Tag Archives: motivation

the Now Habit for Grad Students: Stop Procrastinating

This is a continuation of last week’s post.

The Now Habit has a few gems worth passing along. The book is full of psychological explanations for procrastination that are pretty well laid out. The first thing I got from it was the fact that low-level “motivational techniques” result in more procrastination. Second, and more importantly, is that “guilt-free play,” is an important aspect of Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw.

In terms of low-level motivational techniques, I mentioned a while back that there are not too many ways to motivate others. Bullying and financial reward are common, but not very high-minded. They can be as easily applied to oneself as to others. But they don’t work any better on oneself than they do on others. If procrastinators could inspire personal motivation through mental flagellation and self-bullying, then there wouldn’t be any procrastinators. The Now Habit suggests that this might be due to an increased perception of risk. Negative mental self-talk reinforces the idea that only perfect performance is adequate. This makes procrastination seem more attractive. It’s easier to deal with a self administered lecture than actually risking failure by taking action.

The book devotes some pages to discussing “peak performers.” One example that hit close to home was that of PhD students. The range of time to completion of a PhD is wide – it can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years. People who avoid procrastination finish sooner (obviously). What Fiore points out is that those people who successfully avoid procrastination (sounterintuitively) include many “distractions.” They don’t cut out all of the play from their lives to make more time for research.

In terms of completing a dissertation, there are benefits for people who are engaged in some form of extracurricular, guilt-free play. They finish their “real work” sooner, procrastinate less, and complain less of the difficulty and lack of reward that come with graduate student life. Treating play as an important (if not urgent) part of life seems to be critical in overcoming procrastination. It’s not just a reward for getting things done, but rather play is an enjoyable part of the overall habit of proactivity. Indeed, play is part of the “productivity” that makes up an effective and healthy life.


Death from overwork – Karoshi

The Japanese have a word, Karoshi, for “Death from Overwork.” This was sent in by alert reader Robert, who (unlike the Jester) cares about my welfare. I’m not going to work myself to death. I’m going to work myself to exhaustion, then go to Germany. I worked all night last night. I did not get the data I need. I will have to do it again. I have had 9 hours of sleep in the last 48. I have no sense of humor about this fact.

On the other hand, punctuation is hilarious! Gabe and Tycho know! And I agree. What about this phrase “What is f___ing natural?” Is it an intensifier for “natural” in the sense of “What does ‘natural’ even mean?” Or are we to infer a question about the existence of natural coitus? Is there a punctuation solution?

Ah, conversations in lab. I’m so tired. I feel like Ze Frank expresses it best.


too tired. will do better soon.

I have not updated this week because I have been trying to get the data I need to graduate. And I need it in 10 days. It’s like playing roulette with hours of my life: “3 hours on Black 23 to win!”

I am making progress, but will it be enough? The funny thing is that if you work 16 hours a day, the second 8 is actually really good work. Nobody interrupts the second 8 hours. It’s kind-of refreshing.

On a slightly related note, check out that Dounce Homogenizer. Sounds sexy doesn’t it?

I once knew a physicist with a keen sense of irony. Good sense of humor. Then he got to Quals. Quals are like the Board Exam or the Bar Exam, except after those you get to be a Doctor or Lawyer. After Quals you get to keep being a student. You earn the right to keep going. Thank the powers, my program didn’t have quals. After his quals, my friend had no sense of irony. I would make perfectly absurd statements. Things contrary to common sense and all factual data available. Right by him. Not even register.

I’m getting there. I feel like life is giving me the Dounce Homogenizer Treatment.


Food and drink: eat the stuff you like, eat more vegetables, don’t drink bottled water

Mark Bittman’s ideas about food mirror my own. I posted about this before. He tells us all about his opinion in his TED talk. I happen to agree with the omnivorous perspective. I like all kinds of food, and I won’t give up something I enjoy in moderation for a blanket rule about what I will or won’t eat. And I’m not going to insult people who offer me something because it doesn’t fit my food rules.

There are good health reasons to eat vegetables. Eating massive quantities of meat is pretty clearly not good for people. Moreover, it’s not good for the environment. Every pound of meat represents an investment of many pounds of grain. People who are worried about food prices need not worry too much – if we cut down meat production we can raise overall food production by a great deal. That’s not a mandate for vegetarianism, it’s just good sense. ‘Less meat’ is not ‘no meat.’

Then there is bottled water. I am really irritated by bottled water. There’s a Penn and Teller’s Bullsh!t episode that sells hose water to yuppies in expensive looking bottles. They assure each other that they can ‘taste the difference.’ And there is a case to be made that the placebo effect is perfectly valid for perception of flavor – if it tastes better, it tastes better, even when it is exactly the same. But you can fool yourself into thinking it tastes better with a bit of lemon instead of burning gasoline to haul a bottle of water across the state or across the world.

Think about it: if you buy water from the French Alps, you just paid to have water shipped from the french alps. That’s insane. If you buy other, cheaper brands, you are paying to have someone re-filter your local tap water (at least they are not shipping it across the world) and put it in a bottle for you. Here’s the best part: it’s not safer. Not too far back the CocaCola company had to pull Dasani water off the shelves in Britain because it had more bromate than was allowed in tap water.

For the money we spend shipping and re-purifying drinkable water in the United States, we could afford to provide safe water to everyone in the world. According to the EPIThe United Nations Millennium Development Goal for environmental sustainability calls for halving the proportion of people lacking sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. Meeting this goal would require doubling the $15 billion a year that the world currently spends on water supply and sanitation. While this amount may seem large, it pales in comparison to the estimated $100 billion spent each year on bottled water.” There are people whose ground water has arsenic in it. They are drinking arsenic from a local well while we are shipping fashion water from France to the U.S. where we already have water without arsenic in it to begin with. I’m in favor of free markets, but that’s tantamount to the decadence of eating the ortolan.


P.S. via wikipedia: For centuries, a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan. These tiny birds—captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac—were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God.

The Wine Spectator

economic value in terms of pie: an analogy for communism, capitalism, prosperity and social justice

The best kind of science science serves to advance some aspect of human endeavor (e.g. health, understanding, wonder). It is a contribution. The same can be said for art, engineering, or commercial enterprise. Work done in this manner will create a world far better than one where there is a perfect cornucopia of material prosperity. In fact, a culture of service is more idealistic than a utopic vision of material prosperity. And I believe that it’s achievable, while state-sponsored universal material prosperity isn’t.

Why do I say this? It comes down to pie. Would you rather have a disproportionately small piece of a very large pie (and get more pie), or a equal share of a small pie (and get less pie)? I think, ultimately, a lot of people would rather take the lesser quantity of pie as long as it was ‘fair’.

That doesn’t make rational sense, but we are not rational creatures. We are spiteful, semi-domesticated primates. Monkeys will do the same thing: they will give up their own small treat to see a rival denied a large one.


The maximal economic condition would be capital highly concentrated in the hands of those who continually invest it in labor-saving technology. This is the ‘trickle down’ notion. The workers are paid the minimum viable amount, since they will fail to invest wisely any excess. This produces a huge surplus of economic goods, but the world is divided into two groups: those who can afford to have any/all of the goods that they want, and those who can afford just enough that they are motivated to work very hard for just a little bit more. This assumes, of course, that there is a good way to catch cheaters: people who end up with a large slice without making any pie at all.

Here’s the crux: under these idealized conditions, the most people get the most pie possible (that’s good) but the distribution is not fair (and that’s bad). Even the people who are working really hard for a disproportionately small piece get a lot more than they would if the pie were smaller, but they feel disenfranchised because they have relatively little. So what do you want: a fair slice, or a large pie?

That has been the central economic question of the 20th century: communism (fair slice) or capitalism (large pie)? Could there be a third alternative? I think there is. I think that it’s possible to see past the total numerical economic value and see more fundamental needs. I think we can work on those. And that can co-exist with either system. The big upshot is this: I see the world arguing over the big pie versus the fair slice but what I want to see is people wondering if maybe they would like a different sort of pie altogether.