Monday, August 25, 2008

Whac-a-mole

One of the things my post-doc and graduate student training did not prepare me for is the sheer amount of stuff that a professor needs to do on a daily basis. For example, on my board today (which is mostly left over from last week plus things I really should do today): inquire about a university vehicle, email someone I met at ESA, talk to one of my students about a specific project, email a collaborator about two different manuscripts, update my webpage, order my new laptop, review a proposal, finish reorganizing my reprint collection (it's been sitting in mid-organization for months), set up my lab meeting time for the semester, figure out what we're going to do in lab meetings this semester, set up my meeting time with my students, email my reading group, figure out what we're going to do in reading group this semester, deal with the stacks of papers on my desk (that one's been on the list for years), schedule my travel for this semester, hire an  undergrad, etc, etc, etc. As a professor, there always seems to be more miniscule administrative stuff that someone really wants you to do.

My first year as an assistant professor, I tried naively to do everything as soon as it popped up. This lead to me behaving as if the skills that make someone a good whac-a-mole player translated into being a good assistant professor. For those of you who have never played whac-a-mole at Chuckie Cheese or some other equivalent pizza serving venue designed solely for parents to have someplace to eat where they can pretend they are on an adult date while their child runs wild in a safe atmosphere (I think these types of venues are the only reason my parents didn't drown me as a child), I have included a picture for you:

image

My assumption as a young assistant professor was that if I whacked all the moles fast enough, I would run out of moles and have time to do research. I have since learned the error of my ways and I will let you in on the secret they will never, ever tell you at faculty orientation: there are always more moles. In fact, I am convinced that there are an infinite number of moles. You could spend every waking hour whacking moles and still never run out of moles. Honestly.

It took me a while, but I have realized that either I constrain my mole whacking to certain regimented hours or I lose all ability to conduct research...and don't let anyone fool you, they do not grant tenure for mole whacking (unless, of course, your research actually is on mole whacking, but I imagine that is a very small group of people). As an older and wiser assistant professor, I have learned to let the moles run around my office and I studiously ignore them until mole whacking time arrives. When it does, then and only then do I pick up my mallet and whack the noisiest moles causing the most chaos. When mole whacking time is over, I put down my mallet and go back to work. This was hard to learn for me because I'm really prone to feeling of guilt when I have things sitting around undone, but man have I been productive since I implemented those rules.

Well, look at the time! I gotta go grab my mallet, Monday is prime mole whacking time.

9 comments:

Odyssey said...

At times I feel like the administration here is just one big mole factory... You have the right approach, although I would go one step further. Not all moles are equal. Try to focus on whacking only the moles worth the most points.

Anonymous said...

I recommend the book "Getting things done" by Allen. You can find it in the business section of any major bookstore. Also, the blog 43 folders.

Isis the Scientist said...

Whack-a-Mole is my favorite game EVER!!!! I joke (sort of seriously) that when I die I want my tombstone to be a Whack-a-Mole so that people will come and visit me. Seriously, I can whack those moles like nobody's business.

PhysioProf said...

When it does, then and only then do I pick up my mallet and whack the noisiest moles causing the most chaos.

Actually, this is worst possible strategy. What you need to do is think about every mole in terms of two dimension: urgency and importance. Urgency is When does this need to be done? Importance is How much does this further my own professional goals?

You need to prioritize your efforts mostly on the basis of importance, not urgency. By paying the most attention to the "noisiest" moles, you are prioritizing urgency over importance.

Someone wrote a book or something about this shit, but I forget what it is.

JaneB said...

A very nice analogy!

But PP is right - you need to deal with the noisiest and the most important moles - hence my constantly adding half an hour in the lab to my 'lists'. At present making some progress on my (fairly quiet) sample backlog is really really important, whilst answering emails from colleagues and administration expands to fill al;l the time available and there is still one more email...

River Tam said...

Oh, I like the points analogy better than the noise analogy, which I think probably would make PP feel better about my sanity...I think this is actually what I do. Research gets it's own protected time (i.e. it's not a mole, but a lovely creature that gets special time and attention), and then moles are typically ranked as: 1) reviews of manuscripts and proposals, 2) lab management/my students, 3) everyone else's students, 4) random crap the higher admin wishes I would do. Needless to say, unless my department head is standing over me with an electric cattle prod, I usually don't get around to doing anything in category four unless I'm either really curious, really bored, or really procrastinating (I'm rarely that desperate, however). I think those are probably also ranked in the correct order for my career goals as well? My use of the word noisy had more to do with my own priority alarms and less with someone else actually screaming at me!

ScienceWoman said...

I like your priority list (and the analogy of course!) but I'm wondering how you've found it most efficient to whack the priority moles. Do you devote only one day a week or a small amount of time each day. Soemtimes I'll get all whacky and reply to a bunch of more emails and think I'm done and then the next day there will be all the replies - ready to whack again. (Actually that happened today)

PhysioProf said...

Ahh: e-mail. It is very important to get comfortable with not replying to many e-mails, particularly those from bureaucratic functionaries and students.

River Tam said...

Sciencewoman--

I specifically schedule time for science where I lock myself away and refuse to do anything that is not directly related to papers, grant writing, analyses, etc. I do not answer the door, I do not answer the phone, and I most especially do not answer email (it is the worst mole generator of them all). After research time is done, I open the doors and start working through my list of priority moles. It works better for me if I specifically schedule the research time because when people want to schedule meetings I can just point to my schedule and say "oops, sorry, I already have something scheduled for that time". Without research time on the schedule, my time just gets cut up into unusable pieces and suddenly all I'm doing is whacking moles. But, everyone works better different ways!