Searching for time to think and read

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.

10 thoughts on “Searching for time to think and read

  1. Oh boy, I could write a monograph based upon the topics you have raised in your post. I was touched by how the personal transformation I experienced in science is so well connected to your thoughts. I was for a long time a voracious reader of the literature, and over a several year period eclipsed the 365 drive, although I did not think of it in those terms. I also fulfilled your dream over the past 11 years by living in a cabin (just 200 sq ft) with no internet service in the middle of the Roosevelt National Forest. THINKING- yes- thinking. My goodness, how we seem to never have enough time for that! Meetings, classes, budgets, grants, itineraries, family, meals, shopping… but thinking??? Think again… .

    Downsizing my life opened doors to thinking I never imagined. I no longer read at the pace I once did, but I read what I consider crucial to my work AND to my thought processes. I also think very deeply about everything I’ve read, rather than rifling through one paper after another as I once did. Part of the reason I ditched academia as my source of employment and started up my own gig was to have MORE TIME TO THINK. Lots of time to think. Of course being nestled in a national forest with only the chipmunks and chickadees as distractions, I have virtually limitless time to think. In addition to having no internet service, I have no phone, television, radio or other media device to get in my way.

    So you are right, Meg- deep thinking means disconnecting from the rat race.

  2. Great post – indeed, finding time to think and read is important and difficult to achieve. It does relate to increased demands on time, the “rat race” and the increased connectivity. This post really resonates with me, and to my own personal experiences. A few years ago I realized that I need to try to “slow down”, in part to find that time to think

    This has been moderately successful, but I still stuggle, each day, with time to think and read. I do have a few things that work for me, from getting up a bit earlier than the rest of the house and this gives me time to read neat things both within and outside of my own area. Also, I love time on a commuter train (with the phone in my pocket or backpack!) and I often use time exercising as time to think – for me this is time on a bike- here, I let my mind wander and think about my research program, ideas for blog posts or pretty much anything else.

    Bottom line is that I need to *continually* remind myself to find a bit of time every day for “unstructured” time to think and read. It’s worth the effort, as I know I’m a happier person and better at my job when I find a bit of time to think and read.

    • That is a great post! I don’t think I’d seen it before.

      Getting up early is also important for me. Lately, I’ve been waking up even earlier than usual, which gives me a little time to read before heading out for my morning run. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a matter of how I prioritize my time, and that time for thinking and reading is worth prioritizing!

  3. Very interesting post Meghan!
    I think that reading literature is important for producing better science (which should be the end result of the endeavor), but it plateaus pretty quickly. It takes time, which can be instead be used to learn new tools, doing other calculations, talk to students/colleagues. Then, after the core papers, literature is sometimes marginally related to what you are working on, and after the – oh, it is cool moment – not much is gained.
    “My goal for this semester was to read a paper a day (on average), which Jacquelyn Gill and I formalized with the #365papers hashtag.”
    Why a paper a day? Why not every two days?
    The problem I see with these strategies is that the fail inevitably as the numbers are set arbitrarily, which is equivalent to setting calories before setting the weight loss goal (which is, in fact, the goal). If the goal was to increase your reading time for some reason, you did a wonderful job (95 papers in 120 days!), but you still feel you should have done better because you set an arbitrary number of papers to read in a year.
    Did you notice any difference in some applicable axes of your science career after having read so much in these last 120 days? I am very curious.

    • Yes, 365 is unquestionably arbitrary. The question of what is the right number is a good one. I have no idea what the answer is! I guess the reason I feel that 95 papers in 120 days isn’t enough is that I still feel like there’s a big backlog of interesting papers that I want to read that I haven’t had a chance to get to yet. Then again, I’m pretty sure I’d feel that way even if I’d read 120 papers in 120 days.

      Regarding your last question: There have been a few papers that I read that initially seemed a bit outside what I was working on, but that then, after reading them, seemed like they might help explain some confusing results we’ve gotten. Of course, it’s hard to know if I would have read those papers if I hadn’t been pushing to read more, but I do think there’s been value in increasing the breadth of what I’ve read a bit. The next set of papers I want to read deals more with chemical ecology, which is another area that I don’t read as much as I’d like but that can be very applicable to the work we do.

      • I am curious what you and others do when they encounter that infrequent publication where the grammar, sentence structure & paragraph structure are a train wreck, for the reader anyway. I never make it through more than a few paragraphs of the intro when this happens, and simply delete the PDF from my files- even if the paper might have something important to say. I know in a sense this might be off topic, but I throw it out there because within the rubric of your points about reading, I thought it a relevant point.

  4. Meg, do you think reading whole papers is always the way to go? I ask because Brad Anholt once told me that he reads *every* Introduction (and *just* the Introduction) of *every* paper published in several leading ecology and evolution journals. That’s how he keeps up with the latest thinking and the current direction of the field as a whole.

    Obviously, we read differently for different purposes. But if the purpose is “keeping up with a very broad range of stuff”, I’m intrigued by Brad’s approach.

    • This is also a great question. When I started grad school, my advisor recommended a similar reading strategy to me. I can’t remember the specifics now — I know it was to read at least all the abstracts of journals like Ecology, Evolution, AmNat, and L&O, and I think it was to read more than just the abstracts, but I can’t recall exactly.

      I certainly don’t think reading whole papers is always the way to go. One challenge with #365papers has been figuring out when I’ve “read” a paper! If I just read an introduction, I wouldn’t record it as a paper I’d read. But, that said, I don’t necessarily read every word of every paper I record as reading! The part I’m most likely to skim (or skip entirely) is the methods section on a paper that’s relatively out of my area.

  5. Thanks for posting. Definitely some nuggets in that TED talk. It’s reassuring to hear that it is needed and in fact good to take a break because there can be a certain amount of guilt attached to seemingly not “producing.” But in fact Pico Iyer is correct that we carrying experiences with us for a very long time (his trip to Korea revisted in his mind for like 25 years from a 3 day trip). Sometimes it is only in stringing together a lifetime of stuff that the epiphanies come. Life really happens in the spaces and the modern lifestyle does make that challenging sometimes. Going for a walk and running are great ways to free the mind. But don’t miss the life passing you on the journey by trying to force yourself to critically think about something you read. Those distractions that interrupt your thinking might just be important even if on the surface they seem stupid and irrelevant. Sometimes letting those thoughts just break the surface is like relieving a pressure valve which can be kind of really important. Glad I took time to go nowhere and peruse the blogs.

  6. Pingback: Philosophy of science 101 for ecologists: recommended readings | Dynamic Ecology

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