Monday, May 26, 2014

Rocks and Sand

As a kid, I saw a demonstration that I'm sure is common. The speaker had a vase, some large rocks, and a quantity of sand. She said that the rocks represented important things (in her case, I think it was God or service to God, but that's not germane here) and the sand was the other, less important aspects of life. I guess the vase was your life. She demonstrated that if you put the sand in first, the rocks would not fit, but that if you put the rocks in first, they would all go in, and then the sand would easily fit around them, filling up the vase.

Stupid but profound.

This is the 3-week interval between the end of my spring semester and the beginning of the REU (research experience for undergrads) that I'm mentoring starting next week, so I have all the time in the world, and how to organize it is entirely up to me. In addition to ordinary life tasks (eating, doing laundry, bathing, etc.), what I should be doing (the rocks, if you will) is research. It's also good to exercise, and unlike eating, I don't do it automatically.

My sort of default strategy for days/weeks like this is to get up in the morning with the vague sense that I "should do some research." I then piddle my day away, feeling increasingly guilty/avoidant, until I eventually give up on doing research, enjoy the rest of my evening (often lasting until the early morning hours), and then go to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Lately I have instead been getting up every morning with two very firm goals - research and exercise - and then organizing my day around that. It might look like breakfast, followed by going to the library to do research, followed by lunch, followed by a trip to the gym. Then I relax in the evenings. What I don't do is piddle around all day looking for where research fits in, because it doesn't. Research happens if I make it happen by very intentionally going and doing it. It's not going to happen that I just suddenly feel like it and then I do it.

When I lived with Mosch, his book project was his rocks, but he would do anything, for himself or anyone else, before getting around to writing. I think his perpetual goal was to handle everything else on the agenda so that he would get a clear open space to just write.

Have you ever tried this? It doesn't work. Life never settles down. It is never the ideal time we all fantasize about where things are under control and nothing extra is going on. Other people have continual needs, we have continual needs. There are always new toasters to be purchased and loads of laundry to take care of and service visits to schedule and doctor's appointments to keep and bake sales to cook for and commitments to uphold.

Rocks first.

What I don't know is how to implement a rocks-first strategy during a regular semester. Some of the rocks then (showing up to scheduled commitments) are already in place, and things like classes and seminars take so much out of me that they not only make me too tired to do research, but honestly destroy my motivation to even think about doing it. During the semester it feels less like I am placing rocks into a vase and more like I am trying to protect a vase while other people throw rocks at it.


Anonymous said...

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Praveen RS said...

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