Monday, May 30, 2005

It would be, it would be so nice

Today is a public holiday in the US, and also in the UK. The Canadians had one last week. And yet, here I am in front of the keyboard with a small stack of papers to work on. With conference deadlines and other demands on our time, those of us in CS often seem to ignore public holidays like this and work to our own schedule. Placement of these conference deadlines sometimes seems to encourage this: SODA in my recollection has always been just after July 4th. Not a problem for most non-US domiciled researchers, but meaning the curtailment of celebrations for those participating in the informal and uncelebrated tradition of trying to rile the SODA Program Committee by submitting as many papers as possible (rumour has it that the record is in double figures).

This is not to complain, merely to observe. In fact, I think the freedoms that we have to work how, where and when we choose outweigh the fact that we are often out of phase with the rest of society. Some university professors can arrange their schedule so that they are in the department only two or three days a week. The department understands that so long as they are able to fulfil all their commitments in that time, then there is no reason to object. Research labs are also usually relaxed about people working from home frequently, or keeping non-standard hours.

This is important: research is not something that can be confined to certain times. We cannot just sit down and decide, "I am going to have inspirational ideas for the next hour"; ideas can occur at any time. But this is not to say that we can just sit back and wait for inspiration. Getting distracted into other tasks such as administration can preoccupy us. We have to mull over problems, make sure that there is time to think about research, talk with others and see new results. I like Feynmann's idea of carrying around a stock of open problems, and every time one sees a new idea or result thinking, "Can I apply this to my problems?".

We also need a break occasionally. So even if we don't join the herd and rest on the public holidays, and find ourselves at our desks on weekends or late into the evening, we should take time out at other times, and get away to indulge our passions for poetry appreciation, sudoku playing, beach volleyball, puffin spotting or whatever. Never let the number of hours worked be your metric for self-evaluation, and try to avoid achieving the trivial work-life balance.

Having pontificated on this subject for too long, I shall get back to work now.
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