Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blundering toward productivity, Part 1: e-mail and goofing off

Another post inspired by someone else's post. Scott Aaronson recently crossed the E-mail Event Horizon, and sent a report from inside.

I have not crossed the EEH, but I have been through brief e-mail storms, during which I have spent an entire working day doing nothing but answering e-mails that can't be put off. Now, when I was a grad student I sometimes blew a whole day goofing off on e-mail, but that was different. Mostly, though, I am able to plow through necessary e-mail in about an hour and get down to the day's work. Although it is still kinda shocking that, on average, I spend an eighth of my workday checking and answering e-mail. On the other hand, there is no question that e-mail is a huge productivity booster overall, at least for me, because it circumvents so many meetings and vastly accelerates the pace of collaborative research and writing.

It is easy to get carried away and let a focused e-mail exchange with a colleague metastasize into a rambling conversation with a friend. Sometimes that eats up whole mornings. That used to bother me, but not so much these days. At least part of that 'virtual community' BS is true. In a traditional office I would be having water-cooler conversations with whatever chumps I happened to be stuck with. Thanks to e-mail, I can have those conversations with a distributed network of my favorite people, many of whom are not in the same town, or the same state, or even the same continent.

I had a minor epiphany on my recent research trip to the AMNH. I was hanging out with Brian Kraatz and we were kicking around ideas for a project on rabbit skulls (yes, really). To an outside observer, it would have looked like the Real Work/Goofing Off split was about 20/80. But the ideas that we ended up chasing all came out of what would have looked like goofing off.

I had a similar experience when I was visiting Mike in England in August. We'd usually end each day at the dining room table, playing games and just freewheeling. One night we got to talking about sauropod vertebrae (gasp!) and some things that do not make sense, and after we'd scribbled up two or three pages of scrap paper with notes and diagrams we looked at each other and thought, "Hey, this could be a paper." It's in review right now; I'll let you know if it ever sees print.

The epiphany I had in New York is not that good research ideas sometimes emerge from the most apparantly random conversations. It's that they almost always do. This is nothing new--when I look back, the guts of most of my papers started out as a few motes of inspiration distilled from undirected yakk sessions with friends and colleagues. When I was just starting out with undergrad research, I'd meet with Rich Cifelli in his office and we'd just bat ideas back and forth. This turns out to be a good way not just to have new ideas but to make new observations. Rich and I figured out a lot of sauropod morphology because one of us would point at some feature and say, "That's weird. Is it always like that?" and then we'd go check. Same thing with Brian and the bunny heads in New York.

So far this is all pedestrian. What I'm really curious about is, can this process be (1) circumvented, or (2) accelerated?

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Actually, Matt's not remembering the genesis of that paper quite right. What we actually said to each other once we'd accumulated those couple of pages of notes was "You know, we really, really should try not to start another new paper on this."

But that one worked out OK -- it's one of the ones that became a complete manuscript quickly enough to live and breathe before it ran out of momentum. The ones I'm worried about are the three or four half-done papers we have where work has coasted to a halt. We really should have the discipline to get some of those done and submitted before starting more new stuff.

8:11 AM  

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