Productive nothing

This year has been busy, particularly from the end of summer.   It always is of course.  Shifting boundaries between work and home life is often enough to flag it as unusual or to warrant a re-think; perhaps it comes with general physical and mental fatigue. This doesn’t necessarily have to reflect predominantly negative and/or uncontrolled forces at play, as is often assumed. Yes there are always some duties that unexpectedly ‘bloat’, but it’s definitely a mixed bag. Since becoming an ‘independent’ academic after a national centre fellowship, my research has become more mosaic than ever, and I’m thrilled. This has taken lots of effort over the last few years in becoming part of large initiatives that bring together scientists from many fields, from social sciences to machine learning. Some of these connections began through attending interest groups over 5 years ago out of pure interest, some as a follow on from spending time helping initiatives across faculty. Some have simply resulted from making new friends and colleagues across campus. I’m learning again. Learning to develop new research programmes to tackle ongoing global issues. It’s exciting. Energy, however, is finite. Personal health can remind us to take a step back. I had a very long lesson in this about 8 years ago. Lets add on top of the exciting undercurrent of scientific research the important roles of every academic: coach, mentor, parental figure, tutor, lecturer and figure head of x,y and z. My laptop screen has been shimmering towards bedtime more times than I can recall recently. Whilst everything needed the time and devotion to take it to a state of completion or maturity, thats not a good thing. There is no safety check; its up to me to define many boundaries.

Only a few days ago I gave an invited talk in the US on some of the new work I’ve developed. I enjoyed it. It’s always nice to gauge community hunger in new directions, if at all. Personally I find face-face networking and conferencing essential. During these trips I always bring various bits of ongoing work with me. On this occasion I hoped across locations and decided to start one of the jobs in question. However, I couldn’t. I couldn’t muster the mental energy to open the laptop and crack on. Instead I found myself drifting to favourite haunts and long periods sat with a coffee just staring across changing landscapes. I soon started to jot down ideas in my notebook. Some of those included ongoing work, but others were new.

It got me re-thinking about how much we really value time to reflect and rest. I’ve found the benefit of a down time in the past, but find it gets harder as we move further into academia. There might be persistent issues with glorification of ‘busyness’, but it can be counter productive. I’m not suggesting a romantic vision of days musing in inspirational halls, and I’m certainly not advocating more meetings or the actions of those who go too far not feeding into a team effort. However I do miss forums for debate, solitude for advance and networks for bouncing ideas. Its one persistent vision of research many outside of the process have but the reality can be quite different. I’m not complaining, I have some great colleagues and friends, but we often pass each other at pace. I can’t help but think about the ironic power that optimizing down time could have on rapidly evolving fields. In any case, I’m really excited about some of the work on the horizon with wonderful people.


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