Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

Emotions killing your intellectual productivity

I have written much about intellectual productivity on this blog. If we were machines running mechanical tasks, our productivity would be high. Alas we are human beings who get depressed or anxious. Even being excited about a new result can deprive you from productivity momentarily.

I am bad with emotions. I have a bad temper. I can literally scare people during meetings—or so I have been told. I have also suffered from depression: I have sometimes woken up late in the morning with the feeling of a dagger through my chest.

However, I have learned a few things:

  • Your own work will rarely generate lasting disturbing emotions. As a researcher, I sometimes waste time on dead-ends and get depressed. More rarely, I get overexcited over a breakthrough. However, these emotions are relatively easy to deal with. Even having your work being rejected—which happens to all of us—is something you can recover from quickly, given some experience. Science is not an emotional roller-coaster. At least, not for me. Mostly, I just grind through, patiently.
  • Most disturbing emotions come from my personal life or the rest of my professional life. Chairing committees, or participating in school politics is particularly difficult.

The most important point is that if you must get involved in stressful activities, make sure that they are far. Don’t do it at your primary place of employment.

When you work at home or at your job, keep things simple and relaxing. If you need to earn a living, do it well but without making a fuss. As much as possible, avoid confrontations with immediate co-workers and your immediate family. If you must get into a fight, do it with people who are far from you, such as people in other cities working for other employers.

Correspondingly, I have some coping strategies:

  • I read good novels.
  • I cook.
  • I drink red wine.
  • I garden, even during the winter: it is amazing what you can do with cheap fluorescent lamps.
  • I take my week-ends and evenings with my family.
  • I find that blogging helps me stay sane.
  • I write software as a hobby. Interaction with other programmer, even when they report bugs, is typically a pleasure.
  • I do some work on the house: over the years, I have learned how to repair or improve most things. I probably do not save a penny in the end, but doing the work myself keeps me happy.
  • I focus on research and teaching. They are both more rewarding and emotionally more stable than service or management work. My research involves little politics, but a lot of writing, coding and revising.- It is easier to organize a large conference than it is to chair even a small department. Simply because you are more independent from the results, emotionally. Service work is usually more rewarding and less difficult the further away it is. So, if you must get involved, avoid local committees.

If you like my advice…

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