline is cool if you're a character in a Bruce Lee movie, but in real life instead of making me a research ninja, it's rather likely to make me suicidal.
  5. I plan to work. But only one or two days ahead. That is, I put aside a certain time to work, without deciding what I'll be doing. If I plan more, I run into the troubles mentioned in point 4. If I do not plan to work at all (and I have the attention span of a stoned giraffe), I'll end up spending my days on not doing enough to progress with my  work. If I plan more than two days ahead, again, you might end up wasting my time overthinking things and getting frustrated over unexpected events ruining my work schedule.   
  6. I don't do my homework. Or at least not completely. To write a sensible page of a research paper I need to read around 100 pages of material related to the topic. If I  want to write 15 pages in a paper, this grows to 1500 pages of homework. By the time I finish reading the last paper from the pile I have no idea what was in the first one. Instead of reading all there is about the topic first, I gather the materials, read all abstracts, pick 20 top papers that are most interesting or most relevant to what I want to work on and start writing, reading up as I go.
  7. I write in layers. Writing a research paper is a bit like painting. I think of different papers to refer to as paint colors. I cannot use them all at the same time. I start painting some bits thinking about one paper, put it aside once I've written down all my thoughts resulting from this reading. Then I move on to the next paper, intertwine my  new thoughts with the ones that I already have, and so on. As I proceed, the picture that will arise will become more and more clear - at the end what I have to do is to take a step back, think about the structure and add some finishing strokes.
  8. I don't focus too much. If you think you can be happy and efficient working on one single project for an extended period of time, you're fooling yourself. Or you might be a cylon, get tested. I always have at least two or three significantly different projects to work on, to switch between them when I get bored with what you're doing right now. I always have at least two or three books that I'm reading at the same time.
  9. I assume the reader is an angry, picky, lazy idiot. He's angry, so he'll bitch about any slight mistake I make - I try to avoid the mistakes, but am prepared for some bitchy reviews anyway. He's picky - so there are no small things to be ignored, before I submit I have to have no doubts about any part of what I say in the paper. If there's something I think I could've done better, he'll pick on it, so I try to deal with it before sending the paper off. He's an idiot: I have to repeat my points (tell them what you're gonna do, do that, and then tell them what you've done), make them as clear as possible. He's lazy: if he has to read a few books or papers to understand the paper, he'll rather toss it aside and go for a beer. I try to make the paper as self-contained as possible given the circumstances. 
  10. Perish or perish. If you feel forced to write because your work requires you to publish, or if you choose journals to submit your paper to based on some weird point or ranking system, you're in the game for wrong reasons. I aim for the best journals in my field, but I write and submit stuff only if I think I have something new to say and really feel like writing. And I don't measure the quality of a journal by means of some weird official ranking prepared by people who don't know much about the discipline. To face the truth: in a sense I'll perish anyway, so I might as well not give a damn about ridiculous publishing pressures.

1 comment:

Lucas Logan said...

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