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Work-Life Balance Through Working Efficiently (Part 3)

Figure 1: Awesome figure stolen from Life Without Biases

Avoid the land of diminishing returns

People, I can't stress this enough: avoid the land of diminishing returns, also known since ancient times as the Realm of Wind and Sadness. This is a cold, barren wasteland where weary souls wander listlessly, staring at their computer screens murmuring, "I can get 2-3% improvement. Just a bit more. Almost there…" 

Meanwhile, in the Land of Productivity there are scientists who have identified the key physics of their problem, sloughed off the unimportant second- and third-order effects, and are happily shepherding their Nth first-author publication to ApJ (where N is large). Look at the contented smiles on their faces as they use the time they save on their project to hang out with friends on a Friday night, or spend dinner time chatting with their spouse and kids. 

Roughly speaking, 20% of your effort goes into completing 80% of the project. Squeezing that last 20% requires the other 80% effort. Keep in mind that these numbers aren't exact, but getting that extra significant figure on the percentages would require a lot more of my time and it wouldn't change my conclusion. Namely, those who can identify the "knee" in the effort-production curve for their projects will be able to produce more science with less time, and that science will be produced in a timely manner so as to keep the conversation moving forward within their subfield. 

Collaborate broadly, yet wisely

Want an opportunity to broaden your skill set or expand into a new subfield? Collaborate! Worried that you're about to get scooped by someone else? Ask them to join forces, or coordinate the release of your papers. Need to generate a strong third reference letter? Guess what you need to do.
Figure 2: Rad shirt. Image from CentralDesktop
However, be careful when selecting your collaborators. Ask around first, or spend some time chatting with the potential workmate at a conference or meeting. When deciding whether I want to collaborate with someone I think about
  • Does this person share my scientific approach (my vision) and can they work at my pace? You don't want someone who is going to run out way far ahead of you, and you also don't want to be held back.
  • Do we get along on a personal level?
  • Do we communicate well? Do they respond to my emails in a timely manner (days rather than months)? When things get tense, does this person give me the benefit of the doubt and understand that I would not intentionally slight them, or do things go all nonlinear and escalate into hurt feelings and/or arguments?
  • Will we both gain from this collaborative relationship? Like any relationship, you want it to be balanced in terms of effort invested and benefits gained. 
Personally, my favorite kinds of collaborations involve a theorist learning more about how observing is done and data are analyzed, and an observer learning how to think like a theorist. My collaboration with Bekki Dawson falls into this category. 

Collaborating allows you to expand your "footprint" and increase your capacity for productivity (increase $\dot{S}$). Collaborating with someone at a later career stage (postdoc while you are a student) will also allow you to pick up a third/fourth strong reference letter. 

Learn to delegate

Once you have a broad set of collaborators, and/or once you have built up a research team as a PI or professor, you must learn to transition from lone-wolf scientist to team manager. Building a large collaborative effort will only increase $\dot{S}$ faster than $R$ if you can learn to lean on the people in that team and trust them to do things right. 

This means that you must be careful in selecting team mates (see above) and you must trust them to do the job correctly without your micromanaging. This last part is very hard for many people, myself included. But the more I trust my team to get their jobs done, the more time I find available for both my work and my life. 

By trusting people you also show them that they are valued. And people who feel valued do valuable work for you. I'd say that this is one of the keys to the success of the Exolab. I bring in the best and the brightest, provide them with the resources they need to work effectively, and I work hard to ensure that they feel valued. As a result, they produce for me in a big way


Jason said…
Really good advice here!

The pictogram on the shirt took me a while. "Lab" was tricky...
Anya Faingersh said…
What can I say, awesome post :)!
Tim said…
I like it-- though with the caveat that if part of what you think is the land of diminishing returns includes the question "do I really have to consider eccentricity? circular orbits are so simple!" that has been nagging the back of your mind for weeks, the answer is still always "yes!"

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