Take a break, make a breakthrough

Scientists can wander through periods of intense personal drive. It might be focusing on a single project, a single activity, or it might be building up a holistic view of a given phenomena. Personal drive, often presented as passion, can be a richly rewarding. The brain sparks into life whilst a feeling of excitement fills the senses. Time can pass by without a whisper, and days blend into a period of being justified, to the scientist, with only that particularly goal in mind. I can recall periods where I’ve had the luxury of being able to dedicate resource to such isolation, and some of the rewards almost seemed to justify the expense.

But at what cost?

Turning that idyllic image on its head, what happens when the goal appears no closer on the horizon? Some thoughts begin to circulate:

  • A problem that occurred last week needs fixing, and must be fixed immediately to progress.
  • Better cancel that social appointment as I’n tired and best spend a bit more time sorting this out.
  • Actually, I’ve had meetings forced on my calendar the last few days and have wasted far too much time away from this problem.
  • My colleagues are using their spare time to ask how the work is progressing, mustn’t disappoint.
  • Hmmm, I think I just snapped at someone.
  • Pity I missed that social event; I hope I get the chance again soon.
  • Oh damn, in the process of trying to fix this problem I’ve forgotten about all of that marking, best spend tonight doing that…

And so on..

We must not take our mental and physical energy reserves for granted. What’s more, they are coupled. You’ve all been tired to the point of exhaustion. How easy was it to complete even medial tasks during that period? Dedicating mental effort to difficult, challenging problems can be a huge drain. Rewarding as it is, our energy reserves need restoring. You wouldn’t tell a runner to keep going without rest to beat their personal 10’000m best would you? There can be signs that you are doing too much:

  • Errors become more frequent than solutions
  • Files/records become misplaced
  • You feel you have no time for leaving your office
  • The timetable you set yourself is constantly bending

Colleagues might not know or see the effort you are putting in to a given job, so don’t necessarily wait for praise, comment or criticism to judge how far you have gone. Ask a partner or close friend their thoughts on your approach as maybe you’ve missed something. Sit back and reflect on how you feel day to day. Physical and mental signs are there for a reason, so please take note.

descartes-reflex
Illustration of pain pathway in Rene Descartes’ Traite de l’homme (Treatise of Man) 1664. The brain has a lot of information to process, give it some help! This picture is in the public domain.

We work in one of the most enjoyable professions available. We get to try and answer age-old problems, to play with bleeding edge theories and phenomena. It can feel like being a kid in a sweet shop! If you stop enjoying it, you must ask yourself why. Of course, it could be external factors…but check closer to home too, just in case you are doing too much. Take a break, give your mind a rest. Stand in front of a wonderful work of art, walk in the morning sun, do whatever you need to do to take that foot off the pedal. You might find that when you go back to that problem you left, the solution is just around the corner.

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