Perhaps you know the feeling of being overwhelmed by your daily tasks and project(s) – I know I am at times. Instead of finding excuses, today I will say that this is completely my own fault, and mine alone. Not because I am not working hard enough, but simply because I am naively attempting to do the impossible. Let’s look at the items that most commonly appear on the To-Do List of a scientist, and try to pick those where you feel like you are currently doing a great job at:
- plan and conduct your experiments carefully, troubleshoot wisely and without panic
- keep up with the ever-growing literature
- foresee bottlenecks in your project and circumvent them
- attend today’s exciting talk by an invited speaker
- nicely document your progress, help others progressing
- apply for funding or write an abstract for the next conference
- check all your emails, be well-prepared for lab meetings and journal clubs, have passionate scientific discussions with lab mates
- network outside your lab (in academia and ideally also industry) to be prepared for the next career step
- on top of it all, stay the motivated, cheerful person you want to be
The truth is, you can’t have it all covered at once. Science simply throws more challenges at you than you can possibly meet to your own satisfaction, the things we know are infinitely less than what we do not know. This gives our job the potential for ultimate frustration, but if you’re still here that means you have learned to deal with it in one way or another. I for one have created myself a routine comfort zone made up of ‘let’s not deal with this right now’ in order to keep my sanity. Sounds great? Well, I have come to believe sanity is overrated, my cosy comfort zone is a dangerous pitfall and that you should leave it to find true productivity and love for science. Let me make it clear in the following example.
I was in a busy phase of my project and highly motivated to make progress. Due to my daily routine, it had been a while since I read papers or talked to someone working on a similar topic, but my experiments kept me nice and occupied, so things felt right and I could enjoy what I was doing in a certain way. What I came to realize rather late was that I was engaged in unproductive work – while I was constantly feeling busy and working extra hours, I did not focus on the most important tasks that could have brought my project truly forward. I now see how it can even get to the point where you subconsciously avoid people’s input on your research, because you vaguely suspect your project has so many flaws that you think facing them becomes paralyzing – it’s just easier to keep working on what you are doing right now, than actually sitting back and tediously carve out and improve upon the weak-points of your hypothesis or your methodology.
And this way of working unproductively is perfectly fine, if you are looking for the kind of rewarding feeling you get after a day of busy work. I believe that in the long run, however, unaddressed issues will pave the way into dead ends of wasted time and deep frustration. My current idea of how to avoid this is the following:
Whenever you feel like you can handle it, on one of your self-confident days, venture out of your bubble, i.e. question your project’s assumptions, talk to people about the future steps in your project and face the weaknesses of your methods. Yes, it’s tough. And yes, it will hurt initially, as we are not used to admitting obvious weak-points when newly entering sciences. But it can really bring your project forward when you find that one paper that saves you weeks of work, or realize your dataset or experimental model can answer a long-standing open question in a related field.
And after all, it is not a never-ending path of constant, low-dose pain I am proposing here. On the contrary, it might lead to finding true fulfillment in science as you finally come to enjoy this feeling of sheer uncertainty. To put it in the words of Martin Schwartz, whose brilliant article has also inspired large parts of this article: you will “actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid” (Schwartz, 2008).
For the record, I do not have an amazing publishing record of any kind, nor do I know whether I’m even cut out to be a scientist. This is not a guide to be successful in research. I am instead talking about a feeling you get with a certain way of doing things, a feeling I miss on my comfort-zone-days, but whenever I find it it’s so fulfilling that it makes me seriously consider an academic career.
And after all: sanity is overrated.
References and further reading
“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”
Martin A. Schwartz
Journal of Cell Science, 2008
121: 1771 doi: 10.1242/jcs.033340
Coursera Lecture on unprodutive work:
(part of the course ‘Work Smarter, not harder: Time Management for Personal & Professional Productivity)