Thursday, June 25, 2020

"I want to work but I can't"

So here I am, 9 PM, trying to get a few decision letters written. There were 6 waiting for my attention when I woke up this morning. I've written four decisions, and now there are four still waiting for me to look at the manuscript, reviews, and Associate Editor's recommendation.  I want to get these off my plate, and back to the authors.  But I'm tired, haven't had my run today, and am stressed, and so I just stare at the screen, check the news, check twitter, and stare at the screen again. As one of my graduate students said in a meeting earlier this week, "I want to work, but I can't".

This is a sentiment I've heard a fair bit lately. Last week, I had multiple members of my lab explain some permutation of why they hadn't gotten as much done in the previous week as they had wanted to. Social isolation is taking its toll. There's the stress of seeing COVID numbers rising again.  Folks are taking time to participating in protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, which is great. Everyone is stressed.

Now is a good time to cut people slack, given them the chance to deal with the complicated stresses of being stuck at home during national and global turmoil. As a mentor to my students and postdocs, and as an Editor working with Associate Editors and reviewers,  now is a good time to be understanding and give people the time that they need.

But, that does not mean it is healthy to lounge around obsessively checking twitter and the news ('doomscrolling' as someone colorfully put it on twitter), or compulsively make your fifth sourdough loaf of the week. Inaction itself can feed anxiety and other forms of stress, generating feedback loops: I can't work because I'm stressed, and I'm stressed because I haven't gotten any work done. As one person I spoke to said, "I'm getting in my own way". Sometimes, a bit more work can be a relief, a distraction and escape from the news cycle and its concomitant anxiety and depression.

Then, there are still some deadlines. Many have gotten pushed back or softened, but grant proposal deadlines still exist. So do deadlines for submitting reviews, or revisions to your manuscript (though these are pretty much always negotiable on request). There are still classes to teach, lectures to prep by specific days, grant annual reports due. The world has not come to a standstill around us, even when we wish it had. And this means that paralysis at your work desk can be scary and frustrating and unwelcome.

This post, then, is for the people who *want* to get more done than they are. What are some tricks to get yourself out of the intellectual doldrums and catch fresh wind in your sails to write, plan a lecture, analyze data, or whatever it is you feel you need to do professionally, but haven't been able to do.

In several conversations with students last week, who wanted help refocusing, we discussed various ways of helping yourself make progress on your own work goals. I then broadened my search for ideas with a tweet asking for others' ideas and strategms. The following is a list in no particular order, of the ideas that arose in conversation and over twitter.

* Before some readers get angry at me, I'm not advocating that anyone pressure anybody else unduly. The following should not be a tool to force others to work, but an aid for those individuals who wish to help themselves meet their own goals and self-imposed expectations.

Also, it is crucial that everyone recognize that the strategies that work well for one person can be useless or even counter-productive for someone else. We each have our own motivating compass and fuel:  for instance some are motivated by pressure, others find that oppressive. Find what works for you.

Here we go, with "50 ways to leave your procrastination"

1. Talk to a physician or therapist.  I'm putting this first for a reason. It's okay to not be okay. For many people, isolation during COVID has brought out unknown or previously-controlled mental illness of varying degrees. If you may be suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any of a number of mental illnesses, seek medical advice and help. This is common, acceptable, and likely not something you can just push on through without help. I'll openly say I saw a therapist for a block of time recently and it was immensely helpful. Do it, if you think it might possibly remotely help.

2. Create a timed schedule. Pretend you are taking solid blocks of classes this week, and create an hourly schedule in advance. Set defined blocks of time for different activities and set alarms for the transition between them. Check off the ones you complete with decent focus. The ones you don't remain focused on, ask yourself if you are really interested in doing them, and do you have to do them. If the answer is no to both, push it to your back burner to-do-list. The advantage of a timed block is that if you are on a roll working on something, you can just ignore the alarm and not switch tasks; keep plugging away while you have good momentum. But if you wander onto the interwebs and start reading some silly advice blog like this one, that alarm is a good book-end that prevents your diversion from eating up too much time.

3. Keep a journal, hour by hour, of what you spent your time on. You may surprise yourself by discovering you have done more than you give yourself credit for.

4. Set yourself a set of very small tasks, and do them. Get that permit application in the mail, fill out that form, search for that article you meant to look up. Completing a bunch of rapid to-do items in the space of a few minutes each gives you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, cutting your to-do list down greatly.

5. In the spirit of (4):  really big to-do items like "Write that NIH R01 grant" are intimidating as hell. And it takes weeks to months to get it done, so the whole time the same to-do-list line is staring you in the face making you feel more and more guilty for not checking it off. But you can't check it off quickly because it is a gargantuan task.  I'm imagining a paleolithic hunter-gatherer shaming themselves for not eating the *whole* mammoth today. So, don't put a whole mammoth on your to-do list. Cut it up into well-defined edible chunks. That results in a very long to-do list. But you create specific achievable goals so that you can truly cross off items (multiple items) every day. And somehow that feels much more productive.

Don't eat a whole mammoth in a single day.

6. Set a timer and tell yourself to _______ for X minutes (Meghan Duffy suggested 30 minutes) and then you get to stop and do something pleasant for yourself.  This mixes well with the mammoth-bites idea above, if you can generate to-do list items that are short units of time worth of work (write one paragraph). Mike Kaspari noted this is the "Pomodoro Method" where 25 minutes of focus earns you 5 minutes of goofing off. Repeat 3 times, then you get an hour of distraction as a reward. 25 minutes feels less ambitious than half an hour.

7.  10-15 minutes of mindful meditation, followed by 1-2 hours of focused work.

8. Go for a walk or run (with your mask on, and if you are allowed to). You are taking time away from work, but you may get more work done as a result.

When working in Vermont a couple weeks ago, I would take an hour break each day to go do some nature photography.

9. Here's a big one many people suggested: get a work buddy and hold each other accountable for your bite-sized achievements. Many people have even been getting on zoom (or whatever web video conference tool you like), and quietly working on your own stuff in a virtual common room.  That way you have some of the casual chit-chat and sounding ideas off each other, but can still each do your own thing. Group meetings don't have to be meetings! Leave the video on, mute yourself (or not). Here's a description of the Online Co-working Partnerships:

10. Copious tea breaks. Sebastian Schreiber recommends golden orange pekoe black, and second flush darjeeling.

11. Start small. Write one sentence. Just one little wafer-thin sentence. One line of code. Then try a second, if you can. You might just start rolling.

12. A change of scenery. Move from the study to your living room to your dining room to your porch to your hammock, or whatever you have. Even moving from a desk to a chair in the same room can help surprisingly well.

13. Get a 'Focus Keeper' app.

14. Stack your zoom/Skype meetings into a tight set of short meetings, to free up blocks of space without interruption to get you room to get into the 'zone'. Many of us work best with large blocks of time to focus without interruptions, so schedule accordingly.

15. Plan your morning around something fun, with a bit of work, rather than vice versa.

16. Go play with your kids for a bit, if you have them. Or a spouse, partner, dog. Someone who makes you happy and distracted.

17. Eat an entire cheesecake.

18. Come to terms with guilt-free exercise, fun, cooking, social time, and pleasure reading.

19. Go outside. And don't come back for a while.
Going outside for a paddle

20. Read escapist books. But be forewarned: someone else's advice may not be your escapism. When Trump was elected I asked twitter for recommendations on a good escapist book. Ben Haller suggested I read "The Sheltering Sky".  Great prose, but not pleasant escapism.

21. Do something productive fun. Learn a new trick in R that you don't need right now, but were curious about. Go see a virtual seminar from a conference or online seminar series. Read a random paper from a journal. Something that isn't your work goal, but is helpful in the long run, pleasant in the short term, and feels enough like work to be guilt-free while enjoying yourself. Personally, I find solving coding puzzles for data analysis to be immensely enjoyable. But I'm kinda a nerd.

22. Have a weekly planning meeting alone with yourself to outline your daily list and create a schedule with bite-sized tasks. Helps get through triage paralysis (what to work on first). April Wright noted she does this Sunday night with a cup of tea and its a highlight of the week.

23. Well, you aren't traveling anywhere for work or vacation. So create days of vacation where you are obligated to NOT work and go do something fun (but stay off your computer!). Then you'll return to work reinvigorated.

24. To the extent it is allowed and ethical in COVID times, go for a trip. I drove to Vermont to my family's cabin on a lake (yes, I see my privilege)  and didn't stop anywhere en route up or back, and didn't go in a building with anybody else up there. Sure, I lost 7 hours round trip driving that I might have used for work. And I went kayaking twice a day and jumped in the lake a lot. But I got more done in my three days up there alone than I achieved in two weeks normally.

25. Smite people who are productive, and keep a list of the people you have smote.

26. Self-forgiveness. Jenalle Eck wrote "I tell myself 'I forgive myself for not making progress on X'", then does the smallest unit task towards X.

27. Aim to write one sentence every hour. If a second sentence flows naturally, don't stop it.

28. Tak hours away from your computer.

29. Take a break from your usual social media

30. Eat a snack, drink a glass of water regularly.

31. Get up from your chair ever 15 min and move your body.

32. Regular yoga, runs, etc.

33. Get a dog.

34. A daily dream: a to-do list with feelings. In the morning, write what you hope your evening journal entry would be and how you felt about it then work to achieve that aspiration.

35. Treat daily tasks-not-completed as not failures, but as lessons in setting more realistic daily goals.

36. Working from home is a marathon, not a race, endurance is more important than speed, so do what you need to to endure.

37. Put off email till later in the day, in well-defined blocks of time, so your mornings aren't distracted.

38. Play music regularly, perhaps as the 5 minute reward every half hour.

39. Figure out what you enjoy most about your work and focus on that. Rather than maximize productivity, maximize work-associated-happiness. If you love coding, do that and less writing for a while.

40. Go read other people's papers for a bit. Not even in areas directly related to your research. Go learn something new and see what inspiration strikes.

41. Develop SMART goals. Specific. Measurable, Achievable. Relevant. Timely

42. Fanny Pouyet wrote: "Write the big issue I would like to solve tomorrow. Then spend 30 min detailing every single step of that task. The next day's to-do list is ready"

43. Figure out what motivates you. Do you work well under a deadline, or not? Are you motivated to fulfill someone else's expectations of you, or your own goals? Is pressure good for your productivity, and if so from what source?  Find strategies to maximize that source of simulation or pressure or whatever helps, and minimize the things that stress you out in counter-productive ways. Personally, one of my biggest motivations is the feeling I owe people comments on manuscripts. My students and postdocs' paper drafts always come first, because if I get them comments then they can proceed to work on it (if they are able and willing), whereas if I sit on a manuscript draft then I slow everyone down. That feeling of duty to them, and to the authors in the journal I Edit, keeps me focused.

44. Quaranteam: create a small group of people who are socially distanced and vigilant about COVID from outside sources, but willing and able to meet together.

45. Start a new hobby:  I've done 1000-piece puzzles, cooked new recipes (an amazing Tacos al pastor was the winner so far), and done far more running than ever before.

46. Take a summer course. I'm very tempted to take an American Association of Immunologists online summer class, and there are some on population genomics I'm keen to try as well.

47. Get two dogs.

48. Take something off the back burner you've not gotten to work on in far too long. You might find that re-prioritizing is helpful. I have a history of science paper that's been awaiting revisions by my co-author and I for >500 days. That's right, over a year and a half since we got the reviews, and this paper just hasn't been top priority. Always something more important. But on Monday I dusted it off and did 95% of the revisions we needed, in a single day. It was intense, and I barely left my desk fo the day. But I was able to work with a focus I've mostly lacked recently, because it felt so good to work on this long-overdue task.

49. Here's my favorite for today. Reach out and contact a fellow scientist who you haven't met, but whose work you admire. Set up a time to talk by Zoom. They can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Chances are, in the COVID-times, they aren't traveling, they aren't doing field work, and they aren't out at a fancy restaurant or going to the pub with friends. Chances are, they are home wishing they had someone new to talk to. I did this today with Chelsea Wood, after seeing her EcoEvoSeminars talk. We had the most amazing hour and a half science conversation, despite never having met before. I left that zoom room energized and excited to have a new collaborator on the horizon. If there's any hidden blessing in all this, its that many scientists are ready and willing to meet colleagues from around the world and have new conversations that will expand all our social networks and academic networks in creative new ways unconstrained by the usual set of conference attendees and geographic limit. Go talk to someone a half continent away, or better yet continents away, and find a new friend and collaborator, and return to your work with a fresh set of eyes and new excitement.

50. When you are stretched too thin to work, go write a preachy blog post telling others how to get work done more efficiently. At least I feel I have achieved something productive, and come away with interesting ideas, even if I still have four - wait, no it's five now - manuscripts awaiting my decision.


  1. #51: If your work can be done offline, disconnect your internet or turn off your wifi. Don't turn it back on for at least half an hour. No more news, no more twitter, no more Facebook.

    #52: In #38 it seems like you're suggesting music as a "reward break". But the #1 best way for me to focus and snap into work mode is to put music on. Something soft, ambient, without words – not a distraction. The music seems to focus my brain; I stop compulsively checking websites and such, and can get into work. I often notice that when the album I'm playing ends, I don't necessarily notice that the music has stopped, but I become unfocused and distracted again – until I realize what has happened and put more music on. Spotify can be useful for keeping the music flowing indefinitely.

  2. Yup! Much of this, including the first 10 and more scattered throughout, I've adopted upon experimentation with priority-management, these past couple of years, many of which I've only fully implemented during COVID-19.


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