Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success Posts on Features: Lab Notes

Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System

June 23rd, 2011 · 43 comments

Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my efforts to make my life more remarkable.

The Zurich Initiative

Around this time last summer, I found myself at an espresso bar in Zurich Airport’s newly redesigned Terminal 2. I took out my idea notebook and titled a blank page: “Core Principles: Computer Science.” I then sketched out a new, three-part system for tackling my academic research.

As I explained in my last blog post, I’m fascinated by people who build remarkable careers. In my field, building a remarkable career requires remarkable research. This is why as I sat sipping espresso in Switzerland, my last pre-professor year looming, I decided it was time to get serious about exactly how I tackled my work.

My original three-part system, sketched at the airport, quickly faltered in practice. It called, for example, for me to separate “exploration days” from “logistics days,” a level of isolation I found unrealistic.

In other places, it was so vague as to be useless. It said, for example, that “when an exciting problem presents itself, [I should] start working on it early and persistently” — a request way too abstract to translate into day to day action.

But I kept at it: I studied the CV’s of professors I admired; I read books on innovation and craftsmanship; I dissected many years worth of award-winning papers from relevant conferences; and above all else, I tried things — lots of things — to see what actually worked.

Now that I’m a month away from starting my new position at Georgetown, I’ve arrived at a relatively stable research strategy. I assume it will evolve as I gain more experience as a professor, and I’m somewhat nervous that the more experienced among you will scoff at my naivety, but it’s a starting point — a way to start my new position with a proactive (not reactive) mindset.

In this post, as part of my effort to be more transparent about my own quest to build work I love, I explain this system.

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Lab Notes: I Spent 42 Hours Last Month on the Activity Most Critical to My Success

May 10th, 2011 · 33 comments

Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my efforts to make my life more remarkable.

A Minimalist Metric

The above image is of a sheet that hangs behind my desk at MIT. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting, it turns out to be difficult to write well on paper taped to a wall.

Starting in mid-March, I began to track the number of hours I spent thinking hard about computer science research problems. As you can see, in April I dedicated 42 hours to this task. In May, I’ve fallen behind, but am determined to catch up and ultimately beat April’s mark.

I love the simplicity of this minimalist metric. Those stupid little rows of hash marks prove surprisingly effective in focusing my attention back on what matters.

Yesterday, for example, this tally inspired me to first cut short my lunch and then relegate my weekly planning to my commute home. I love planning, and have been known to dedicate whole afternoons to the activity, but when I saw the paucity of research hours in May starting back at me, I cut and compressed and gained three ticks on the tally for my efforts.

The Core and the Periphery of Knowledge Work

This hack was motivated by my emerging understanding of knowledge work. We face two types of tasks in these jobs (my apologies to Wallerstein for bastardizing his terminology):

  • Core Tasks: The tasks that define how good you are at your job.
  • Periphery Tasks: The tasks you have to complete to keep your job, but that say nothing about your standing in your field.

Answering e-mail, for example, is almost always a periphery task, while working on something that a client paid you for is almost always a core task.

It has become increasingly clear to me that in most knowledge work, it’s those who go to battle, day after day, to defend their core tasks who end up somewhere remarkable. By contrast, it’s those who obsess over the periphery, and then get upset when no one cares, who end up tacking Dilbert strips to their cubicle wall.

Alan Lightman, Donald Knuth, Neal Stephensen, and Leo Babauta, for example, all gave up (public) e-mail. I realize now that what attracts me to their stories is that they’re examples of creatives who are willing to fight hard for their core.

This understanding of the core versus the periphery is what inspired me to track my hard research hours: this is the core task for my current job as a postdoc and my soon to start job as a professor. That sheet of tallies is not some master plan for success; it instead has a much humbler design: to give me that little boost I need each morning to suit up for yet another small skirmish in the larger battle for remarkability.