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11/12/2014

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Elisa Freschi

Hi Marcus and thanks for the exhaustive answer.

Two thoughts, in increasing level of importance:
1) You can jump from one task to the other only if you have previously organised yourself (e.g., you know that you have to grade 40 papers by the end of the week, to revise your paper before 10 days, to write an introduction to your edited book before 1 month, to finish your dissertation/your next book within 24 months etc. etc.) If you don't, you risk just to run from the thing you first remember to the thing which first comes to your memory next and to avoid dreaded tasks all the time! In other words: your method, it seems to me, *presupposes* a careful scan of what one has to do and of one's deadlines.

2) (Connected with the above, let me just share my experience:) I am always involved in many projects, and I enjoy doing small things such as working for some minutes on the organisation of a certain panel, than emailing someone else concerning another conference, etc. This means that I often keep on doing this kind of things INSTEAD OF doing the really important things, such as working on a difficult point I cannot solve. You have suggested to leave an article as soon as you "run into a roadblock". This might be true most of the times, but sometimes the question I have to deal with is so complex, that I just need to face it and to face the roadblock ---until I can solve it. Leaving it will not help me further the next time.
(At the present time, for instance, I am constantly avoiding to work on an article on deontic logic, which lies beyond my confort zone, but is for the same reason more interesting than many other things I can easily handle.)

I know you were talking about different blocks, the sort of blocks one experiences when one is bored, so let us just agree that there are blocks which might be useful, since they are indications of real problems… they need to be taken seriously and need time.,

Marcus Arvan

Hi Elisa: Thanks for your reply. Here are my thoughts:

On (1), I actually don't think that's true! I have a *rough* list in my head about what needs to get done and by what date--but I don't find that it really affects what I do. I just do a little bit of everything every day and end up meeting deadlines. So basically, I think if you're always getting a little bit of everything done, you'll tend to meet deadlines even *if* you don't plan ahead.

This is really the point of the strategy--namely, that getting stuff done is not about planning ahead at all, but rather making sure you're constantly knocking different things off your to-do list everyday!

On (2), I'm not advocating avoiding really important things for less important things. So, for instance, when you say that you're constantly avoiding that article on deontic logic, you're not following the strategy I'm recommending. The strategy is to spend a *little* time on it every day, as well as a little bit of time on everything else (ignoring none of your projects!).

The point of the strategy is to bounce back-and-forth between important and less-important projects--ignoring none of them--so that you're always making a *little* headway on everything, and moving on when you get stuck so that you don't waste precious time.

Now I agree that sometimes it is absolutely necessary to solve a "roadblock", but here again I have a few thoughts.

First, there's a lot of neuroscience indicating that our brains work out problems in the background, even when we're focusing on other stuff. I used to have this experience doing logic, for instance. I'd be staring at a problem for hours, come up with no solution, then move onto something else and...voila, the solution occurred to me! This sort of stuff happens all of the time. Oftentimes, the way to solve a "roadblock" is to not focus on it, make progress on other stuff, and come back. This not only helps solve roadblocks, but (obviously) gets a lot more other stuff done!

Second, I often find that bouncing back-and-forth between projects can give added perspective on "roadblocks." Sometimes, the right response to a roadblock really is to give up on it! I had a couple of papers my first years out of grad school that I fumbled away on everyday, never solving the roadblocks that arose. This was a colossal waste of time. Now, if I keep going back to a roadblock and continually find that I can't solve it, I at least am getting all kinds of other stuff done (rather than getting permanently sidetracked by the roadblock), and often enough, new projects come up that lead me to simply set aside the roadblock project in favor of more promising ideas.

In short, while I'm sympathetic with your point that sometimes roadblocks are so complex that you have to spend a great deal of time on them, my experience has been that (A) one's brain can solve a lot of those roadblocks in the subconscious when doing other things, (B) bouncing back-and-forth from roadblock projects to other stuff ensures that you're not *wasting* time on roadblocks (time that could be spent checking off other things), and (C) bouncing back and forth can lend added perspective to whether a given roadblock is really worth continuing to waste time on!

Elisa Freschi

Hi Marcus,
I completely agree on the fact that there is no point in wasting one's time while feeling stuck and that in this sense your proposal can be very useful, especially for young colleagues who may have not developed their own methodology.

This being said, I am sorry to say that I still think that there is something missing in your approach. If you go back and forth between projects without having a deadline in view you might at best "happen" to meet the deadline, there is no guarantee that you will do it (unless you have deadlines which are far away and little to do to meet them). I see that you insist that this happens to be the case, but this seems to me like the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith which harmonises the market (e.g., a mystical force we all would like to exist, but which risks to be a wishful thinking).

Anyway, if we will ever end up co-editing something, I might change my mind (or you yours, who knows?):-)

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