eIn the comments section of our most recent "how can we help you?" post, Anonymous writes:
How do you work out when it is time to give up on (or at least put aside for the long term) a project that you have been working on for some considerable time?
I have been working on a paper for a couple of months now, unfortunately to the detriment of my dissertation. I've give a couple of talks on it and the feedback, while positive about the underlying idea, has been largely negative about the presentation and readiness of the paper for submission.
My dilemma is whether I should put another few weeks or months into the paper in the hopes of getting it published, or if it is time to put it on the back burner (perhaps until my dissertation is finished).
Getting a high quality publication is really important, and I still have about a year to work on the dissertation, but I feel that I might be falling for a kind of sunk costs fallacy: putting in further work now that is not productive due to fear of having wasted the last two months or so.
I'd love to hear any tips, heuristics, or other ways of judging such a situation that people have. I understand that specific advice is beyond the scope of anonymous posting here, but perhaps people have general strategies or ideas that might help me assess the situation better.
I think Guy provided a nice reply targeting the particular situation described:
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, put the project down for two months. Work on your dissertation. Then pick the paper up and see what it sounds like once you have some distance from it. In the meantime, you will have pushed your dissertation forward. I have had a few projects that I set aside for two years, and then I found I had insights and conceptual tools I did not have before.
However, Guy's advice is really narrowly targeted to the reader's situation. What about the reader's more general query regarding tips or heuristics for knowing when to side aside or give up on a project?
I think this is an important issue because in my experience mentoring a few grad students, one common problem I see is in "getting stuck" on a single project. I've seen this happen more than a few times: a person gets an revise-or-resubmit or something, and then they end up spending all of their time on the project--even when that involves spinning their wheels for months on end and letting other projects fall by the wayside. Because of the "publish or perish" nature of the job-market and tenure, my sense is that this is a really important pitfall to avoid. Which once again raises Guy's question: what are some strategies for recognizing when one should set aside or give up on a project?
Here are a few tips I've found helpful:
Tip #1: Always have more than one (and preferably more than a few) projects going at the same time.
Here's why I find this helpful. If I have three or four papers I'm working on simultaneously, I can focus my primary attention on whichever project is going the best. If I run into a road-block with one of them, that's okay: I'll just set it aside immediately, work primarily on whichever paper my ideas seem clearest on, make positive progress there, and wait for my thinking to clear up on the ones I was having difficulty with. Indeed, I often find that if I set aside a project for a bit, my mind has a strange way of working out the problems subsconsciously--as when I take a walk and I have a "Aha!" moment about a part of a paper I couldn't figure out. I've heard this happens to a lot of people.
Tip #2: Never spin your wheels - always move forward on whichever is "working"
I'm not sure this tip will work for everyone, but it is a heuristic that seems to work very well for me. I'm constantly moving back and forth between different projects, due to one simple heuristic. How do I know when to set something? Answer: the very moment I get "stuck", I move onto something else. If I can't see my immediate way through a problem, I don't continue to waste time on it. I more or less immediately set it aside and work instead on something that my mind is clearer about--which, all too often, is a new paper idea to draft on something else.
Oftentimes, when I do this, I'll make project on the thing I'm clearer about, and come back to the thing I was struggling with a week or two later in my spare time. Sometimes I'll quickly find I still haven't figured the problem out, I'll follow the same heuristic again, moving onto some other thing that I'm clearer on again. In general, following this heuristic, I often work on a number of new projects, continually focusing on the one that is going best, and then going back to the others when I have time. In many cases, I'll keep sidelining a project or two in favor of another one or two that I'm making better progress on...and then weeks or even months later I'll suddenly have "Aha!" moment where it seems to me I've found my way through the problem I couldn't solve on the project I was stuck on. At that point I'll return to the project I was struggling with to figure out whether the "Aha!" moment really solved the problem, or whether it was just another false start. If the insight solved the problem, then great--then I'll move forward on the project. If not, I'll set it aside yet again. Which brings me to...
Tip #3: Following tips #1&2, projects end up sidelining themselves
Guy's question had two components: a component on when to (temporarily) set aside a project, and when to totally give up on one. For my part, I don't usually consciously give up on a project. Rather, what I do is simply what I mentioned above: when I have difficulties with a given project, I keep pushing it back in favor of other projects until I have an "Aha!" moment that solves whatever problems I was having with it. Sometimes that "Aha!" moment never comes, in which case (following Tips 1&2) the project basically ends up sidelining itself. Finally, though, part of what I find so useful about this approach is that I never quite know when a project is truly dead. In a few cases, I've had papers a few years old that I more or less forgot about, but then had some reason to think about again (e.g. a call for papers for an edited volume)...and when I did, an "Aha!" moment happened, as I saw the paper with new eyes.
Anyway, these are just a few tips I've found useful. I'm not sure whether they will work for everyone, but for me the helpful things about these tips are (A) they are designed to keep one always moving forward on something, so that (B) one never becomes stuck on one project that isn't working.
But again, these are just my tips. What are yours? Which tips or heuristics for setting aside or abandoning projects do you find helpful?