Principles

Today for the first time in 14 years I head to work in a new place. I have left Cardiff University to join the University of Exeter as a senior lecturer in data analytics. While I’ve been more than satisfied in my previous job the prospect of a new university, new campus, new office, new role, new challenges and new colleagues is beyond exciting.

The process of uprooting my wife and I from our Cardiff home has afforded me plenty of time to contemplate this big change and has given me the opportunity to reflect on the way I think about and approach work. I have put together a list of principles I would like to focus on. I present them here in no particular order. Here is the short version.

  1. Make my deadline before the deadline
  2. Go to academic meetings
  3. Saying yes selectively
  4. Taking pride in my work
  5. Always have something under review
  6. An ounce of action beats a pound of worry
  7. Take a lunch break
  8. Take 15 minutes for self-reflection each day
  1. Make my deadline before the deadline.
    bring forward
    Standing behind the transparent calendar must complicate marking it up

    Work always takes longer than you had hoped, particularly when you are relying on others. An additional revision will generally improve a proposal or paper. Time for reflection is useful. Rush-jobs are rarely our finest work. But we can set our own deadlines and treat these as firmly in our minds as the actual deadline. This allows time for things to go wrong, for collaborators to be delayed, for the unexpected. It is stress-relieving. I will let you know how this one goes.

  2. Go to academic meetings.

    sleeping woman at meeting
    This is sort of the opposite of what i am trying to convey

If my deadline is looming and the choice is between spending an extra hour on that proposal/analysis/paper or heading along to a talk of variable quality on a topic unlikely to be directly of relevance to me, then it is easy to see why academic meetings often lose out.

Academic meetings are important precisely because they are variable and unrelated to one’s field. It is an opportunity to see others present and learn from their successes and mistakes. It’s a chance to find out about a new subject or method and who knows where that might lead. Time spent on tangential thinking is often fruitful and the academic meeting is a pre-packaged, hand-delivered invitation to do so. It is also a chance to catch up with colleagues. These informal networks frequently result in serendipitous collaborations or opportunities.

3. Saying yes selectively.

pinky promiseYou know how it goes; you get an email out of nowhere, with a seemingly simple or innocuous task. You say yes, without really thinking about it.

It can be hard to say no to the shiny new project being organized by a person you want to work with on something you are interested in. And maybe in most circumstances you shouldn’t. But what shouldn’t happen is an automatic yes. An inability to say no, even if borne out of a desire to be helpful and collegiate, is neither of these things if you can’t deliver. In the past I have been guilty of this and it has to stop.

The people I look forward to working with are those who deliver consistently. My happiest collaborations are the ones where I am in control and able to deliver on time. This may mean I do less. So it goes.

4. Take pride in my work

thumb-tani-coin-stacking-11 The public impression of academic work is that it is filled with highminded people toiling in ivory towers on complicated problems that have little bearing on the real world. Academics are absent-minded, impractical, naïve and oblivious to deadlines. It is easy to get caught up in this narrative, I even joke about it to friends and family. In a data analysis role it can be particularly easy to focus on the tiny problems and lose sight of the bigger picture. It can be easy to think that all of the hard work and rigorous thinking does little more than shift the effect size in the third decimal point.

The data analysis role comes at the end of a long process of design and data collection. A misplaced character in a line of code can jeopardise an entire study. If the original question is important (and if you don’t think it is, start looking for a new job), then every aspect of the analysis from the data cleaning to the merging to validation to the fitting to the reporting is important. Take pride in it. Own it. My work is important.

I first learned this lesson as a data manager at the National Suicide Research foundation, where my job was to scan, clean, collate and report forms detailing attempted suicides. I remember making a simple mistake in a spreadsheet where I erroneously recorded that I had received no forms from a certain region. The next day I received an anxious phonecall from that region’s data collector. She was distraught that somehow the forms she had painstakingly collected were missing. I had to explain there had been a mistake and that I did actually have them, but I remember thinking that a simple error from me had a major impact on the rest of the team. Data analysis is important.

5. Always have something under review

always-be-closing
Coffee is for people under review

It is just relelentless isn’t it? Devise a question, painstakingly research it to the best of your ability, craft a draft, circulate to authors, tend to each comment and revision, repeat until you have lost the will to live, then submit to a journal and continue the process

For the first 6-7 years of my career in trials I was on top of my email. I ended each day at inbox zero and while I may not have been able to complete every task I wanted before leaving the office, it was at least able to keep track of every email I received and respond in a timely manner. Some time around year 7, I took a two week holiday, and returned to the customary stuffed inbox and since then inbox zero has eluded me. I think I have managed to prioritise the really important things, but even now there remain unopened emails in my inbox. Speaking with colleagues, a certain piece of advice consistently crops up- when going on holiday set up an out-of-office saying that all emails will be deleted on your return and if it is important send it again. This solution gives me the fear. What if there is something good in there?

And this is part of the reason why I aim to have something under review at all times. If your email is a constant scream of attention demands, additional work and guilt-inducing reminders then office-life can become pretty grim. Getting the occasional email beginning “We are pleased to inform you.” is a crucial boost. It is a nice feeling waiting on decision letters, and so, this is my aim.

  1. An ounce of action beats a pound of worry
work-balance-life-balance
The feather here represents action. The rock on the right is the worry. The rock on the bottom is just a rock.

Have you ever had a task so thorny, so intractable, so large that you put it off for another day? Have you ever put it off twice? With each postponement, the next becomes easier and the task itself takes on a bigger presence in the back of your mind. Soon the task becomes so big, so hopeless that it becomes all but impossible to complete and therefore start.

Remembering that starting a job is often the hardest bit is key. Remembering that chipping the tiniest piece off a huge task is better than doing nothing is useful. And remembering that every off-putting job is never as bad as you imagine it when you actually get started is important. Don’t worry about it. Do something about it, however small.

  1. Take a lunch break

lunch breakIt can feel more comfortable to stay at the desk and take care of some easy admin. There is always loads to read, and this can be easily done while munching a sandwich. It can feel gratuitous to leave the office for an hour to go and eat or walk or talk to colleagues, particularly while work remains unfinished.

Taking a break is important. It gives you time to relax and maybe approach a problem from a different angle. If I stop in the middle of something, I will be eager to get back into it. But it is also important to spend time with colleagues, find out about non-work related things. When I was a kid and pictured my adult working life, sitting alone in an office throughout lunchtime did not feature. So I will take a lunch break.

  1. Have 15 mins of self reflection each day
800px-NICO_looks_at_himself
This dog is taking a long hard look at himself

There is the zen principle about meditating for 20 mins a day, unless you are too busy when you should meditate for an hour. Reflection is important. I will use the time to figure out if what I have done that day has gotten me nearer my overall goals. If it hasn’t I will focus on setting up the next day better. This takes discipline, and is certainly a work in progress for me.

These are the principles that I will be using to guide my decision making in the future. I will be reminding myself about them on a daily basis.

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