Lately I have been thinking about habits. My context has changed– new city, new school year, new degree program, new people– and I think it’s natural to feel like my life right now is a bit of a blank slate. The new environment makes it easy to establish a fresh set of habits. Some patterns will undoubtedly remain the same…I’ve been a bit of an old lady in my sleep habits since high school and I doubt I’ll suddenly become a night owl. Mostly I have been considering academic habits and which ones I’d like to keep or change.
At a bioinformatics workshop workshop I attended this summer, I was in the middle of one of those deeply satisfying science conversations (you know, the ones that leave you full of ideas and happiness) with one of the instructors and he made a comment that really resonated with me. I forget the exact context, but he said that focus and discipline were tremendously important for doing quality science. I think he also noted that these qualities are often difficult to come by. I look forward to work every day and I love doing science, but I think this is still important. It’s a phrase to remind myself of when I am working and get distracted, like “Be here now” for meditation. Focus and discipline.
I’ve been mulling over the concept ever since, and it’s reflected in some of the new habits I’m trying out:
I work best in the morning, so I treat 8:00ish to after lunch with particular respect. I turn my phone off as soon as I get to my office. No emails, no texts, and no tweets get through to me. Everything except academic websites (Google Scholar, libraries, etc) gets automatically blocked on my browser, and I often shut down my laptop if I only have reading to do. It seems silly that I have to do this…except I do. Otherwise, the need for novelty is overwhelming whenever I experience mental resistance. (For more thoughts along these lines, take a look at Boost your productivity: Cripple your technology, an old post from Cal Newport on his focus-centric grad school schedule, and this xkcd comic and follow-up blog post about inserting some serious delayed satisfaction in distraction-seeking.)
For after lunch, I’m still experimenting, but I am generally a lot more relaxed about focus. Often this is when I’ll accomplish little things (email, jump through administrative hoops, check out library books) or succumb to semifrequent internet browsing. I also have a few classes and other departmental things to attend.
I read a lot more, and with intent. In moving from a palebiology focus on biogeography and skeletal anatomy to more of a modern biomechanics research area, I have some serious learning to do. A set goal of X papers per week helps me formalize the process, push myself to become familiar with the literature, and feels good when the tally marks start adding up. I’m also making an effort to read one science book per week, whether it’s more historical, a collection of essays, or a short textbook. Last week I read In the Light of Evolution, a really wonderful collection of essays that somehow manage to be very educational, funny, and poignant, often all at the same time. This week I’m working on This View of Life, from paleontologist G.G. Simpson.
This one relates only indirectly to academic productivity, but I now use a bike for the majority of my transportation. It’s good for me, good for the environment, and I get to go faster than cars half the time, even if riding on Cambridge streets is a little terrifying sometimes. I say it indirectly relates to academics because exercise = a happier, more focused me, so really it does contribute.
These are the major three habit changes I’ve instituted. Time will tell how well they hold up – it’s easy to make a change in the first few weeks of classes and the real test will be if I’m still doing all of this come December. So far, so good.