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Principles of Effective Research: Part IV

by Michael Nielsen on July 11, 2004

Self-discipline

Effective people are self-disciplined. They work both hard and smart, in the belief that you reap what you sow. How does one achieve such self-discipline? It’s a difficult problem. Wayne Bennett, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport of Rugby League, sums the problem up well when he says “I’ve had more trouble with myself than any other man I’ve ever met”.

It is a tempting but ultimately counterproductive fallacy to believe that self-discipline is merely a matter of will, of deciding what it is that you want to do, and then doing it. Many other factors affect self-discipline, and it’s important to understand those other factors. Furthermore, if you believe that it’s all a matter of willpower then you’re likely to get rather depressed when you fall short, sapping your confidenc, and resulting in less disciplined behaviour.

I now describe three factors important in achieving self-discipline.

The first factor is having clarity about what one wants to achieve, why one wants to achieve it, and how to go about achieving it. It’s easy to work hard if you’re clear about these three things, and you’re excited about what you’re doing. Conversely, I think the main cause of aimlessness and procrastination is when you lack clarity on one or more of these points.

The second factor affecting self-discipline is one’s social environment. Researchers are typically under little immediate social pressure to produce research results. Contrast this with the example of professional athletes, who often have an entire support system of coaches, managers and trainers in place, focused around the task of increasing their effectiveness. When a researcher stays out late, sleeps in, and gets a late start, no-one minds; when a professional athlete does, they’re likely to receive a blast from their coach.

Access to a social environment which encourages and supports the development of research skills and research excellence can make an enormous difference to all aspect of one’s research, including self-discipline. The key is to be accountable to other people. Some simple ways of achieving such accountability are to take on students, to collaborate with colleagues, or to set up mentoring relationships with colleagues.

The third factor affecting self-discipline is a special kind of honesty, honesty to oneself, about oneself. It’s extremely easy to kid ourselves about what we do and who we are. A colleague once told me of a friend of his who for some time used a stopwatch to keep track of how much research work he did each week. He was shocked to discover that after factoring in all the other activities he engaged in each day – interruptions, email, surfing the net, the phone, fruitless meetings, chatting with friends, and so on – he was averaging only half an hour of research per day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was typical of many researchers. The good news, of course, is that building this kind of awareness lays the foundation for personal change, for achieving congruence between our behavioural goals and how we actually behave, in short, for achieving self-discipline.

From → General

5 Comments
  1. Time is an interesting concept in research. I’ve had many kind of jobs. I’ve been a full time researcher in a government lab. with nothing else to do but research, I’ve been a professor in a undegraduate-focused university where research is not strongly encouraged and you’ve got students around every corner, I’m not in an in-between where I have teaching duties (for now) but not too many students at every corner.

    Having had many different jobs, I realized that there were some fallacies that went unchallenged. A common one is “I have a heavy teaching load, if only I didn’t have to teach, then I could do so much more research”. In my experience, this is just not true. It is true that a heavy teaching load will impact how much research you can do, as will administrative duties, but the difference between having a chunk of your time taken up by things other than research, and having all of your time for research can be small, and even, might not impact research the way you might believe.

    You are absolutely right Michael when you point out that many people only spend very little of their **available research time** to actual productive research. I’m guilty myself.

    I’m sorry, but on quasi-desert islands with no telecommunications, you’ll find very few great researchers. The social network doesn’t need to be immediate: I think you can be a great researcher even in a tiny school. And I don’t think your network should be made of students mostly, especially not your own students.

    To sum it up, above and beyond everything you’ve been writing, I believe the secret to being a good researcher is to belong to a tightly knitted group of solid researchers. Research is about networking.

    God! I wished I had understood this years ago!

  2. Time is an interesting concept in research. I’ve had many kind of jobs. I’ve been a full time researcher in a government lab. with nothing else to do but research, I’ve been a professor in a undegraduate-focused university where research is not strongly encouraged and you’ve got students around every corner, I’m not in an in-between where I have teaching duties (for now) but not too many students at every corner.

    Having had many different jobs, I realized that there were some fallacies that went unchallenged. A common one is “I have a heavy teaching load, if only I didn’t have to teach, then I could do so much more research”. In my experience, this is just not true. It is true that a heavy teaching load will impact how much research you can do, as will administrative duties, but the difference between having a chunk of your time taken up by things other than research, and having all of your time for research can be small, and even, might not impact research the way you might believe.

    You are absolutely right Michael when you point out that many people only spend very little of their **available research time** to actual productive research. I’m guilty myself.

    I’m sorry, but on quasi-desert islands with no telecommunications, you’ll find very few great researchers. The social network doesn’t need to be immediate: I think you can be a great researcher even in a tiny school. And I don’t think your network should be made of students mostly, especially not your own students.

    To sum it up, above and beyond everything you’ve been writing, I believe the secret to being a good researcher is to belong to a tightly knitted group of solid researchers. Research is about networking.

    God! I wished I had understood this years ago!

  3. Daniel: “on quasi-desert islands with no telecommunications, you’ll find very few great researchers.”

    This says it very nicely. I think this is why some of the most “brilliant” people often don’t do as much interesting work as some of their slower colleagues, who nonetheless spend more time talking with their colleagues, and have more effective ways of getting the most out of their immediate research environment, and things like conferences etc.

    In this vein, I really like the google-friendly Phil Agre’s essay “Networking on the Network”, which contains a lot of terrific advice about how to make sure you’re part of a great research culture.

  4. By the way, Daniel, when I look at the front page of your blog, a lot of text is cut off on the right. This may be due to some oddity of my machine, but I thought I’d mention it. (I’m mentioning it in comments because I don’t see your email address.)

  5. I’m sorry, but I don’t give out my email address for it to be posted where spam bots can get it. I already get 100 spams a day, it has become a performance issues for my mail readers… so I won’t make it worse. I can tell you that anything sent at @ondelette.com gets to me.

    Thanks for the “bug” report regarding my HTML, but I was not able to reproduce it. Which browser/OS are your using? By my CSS, there should be no text overlap.

    Thanks for the pointer to Networking the Network. I’ll most certainly check it out.

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