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.

edf

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!

Better science writing

How many times do you read a journal article and feel like you are wading through a thick swamp of jargon and abstract concepts? I know I’ve been guilty of writing some pretty stodgy prose myself, so lately I’ve been working on how to make my writing a little more lively.

Science writing shouldn’t have to bore you to death to convince you that the science presented in the article is sound. Unfortunately it’s often easier to write lethargic, heavy text than it is to write creatively using active and concrete language. Writing well requires a lot of effort but I think it is well worth it. Not only is great writing more likely to get your point across more clearly to your scientist peers, but you are also more likely to make your work readable to a non-specialist audience.

There are lots of great texts available for those wanting to improve their writing. On one weekend away last year I lounged about in a hammock on a tropical island reading Helen Sword‘s fantastic “Stylish Academic Writing“. With a cocktail in one hand and book in the other, Helen took me on a surprisingly fun journey from arresting abstracts to zombie nouns.

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I can highly recommend a beach-side cabin next time you need to brush up on your academic writing skills

The main points I took away were that, to communicate the often abstract ideas we are talking about in science, we should aim to use concrete examples and active language. This takes a lot of practice but luckily for us, Helen has a fabulous online test to accompany the new edition of her other book “The Writers Diet“.  This test works best if you have read the book so that you have some clue of what to do next if you find you have some problem areas you need to work on. The Writers Diet is a tiny little gem of a book, and takes very little time to read and absorb the basics.

In the online test you can plug in pieces of your own writing, and find out where your writing is most flabby – or if you are unlucky, in heart-attack zone. As you can see from a piece of my own (published) writing, I am in serious need of a makeover.

Writers Diet

An embarrassingly obese bit of writing that I’ve put through the writersdiet.com test

Most importantly, I’m on the way to cardiac arrest with the way I use verbs and nouns. My abuse of boring, abstract “to be” verbs plagues much of my writing, and is something that I need to work on most. It is so much easier to say “my writing is boring” rather than constructing a sentence around an active verb that makes the reader visualise what you are trying to say. Helen recommends appealing to the human senses with your verb usage – make your readers taste, smell or see your ideas.

All those blue highlighted words in the picture above are nasty nominalizations, or the aforementioned zombie nouns. Funnily enough, the word “nominalization” is a nominalization in itself! These are abstract nouns that have suffixes ending in -ion, -ism, -ment, etc. They are words that once were verbs or adjectives, that have been morphed into long-winded nouns. They may sound clever, but as Helen says, they suck the life out of your sentence and are best avoided. Check out this great TED animation on zombie nouns if you want to laugh and learn at the same time.

I think that perhaps one of the best benefits of reading Helen’s work is to gain the confidence to write creatively and with humour, without feeling like the science itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m encouraged to see that quite a few of my peers are embracing creative writing in formal publications. A recent (open access) review paper by Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross in the Journal of Arachnology is an elegant example of how to write informatively AND with style. From the very first sentence, the authors grab the reader: “As arachnologists, we like spiders, but we are all too familiar with people who enjoy telling us, often with considerable pride, about their fear and loathing for our favorite animals”. They don’t disappoint throughout the rest of the paper either, taking us on a journey to learn about mosquito-terminator spiders using vivid metaphors and simple but enjoyable sentences.

In today’s world where we are bombarded with a never ending stack of papers to read,  being able to really enjoy the writing style of a paper ensures that we stick around for the whole story, rather than giving up before the end of the first paragraph. In Stephen Heard’s (@StephenBHeard) very recently published guide book on writing for scientists, he mentions* that spending all this time learning to write well is not just to make your readers life more enjoyable. From a purely selfish point of view, you don’t want  your paper to be one of those that gets set aside because it is too hard-going. You are doing yourself a favour by writing prose that an editor, reviewers and peers enjoy, because then you are helping them see the point of your work without having to trudge through tedious text.

It’s all very well to want to learn to write better stories, but a fairly important part of this is actually sitting down and committing to doing the writing.  One of the biggest impediments to writing is having a quiet space to think. Given that so many of us – particularly students –  now work in large open plan offices – getting into the writing zone is becoming increasingly difficult. The constant buzz of activity around me and the poorly timed interruptions is certainly one of the reasons I ended up writing most of my PhD thesis from home.

So how then to find time and space to write?

For me, starting early in the morning is key to success, and usually from a very quiet space like my dining room table. Sometimes even a bustling cafe can be a great writing space, as long as you can zone out white noise. Sometimes I NEED to have music playing to relax and other times I need total silence. Just be open to exploring the best avenue for you and then once you figure it out, make sure you actually set aside writing time every day/week where you create that perfect environment. There’s always something more urgent to do, like sending off that email or making that new cake recipe you found**, but if you factor in writing time into your diary and stick with it, you are much more likely to have success!

If being confronted by a blank white page is what frightens you, try making a mind map or the figures for your paper first, as this may help to make a plan for your story. This was advice I heard in a talk by Gavin Lear a couple of years ago***. I sometimes follow the figures with an abstract, as a kind of elevator pitch that hits home what I want my main take-home message to be. Other times I simply start with a whole bunch of randomly placed bullet-points that I flesh out over time (this can be good if you have 20 minutes spare, here and there).

I also find spending a few days on writing retreats a great way to clear the head and focus on a piece of writing. A few of us from the ecology group at UoA recently spent a couple of days writing from the Forest & Bird lodge at Piha Beach, as a break from the city office. A lack of internet access is great for avoiding email and other commitments, and having a set amount of time to get something on paper can be a great way to be productive. Setting some ground rules for when it is ok to chat might be a good idea, and I’ve found a small number of similarly stressed people who need the quiet time as much as you do works well. A beach setting to provide much needed long walks to clear the head is imperative, as are several bottles of good wine or a well-placed pub.

Writing a blog (or some other form of creative outlet) is also really great for exercising the brain. My hope is that over time better writing will become natural, so that I eventually have to make less effort to make my scientific manuscripts more captivating. Today I submitted a manuscript that I worked really hard to shape into a nice piece of prose using Helen’s tips. I put it through the writers diet test with great results (it was fit & lean!) – fingers crossed the editor likes it.

Happy writing!

writing retreat piha

Blissful evening walk to stretch the legs & brains after a day writing at Piha Beach (Photo taken by Megan Friesen)

*I must confess here that I am yet to get a hold of Stephen’s book. I have, however, had a cheeky read of the first chapter available on the publisher’s website, where I picked up the point made here about writing to improve your own chances of being read.

**Procastibaking became my favourite hobby during the final stages of my PhD. It was great to feel like I was doing something productive (like providing my lab mates with cake) while also avoiding the tortuous beast that was my thesis.

*** Gavin’s talk was based on this piece by Corey Bradshaw, not to be confused with Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City who I’m sure would also have lots of tips for doing good writing.