Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Barak Obama and Jonah Lehrer on thinking and creativity

Support for taking large chunks of time for thinking and writing, for working in the morning, and for going for a walk or otherwise distracting yourself at intervals while working.

From the New York Times, via 43folders:

Mr. Obama: . . . actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be …

Mr. Cameron: These guys just chalk your diary up.

Mr. Obama: Right. … In 15 minute increments and …

Mr. Cameron: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you’ve got to have time.

And Jonah Lehrer, "The Eureka Hunt," in the July 28 issue of The New Yorker:

Shorter Lehrer: A lot of new studies in brain science are demonstrating the power of the right hemisphere in producing insight, which is physically as well as intellectually distinct from the kind of problem-solving produced by analysis. The article isn't online, but here are some extracts:

  • The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. but, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will produce the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," Jung-Beeman said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers." Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right brain hemisphere is also unusually active (43).
  • In his 1908 essay "Mathematical Creation," Poincare insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that "nothing good is accomplished," you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a "walk or a journey." The answer will arrive when you least expect it (43-44).

  • "You've got to know when to step back," Kounios said. "If you're in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, and you feel very stressed, then you're not going to have any insights." [He goes on to say that Adderall, etc. can help concentration but "may actually make insights less likely, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity" (44).]
  • Tuesday, July 29, 2008

    Random bullets of July

    • Mark Twain wasn't supposed to write on Sundays, but he said once that a stretch of writing stolen on a Sunday beat all the other kinds hollow, or something like that. Likewise, a few hours of writing in a hotel room or on the computer just before you're dragged away to a trip that you'd rather not go on is a great way to make you concentrate and get something done.
    • When a person tells you the exact same story 8 or 9 times over the course of two days as though you'd never heard it before, and you know it's not that she's senile (way too young for that) but that you're really just an audience for the Me Show that she's starring in and not, you know, an actual human being who registers on her radar screen, is it all right to laugh hysterically about it afterwards with members of your immediate family?
    • Is it all right to laugh if this happens even after you supply the punch line on the 9th recital--and she doesn't even notice?
    • Does anyone know of a way to copy and paste time, as in a full extra month, between July and August so that we can have more time to get things done this summer? Anyone? Anyone?

    Tuesday, July 22, 2008

    Productivity tools

    If all of these really worked perfectly, I'd be done with this article by now, but here's a sort of assessment/update/review of what helps:

    1. Turn off internet access. This one is pretty obvious, but it's not always practical if you are doing bibliographic searches, say, or downloading articles.
    2. Xobni. I installed this a few months ago, and, if you use Outlook, it really is helpful for finding phone numbers and especially file attachments. It does more, too, like showing you when you typically get e-mails from those on your contact list.
    3. Leechblock. This is the new and improved version of the Greasemonkey script that blocks certain web sites for specified periods of time; it's a Firefox add-on, and you don't need Greasemonkey to use it. You can tell it to block the sites for certain periods of time (7-5, for example), or set up a different set of rules to allow yourself X amount of minutes on certain sites. It's almost as good a timesaver as turning off the internet access.
    4. [Edited to add] Eggtimer. This is still useful for doing "sprints" of writing. You lucky Mac people have a free version.
    5. Music. The music CDs that Dr. Brazen Hussy suggested look good, but if you've already spent your stimulus check, there are alternatives.
    • If you already have a lot of this classical music (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Vivaldi, etc.) on CDs or in iTunes, you can group them in playlists so that they mimic the brain effects of the CDs (at least I hope this is true).

    • Also in iTunes: try the Classical tab for radio stations. Good ones for working include the Adagio station, All Classic Baroque, WCPE, and even Whisperings, although the free version of the latter plays the same tracks over and over. Some of the public radio stations work well, too, although the big city ones tend to play "challenging" and modern--i.e., too noisy for work purposes--classical rather than the quiet stuff, and they interrupt the quiet music with opera at odd moments, a total distraction.

    • Pandora, of course. Pandora has a lot of generic classical stations already set up (although Piano Solo, Romantic Period is heavy on Schubert), or you can create your own by specifying a composer.

    • Local classical radio stations. These are good for times when the internet is off, although if your local station has jumped on the "challenging" bandwagon or prefers a lot of rousing marches, you're out of luck.

    More tips?

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Service and productivity

    After getting all energized by Dr. Brazen Hussy's post on productivity, I broke my IHE fast when I went to Planned Obsolescence and read what she had to say about the article on service expectations for women in academe: "Women, often socialized to prioritize responsibility for the functioning of groups over the demands of personal projects, are far more likely than men to find their research agendas derailed by administrative responsibilities."

    These two are more connected than you'd think. The whole David Allen GTD idea is really attractive in a lot of ways, and reading about how it has worked for Dr. Brazen Hussy makes me want to try again. (If GTD was a religion, I'd be the backslider promising that this time I really want to be saved.) On the other hand, what Planned Obsolescence and the IHE piece say is something we already know: if you're an administrator, your time is not your own, since you can't anticipate what is coming through the door or into your inbox. If you're still following the religion metaphor: GTD says your time--your salvation--is your own; it's up to you to get with the program. Administration (in the IHE's take) says your time is not your own, and your salvation can only be achieved through service to others. To be fair, these are two entirely different things, yet both are ways to measure out a scarce commodity: time.

    Some people can do both; they're very productive but have administrative responsibilities. I know people who are perfectly cordial, yet they manage their time so well that I have never had a conversation with them that was not in the furtherance of one or another of their research or service agenda.

     This also makes me think of listservs that I've been on for a long time where the gods of the profession--those senior scholar names invoked by the regular posters--never post about anything unless they have a research project that they need some responses for or a new book that they're promoting. They use the listserv, but they don't contribute to it, preferring to reserve their ideas for publication.

    Is this collegial? I don't know. Is it efficient? Very definitely.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008

    Pencil and paper

    It is summer, and I do not want to work. I do not want to write, read, annotate, wade through criticism, and did I mention write? Similarly, I do not want to read about Big Departmental Plans for the Fall, see Back to School posters, or take even one glimpse at IHE or CHE. Instead of Academic Batman, solving problems and being productive, I want to be Bruce Wayne. Repeat 5,000 times, and you have every blog post that I might have posted over the past week.

    I want the summer that an acquaintance imagines when she said recently, "Oh, summer school's over? You must be glad to have the rest of the summer off." This is the same person who, when I tried to describe what I do besides show up in a classroom for a few hours a week, said, "Writing about literature? You mean . . . like for a book club?" What can you say to that?

    a) "Remember when you took English classes in college and had to write papers based on criticism? You were quoting from the kind of thing I write."
    b) "Not exactly."
    c) "So, are you going to Hawaii again this year?"

    This week I'm forcing myself to go back to pencil and paper for notes, summaries, and so on. I'm always grateful when I rediscover articles that I've annotated in this way ("I read this? Really? I thought THIS about it? Really?") and thought that engineering this kind of close attention might make me weep with gratitude when I can finally get back to the much faster computer keyboard.

    Two observations:

    1. Writing with a pencil is a misnomer; instead, you have to have a whole cupful of sharpened pencils, since they go dull really fast.
    2. Writing in pencil makes me feel like John Steinbeck.

    Wednesday, July 09, 2008


    I'm back from the land of no internets and thought you might like a picture of where I was for some of the time. A few thoughts:
    • It is much, much more peaceful living without newspapers, NPR, internet, and television. (Actually, there was a television that got two whole channels, one of which was in English, but it was hardly used.)
    • It felt like culture shock to go to a conference, as though I was traveling from the 19th century into the 21st, although I had my computer to anchor me to the present day.
    • On the other hand, it is pleasant not to have to go on Spider Patrol before going to sleep at night. I know that Arachnids Are Our Friends when it comes to keeping down the bug population and that spiders are inevitable if you're by the water, but after a couple of nasty bites, you stop preaching peaceful coexistence if the spiders are near where you sleep.
    • I tried one more Panera run before returning, but the experience of getting online there was even more disorienting than before--not Panera's fault, but the fault of the culture shock. You know how when you open the oven door when something is baking and you feel a blast of hot air? It really felt like that, although there weren't even any stressful emails.
    • Those books I insisted on lugging with me and paying the extra money for another suitcase? I used maybe 1/5 of them.
    It's good to be back.