On Being Inefficient

Academia is a great place for being judged on outputs, and I’m not just referring to the kind of output relevant to the REF. But, be it papers written, worked examples provided, grants submitted or students tutored, we are expected to deliver something tangible. Students tackling their PhD projects, however, basically have just one output they want, namely a completed thesis. This may seem like one huge, monolithic, crushing entity; the closer the submission date approaches the more terrifying and unattainable this object may seem. I have read a variety of posts recently from PhD students struggling with the task, feeling overwhelmed and somewhat got down. Of these let me just point you in the direction of one from squirreledthoughts who bemoans the fact that (s)he doesn’t feel (s)he’s productive and that time is slipping by – although (s)he’s only in their 1st year. So let me reassure him/her and those in the same boat, that efficiency can be something of an illusion.

Squirrelthoughts specifically referred to my earlier post in which I discussed the need for academics to be able to multi-task and do many things in parallel. As I said there, that is a huge ask particularly as you try to tackle some of these activities for the first time upon setting out as an independent researcher. But the plus side of this is that it means that if you are struggling with Task A, there are always Tasks B, C, D and so on ad infinitum which you can try to get on with instead. If you really hit a brick wall with writing that grant proposal, then you can feel virtuous by responding to the emails from confused students on your lecture course or refereeing someone else’s paper. You can hide in the library and try to gather ideas for next summer’s exam questions or you can virtuously read the committee paperwork for one of the committees onto which you’ve been co-opted. Any one of those may be as hard to get stuck into as the original task, but the chances are that one of them at least will feel manageable and doable if not palatable .

So that is the upside of having multi-tasking to do. Instead of sitting there thinking, why isn’t my thesis getting written, I am clearly procrastinating by dealing with emails, something I’ve seen PhD students fret about in print and in person, I try to take the opposite view. If I’m managing to get through my email mountain I try to think that’s good, the inbox is down from 250 to 249. I may be being incredibly inefficient about one thing but as long as I’m not using my computer merely to play Sudoku or follow all the aftermath of London 2012, I can feel that something on that interminable to-do list is indeed being done. The variety of things I have to do then can become a positive advantage.

Or at least that is true until the day you realise that actually you have been procrastinating that dreaded Task A after all and it’s now Too Late. The senior examiner has lost all patience with you because you’re two weeks late with your worked solutions or the grant deadline is 48 hours away and administration won’t process it if they don’t receive the form within the next 10 minutes. That’s when inefficiency really catches up with you, and no amount of feeling virtuous that email numbers 248 and 247 have also been dealt with is going to get you out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself.

Please, all you PhD students out there, do not feel that you are ‘bad’ because writing feels difficult and that sometimes you absolutely have to take a break and fritter a little time away. But think about what that frittering is. I always thought that inserting references (a tedious but necessary chore, which requires little brain power but much stamina) or polishing off diagrams and figures were great ways of leavening the load of actual writing. But clearing your inbox isn’t such a bad idea either. Breaking down the task into bite-sized and varied chunks may help to reduce the magnitude of the weight bearing down on your shoulders, and enable you to see progress day by day. And whatever else you do, do not kid yourself that senior academics have all the answers, that we are magicians who can produce material effortlessly, and who have never been tempted to do something time-wasting rather than keep single-mindedly to the task in hand.

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8 Responses to On Being Inefficient

  1. Emma says:

    Great post – thank you so much! Having been probably the least efficient PhD student of all time (see https://librariangoddess.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/dont-get-it-right-just-get-it-written/), and now dealing with academic information-handling and researcher behaviour, it’s genuinely reassuring to see this issue acknowledged by a senior academic. Being able to break that terrifyingly monolithic PhD process down into its various facets – including the dull but necessary stuff like reference management – really does help with feeling as though you’re making progress. Wish I hadn’t rediscovered FreeCell a couple of weeks ago, though …

  2. Alice says:

    Thank you so much for this post!! I had just been beginning to get into the panic spiral about my PhD (though my supervisor doesn’t seem worried at all – she probably shares your wisdom, but just hasn’t explained her calmness to me!), and this is so reassuring. I can tick off lots of other useful things I’ve done, even if for now writing is coming a little slowly, and your article makes me realise that those things are important to get done too. Also, thanks for the reality check about having just one task compared with your innumerable jobs!

  3. Suzie says:

    I always enjoy your blog posts so much! Interestingly, since moving from PhD to independent research fellowship I’ve been struggling with inefficiency because I’m so used to taking on lots of things (teaching/outreach/committees etc) and became so good at multi-tasking that suddenly having ‘just’ research to do was daunting! It seems that having those alternative tasks kept me busy kept me from ‘stressing out’ about my actual research. I’m finding it’s taking some serious mental discipline to create individual tasks, break jobs down and make sure I’m moving forward. Especially with no-one to report to, it can be tough… any advice would be welcomed!

  4. Laurence Cox says:

    Not really on topic, but your MP (Julian Huppert for those who don’t already know him) has now produced his paper on Science Policy for the Party’s conference this autumn. Go to http://www.libdems.org.uk/latest_news_detail.aspx?title=Liberal_Democrats_champion_investment_in_science_and_research_&pPK=96f624fd-0417-4ff3-8cfc-ff0952d75e92

    to download it.

    I think he will still appreciate any constructive criticism from OT regulars before it is presented.

  5. cromercrox says:

    So true. When I started my Ph. D. in September 1984 I lauched at it with all gnus guns gnus blazing and by February 1985 I had a nervous breakdown and had to take the rest of the academic year off. Nobody told me that people normally spend the first year of the Ph. D. just footling about, and that finding the departmental coffee machine might be a decent day’s work. Only after about a year, eighteen months even, does the penny drop and you realise what you are supposed to be doing. I put that down to inadequate supervision – I hope this post is read by people in a similar situation and steers them away from anguish and crisis.

  6. Freddie Lewis says:

    You may not realise it, but you’re practising structured procrastination! http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

  7. I had recently been trying to break large tasks – blog posts, a second novel – down to hourly chunks; an hour a day. But I was failing miserably. Dropping the chunk to 30 mins a day is, thus far, proving to be a far more workable target, and I often find myself actually doing 45 mins instead of the half hour. Win! Chipping away really is the least bad way to tackle immense projects.

  8. I used to multitask, but now I don’t. I used to get all the busy work done, and then find I had no time for research. Then I would stay up at night, tired, trying to write and read papers, and neglect important things like family. Now it is the other way round. In the morning, I guess I read the paper first, then answer my email, which does not take too long, and then I do research. That means, often, that other things get left undone. Eventually I have to do the other stuff, because of deadlines, so I put research aside and get all the busy work done fast and efficiently, because there is no other time.

    Another thing is that one makes their own choices. Some want to spend a lot of time on admin, and their research often slips but their salaries rise.

    So it takes all types, and for me I am happy if I have a research problem to bug me rather than being a busy person. I suppose this is about time management, like that famous book on the Seven Habits of highly effective people, by Steven Covey. That book influenced me and is still worth reading.

    Point is that it is not easy to think through new ideas and you need to be fresh and happy. So I do the research first. In the end we will have the sense of accomplishment and remembered for my research rather than being in admin and worrying about money most of the time.

    Regarding doing your PhD, well maybe things have changed, and I do remember a certain insecurity about my ability to do anything new in research. Besides that there was very little pressure and that time was, in comparison to my earlier years on faculty, very good because I was single minded. Same for my post doc.

    Do research: in the end that is what you will be remembered for in your career.