I’ve heard often as a graduate student that it is important to set aside time to think. However, it seems like all of us struggle with actually following that advice, especially early in our career. As I’ve finished taking classes and have a much more flexible schedule this summer, it is prime time for me to make sure I sit and think enough to plan out my dissertation. However, I’ve found a couple of things are making it rather difficult for me to actually purposefully do nothing but think and I suspect most of us run into these problems.
Always Doing Something
I have a tendency to get bored easily. This is why my email is always up-to-date and I carry my kindle around in my purse. I rarely can tolerate waiting in line or in the car without using that time at least a bit productively. I think this habit stems from my strategy for keeping up with everything in undergrad, since I got a lot of homework done in those five minute slices of time waiting for class to start or group members to show up. This means, however, that once I start my day, every second of downtime is filled with whatever small thing I can make progress on, which leaves rather little time for random ideas to occur to me.
I’ve found this summer, however, as I’m actually getting enough sleep, that the hour or so immediately after I wake up is a great time to think. While my phone is within reach, I tend not to want to actually start the day yet, so I have no temptation to start looking at it. My computer isn’t close by, so I can’t check that data just yet. Instead, I start thinking about what the next steps of various projects are and what handful of things I’m going to try to tackle. This is often when I think through whatever problem I ran into yesterday, and since I’m not tired and am thinking pretty creatively, I have found I come up with solutions that just didn’t occur to me when I was frustrated the previous afternoon.
I’m Not Sleeping In!
Despite how much more productive I am when I come up with the to-do list and problem-solve right away in the morning, at first I kept trying to push myself to get up immediately and get to work. I felt like I was being lazy by not jumping right into tasks. I also worried that it looked like I was just sleeping in to my husband, which of course triggered plenty of imposter syndrome! It took me a while to notice how much more productive I was when I took that time to think and to stop worrying about fitting in to external standards of “what perfect grad students should do”. It also helped my own thought process a lot to explain to my husband how helpful staying unplugged was that first hour of the day so I didn’t feel like he was judging me (of course his response was that he hadn’t even noticed so it was all my own internal pressures).
Because we live in an academic culture where we’re told we must work 80-hour work weeks to succeed (which is obviously ridiculous but a whole other topic), it feels like there’s a corollary that we must be actively doing and producing something tangible during all that time. I think as grad students we are especially susceptible to this instinct, since then even if the experiment doesn’t work, we can point to all the time we spent working on it. Perhaps though, the experiment would go better if we took one hour to sit without phones or computers beeping at us and just think. I don’t even like to have a pen and paper since then I get distracted by writing things down, but others might find it useful. As scientists, our brains are our greatest asset, so finding out how to fit deep thinking into your life is definitely a worthwhile endeavor even if it takes a while to get over insecurities about “not working” during that time.
Do you take time each day to think deeply? What do you find standing in the way of your thinking time?