The on/off principle

Last week, I published two blog posts with seemingly opposing points of view. The first stated the importance of taking time to think, the second the importance of taking action.

These two points are complementary rather than contradictory. There are times when you need to slow down (or stop) and consider different ideas, other times when you need to be decisive and just get things done.

Too much emphasis on either mode of working can be detrimental. If you just focus on being productive – or trying to appear productive by being busy – you’re unlikely to come up with anything brilliant. But if you spend all your time daydreaming and change course every time you have a new idea, you’ll never get anything done.

So there are two distinct working modes, both of which are necessary at different times.

It’s all too easy, though, to find yourself somewhere between these two; taking neither action nor time to think.

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I fell into this trap all the time during my PhD. Whenever I faced a problem in the lab (which was often), my default response was to go and check my email as a way of avoiding the situation. Stepping away from a problem can be useful, but I was distracting my brain with incoming information rather than giving myself time and space to think of a solution.

I’m not exaggerating when I say the following change of habit saved my PhD. Whenever I faced a problem without an obvious solution, I started taking walks around campus just to think. By switching off, getting away from the lab but avoiding online distractions, I could relax and figure out what to do. When I’d decided on a course of action, I would go back to the lab and do it.

The on/off principle

The key here is total commitment to either state; on or off. Either full engagement with the work (focused on a clear goal), or full disengagement (with no incoming information).

If you are working and you have your browser open and facebook notifications on your phone, you aren’t fully engaged. If you hit a block and just check email, you aren’t fully disengaged.

In anticipation of the usual comments… I am not saying that you should never check email or never go online, but you should get used to turning off the internet for both focused work and relaxed thinking.

Here are some things to try:

– After checking email in the morning, turn your monitor off for 10 minutes and think about what you need to do for the day
– Try turning off the internet for two hours (you can use freedom to block it), then see how many times you click on the browser without thinking.
– When you hit a block and don’t know what to do, take a 10 minute walk (leave your phone behind) and just think.
– Take lunch away from the computer, with no incoming information. Let your brain wander.

See also:

Offline Sunday: A challenge for the internet addicted

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5 thoughts on “The on/off principle

  1. A peer of mine used to go for a walk and take a dictaphone with her when she came to a block (especially when she was typing up transcripts and found herself bored and distracted) then when she had those moments of clarity she could talk herself though it into the dictaphone and listen back to it and type it out more clearly or make notes when she got back to her desk. Needless to she say finished in time and relatively stress free while I am still here, pulling my hair out!

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