Resolving Your Way out of a Rut

I wonder how many of my readers have already broken their New Year’s resolutions, assuming they even bothered to dream them up in the first place. Daily visits to the gym and a diet excluding chocolate sound all very well on December 31st, but then look less enticing on January 1st. If you want to know what my resolutions are, I have put them publicly out there – along with eight other scientists – in Nature this week. Other resolutions may be less specific: how about resolving not to feel busy all the time, or to get yourself out of the rut you feel yourself in? Both of these were advocated by Oliver Burkeman in recent months, not specifically as ‘resolutions’, but as ways to make you feel better and happier (see here and here).

As an academic scientist I am all in favour of not being stuck in a rut. It seems to me that career structures don’t necessarily favour this, since if you become an expert it’s all too easy to feel obliged to stay in that same field to make your case look convincing when you apply for grants and to be sure that the invitations to speak at conferences keep coming. To tear that up, metaphorically, and say that you’re going to become an expert in something different might be thought to be a brave thing to do. Nevertheless for our mental stimulation it may well be the right thing to do and I would advocate taking time to consider whether you’ve milked the subject you’re currently working in as much as you genuinely want to do, or whether you’re actually staying put out of fear of the unknown and a suspicion it will be ‘difficult’.

It will be. I think that’s certain. My own experience of branching out into new fields is that when you first try to publish you may well have a hard time of it. Referees will, consciously or otherwise, be thinking if they’ve never heard of you it probably means you’re not up to much. It can be decidedly frustrating. If you have entered the field with different experience and a different mindset you may approach a problem, familiar in the field, in a totally novel way that can be hard to get accepted. It doesn’t mean you are wrong though!

Of course getting out of your rut may mean nothing as drastic as completely changing field. You can allow your research to ‘evolve’ into new areas, perhaps starting up a new avenue whilst still maintaining the primary one until such time as you have sufficient preliminary data to make a splash of a research grant application. But, leaving that sort of evolution aside (of the kind I describe my late mentor following in my previous post), you can also get an injection of stimulation simply by taking on some sideline activity to kickstart your brain cells and to introduce some novelty and unfamiliarity into the daily routine. That could be anything from starting a blog, becoming a STEMnet ambassador or joining a new committee within your departmen,t according to inclination and experience. Any of these may offer new opportunities for rekindling enthusiasm if you’re feeling jaded. Any would seem appropriate as a New Year’s resolution to contemplate. And, speaking personally, I know how much starting this blog 4 1/2 years ago refreshed me, releasing a voice I didn’t know I had and which unexpectedly has opened new doors for me.

What about the other suggestion from Burkeman I alluded to above? Can one resolve the daily ‘busyness’ crisis? His solution seemed to be to compartmentalise time – by which I understand he means things such as not reading emails in bed, or allowing exam-marking to encroach on time set aside for family evenings – and to accept that not everything will get done. That last point is an interesting one. I don’t think a department head would take it too kindly if the exam-marking never got done, but it is probably the case that some things (including some of the endless emails that turn up in one’s inbox) can be allowed to slip into oblivion. Perhaps on this front the correct answer is to construct a list of tasks that could be allowed to ‘softly and suddenly vanish away’ in order of priority i.e. put the absolutely inessential ones at the top and work down. And then stick to it. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be a list from which things will ever get crossed off, since when would you cross off a task you had merely successfully not even attempted to start? It might be, however, that thinking about what you regard as a low priority may be a useful exercise in itself: who are the people whose emails you don’t want to reply to and feel you can get away with ignoring? Not an easy question to answer honestly; often the most difficult emails to deal with really are rather essential. However, the old adage of don’t let the urgent crowd out the important is worth bearing in mind, although it’s easier said than done.

The final piece of advice I took away from the earlier Burkeman column was to make sure there is some space in one’s life when nothing else is happening. Perhaps that recommendation is the really important thing which needs to force its way into your consciousness over the urgent crises that batter us from day to day. Finding time to breathe, metaphorically, may be the only way it is possible to consider how to branch out from your cosy rut. Doing this when you lie in bed endeavouring to get some sleep is not likely to be conducive to a good night’s rest, so other times for thinking need to be identified. So, if your New Year’s resolution really was to spend more time in the gym, perhaps the optimum strategy is to use time on the treadmill to sink into a contemplative mood and find out what it is that you really want to do that is different from what you are doing. That way you could possibly achieve two goals simultaneously, and refresh body and mind.

Happy 2015!


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3 Responses to Resolving Your Way out of a Rut

  1. Alice Bondi says:

    My dad always said that a rut is like a grave, only longer.

  2. Stephen says:

    My mother-in-law’s time-saving advice is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly”, which can be applied readily to those lower-priority tasks…

  3. Emily Flashman says:

    Hi Athene,

    Thanks for another insightful post, always a pleasure to read. This one is particularly resonant with me at the moment. I am trying to (a) get myself out of a ‘scientific rut’ and apply my expertise in a new field, at the same time as (b) not allowing myself to feel in a constant state of stress at the never-ending ‘to do’ list. Not so easy when the ‘to do’ list includes a major grant application with an imminent deadline (see (a)), but maybe then I should be compartmentalising my time better by not reading blog posts when I should be writing!

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