Saturday, November 12, 2011

Doing the dreaded task

I don't know what your dreaded task is. But I know what mine is.  It's that task that is so big, so monumental, that it's just going to take me forever, and it's not going to be much fun, but I know that I really want to do it.  Maybe it would be more appropriate to say, "I want to have done it, but I don't want to be doing it."

When I started my job as a math professor, that task was research -- solving a mathematical problem that no one else in the world knew how to solve, then writing up my answer and convincing a journal to publish it.

The standard advice to young professors is to set aside one day a week -- on that day, you ignore all your students and focus exclusively on research.   But doing math isn't easy, even for a math professor.  Everything else is more fun than being stuck on a problem:  Reading email is more fun.  Sharpening pencils is more fun.  Even grading exams is more fun.  Spending an entire day being stuck and confused is torture.

I learned early on that I had to ignore what everyone else told me about "setting aside one day". That might work at high-powered grad schools, but I don't know anyone with a REAL teaching schedule who manages to make that happen, and it just made me feel even more guilty and undisciplined if I listened to that advice and couldn't follow it.

Instead, I  try to do ten minutes of math each day. Ten minutes seems such a tiny amount that you'd think it can't make a difference, but that's exactly how I (and a couple of other people I know) got tenure. I'd promise myself to do 10 minutes each morning. That was just enough time to track down and print out a paper, or to read a page of that paper, or to think about what kind of lemma I'd need in order to go forward. If I did that each morning before my students showed up, I often would get brainstorms that I'd want to come back to in the afternoon, but I gave myself "permission" to do no more than those first 10 minutes.

I found that the clock was an important ally. It's EXTREMELY important to end those tiny research sessions on time, especially if they're going well. 

I'll repeat that part:  if I'm on a roll, it's especially important to stop working after exactly 10 minutes.   That sounds counter-intuitive, but if you think carefully, it makes sense. If I end at exactly 10 minutes, while the problem is going well, then I know exactly what I'm itching to do next -- it's something I look forward to starting the next day. But if I scratch that mathematical itch right away and keep going past the 10 minutes, then I keep going until I get stuck.  So then the next day I face a math problem that I'm stuck on, and that I'd already spent more time on than I promised myself I would -- it's discouraging to plunge in again.

For that same reason, if I pick up a problem voluntarily later in the day, the moment I start getting discouraged, I look at the clock -- and then I do math for exactly 5 more minutes. In this way, I often stop in the middle of something good, and it's easier to jump back in.

And today, Saturday, do you know what I want to do?  I want to think about math.  I've got this problem I'm just dying to work on.  But instead I'm going to grade papers and write a report, and THAT is my dreaded task for the day.  Maybe I'll get to sneak in 10 minutes of math anyway.

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