Saturday, May 10, 2014

Of research, and resolutions, and other miscellany

This is a write up about this and that, specifically the “this and that” that has happened over the last two weeks. I continue to get many emails from many of you (thank you for that!), but it seems like some of you wrongly thought that I am depressed and in need of help. Trust me, it is nothing like that, and I am not in denial. Usually an upbeat and positive person, I am doing great.

I usually have this argument with a close friend of mine. The friend’s point is, people are better off not knowing when they will die, because that will spoil the rest of their life. And I wholeheartedly disagree. I think that I would be able to plan my life much better if I knew my expiry date. That everyone will be dying someday is a universal truth; there is no doubt about it. Now given the current state of things, I would prioritize my life differently if I knew when I am dying. If I had 1 more week, I’d straightway drop everything and go visit Peru, because that has been high up on my list. If I had a month, I’d do Peru, Scandinavia, and visit India just in time. If I had a year, I’d spend it traveling most of the time. But if I had 30 more years, I’ll continue with my job search, publish more papers, etc. Now since I don’t know when I am dying, I have no clue how to prioritize things.

Not convinced? Most food we buy, milk cartons, cheese, eggs, juice, etc. come with an expiry date. Don’t know about you, but it helps me plan my grocery, money, and space in the fridge better. I feel cheated that I just know that I will be dying someday, but I was not told when.

So why am I talking about dying? Because these days, I am prepping for a different kind of goodbye. Goodbye from the current research group. I figured that I have 16 more weeks now. Time is finite for all of us. And now that I know when I am departing, I am able to plan my 4 months of remainder work so much better. At some point, I realized that instead of working the usual 40 hours/week, if I can ramp it up to 60 hours /week, my productivity will increase by 1.5 times. Which means that I will be able to publish more papers before I leave. Which will help my CV look better, and will help me find a job in the long run. But given how many of us complain that time is a constrained commodity, how do you find those extra hours? I came up with a very simple strategy.

No opening laptop at home during the weekdays.

It is as simple as that. This plan works like wonders for many reasons. Earlier, I used to come home, open my laptop, and spend hours looking at people’s awesome lives on Facebook (and feeling worse about myself). And being a big movie addict, I’d start a movie while eating dinner, watch it until late hours, go to sleep at 3 am, wake up at 9 am, and lose time and productivity. Now since I have no laptop on weekdays, I strangely find that I have not much to do at home. Hence I go to sleep by 10 pm. I am not kidding you. I don’t remember the last time I did that, but this plan works wonders. When I sleep by 10 pm, I wake up by 6 am, without an alarm clock. I not only wake up early, I wake up with my batteries fully recharged. So I have more energy to work now. I get to work by 8 am and spend the next 12-13 hours working. Now since I know that I will be at work for long, I don’t hesitate to take a break, go on a walk around the campus, and take some time off. Earlier, I would be constantly looking at the clock, trying to finish as soon as possible. Also, since I do not Facebook from work, my Facebook time is mostly restricted to when I browse on my phone. And how much time can one spend on phone browsing Facebook? The other thing is, alone at home, I keep thinking about all the things that will go wrong for me next. Mostly unhappy, negative thoughts. So the longer I am at work, the less time I have to think negative thoughts at home. Overall, this “no laptop from home on the weekday” is a win-win situation (which also explains why most of my blog posts and the replies to your emails happen on the weekends). In fact, once you get into this habit and rediscover the value of 8 hours of sleep, you do not even miss your laptop much. Notice that restricting the time you spend online is way effective than cutting it out totally.

I have had an awesome time practicing this the last two weeks.

This strategy helps me in another way. I think that research work (or any work for that matter) consists of two kinds of skills, lower-order and higher-order. The lower-order things are those that do not require much thinking, and is done mostly with practice. The neurons in your brain follow a fixed trajectory. For example, interviewing a research subject, transcribing a research interview, supervising the undergraduate student, looking up mail addresses, posting gift cards, etc. These activities are needed for research, but do not need specialized skills. And then there is higher-order work. Like designing a study. Writing a paper. Running a statistical model. These challenge your brain to think.

Now ever since the boss gave me the marching orders, they have also been dumping lower-order menial jobs on me. And I can see why. They know that I am leaving, so no point in spending their time training me. The boss doesn’t want to give me any higher-order activity that might not be finished during the last few months of my stay here (understandably because after I leave, they will have to depend on me to finish it). So the boss has started dumping lower-order work on me. I was recently asked to transcribe 35 hour long interviews, and I have no idea why I am doing the work of an undergraduate. It’s brain dead, mind numbing, menial work. It is not research, it is the preparatory work that leads to research. Now in an 8 hour work day, I am spending 8 hours doing menial jobs. But if I increase that to a 12 hour work day, I now have 4 extra hours to do higher-order work. It makes a hell lot of difference, being able to do those few hours of challenging work everyday.

So anyhow, this post is more about me babbling, because I am on my laptop after five days of hiatus. Now you might be wondering, if a 12 hour day makes people more productive, why don’t people do it more often? The answer is simple. Working such long hours is not sustainable. You can do it in spurts. Now that I know I am leaving, I have real motivation to get as much done as I can. Because I have an incentive of publishing more papers. If I knew I would be with this group for years, I would not feel the push. It is the same analogy of why most of the studying happening during the last week of the final examination. Students don’t study seriously everyday. For better or for worse, 90% of the studying happens in the last 10% of the remaining time.

So I have taken a hiatus from everything else for now- laptopping, photography, travel, socializing. Someone told me that I should socialize and seek a support network, and I respectfully disagree. Now is the only time to get some work done, for initiating some real research-related action. Socializing can happen during old age.

Anyhow, I got two job rejects this week. And next, I am tempted to write about my interview for another two jobs, and how interesting they went. Sarcastically speaking, of course.



rt said...

i whole heartedly agree with your friend. If we were aware of the expiry date we would make plans. Life is not about making plans but living every day to its fullest.

On another note how does captcha help you - it always irritates me. But since I like your blog and visit it often i overtake it typically in more than 3 refreshes.

satish said...

Greetings from darkness.

I feel obligated to point to the obvious: there must be a downside of knowing time of your death so it is not so bad not knowing it. We might end up focusing all of our energies in conquering death and we might succeed as well; wouldn't that create problems of a different nature?

Anyway, I recently lost my phone and that made me survive on a simple borrowed phone for about a week. My mind was so disengaged with digital world, it felt like I had attained a higher spiritual state.

Lastly, I share my empathy and thoughts with rt around captcha.

Uma said...

Reading your blog after so many days. Your fight inspired me to write about my own fight and i posted on my blog after years.

I am sure you will find a nice job soon. All the best. Keep believing in yourself.