A Balancing Act

On Monday I shared my estimation of how much time I spent on my PhD; this got me thinking about three different topics. On Tuesday I thought about the distinction between shallow and deep work, which I think have some bearing on time and the PhD. Yesterday I mused on how habits are important to productivity; I’m still turning this over and have a feeling that habits are key to supporting both shallow and deep work, though the latter requires a great degree of focus too.

Today’s post is a little different from the previous two, but I think there are common threads running through them all.

Third Topic: Happy Times

My estimation said that I spent close to 3400 hours working on my PhD research. This was over a period of three-and-a-half years; my estimate also gave that I was working for around half of the time that I actually spent in the office. On top of this there were large periods of my PhD when I felt totally unproductive: endless to do lists that never got done, bouncing through meetings wondering what I was doing, and comparing myself to others and wondering why I wasn’t as good as them.

The days when I felt good were the days when I could clearly point to stuff done: I could see outputs, I could sit and know what I had accomplished and feel satisfied. There was a lot of thinking time… There needs to be thinking time. Deep work, but it took a long time to produce results.

Could I have finished my PhD sooner? I don’t think I could; I can’t shake the feeling that I would have simply spent more time on the same amount of work (or should that be results?). I’m fond of an animation of a Steven Johnson talk (“Where Good Ideas Come From“), and in particular the notion, which I’m paraphrasing, that “ideas come quick but innovation takes time.” I had lots of ideas for my PhD, but they couldn’t just mature overnight or within a week. I had a working prototype of an algorithm within a week or two of the concept, but it took me two years to really have a consistent and clear notation for it all. Ideas take time. PhD research, by necessity, takes time.

Spending Time

I like the following image; ever since I saw it have been trying to aim towards the ideal. I can’t hive off distinct chunks of work or me at the door – partly because I work at home, I guess – but also because I’ve realised that who I am is not life plus work. The “work” I do is an integral part of my life.

An image which has been stuck in my head for a few years; click for the site of Amber Rae.

The phrase “If you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life,” is not true; I think you’ll work probably EVERY day. But they’ll be enjoyable more often than not I think. If you do something you love, why would you want to do anything else?

I thought that this post would be about work-life balance, but it has become something else entirely. I’m not unhappy with that. I think it’s important to explore, and see where things takes us. I don’t know exactly where I’ve ended up, but I’m happy I took this journey this week, and have a feeling I’ll visit these topics again soon.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)