Friday, December 21, 2012

On the Importance of Seemingly Useless Work

When I first started graduate school, an older student told me about the importance of maintaining a feeling of incremental progress. Even if you are doing seemingly useless work. This may be the best advice I ever received.

During grad school, I have found this "feeling of progress" at a macro level mostly in the non-academic parts of my life: in co-founding and seeing the growth of Graduate Women at MIT, in becoming a better, yogi, in developing deeper friendships, and in various channels of personal development.  Doing engineering on other people's research ideas during internship was also helpful.  Though it probably would have been nice to have more incremental results and feedback on my Ph.D. project (the first paper of which took three years to be published), this other progress gave me comfort that I had not been wasting my life.

Feeling progress is also powerful on a micro, day-to-day level.  The structured procrastination approach is a fantastic way of maintaining a feeling of progress.  (This essay quotes this other humorous essay by Robert Benchley here.)  The main idea is to allow yourself to do less urgent but also necessary tasks while procrastinating the task at hand: for instance, playing ping-pong with undergraduates (as part of attending to Resident Fellow duties) rather than finishing an essay.  Allowing yourself to do, and even prioritize, those tasks can make you more productive.

This all justifies my philosophy on work/life balance* (which is remarkably similar to my philosophy on eating): work when I want on what I want to work on**.  A lot of projects/tasks, personal and professional, fall into this category of "work."  Although I assign higher importance given to professional tasks and tasks with imminent deadlines, it is important to have non-urgent, non-professional items.  I have also begun assigning higher importance to tasks that easily yield high levels of progress-feeling: for instance, refactoring code and running errands.  Doing something because I want to do it, rather than because I feel like I need to, requires far less energy and discipline and also has a higher work-to-progress-feeling ratio.  (If something gets close enough to a deadline, however, I often suddenly desire very much to do it...)  This philosophy probably presupposes that I have a deep inner drive to work.  (Similar to my deep inner drive to eat.)

Progress is not so much a state of achievement but a state of mind.  I have to come to value and seek the feeling of progress as much as I do actual progress.  Not sure yet how much it is improving my output level, but it is certainly making me feel happier and more productive.

* We all know that the point of my blog is to validate my life choices.
** From a restricted set of permitted items.

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