Women In Academia

Women in Academia: What Are Distractions?

Recently, I attended a workshop series that talked about how to be a more efficient and effective academic. It was not a waste of time, let me say that up front. These workshops can be really hit or miss and this one was mostly hit. It caused me to examine my worst procrastinating behavior ““ succumbing to distractions.

I want to outline what the speaker discussed, but I do not want to advocate this view. In fact, I take some issue with it, but it is a solid jumping off point for thought and discussion. There, I have washed my hands clean and hopefully built some tension in the process (oooh, tension). Well, anyway, the speaker discussed how sometimes to procrastinate from the hard research/dissertation, we spend our time doing other things, like learning how to compost and meeting colleagues for coffee. Basically, we tend to say yes to lots of activities and things that distract us from reaching our end goals.

It sounds legitimate ““ I know I get really into my keyboard cleanliness when I have a big hunk of data to analyze in a complicated and potentially tedious way.  But I have some doubts about whether some distractions are really distractions.

Oh, I know I might sound like an apologist for dicking around. I embrace that, honestly. Like Vonnegut, I think we were put on this earth to fart around. But in this context, it goes beyond my own personal philosophy. It is my experience that the best ideas come from collaboration, that my biggest leaps forward came from talking to other people. Sure, going to coffee and chatting about the weekend is fun and can serve as a great brain-break, but while I see the value in it from a personal productivity standpoint, I can see how that would be more distraction than anything else.

But discussions with colleagues and students? I am not sure that that can be counted a distraction. Hell, even Apple headquarters, story goes, was set up to encourage happenstance meetings, so I am not alone in feeling that these conversations can spur creativity, ideas, and new analyses. I need these conversations to bring together ideas that I could not develop on my own. No academic is an island, and there is no reason to force ourselves to work in a mental vacuum.

So what distracts you? How do you deal with it? And where do conversations with colleagues fit in?

7 replies on “Women in Academia: What Are Distractions?”

I think conversations with peers is vital to producing good work. How will you find those other resources, practice summarizing your work, learn about related ideas and fields, and get ideas for studying/teaching/reading/writing/life balance/and all of the rest of it if you hang out alone in your office all day every day? I’m an extrovert doing introverted work; I need to talk about my ideas to remember why I like them!

My distractions often come in the form of “Holy-crap-I-can’t-sit-still-any-longer!” I think it’s one of the reasons I love having a solid field season and then regular lab work that I need to do. If I’m standing and moving around at least a little my brain ends up working on other analysis/writing/etc problems, too. There are weeks (starting now that I finished up my genetic analyses…) that I won’t have anything but computer time ahead of me. During those weeks I work sooo much better from home just because I can get up, walk to the post office, do maybe 30 minutes of yoga randomly in the middle of the day that I otherwise can’t do when I’m at the office. Of course I still go in most days, a lot of my analysis is ecological modeling which relies on a lot of collaboration.

And on those days when my mind is just gone and I know that I’m going to get almost nothing done, sometimes you just have to realize your limitations, take one for the team, and do what’s most on my mind- like cleaning up the house, or going to the grocery store, or watching every episode of Futurama I can handle before I feel like I’ve killed enough brain cells to think clearly again. It’s a strange balance….

I agree completely! Our brains are mysterious beasts, and research and writing are most definitely non-linear processes. Quite often the best thing we can do for our productivity is walk away from the keyboard and do something completely different instead. So there’s no point at all in using it as yet another stick to beat ourselves with.

I absolutely loathe the managerialisation of academia: the idea that we are meant to be in our offices 9-5, turn on our brains for 8 hours a day and then switch off again. Real thinking doesn’t work like that: it’s sustained, unpredictable, erratic, frustrating, joyous….

By the time we’re a couple of years into the PhD I think we each tell the difference from constructive procrastination (cleaning the kitchen floor, gardening, going to the gym, long walks, cooking, even (some) messing around online all count, as well as interaction with colleagues and students, etc.) from the truly time-wasting (other messing around online).

And we know our own work rhythms. I’m not a morning person for instance: on research days I typically spend the first few hours of the morning circling around my writing: clearing email, checking RSS feeds, doing a bit of reading, and I’m only really warmed up and ready to go by 11-ish. I just cannot write at 9 o’clock in the morning. On the other hand, when I’m in the groove, I’ll gladly put in the evening hours, from 9 until midnight or later. But I also know that I only get in that groove for a week or two at a time, and that there’s a lot of gearing up — and procrastinating — to do before I get there.

Moral of the story: trust yourself and be honest with yourself about what works for you, and embrace constructive procrastination as an essential part of academic productivity.

Even shorter: fuck ’em, you know your brain best.

Absolutely. Also a few years into the PhD, and I’m finally willing to admit to myself that I’m a stress worker. I do my best work when there’s a few days left in my deadline. Not that I haven’t been thinking/mulling/thinking/reading/everything else up until then, but that’s when it finally comes together.

So yeah, fuck that guy.

I think that guy is waaaaay off base.  Distractions are things on the order of Reading All the Web Comics, not learning to compost.  Learning to compost falls squarely under the category of “being a human being who is interested and defined by more things than what she/he researches.”  ACADEMICS ARE NOT ROBOTS.  I’d go off my rocker if all I did ever was school work, and I’m a damn better academic because of it.  In the immortal words of my old prof, “Sometimes you need to go walk a dog.”


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