The Creation Myth and Fear of Resting

Western Sunrise
The sunrise at Western University, as seen from my 7th floor lab.

November 30, 2017

I feel very unfocused lately, and I think I know why. When I was writing my two grant proposals in October, I really felt like I had control of my ideas. I felt like I knew what I was working on and what I wanted to be doing with my research program, my graduate student, and trainees. This is a great feeling and I was filled with the satisfaction of not only working hard on the proposals but also of having so many ideas and projects that I wanted to pursue. I could not wait to get started on some of the new projects.

But right after they were submitted, I rested. This seems natural, for course, for I’d worked hard and wanted to celebrate a job well done and relax a bit. Also I had just undergone a minor surgery, so some recovery time was needed. But a week later, I needed to turn to other things that Required my attention, and before I realized what had happened, I was overwhelmed with our departmental job searches and my office and lab’s move to the new building. My research ideas, having been developed and nurtured in the NSERC and SSHRC proposals, languished from the inattention.

That is, I worked. I seemed to have it together, I rested, and it all seemed to slip away.

It was like the 7th day.

In the creation myth in Genesis, God worked hard to create the universe and then he rested. And then right after that, right after sitting back, looking with satisfaction at what he’d done, and cracking open a divine beer, he seems to lose focus…humans took over, they started killing each other, and he can’t really seem remember why he created us in the first place, or what his plan is. He takes it out on us. He starts to clearly resent his work…he keeps coming back to it every so often, but the magic is gone. He rested and lost focus.

I think this is a metaphor that is often unexplored in the Bible (or maybe it is interpreted this way, I’m really not up on Bible scholarship). The creation myth can be seen as a story about what happens when you rest on your laurels and stop working on something. You step back and get caught up in other things and you lose you train of thought. The ideas fade, they take a back seat, and it can be so difficult to get back in control, that you risk starting to resent the ideas.

I think that’s the underlying theme in Genesis: God rested and the universe took a back seat. It got out of hand and he never quite got it back the way he wanted. He started to resent the work and even tried to destroy it.

The inevitability of forward motion.

I’m not trying to say I’m God here, but I am supposed to be in control of my research program. And there are times when I’m in the middle of working on a project, or paper, or grant that I really think I can see the big picture. I can glimpse a bigger vision for my research on cognition, concepts, and categories. I think I’ve created something worthwhile. But damnit, if I step way for a week and get caught up in a PhD defence, or faculty hiring, committee work, or the like, it can be so hard to put things back together.

And the lesson in Genesis seems to be: you can’t. You can’t put it back in that pristine state. But you can’t give up either. You have to let the ideas work themselves out. You have to come back and not be afraid to admit you made a mistake. Sometimes you start over or learning new skills. You may have to look at things from a new perspective while realizing that you can’t ever get back to the garden.

I’m not a religious believer… but I think there’s still a good lesson here: Even the divine creator has trouble keeping it together after a break.

The Infinity: Email Management and Engagement

It’s a cold and rainy Sunday morning in November. I’m drinking some delicious dark coffee from Balzac’s.

My wife and I are each working on different things and taking advantage of the relative morning quiet. I’m at the kitchen table working off my laptop, listening to music on my headphones, and working on overview material: looking at the emails I have to respond to. I criticize myself for procrastinating, which is in itself an extra layer of procrastinating.

Email is the engine of misery

I take a look at my work email inbox. It is not too bad for a professor. I keep it organized and the inbox contains one those things that need a reply. But there at 59 messages in there that I need to reply to;  four of these have been awaiting a reply since September. Even while I write this, I’m feeling a real sense of anxiety and conflict. On the one hand, I greatly desire to spend hours slogging though the entire list and trying to deal with backlog. I’d love to look at INBOX = 0. I think that would make me feel great (which is a strange belief to have…I have never had INBOX = 0, so how do I know it would make me feel great?) Even an hour could make a good dent and dispense with at least 2/3 of the messages.

But at the same time, I want to ignore all of it. To delete all the email. I think about Donald Knuth’s quote about email. Knuth is a computer scientist at Stanford, who developed, among other things, the “TeX” system of typesetting. He has an entry on his website about email and indicted that he does not have an address.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”

This quote, and the idea here, has been one of the things that I really aspire to. It’s one of my favourite quotes and a guiding principle…but I can’t make the leap. Like Knuth, I also write books, articles, and I try to get to the bottom of things. But it seems like I never scratch the surface because I’m always responding to email, sending email, Tweeting and engaging on social media. Deeper analysis never happens because I’m preoccupied with this surface. I feel trapped by this.

And yet, I cannot ignore the surface level. Engagement with email is part of my job. Others depend my responding. For example, I have a now retried departmental colleague who just never responded to email, and this was very frustrating to deal with. I suspect (I know) that others picked up the slack when he failed to be responsive. I have a current colleague who is much the same. So I don’t endorse blowing off some aspects of one’s job, knowing that others will pick these pieces up. I don’t want to shirk my administrative and teaching responsibilities, even if it means I sacrifice the ability to have dedicated research and writing time.

Give and Take

In the end, I am trapped in a cage that I spend hours each day making stronger. Trapped in a pit that I work ever longer hours to make deeper. The incoming email will not stop, but one could probably slow it down by not sending any email out, by providing FAQs on my syllabus about when to email, by delegating email to TAs.

The real question is, if I give less time to email, will it take less of my time away? If so, will I use that time wisely? Or will I turn to another form of distraction. Is email the problem? Or am I the problem?

The one “productivity hack” that you probably avoid like the plague

This past week, my office phone rang. It rarely does, and even when it does ring, I rarely answer it. I usually let the call go to voicemail. My outgoing voicemail says: “I never check voicemail, please email me“. And even if someone does leave a voicemail, it’s transcribed and sent to my email.

This is so inefficient, and self-sabotaging, given that I, like most academics, moan about how much email I have to process.

But this time, noticing that it was another professor in my department who was calling, I picked it up. My colleague who was calling is the co-ordinator for the Psychology Honours program and he had a simple question about the project that one of my undergraduate Honours students was working on. We solved the issue in about 45 seconds.

If I had followed the standard protocol, he would have left a voicemail or emailed me (or both). It would have probably taken me a day to respond, and the email would have taken 5-8 minutes for me to write. He’d have then replied (a day later), and if my email was not clear, there might have been another email. Picking up the phone saved each of us time and effort and allowed my student’s proposed project to proceed.

Phone Aversion.

Why are we so averse to using the phone?

I understand why in principal: it’s intrusive, it takes you out of what you were doing (answering email probably), and you have to switch tasks.  The act of having to disengage from what you are doing and manage a call is a cognitively demanding action.  After the call, you then have to switch back. So it’s natural to make a prospective judgement to avoid taking the call.

And from the perspective of the caller, you might call and not get an answer, then you have to engage a new decision-making process: Should I leave a message, call again, or just email. This cognitive switching takes time and effort. And of course, as many of us resent being interrupted by a call, we may also assume that the person we are calling also resents the interruption and so we avoid calling out of politeness (maybe this more of a Canadian thing…)

So there are legitimate, cognitive and social/cognitive reasons to avoid using the phone.

We Should Make and Take More Calls.

My experience was a small revelation, though. Mostly because after the call, while I was switching back to what I had been doing prior, I thought about how much longer (days) the standard email approach would have taken. So I decided that, going forward, that I’m going to try to make and take more calls. It can be a personal experiment.

I tried this approach a few days ago with some non-university contacts (for the youth sports league I help to manage). We saved time and effort. Yes, it might have taken a few minutes out of each other’s day, but it paled in comparison to what an email-based approach would have taken.

For Further Study

Although I’m running a “personal experiment” on phone call efficiency, I’d kind of like to study this in more detail. Perhaps design a series of experiments in which two (or more) people are given a complex problem to solve and we can manipulate how much time they can spend on email vs time on the phone. We’d track things like cognitive interference. I’m not exactly sure how to do this, but I’d like to look at it more systematically. The key things would be how effectively people solve the problems, and if and how one mode of communication interferes with other tasks.

Final Thoughts

Do you prefer email or a phone call? Have you ever solved a problem faster on the phone vs email? Have you ever found the reverse to be true?

Or do you prefer messaging (Slack, Google Chat, etc.) which is more dynamic than email but not as intrusive as a phone call?