Why do I do this to myself? A research rant!

Why do I put projects down and not pick them up forever?

I spend so much fricking time trying to figure out what I was doing a year, two years, five years ago.

A lot of this is my coauthors’ fault.  I hate nagging and other coauthors don’t, so I’m often low on the queue.  And sometimes there will be something they have to do that I can’t do.  And months will pass.

But… that doesn’t explain why I do this to myself on single-authored papers too.

And I always swear to myself that this time I will leave myself better notes.  More complete files with better comments.   Ugh.  Unfortunately whatever it was that caused me to put something down often keeps me from putting it away neatly too.

One benefit of having to figure out what the heck it was I was doing– I often find mistakes.  But really, I’d prefer to find those mistakes in a faster way.

#2 chimes in:

Cripes, I do that too!  I have so many things that are around 85% done.  All the hard part is done!  If I just put in a few hours, fewer than 10, I can send this stuff out for publication by the end of this month.  But yet, I don’t do it!

There are various reasons for this.  Sometimes, I stall out when I don’t know what to do next.  Instead of asking for help like a reasonable being, I try to pretend nothing’s wrong.  I have some fear that the project somehow isn’t right, in some way (not rigorous enough?  stats not correct?), and that reviewers will, I don’t know, laugh at me.  This is silly because peer review, whether through a journal submission or  just asking colleagues for informal feedback, will catch existing problems and make the paper better.  Maybe those problems aren’t even there and I’m just imagining them!

Maybe I have a fear of success.  If this article is great, I have to keep producing great things!  What if the next one isn’t as good, or I can’t get the next one done?  I better hold on to this one in case I need a submission for next year.  (??!!?!?!?!?)

Sometimes, I get distracted.  For example, I have to get my RAs started on data collection for the next project, and that takes a lot of time and energy, and I don’t make it a priority to finish writing the previous paper.  I’m dumb like that.

Sometimes, it’s just hard work and I’m tired.  In my head, I have found great results and know what they mean.  Or found not-great results and I’m already working on a follow-up study that fixes this one’s limitations.  Taking the extra time to explain complex results for an audience can be tedious.

Sometimes, I can’t face the thought of all the work still to come.  I can submit for publication and forget about the paper for a while… yay!  But then I might get a revise-and-resubmit, and have to do YET MORE work on this project that I am mentally done with, and that would be tedious.  Or I could not do the revisions, and send it somewhere else.  This works a surprising number of times.

On the upside: A pre-tenure push to clear the backlog has really paid off for me.  But I need to try not to get such a backlog in the first place.

Grumpy readers, please smack us upside the head and tell us to stop being dorks, ok?  Also, send cookies. (Do you do this kind of stuff too?)

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26 Responses to “Why do I do this to myself? A research rant!”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I have so many things that are around 85% done. All the hard part is done!

    In the sciences, the first 85% of any project is the easy part, not the hard part. The last 15% is the hard part, and tends to take at least 50% of the time and effort. The single biggest discriminator between effective scientists and those who won’t make it is the ability to drag a project across the finish line and get it published. When I read and write letters of recommendation, this is a major issue that I look for or address.

  2. The frugal ecologist Says:

    Wow, I could have written #2′s sentiments. I am preparing my pretenure review & am kicking myself. Yes, several things that are <10 hours from being ready to submit – why have I let them languish for years?? This only hurts me – when will I learn?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #1 wonders if this is the problem with her coauthors. #1 just likes to get things finished and out of her mind and off to the reviewers. (Which would be great if she could just do everything herself at the end of a project.)

  3. Kellen Says:

    We have this same problem with audits – all the “work” gets done, but then following up on all the loose ends, making sure everything is fully documented, drags on for everyone. And that’s in a setting where everyone has tight deadlines and a manager prodding them to get going. I imagine when you are your own manager it’s even worse!

  4. bogart Says:

    Oh so similarly situated, no words of wisdom here. Partly I have worked out that I very much enjoy (and am good at) dreaming up, proposing and planning projects (rather than,you know, actually undertaking or heaven forbid finishing them) and have tried to find ways to make those my responsibilities, but of course there are still plenty of wrapping-up-details moments that: ugh.

  5. Cloud Says:

    Oh, I do the poor documentation thing, too. I’ll swear I am going to to better, think I am actually doing better, and still be completely confused when I have to come back to something a year later.

    I suspect you don’t finish things because you already got whatever internal reward you were looking for (learning something new about the world? Mastering a new technique?) and the interesting part is done. I’m not sure how you fix the problem- maybe offer yourself a reward for finishing the project?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #1 doesn’t think it’s her fault that she puts things down. Generally she puts something down when a coauthor stops communicating or she gets an R&R on another project or a coauthor suddenly starts communicating again or she gets buried under some other emergency fire. It’s the starting up again that’s the PITA (and the not leaving nice documentation). It probably is #2′s fault though!

      • Rosa Says:

        There’s at trick for this a friend taught me, maybe it’s from 43 Folders? You put something down you write the “next step” for it – not copious notes, just “what do i have to do on this to keep it rolling” – and then put it on the calendar for a week or a month out, so you remember before it’s completely stalled.

        It works pretty well for me but my stuff is always coupled to some concrete deadline, too, which means i’m not just motivating myself for myself.

  6. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    I still have this problem and I am amazed that at least a handful of other people share it. And it absolutely is because I got the internal reward of knowing what I wanted to know, and I don’t care enough about sharing that with the world. I do care some, just not *enough* to move past the inertia sometimes. But I do want to get credit for what I know, so thinking about that sometimes gets me past the hump

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    #1 is really starting to think that perhaps this is her coauthors’ problem. I’ve been trying to convince people to let me be a finisher for second or third author credit on things because I can do that last 15% no problem, but so far no takers. I LIKE getting things done and out there.

  8. rented life Says:

    I usually have a hard time finishing or keeping going about partway through. My last project I put down for awhile, I just started looking at the other night. The good part was I finally understood what needed to go in the holes, the bad part was beating myself up for how long I just let things sit. This can apply to other projects too, not just researching and writing.

  9. exoboist Says:

    Oh heck yeah. It’s the worst trying to figure out what cannily-named folder holds the material, what oddly-named spreadsheet holds the data summary, and where the data is…5 years later. Sigh.

  10. chacha1 Says:

    I will be happy to deliver a smack upside the head as requested, from the safety of my office desk where I can’t push a deadline forward even if I want to. :-) In my biz, the due date is the due date, and heaven help you if you screw it up because rights will be lost and lawsuits will be filed.

    That said, there IS a piece of unfinished business on my desk. It’s a non-deadline piece that one of my predecessors started in 2006. Yes you read that right. And thus you can easily deduce why it is a matter of no particular urgency to me.

    And now I had better get to work on the stack of *new* business!

    • hush Says:

      In my biz, too, the due date is firm, and I would miss it at my peril. If I don’t work to completion, I don’t get paid.

      Done is better than perfect.

      • Rosa Says:

        Amen! That was the hardest part of leaving the newspaper business for me – why even give me deadlines if you’re just going to push them back if we don’t make them?

        My partner writes & repairs software and that industry is TERRIBLE for fake deadlines. Sometimes they pull big long overtime weeks to make a deadline, then do it again the next week because it got pushed back a week, then again, then again…one winter it was 9 weeks of “last minute push” for a software release.

  11. Revanche Says:

    I encounter this cyclically, when I’m trying to do too many things at once. For some reason, the small and easily completed things tend to float to the top more and I sort of drop the sense of urgency for the other longer-term items that need to be finished off. But then when I lose patience with having things looming, I get an internal kick to get moving.

  12. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find it heartwarming to see you guys struggle with things like this. You guys always seem to have all the answers. :)


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