Addicted to pubs?

July 4, 2022

This blog has occasionally noted my ongoing efforts to improve my work-life balance. Here’s the latest.

Over the past two-plus years, I’ve made some progress in understanding and managing the problem, i.e., my tendency to prioritize academic work over all else. However, one aspect of the problem (or is it the entirety of the problem?) has been stubbornly resistant to correction: my tendency to obsessively focus on certain tasks, namely, creating/revising PowerPoint slides and publications (“pubs”).

As I’ve said in comparing myself (inappropriately) to Alexander Hamilton, part of the issue is that my work really does get better with revision. If I want my work to be as good as possible, I can revise it, and re-revise it, and so on. There’s a real trade-off between time invested and product quality, and knowing when to declare something “good enough” is legitimately challenging, not just to me, but to lots of people.

Today, though, I’m not thinking about the trade-off. I’m thinking about how it feels to be caught in the midst of one of those deep dives of writing and revision. I’m thinking about it because it happened to me again just yesterday. The rest of the family left for a vacation, and I had a full day to do anything I wanted to do, and what did I do? I started a draft of the paper “Assessing Molecules’ Polarity as a Gateway to Predicting Their Biological Properties.”

This will eventually be a nice little paper, suitable for a journal such as CourseSource, but it will not set the world on fire. It’s not even the more important of the two papers I’m supposed to be working on right now. And yet, once I started this no-particular-deadline project, I was totally immersed, unable to extricate myself until I simply got tired and had to go to bed.

Why? What was going on in my brain?

There was certainly some in-the-moment satisfaction of doing good work. I replace this word with that slightly more apt word; I move this sentence’s verb closer to its subject; I shorten this phrase from 8 words to 5 words without any loss of meaning; and on and on and on, slowly making the piece better.

It wasn’t purely pleasurable, though. If it was, I wouldn’t have needed to take frequent food and Twitter breaks. Writing a sentence, or making an OK sentence better, is hard work. So why couldn’t I just stop? Why couldn’t I just say to myself, “OK, that’s plenty of progress for today — let’s save the rest for later”?

I don’t know. It’s something I need to figure out.

One clue is that my PowerPoint obsession HAS gotten somewhat better lately. I don’t agonize over slides quite the way I used to; I can accept most of my slides as good enough while still fixing the ones that really need fixing. This is progress. But my writing process still feels as out-of-control as ever. Guess how long it took me to write this post?

One comment

  1. Some collect and organize coins, some words, some ideas. Ask a numismatist what they like and obsess about in coins? They may be equally hard pressed to articulate. We are funny creatures with our idiosyncratic interests, each expressed in unique and wonderful ways. : )

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