One Thing at a Time

Successful academics (in terms of quality and quantity of output) fall into two categories, those that work on one thing at a time, and those that are seasoned multi-taskers. Many academics are neither – many check out from active research after burn out. Then there are some that are simply awesome, and are able to keep churning out great work with little effort, in seemingly no time at all.

After a decade of casual observation, totally uninformed by any framework whatsoever, I believe that the “one-thingers” do, by and large, generate higher quality work. This seems somewhat obvious I suppose. Sadly though, I remain in the set of struggling “multi-taskers” who on average, do well on quantity, but may produce less seminal work. Given that there is a wide range of styles, my polarized classification is surely dissatisfactory. But like any taxonomy, it supports analysis.

Doing one thing at a time is a luxury, but an important one (I am in the camp that sort of feels that most luxuries are frivolous, and am told frequently by my spouse that I am wrong many times over on this; usually I am wrong only slightly!). So when I use the words Important Luxury, it is not to be taken lightly. Doing one thing at a time is a societal plus. I used to get up every morning and make a longish to-do list, planning to get more than one research project worked on, along with a plethora of little admin things. I am now experimenting with just doing one research related activity all morning, nothing else. Only when this is done do I stop and make a list for the rest of the day, when I plan no tasks that really need quiet and focus. So far, this has been working like a charm. There are two reasons for this. One, it keeps me away from debilitating and fruitless administrative chores and detail, which one can easily lapse into in the multi-tasking mode, and then suddenly find that the day is gone, and nothing really valuable was done. Two, by not making The List, there is nothing in my mind calling me to rush through my research writing, which needs complete absorption in a timeless manner. I feel already that the quality of work has been much better, and the satisfaction from it at a different level altogether.

Less is more. Multi-tasking actually causes me to pollute the environment with a lot of rushed output that the world can do well without. Hence, doing one thing at a time directly helps in filtering out bad work in two ways. One, it calls up the needed patience to greatly improve rough work. I call this “sculpting time”. Two, having time to look carefully at irredeemably low quality work brings forth the resolve to euthanize it. Lets call this “killing time”. Never mind what happens, its all good.

In the end, its a zen approach. Devote exclusive time to one single thing, and be immersed in it. Be one with it. Thus, it is never painful – all time is well spent. The undivided mind works miracles, and academic work demands it. There is no other way. Singularity wins.


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