Friday, December 18, 2015

How do you find mental space?

I wish I knew. This is something I continue to struggle with.

To think clearly and creatively one needs to find "space" that is free from distractions and stresses.
I find it hard to believe that one can be really productive in the midst of noise, chaos, and multiple demands. I can't.

I know there are some individuals who are good at multi-tasking and even seem relish all the noise and hyper-activity. But, deep down I wonder if some are just "cranking the handle" and publishing the same paper again and again.

I contend that slow science is not just enjoyable but necessary.

Yet finding "mental space" is increasingly a problem because of fast pace of "modern" life. This is increased by greater demands for "productivity" and all the background noise from email, social media, and mobile phones.

So how does one find the necessary "mental space"?

I welcome suggestions.
Here are mine.

Turn off your email and/or phone.

Block out times for specific tasks. e.g. reading, thinking, writing, coding, and calculating.

Try and focus on one thing at a time.

Get organised.

Find "physical spaces" that are free from distractions.

Many mornings I work at home for the first few hours.
On the other hand, if you have young children at home, that is probably a bad idea!
Go to the library if that helps.
Sometimes I have done that when there was construction noise near my building.

Take a sabbatical.

Clear your desk (ugh!...)

What do you think?
I welcome suggestions.


  1. Very important and very hard.
    I think most people have given up on slow science and mental space, being drawn into the maelstrom of the publication pressure.
    I struggle with this.
    On the one hand, ones reputation is the only thing one has (in science), on the other hand, I feel that by now a majority defines reputation by counting beans (in a CV or in the Web of Science).

    I feel that many young people are "raised" into a mode of fast-paced publication pressure. Getting out of that mode to start to do slow (and better) science, results inevitably with at least a dip in publications; better papers generalyl require longer lead times. That is often viewed as suicide for people early in their career.

    Sometimes I feel the scientific endeavour (at least in the field of condensed matter) is corrupted too much already. And in the end it's wasting (taxpayer) money, because I think a lot (a majority?) of work being published is incorrect, as in wrongly interpreted or not experimentally reproducible.
    And many of these interpretations are taken over without much thought; if it serves *your* purpose, cite it and get your thing done, regardless of "how true" the work is that you cite.
    How many papers are out there saying "this line of thought is incorrect, because ...". That is the way science should work (falsifying, not proving).
    Recently, I learned that some flashy journals do not like to publish results that invalidate a major line of thought in a major subject, simply because no alternative was advertised. I.e. only positive results count, moving forward, (pressure...).
    But historically negative results, falsification, is at least as important.

    Anyway, end of my rant. But I feel deeply about this.

  2. Great post Ross. I suspect this is an issue essentially everyone struggles with.

    I block out 2 two-hour periods on my calendar each week for writing. The main purpose of this is to give myself psychological permission to *not* do all the other things that also need to get done (not opening my email in that time is a key). This strategy has helped enormously in terms of staying on top of the writing needed as part of helping the people in my research group.

    This idea is one of the key ideas in the very good book "How to Write a Lot" by Paul Silvia - book aimed at academics by an academic that I recommend.

  3. "That is the way science should work..." --> "That is the way science moves forward..."