Constancy and moderation wins the race

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Photo credit: esoule

As a first year graduate student reading Advice for New Faculty by Robert Boice, you may think I’m getting ahead of myself since I have a long way to go before I become Professor Olga. But besides advice for the ivory tower, this book has great life advice. This guy is a psychologist and spent years studying exemplary new faculty and what sets them apart. The book emphasizes “constancy and moderation,” essentially “slow and steady wins the race.”

The originator of “slow and steady wins the race” is Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The Tortoise puts in steady work, constantly working a little bit towards the goal. The Hare, on the other hand, procrastinates until the last minute and is forced to sprint to a low-quality product—losing the race when the Hare is clearly the faster runner.

Like many of us, I sympathize with the hare. When faced with a new project I think to myself, “I’m smart. I could finish this in a night.” I procrastinate until a few days before, then rush to get everything done, realizing the project was much bigger than I thought, and I end up with a B- on something I could have earned A+.

As a nerd, I love data and graphs and what struck me about Advice for New Faculty were the charts of input and output of “exemplary quick-starting” new faculty and their less exemplary peers, shown in Figure 15.2 below. The “quick-starting” faculty (labeled Moderates) worked consistently on writing throughout the week and produced many more pages of writing per week than their peers (labeled Romantics). These less productive faculty romanticized the impulsiveness of binges, ie misguided statements such as “True genius is inspired,” “I have to wait until the perfect moment to work,” “That’s what divine madness means.”

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How does this affect me, and more importantly, you? Boice suggests tackling difficult tasks such as writing in brief, daily sessions (BDSs) lasting as few as 15 minutes and as many as 90 minutes. Why brief? Brevity is essential as you work while you are fresh and able, not until you’re exhausted (see: glamorized exhaustion). Why daily? By working on your projects daily, you keep them fresh in your mind and which allows connections to appear, almost effortlessly.

But BDSs apply to more than just writing. They are perfect for your most paralyzing activity, the activity or task you know you have to do but you can’t seem to muster the motivation. Ask yourself: what is my most paralyzing activity? For computer scientists, it could be the [intolerable] biology class. For biologists, it could be the dreaded calculus homework. It could be learning a new programming language, writing your thesis, exercising, or mastering an instrument. For me, it’s PhD and fellowship applications.

Next, schedule this activity at your peak time. For many people (including myself), this is first thing in the morning. Before you check your email or read your blogs. It doesn’t have to be for very long, even a focused 15-minute push can greatly advance a project. If you’re deeper into the project, you could go for as long as 90 minutes. By the time the rest of the world wakes up, you’ll have accomplished your hardest task.

Lastly, begin before feeling ready. Before you get that surge of inspiration you’re waiting for, start putting words or code or brushstrokes down. The inspiration will come as you work. More on this in future posts.

For example, last quarter I had 5 fellowship applications and 7 PhD school applications to submit with deadlines of November 1st, November 18th, and December 1st. Doesn’t sound so bad until you see how much writing you have to do. 2000 words for one fellowship, 5000 characters for another. The amount of writing paralyzed me. Of course, I could use materials from finished apps, but first I had to finish them. Over October and November, I worked on my applications every day in the morning. It was incredibly liberating to know that my paralyzing work was underway.

You can do this. Comment or send me an email about what is your most paralyzing activity, and how you’re going to fight/combat its influence over you.

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