When procastination can mean more creativity

This morning on my bus ride to work I was kicking back admiring the view of  Auckland city and as I always do, was listening to a podcast. Being the start of yet another month in a year that is flying by I had that familiar feeling of panic that I haven’t completed even a quarter of the tasks I had hoped to by this time*. So it was a happy coincidence that I tuned into this TED radio hour podcast, which addressed the things we can learn from slowing down and procrastinating (yes, that’s right, procrastinating!).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much time I spend doing productive/active tasks like field work, analysing data, or writing a manuscript. Most of my days are made up of these tasks in addition to all the other little things that make up an academic’s life, like replying to emails, reviewing manuscripts and sitting on committees (and let’s face it, extended tea breaks). While one day is never the same by the end of the week I feel like I’ve been going from one task to another, always in a bit of a hurry and never really taking the time to step back and think about where my research is going. Most weeks could be considered productive because I am usually moving projects forward (even just a little), but I’m not really allowing myself to think about the bigger picture and make longer term plans for new projects. The largest part of my anxiety at work comes from the fear of not having the biggest and best ideas to develop into large-scale projects. It could be that I’m just not a very creative person, but perhaps (hopefully) this could be greatly improved by setting aside time to develop those little inklings into big ideas.

What I’ve slowly started to recognise, and what was driven home in the TED podcast, was that we can’t always be moving forward all the time. Although this problem applies across the board in academia, not allowing time to think and plan can be particularly costly for early career researchers. For those of us without permanent positions there is a lot of pressure to come up with a real zinger of an idea that we can write-up into the next big winning grant application. This hopefully gives us a couple more years of salary, and may even give leverage towards getting the elusive permanent position. We are also under a lot of pressure to publish profusely and I can’t help but think that if I’m not producing my peers will be, and I don’t want to fall behind when it comes to being competitive for jobs.

For the really good ideas to come, the ones that aren’t immediately obvious, we need time to reflect and think deeply. Although it’s quite possible that these big ideas may show themselves through fortuitous discovery while working on a current project, or through a stroke of genius, we still need lots of time to fully develop these ideas.  It’s pretty much impossible to do this if you are always in a rush to get the next job done.

So how does procrastination fit into all of this? In Adam Grant’s TED talk and in a New York Times column he discusses the attributes of original thinkers and why a moderate amount of procrastination can be helpful. He argues that very organised people, the ‘pre-crastinators‘, tend to rush in to new tasks and want to finish them quickly to reduce their anxiety for an impending deadline. These people tend to be highly productive but not necessarily creative, because they often grasp the first and most obvious idea that comes to mind and run with it. Pre-crastinators are less likely to sit back and think about alternatives or new ways to approach a problem.

I think I could be classified to be a pre-crastinator. I like to reply to emails immediately to get them out of my mind, I always pay bills as soon as they come in rather than waiting for the due date, and I finished my Honours dissertation 3 weeks before the due date while my friends were pulling all-nighters. Little did I realise that I shouldn’t feel quite so smug about being organised because this may be coming at the cost of creativity.

On the other hand, it may not pay to be a chronic procrastinator either, because  completing a task in a last minute rush may also lead to you grabbing hold of the most simple and not very well thought out idea. Grant argues that finding a happy medium between rushing in head first and putting things off until you have to pull an all-nighter may be a useful way to become more creative.

Start something but then put it back down. Don’t finish it straight away.

Instead, if you keep the idea mulling over in the back of your mind you may find that you come up with creative insights about how to make it better. People who are quick to start but slow to finish a project may have the creative edge over the rest of us.

I would also argue that as well as letting things bubble away in the background, it is also important to actively put aside time to think. By this I mean turn off the computer, put down the pipette, and move into another mental (and maybe physical) space altogether. I’m sure everyone finds that they have a lot of good ideas when lying in bed just before sleep, probably because this is the first time in the day when we’ve slowed down. I think it is therefore important to find the right setting to allow deep thought and creativity.

I’m not sure how true the below quote is, but this is one of my favourites that I first saw pinned to the door of Dr Margaret Stanley’s office:

A student in Rutherford’s lab was very hard-working. Rutherford had noticed it and asked one evening – “Do you work in the mornings too?”. “Yes” proudly answered the student sure he would be commended. “But when do you think”? amazed Rutherford.

Instead of feeling the pressure to always be doing something with instant, recognisable outputs, I’m trying to put aside more time to think. In the same podcast, Lakshimi Pratury talks about the art of hand writing letters and how they can give you time to consider a deeper response than may be achieved in a quickly fired-off email. This got me thinking about when I have my best ideas. I feel like I’m able to think clearer when I’m cozied up with a good pot of tea and a notebook, rather than staring at my laptop.

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Although I usually write papers directly into Word now (I was still doing this by hand until my Honours year!), I still plan out critical ideas and manuscript structures in my notebook first. I also like to print off a few recent papers and read these away from my computer so that I can absorb them slowly and jot down ideas that may spring to mind as I go along. These ideas are then transferred into a word document later on so that I have current and future project ideas in one place, meaning I can shelve them and stew on them to return to at a later point. I often find that once I’ve made these ideas ‘live’ (i.e. made a rough plan or jotted it down in my notebook) they stay in the back of my mind and sometimes listening to a colleague give or talk or reading a new paper can trigger a new direction for that idea. It can be useful to skim over that list of ideas occasionally too and remind yourself of what’s there – I’m sometimes surprised that with time I will be able to add new thoughts to an idea and have a better understanding of how to move it forward.

So, instead of thinking that procrastination is the same as laziness, I’m trying to be ok with being less productive in the hope that it may bring some creativity.  I’ve also started knitting and hoping that, once I can do it without having to ferociously concentrate, this hobby might be a nice way to actively relax and have some good thinking time.

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You can just about see the stress in those tight stitches!

*In a classic twist on a post on procrastination, you’ll notice that I started writing this on the first of the month and it is now almost October!

In anticipation of the field season ahead

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Welcome Madeleine!

This week I received the great news that Madeleine Thom will be joining me this summer to work on sperm competition in giraffe weevils. Madeleine has been awarded an UoA summer studentship which gives her a couple of months of paid fun to come and hang out with me in the lab and field. Madeleine will be kicking off the first work on sperm competition in the giraffe weevil, in particular addressing how males of different sizes allocate sperm, and whether there are any differences in their sperm morphology. I’m really curious to see what Madeleine finds out.

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How do these 2 different male types (the guarding male on right vs sneaking male in the middle) allocate resources to sperm vs weaponry?

While Madeleine has things under control on the giraffe weevil front, I’ll be heading off across the country in search of harvestmen. This is the beginning of our project on weapon variation in this group, and one of my main aims this season will be to find good spots to observe the behaviour of a whole bunch of different species. I’ll also be doing several collecting missions to bring back harvestmen to the lab where I can look more closely at chelicerae (jaw) shape and size variation, so that we can start to piece together patterns of weapon evolution among the NZ long-legged harvestmen.

I’m particularly excited about going here:

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The wild Catlins coast, where fellow arachnid enthusiast Leilani Walker and I will be road-tripping this December (Photo: Caleb Nicholson)

and here…

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Beautiful Mahia beach south of Gisborne, where I’ll be spending a week in January with beetle hunters Dave Seldon, Rich Leschen & Crystal Maier (Photo: Wikipedia commons)

Should be an above average summer I reckon. Oh and if you’ve ever wondered where the term ‘field work’ (which you’ve probably heard many ecologists use to contrast data collection outdoors vs experimentation in the lab) came from, check out this fun blog.

Have a productive and fun field season ahead southern hemispherites!

Beyond museum displays: Making use of natural history collections

I recently spent a week in the Otago Museum arthropod collection in Dunedin where I had  a wonderful time picking through the myriad of harvestmen. The sheer abundance and diversity of harvestmen in the collection, and the joy I get from being among all this history made me think – not for the first time – just how important biological collections are.

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One of the many harvestmen in the Forster collection at Otago Museum

In my short career I have made use of numerous natural history collections around the world, from my academic roots at the impressive Lincoln University Entomology Research Collection, the secret corridors and quirky displays at the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, to the great halls of the British Natural History Museum.

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Beautiful ceilings in the Tribute to Galileo in the Museo di Storia Naturale ‘La Specola’ in Florence

While taking a break to look through the public displays is great fun, the main point of these missions is to delve into the arthropod collections kept behind the scenes. Phenomenal amounts of information are stored in never-ending stacks of drawers, filled with insects, bird skins, jars of pickled snakes…pretty much anything you can imagine! If you want to get an idea of the immense amount of objects stored in a museum’s collection, check out this amazing photo essay from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

One highlight for me was coming across some of Alfred Wallace’s 19th century collection when I was sorting through some brentine weevils in the British Natural History Museum. I’ll never forget that feeling of wonder that I was (carefully) holding the very specimens that Wallace mentions in his famous book The Malay Archipelago:

“I once saw two males fighting together; each had a fore-leg laid across the neck of the other, and the rostrum bent quite in an attitude of defiance, and looking most ridiculous” (p276-277)

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Two brentid weevils fighting as illustrated in Wallace’s classic text “The Malay Archipelago” (Drawing by E.W. Robinson)

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Exciting discoveries in the Natural History Museum

These collections represent a snapshot in time and can tell a story about the community of organisms that were present at the place they were found. The possible contributions that collections can make to society are countless. This paper by Andrew Suarez and Neil Tsutsui describes some of the scientific applications from biological collections housed in museums. Museum collections have been used to understand the spread of Argentine ants across the USA, track the effect of climate change on species distributions, and even learn about the transmission of infectious diseases like influenza. What’s apparent from my own experience using collections, and those studies mentioned in the Suarez and Tsutsui paper, is that being able to use museums saves researchers an enormous amount of time and money. Imagine the cost involved in personally travelling to all of the places around the world to try to find the specimens you are interested in, and this would be impossible anyway if you want to look at historic patterns.

 

Visiting the natural history museums where the best collections are kept can also allow you to get to know the experts who also work on your study organisms. Natural history museums often hire scientists who as well as maintaining the collections usually have their own research specialty. These are the people who painstakingly describe new species and who build our understanding of the relationships between groups of species. Given the importance of describing the diversity of species we have in the world, taxonomists are an incredibly valuable group of scientists. If you are lucky, your new taxonomist friends might even invite you to stay at their Tuscan villa where you spend your evenings entertaining puppies and watching the sunset over the olive orchards.

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Puppies, olive orchards, and Tuscan sunsets….

During my latest visit at the Otago Museum I had a couple of goals. Firstly I wanted to get my head around the taxonomy of the long-legged harvestmen (Opiliones: Neopilionidae) in New Zealand. Otago Museum was a perfect place to do this because it houses an enormous number of harvestmen that were largely collected by the Dunedin-based arachnologist Raymond Forster, who was director of the museum from 1957 to 1987. Forster and others deposited specimens into the Otago Museum from all over New Zealand, with a particular focus on the South Island. The collection is therefore very useful when trying to figure out what species are where, and at what time of the year I should be looking. This will help me plan subsequent field trips around New Zealand to observe the mating and fighting behaviour of various long-legged harvestmen species, with the larger goal to try to figure out why males have such varying jaw shape and size.

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Incredibly long jaws (chelicerae) on a male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Waitomo

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Tools of the trade

While I was there I also started collecting data on the morphology of as many specimens as I could get through (which was probably 0.0001% of the available collection). As I’m interested in jaw shape and size and how this relates to body size and the sex of the harvestmen, I took lots of photos that I will later use to take various measurements.

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Taking photos of harvestmen body parts using the microscope camera at Otago Museum

So once again I’ve been thankful that natural history museums exist and hope that we can continue funding these valuable institutions. Scientific progress would be greatly hindered if we lost museums and the experts who continue the tradition of describing and understanding our natural world.

If you are interested you can listen to this Our Changing World podcast by Alison Ballance which was made after the recent Royal Society report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand. You can also learn more about the importance of taxonomy and biological collections in New Zealand here.

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A drawer of brentid weevils at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris