On any given day, crossing off (or at least making progress on) items from your to-do list sometimes depends more on your energy than your time. Sure, we all have packed schedules, some more than others. But how many of us have sat down to work for an hour or two…only to stare at a blank computer screen for ten minutes, shuffle over to the lab refrigerator to open and close it a few times, start reading a few blog posts, look at the to-do list again, pace a few laps up and down the office, and eventually give up and wander off to ask a colleague if they’ve seen that one hilarious YouTube video?
I thought so. Me too, my friend…me too.
Well, fear not. I have some useful suggestions!
1. Recognize when you have a problem of energy.
First, know thyself! I happen to get my best work done from 8:30 AM until about noon. That means I try to do more writing and less emailing in the morning. Conversely, if I’ve got an hour and a half of work time after I get out of class at 3:30, I may need to deploy some tricks to get my brain to shut up and focus.
[Editor’s note: Kelsey loves writing in the afternoon and does not mind staring at data sets late into the evening].
2. Move yourself (to a different location).
Sometimes working in the same place at all times can be useful; building up an association of place = work is not to be underestimated. Occasionally, though, the monotony leads to mental clutter, or everyone else in the room you are working in would rather talk about this week’s comic books than let you get work done. This calls for a change of place.
Consider infiltrating other buildings on campus, much like the Rebel Alliance infiltrating the Death Star. Ever been in the business school or law school, if your campus has one? What about the Psychology building? The upper reaches of the student union? The lounge in the Honors College? It feels a little like breaking the rules to wander into some foreign space, but they’re all common areas, often with chairs/couches/tables/trash compactors.
There’s the eternal coffee-shop option, but consider other places of refreshment. A quiet restaurant, particularly at non-peak hours, probably won’t mind if you nurse your beverage and snack for a few hours while working. Even a pub, on a weekday, can be useful (a friend of ours regularly grades during Monday night trivia at a local bar).
The library (public or university) is usually an option as well. Perhaps the walls of books frowning disapprovingly at your open Facebook tab and the weight of studious silence in the air will bully you into working.
If it’s nice outside, or at least not pouring rain, try taking your reading to a bench or convenient patch of grass. Lounge. Bemusedly watch the undergraduates who promptly switch from coats to bikinis and sprawl over every available piece of lawn on the first sunny day over 60 F (or is that just Oregon?).
3. Move yourself (seriously, go for a walk or something).
Often-repeated, but true advice: get some exercise. I have a standing running-and-weightlifting appointment three times a week with my workout buddy, right in the middle of the afternoon slump. It forces me out of the computer chair and into some activity. I return sweaty, awake, and ready to go.
Also, it turns out heavy squats are a great way to burn off the frustrated-sad feeling of getting rejected from a fellowship program you badly wanted. You don’t love me? My work isn’t good enough? Fine! At least I can squat more than I weigh!
Or, if you’re stuck, just go for a walk instead of browsing the internet. Unlike “breaks” where a muttering voice in the back of your head keeps prodding you to close what you’re doing and get back to work, a walk can act as a much-needed mental reboot. Even ten minutes helps clear the mind. Take some deep breaths, consider some things you appreciate in life, and then bring your thoughts back to what you’ll do when you get back to work.
4. But I am le tired! Well, have a nap.
Strong advocate of the 20-minute nap, here. Often it’s a better solution than just chugging another coffee. Close your office door, if you have one, and kick back in your chair. Or just sprawl across the floor – in all seriousness, we keep a sleeping pad and quilts under the big table in our dry lab space, and on quiet afternoons grad and undergrad student alike have made good use of that.
Failing that, there are almost always couches in or near libraries. Or in student unions. Or in departmental lounge areas. There’s one excellent conference room in a department at the University of Oregon that has a glorious, squishy couch in it. If you shut the doors, it’s completely dark. Check in with the department admin to see if anyone’s got a meeting scheduled for the next few hours…I have had some truly exquisite naps in that conference room. Then again, I’m a bit of a napping fiend; I may or may not have curated a list of good napping spots on campus, to use or distribute to freshmen as necessary.
5. Grab a science buddy.
The coauthors of this blog are most definitely science buddies (we might even be science bros, if we were bros, but we’re not).
This means we are jazzed not just about science, but the people and institutions we inhabit, and discuss all these factors with each other on a regular basis. I know what research projects Kelsey is working on and the work she’s sketching out for the future. She knows what my dreams are for big, super awesome projects. We know how to cheer each other up and how to get each other motivated.
Sometimes, giving up on work for a few minutes and making the 10-minute walk together to get coffee just off campus is exactly what we both need. Out of habit, we’ll vent about whatever is frustrating us for a few minutes, then switch over to whatever we’re most excited about lately. By the time we get back to the lab, I’m ready to jump back into work because seriously guys, science is awesome. Find yourself a science buddy or two or three so you can be reminded, and do the reminding, whenever necessary.
7. Use productive procrastination.
This may be the only way I ever accomplish anything. Don’t want to work on that paper? Cool, work on the other paper! Don’t want to read the literature? Do some thesis formatting instead! Need to make a poster for that undergrad research symposium that, by the way, you’re presenting in less than a week? Man, updating the lab website sounds like the most important thing in the world right now.
First, this is useful because even if you can’t get yourself to work on your item of the moment, you’re still making progress. Second, sometimes the happy feeling of productivity on something unrelated is enough to bust through your resistance to working on your primary goal, and you can smoothly transition to the more urgent or important project.
8. Take some time to clear your head.
If you have a hundred thought fragments bouncing around in your head, you’ve got to shut them up before you can accomplish much. Sometimes you have the energy to push through it on your own, but other times it feels like you can’t even think coherent thoughts (let alone produce any meaningful work). At these times, try dumping all those thought fragments out so you can think in peace.
I like to keep a notebook nearby, or at least an open Google Doc. Distracting thoughts come up all the time: ooh, that would be a great gift idea! Damn, I forgot to fill out that form I needed to take care of. Argh, my library books are now four days overdue. I should text my friend that I’ll be in town next week so we can plan to hang out. And I really need to finish drafting the Discussion section of that paper…
The instant I write it down, I can quit worrying about it for the moment. I’ll deal with it later, and I won’t forget because it’s no longer in my steel sieve of a brain. Sometimes talking to someone helps, if your fragmented thoughts are all centered on the project you’re trying to work on – articulating half-formed ideas will show you where the gaps are and help smooth out your reasoning, while feedback and questions from your conversation partner may shake loose some new insights.
See also Suggestion 3.
9. Refuel: food, tea, coffee.
This is last on the list because reflexively reaching for a piece of chocolate or a double-shot mocha is not always the right solution to your energy crisis. Sometimes, though, sipping on a hot drink or eating an awesome snack is a great way to get your brain to chill out and focus on the task at hand rather than bugging you about sustenance.
My favorite science snacks: hot green tea, iced tea, fruit and cheese, hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper, scrambled eggs, apples and almond butter, dark chocolate, and leftover rare tenderloin steak (eaten cold, possibly with bare hands). Yum.
Kelsey’s favorite science snacks: latte, bananas, fruits and nuts, oatmeal, turkey jerky, and frozen blended coffee drinks when it’s seriously crunch time. She suggests avoiding 5-hour energy shots and similar, super greasy foods, and generally anything that’s going to make you feel worse (she notes that one donut is probably okay but don’t eat five).
We also agree that Ramen noodles and similar products are generally a bad idea, no matter how cheap they are. Celebratory sushi is always appropriate as science fuel.
How do you keep your energy up when it threatens to drop? Let us know in the comments – we are always interested in new ideas.