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Cultivating Habits: -1 +2 for Researchers

By Saurabh Bagchi

January 3, 2022

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This was originally posted on the blog Distant Whispers from an Academic Engineer's World.

We know through countless books and media material that good habits are important. We are told this from our childhoods and we know of examples of good habits and the bad ones from all our readings. New Year is stereotypically the time when we have to resolve to make some of the first and get rid of some of the latter. So I thought of two good habits and one bad one that are relevant for me and if I squint enough, generalizes to other researchers.

The immediate trigger for me to think about this was not the dawn of a New Year. I fancy myself to be too sophisticated to make New Year resolutions. It came from hearing Wendy Wood, a psychologist from the University of Southern California, in an NPR program called "Hidden Brain". And then I dug into her 2019 book "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick". The book made the compelling case that one way to sustain a good habit is to reduce the "friction" to do the activity that such a habit recommends. An example that hit close to home was at a conference, for snack breaks, Wendy put healthy fruits close to the middle of the space, and presumably the muffins and such like were banished to a corner. This had the expected outcome. This example hit home also for the unrelated reason that it made me nostalgic for coffee breaks at in-person conferences.

The book is chock full of delightful examples of ways to make good habits stick and kick bad habits for good. Understandably, few of them are directly applicable to researchers or to academics, as this is a book meant for the general public. This got me to thinking reflectively about habits as they pertain to me. And here is what I came to. I wish I could say that the good habits are a part of me and the bad habit is a distant memory. But that is not the case. So let me make a resolution to try to get toward that. So it turns out I am not that sophisticated after all!

The Bad: -1

We all receive emails, sometime lots of them, sometime more than what we can cognitively process and do justice to. I have heard more than a fair number of good and bad practices for dealing with emails. The simple digest for me is to not run to email reading and answering when my mind needs a break. That is a bad way to spend a mind break; a look out the window or leafing through a non-technical book are much better ways.

The good way is to schedule the email breaks. And have two kinds, one kind where we can read and respond to the quick ones, and the second kind where we deal with the meaty ones. And this scheduling should not be too frequent, say no more than once every 3 hours. Now I hear you saying what about immediate summons and fires that need to be put out. Yes, sure they are there, but one can usually tell if an incoming mail falls in that category by the subject or the preview of a few lines. And we often fancy we are that essential at short intervals, when we are not. Now if you are a high-up administrator or executive, that is a different matter.

The Good: +1

The first good habit is to devote time to reading every day and to guard that time zealously. Reading implies reading research literature and reading drafts of papers from students and other collaborators. So far this is obvious. The not-so-obvious part to me was that each such activity needs to be scheduled for a certain minimum length of time. One hour happens to be that lowest bound for me; below that I am too wasteful in doing context switching.

To aid in this, when I have to read a draft of something I am working on with collaborators, I should ask for a certain minimum part to be ready for my review. That minimum part is such that it takes me the above-mentioned minimum quantum of time for me to work on it. This makes me appear a little curmudgeonly at times, but that is the price we sometimes have to pay for a good habit.

When reading research literature, I need to peck and choose. The initial period is spent pecking — doing the breadth-first search for finding the papers that I need to dig deep into. The next part should be spent reading deep, uninterrupted, when my brain's cogs and wheels are whirring undisturbed. A natural temptation for me during hurried times is to do only the pecking part. That in the end is a self-defeating move. Now I hear myself saying, "what about those pesky deadlines that interfere with the reading habit?" Yes, those are there, but probably should not derail the reading habit for days on end.

The Good: +2

The second good habit pertains to my writing. This one is common lore and accepted wisdom — devote a certain number of hours each day to writing and guard those hours obsessively. Even when you do not feel like writing and even when you look at your output and feel that you have turned out drivel. This admonition has come down from many in the creative fields of arts and letters. And it is true for those in the research lane as well.

"Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row." 

Ray Bradbury

"Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace." 
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

The not-so-obvious part of this habit is that I need to work for a certain minimum time quantum on one writing, say one paper or proposal and even one section of that paper or proposal. That time quantum is larger than the quantum for reading, and is of the order of 3 hours for me. I need this minimum amount to "get in the groove" and in the ideal times, the fingers are flying over the keyboard, in a race with the thoughts.

To Sum

Obviously the specifics of the two good habits and the one bad are very personalized. How long one needs to spend undisturbed in an activity will depend on you and your circumstance around you. But perhaps the qualitative aspect of these three habits extend to quite a few of us. Now there is knowing what are the good and the bad, and then there is doing. I can hear in my head the Nike swoosh "Just Do It" getting louder. I wish it were that easy.

 

Saurabh Bagchi is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Purdue University, where he leads a university-wide center on resilience called CRISP. His research interests are in distributed systems and dependable computing, while he and his group have the most fun making and breaking large-scale usable software systems for the greater good.

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