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Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 2)

In a previous post I presented a simple relationship between academic happiness and happiness, number of responsibilities and impact of the stuff you do. In this post I continue with some of the consequences of that simple relationship. 
Figure 3: A turtle. With a rocket on its back. Lookit that turtle go!
Learn to work smarter rather than harder

One of the best recommendation letters I've read stated that the applicant wasn't just smart, but she worked smart. The recommender went on to describe how the applicant was good at identifying projects that yielded huge impact (large $\eta$) relative to the amount of work invested. On the flip side, I know of a lot of extremely smart individuals who are stuck in postdoc positions because they focus too much on topics that very few people really care about. Don't get me wrong, you should pursue topics that move you. But if you are looking for a job, you have to offer something in return. Working on projects that don't help other scientists or that don't advance the field is not offering much in return for employment, which increases stress and decreases happiness.

Further, having projects with small $\eta$ reduces your cross-section for interaction with other scientists, which in turn reduces $\dot{S}$ because you can't build productive collaborations that help you get stuff done. A reduced scientific cross section also shields you from good luck because your opportunities to shine at the right moment are decreased.

ABW: Always be writing

I often get questions about how I manage to have time to write blog posts when I also have to write papers, proposals, recommendations, etc. One key to my writing success is that I live in a steady state of writing. But here I'm using "writing" as not just the act of putting words on the page, but the process of developing an idea, composing things mentally, and giving myself the space I need to take the idea from inception to final product.
Figure 4: A scene from one of the best movies/plays ever featuring a wonderful cameo by Alec Baldwin. Always be!
The first thing I do is I make use of dead time in my day to think about what I'm writing at the moment. Walking to work is great for this, as are long flights, waiting for "next" on the basketball court, walking from one place to another on campus. I've learned to make use of snippets of time, no matter how large or small, to compose things in my mind. Then, when I get to a computer I dump everything I've been thinking about onto the page with no regard to order, grammar, spelling, etc.

The second thing I do is once I have everything spilled onto the page (usually in Google Docs), I designate 30-minute writing blocks into my day. No longer, no shorter: 30 minutes exactly. During those half-hour periods I write from minute-one to minute-last. Writing in these sessions might be composing a section, writing a single paragraph, polishing something previously written, outlining at my blackboard, or just standing in the middle of my office with my eyes closed and headphones on envisioning the final product. The latter activity is really important for me because if I don't keep the problem in front of me, it tends to artificially grow more and more scary in my brain, which in turn initiates procrastination. However, if I separate the task at hand into a discrete piece, independent of all the other things I need to accomplish, I can spend 30 minutes doing highly efficient writing.

Now here's the magical key: once the 30 minute session is up, I stop. I walk right away from the Google Doc and go onto the next thing. If I go over time by 30 minutes, I start wearing myself out, which reduces the chance I'll want to get back to it tomorrow. And if I don't get to it tomorrow, then I'm hosed, because my train of thought is interrupted and I have to waste energy in the phase transition back into writing.

But if I string together 4 30-minute sessions on a writing project in a single week, I can look back and be proud of my steady stream of progress. The paper/proposal/chapter that I'm working on looks SO much better than it did on Monday, and the stress I felt on Sunday with that task hovering over my head, all big and scary looking, begins to dissipate harmlessly.

Finally, working in the steady state of ABW, I get way more practice than the average astronomer, which allows me to position myself and my group better for grants, speaker slots, prizes, fellowships, etc. The more I write, the better I become, the easier it is to write, and then I write more. It's a nice cycle to be in. You just need the initial investment of discipline.

For more on this, check out this book.


Believe it or not, this whole blog post took only 2 thirty-minute sessions this weekend, and one was spent during an NFL playoff game (on TV, not at Gillette Stadium). Thus, $\dot{S}$ was pretty large, and R was constant because I've already decided to spend part of my time maintaining this blog.

Now the question to you, dear reader, is $\eta$ for this post large? Please sound off in the comments, or send me an email, or comment on the Facebooks. I met many of you at the AAS meeting, and you are all amazing people with good things to add to the conversation. Stop lurking and jump into the fray. Let's use this blog as a forum for how to change our field into what we want it to be.


Amy P said…
Your suggestion for 30 minute blocks of writing is excellent! I find 20 minutes to be about my max before I need to move on to something else. If I spend much more than that, I get bored with a topic, I miss critical points I am trying to make and I start writing like an engineer again. "Writing like an engineer" is what I think you call "Pous-ing Out" - provide every single bit of information you know about something, even if it's not relevant to your audience. Great set of posts, bro.
David Rodriguez said…
This is excellent advice for any project, not just astronomy-related papers, proposals, etc. I'll certainly have to try it out, since I tend to leave things for 1-2 hour blocks and then get too tired.
The concept of keeping the problem in front of you and fresh in your mind is also good advice as I've seen that when I have a ton of edits to do on a paper I tend to procrastinate thinking "it's too big for right now." Once I sit down and deal with it, though, it turns out I could have done it quickly and was worrying needlessly.

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