Wednesday, April 04, 2012

J.E. Littlewood's take on "research strategy"

I really enjoyed reading the post Are You Working too Hard?, watched the linked videos and read some of the accompanying material from Uri Alon's web site. Whenever I stumble across this kind of material, I tend to go back to one of my favourite sources of inspiration related to the academic's art of work, namely the delightful piece The Mathematician's Art of Work by J.E. Littlewood. In that piece, "with a good deal of diffidence", Littlewood tries to give "some practical advice about research and the strategy it calls for."  Here is a summary of his advice.
  • On days free for research, Littlewood recommends working at most five hours with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps). Littlewood claims that without breaks one acquires the habit of slowing down unconsciously.
  • Either work all out or rest completely. It is too easy to fritter a whole day away with the intention of working but never getting properly down to it.
  • For a week without teaching duties, take one afternoon and the following day off. The day off should stay the same each week. 
  • Take three weeks of holiday at the beginning of each vacation. This period is necessary and sufficient for recovering from the severest mental fatigue. 
  • Morning work is far better than work done at other times of the day. From a certain point onwards, following severe concussion in 1918, Littlewood never worked after 6.30pm.
  • Try to end your day's work in the middle of something; in a job of writing out, stop in the middle of a sentence. This will help warming up the morning after. 
  • An ominous symptom of overwork is an obsession with the importance of work, and filling every moment to that end.
How would your work pattern compare to these pieces of advice? In my case, the answer would not be pretty and I feel that the same applies to many of my closest colleagues. The obsession with the importance of work has been there for a while and ........

3 comments:

Omer Reingold said...

Very interesting! I wonder what he would say about working in coffee shops. It may fall under "not working all out nor resting completely." Still, coming from a family with four boys, I enjoy some background noise and activity ... :-)

It’s not easy for me to be so calculated, even when it comes to resting. But having young kids does help me implement some of these rules (e.g., the not working too late).

Mugizi said...
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Mugizi said...

I love it! I think it corresponds with my own experience, the most intellectually rich periods in my own career where when I was following a very fixed routine that included frequent and extensive breaks throughout the day with 3-6 hours of "real" work interspersed.

I think the following story about Poincaré is also interesting.

"Poincaré deliberately cultivated a work habit that has been compared to a bee flying from flower to flower. He observed a strict work regime of 2 hours of work in the morning and two hours in the early evening, with the intervening time left for his subconscious to carry on working on the problem in the hope of a flash of inspiration. He was a great believer in intuition, and claimed that "it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover".

Source: http://www.storyofmathematics.com/19th_poincare.html

Of course, it depends on the person. Supposedly Grothendieck worked 12 hours a day, every day for 10 years, and I have certainly known many people who seem to be very happy working at a breakneck pace:

http://mathoverflow.net/questions/9799/how-much-work-does-it-take-to-be-a-successful-mathematician