Wednesday, November 07, 2012

a day in the life: lack of willpower, and footnoted opinions about on marginal utilities of productivity and on collaboration.

(this was originally written after sundown on sunday, 4 november 2012.)

the sentiments are pretty common in my life, so this post is probably an instance of the usual affect of academic researchers who work all the time. lately i've developed the opinion that this affect mightn't be the most effective means of working, especially if one trades in the coin that is creativity and innovation [1].

with that in mind, the short post below is about trying to hack my own personal productivity function, by way of a morning routine that exploits the temporary "reboot" effect after a good night's sleep.

despite the brevity of the post, i surprised even myself by how many side opinions i have in this business. some are about the nature of collaboration .. which i'll write more about in a future post.

in principle i want to work, but i cannot seem to gather the willpower to do so on a sunday evening to break out the pen and pad of paper, turn to section 3 of someone else's paper, and work out details to technical lemmas.

i'd much rather it be easy. anyone would.

experience tells me, however, that if i don't put in the work, then i won't really understand any of it .. at least to the degree that i can effectively use their results.

i'm not so tired from the week before and there is nothing stopping me from doing what i described above. on the other hand, i don't feel well-rested, either. there is the risk that
  • i start working,
  • everything's going well,
  • and suddenly it's .. 2am? fvck!
my original intention would have been, as always, to get up bright and early at 7am [2] and make use of the pure productivity of the morning, as to make some significant progress on my own solo [3] projects ..

.. because i know, from experience, that the time i spend at the office will be productive, but not nearly as much as those first morning hours.

as for those footnotes ..

[1] put more plainly: what if there were a strict maximum on the amount of work actually done, as a function of the number of hours worked?
naively, the opposite is more believable: that the more hours one puts towards work, the more results one gets. assuming that either there were infinitely many hours in the day or if we didn't have to sleep or rest or mentally reboot, then sure. i'd believe it true.

on the other hand, a single day is a closed, bounded interval of time. so if your productivity is a continuous function, then ..

.. well, you know the rest.
recent popularisations in the news, such as this article, suggest that maybe the extreme value theorem really does apply to work hours.

"By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day."
of course, these studies refer specifically to manual labor .. but i'm willing to try the same for focus and energy when it comes to academic work.

[2] this is not just wishful thinking, of wanting to get up early and not doing so. i've been stuck on the habit of getting up and working right away on maths, ever since the last year of my first postdoc.

it started because on teaching days, i just couldn't find the time and energy in the evenings to do any good research, with the operative word being "good." i could flip open the papers, try out either easy ideas that would surely fail or obscure ideas that i couldn't ever resolve .. both of which have the pleasant illusion that i'm being productive, but the first years of my postdoc say otherwise.

interestingly enough, a month or two after i started this new routine, i started getting ideas for a new rademacher-type theorem .. which eventually became the first of a series of projects that are continuing to the present day. that, of course, is a single data point and proves nothing, but as long as it's still working ..

[3] solo, as in non-collaborative. this is rather old-fashioned of me, but there are some ideas that i would rather work on alone so that they take shape in exactly how i want them to, without compromise.

in other words, i prefer to have complete creative control of my little sub-theory, even if it means chasing after a stupid idea for 1-2 weeks .. because if for some reason it works, then the reward is a theorem or two, and possibly a few interesting phenomena worth studying later. in retrospect, this rarely works .. but occasionally it does, and when it doesn't, often it still leads to new, more reasonable ideas to try.

this is especially the case since this nascent theory i have in my head hasn't taken on permanent qualities yet. maybe once there is enough structure .. in particular, when there are enough tools assembled as to make it somewhat user-friendly .. then i'll actively seek out people to help with the rest.

collaboration is a great thing. i don't deny that, and i'm hard-pressed to find too many instances of excellent yet truly isolated works. the practice, however, has become all but institutionalised in pure mathematics .. to the point where i know quite a few young mathematicians who have never written a single-author paper before.

yes, i'm being critical .. but that just sounds suspicious to me.

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