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An overabundance of effort

by Michael Nielsen on January 22, 2004

Lance Fortnow, commenting on a post by guest blogger Scott Aaronson, has some sensible advice for aspiring researchers:

Your success in academics, like any professional endeavor, depends in part on how much effort you put into it with the relationship far more than linear. But by no means is social life and a productive research career incompatible. Most academics eventually find a life partner and many of us have children. We have many non-academic hobbies and activities even as graduate students. The trick is to find the right balance between your academic and non-academic activities, a difficult task but far from impossible. I truly admire the massive works of Paul Erdös, but I would never trade my life for the one he led.

I think the usual result of working as hard as Erdos – who was reputed to work up to 18 hour days – is depression. Besides the inherent tragedy, that’s no good for your creative work! I’ve seen formerly successful researchers work incredibly hard, yet make no progress, simply because they were overdoing it.

My opinion is that successful creative thought requires really intense concentration, and that for most people a few hours a day of such concentration is the most that can be sustained. Otherwise, leave plenty of time for the little daily chores of life, rest, relaxation, aned enjoying yourself!

Examples of people that I’ve heard follow this kind of pattern include G. H. Hardy, who apparently worked four hours a day at his research, like clockwork, and Poincare, who did two hours intense work in the morning, two in the afternoon.

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One Comment
  1. I had wondered how Poincare managed to do so much (really elegant) popular and philosophical writing…

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