As I finish up my semester of being on leave, I finally got around to watching a TED talk by Pico Iyer that I’ve had open in a tab on my browser for a long time. The central message is that for him, despite being a travel writer, the thing that is most important is to go nowhere, in order to allow himself time to think. This struck me because a common recommendation in academia is to do the opposite: if you want to truly get a break and to be rejuvenated while on sabbatical, you need to go somewhere.*
While it may not be clear whether we should achieve time for thinking by going somewhere or going nowhere, it is clear what we want: more time to sit and read and think. This is something that comes up all the time when I talk with others, and it seems to hold across all career stages. And it is the motivation for calls like those from Brian and others to have a Slow Science movement. As I’ve been thinking about how my semester has gone, my biggest regret is feeling like I didn’t spend nearly as much time reading and just thinking as I’d have liked.
My goal for this semester was to read a paper a day (on average), which Jacquelyn Gill and I formalized with the #365papers hashtag. (Some people are aiming for #260papers, which better reflects the number of “work” days in a year.) At the time I’m drafting this, on ordinal day 120, I’ve read 95 papers. So, I’m about a month behind. And that was for a semester when I was on leave and supposed to be spending lots of time reading and thinking! At my lab meetings, we each tell the lab about one paper we’ve read in the previous week that we think will be generally interesting. I’ve been embarrassed to have multiple weeks this semester where I didn’t have a paper to tell the lab about.**
It’s clear that I need to do a better job of prioritizing time to read and think. My dream involves going to a cabin without internet and just reading all week.*** More realistically, I need to do a better job of fitting in time to read on a daily basis. I think I should do a better job of prioritizing time to read, and then perhaps going for a short walk just to think a little more about what I read or problems I’m working on. I run almost every morning, and that is great thinking time, but having some time to think more specifically about my research would be great.
Part of the challenge to keeping up with reading is that it feels like there is always something urgent that needs to be done. This is also something that the Iyer talk touches upon. He talks about having an internet Sabbath, where you spend one day (or, if you’re really radical, more!) a week completely offline. I like this idea, but it would be more for general work-life balance and not with the goal of increasing my time for reading journal articles. I think the most realistic thing would be to set aside some time in the morning or early afternoon, blocked off on my calendar, where I focus on reading, no matter how urgent those emails seem.
#365papers this year doesn’t seem particularly achievable (especially considering that field season starts soon and that I teach Intro Bio in the fall), but I’m hoping #260papers is!
* I had many people tell me this, and I appreciate the logic, even if I didn’t do it. And it’s something that has come up as I talk with friends about their plans for upcoming leaves.
** In my defense, I generally had read lots of proposals and/or manuscripts those weeks.
*** My family actually does go to a cabin in the woods without internet for a week each summer, but, since I need (and want!) to watch my children during that time, I generally don’t get a whole lot of reading done. And, even while there, there is still such a temptation to try to check in with the outside world and to be responsive to emails from colleagues.