Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Priorities first

When it comes to work, there are three categories of it. "On topic", " "on topic" " and "off-topic". The last category is also known as "procrastination" or "pseudo-work". Cleaning the floortiles under your cooker with a toothbrush when you actually should be writing your thesis is "off-topic" work. So is ironing the curtains, alphabetising your DVD-collection or re-partitioning your hard-drive and organising your browser bookmarks. Usually it is very difficult to do any on-topic work while there is any off-topic work around.

On-topic work is like an unicorn: easy to define but rarely seen. Writing your thesis when you need to write your thesis is clearly on-topic, and so is looking up the reference to the article with the study you are writing about. But looking up references is where the slippery slope to "on-topic" work begins. Sooner than you think, looking up a reference leads to spotting an interesting article you had put aside for later reading, which brings into mind the other article you needed to find. And in just a few seconds your perfect on-topic work of producing concrete output has turned into yet another literature search and hours spent going through the clutter of hits, with the result of finding 3 articles you already have and 79 others you will never need.

So, doing "on-topic" work means you are actually working around the subject but not actually making any progress. I just noticed that I'm procrastinating in "on-topic" work for the third day running. For some weird reason, I all of a sudden decided that I need to understand how the statistical procedures I'm planning to use actually work. And therefore I'm now implementing them to the computing environment I usually use. While this would qualify as on-topic work any other time, now when I'm actually in a hurry just to churn out the results, it is actually not just "on-topic" but borderline off-topic. Especially since most of the stuff I've programmed is not working and I already have all these tools (that actually work), albeit in another environment.

Did you spot the point where on-topic became "on-topic"? Let me highlight: "therefore I'm now implementing...". So, while the intention was pure ("to understand how [they] work"), the vague definition of "understanding" let the "procrastinator within" to take over and start spending time in writing and testing code. Sneaky...

And, the "p w" has managed to convince me not to mend my ways, even though I now see what is going on. I have actually consciously decided to keep on writing these implementations, because it actually is an efficient, if a bit slow way of learning the procedures. But since I need to cut to the chase and get those results as well, I think I need to work overtime. Or just cut down the time I spend in full-blown procrastination or "off-topic" work. :-)

(Pic: www.hse.gov.uk)

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