We do too much. We carry too many projects. This overproduction creates problems which we try to fix by working even more.

We value most what we create (see Made by hand and The upside of irrationality). To be happy, you want to focus on making interesting stuff. This takes time and dedication. Yet, as Graham’s essay The top idea in your mind stresses, we often fall into the trap of thinking mostly about money and personal disputes. These thoughts pull us away from our interests and prevent us from doing great work. As an example, I hear that Tiger Woods isn’t playing great golf. I bet he is either stuck into money problems or personal disputes, or both.

It is hard to be overworked by writing a book, by writing research articles or by playing golf. People are overworked dealing with email, context switching, money, and touchy relationships. This abundance of work makes people sad and boring. And this type of work tends to reproduce. The more you have, the more you will have.

Unemployment and pollution are visible results of our overproduction. Yet, there are many more negative side effects. In academia, we train more and more Ph.D.s every year. Yet, we have had too many Ph.D.s in the job market since the seventies. We write more and more research papers every year, and spend more and more time applying for research grants… but professors spend less and less time on curiosity-driven research.

It is cool to produce great work, but it is not cool to work 60 hours a week unless it is out of passion. And nobody is passionate about grant applications, marking papers or handling difficult people. Moreover, working long hours does not scale: you can’t increase your output continuously.

Our productivity will keep improving. I can write software faster and better than ever. I can research prior work with ease. I can ask fancy mathematical questions on the Web and get answers in minutes. Instead of investing back this productivity into more silly work, we need to get smarter:

  • Focus on the essential: programming great software, writing a fun book, a set of inspiring lecture notes or an insightful article.
  • Automate, reduce or delegate. Reduce is best: doing fewer things is cool!
  • A focus on money or on personal disputes makes you stupid. Yet, that’s where success often takes you. Watch out!
  • Airplanes pollute. Travel takes you away from your family. Cars pollute and make you fat. Do you need all that junk?

17 Comments

  1. Very thought provoking. It suggests to me that we should think of creative scientific research as a kind of spiritual pursuit.

    Related: Book Review: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins:

    “And that brings me to why, in its current form, religion will continue to dominate over science. Because scientists don’t have traditions, because science is all about competition and not about belonging, because you are not accepted simply by declaring your willingness of being part, because we don’t take care of our group members, because we offer no advice in hard times and no guidance for those in trouble. Because the scientific enterprise as it is today does not take care of these most human needs. And as long as we don’t make the scientific enterprise a more welcoming place, people will continue instead to turn to religion for comfort and a place of belonging.” — Sabine Hossenfelder

    Comment by Peter Turney — 16/8/2010 @ 10:34

  2. Daniel, I’ve been following your blog for awhile (Thanks Google Reader Suggestions!) but this particular post really clicked with me. The idea that many problems are created with over-production is something that I deeply believe.

    Thanks for the great monday morning post.

    Comment by Kerry — 16/8/2010 @ 10:49

  3. @Turney

    I think that Sabine is very smart, and entirely correct.

    And yes, it makes sense to me to view scientific research as a spiritual pursuit.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 16/8/2010 @ 10:56

  4. Awesome post! I’ve started using a slightly modified version of a famous quote to judge my mind and redirect them to the desired thoughts if required:

    “Great minds do cool stuff, could be great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”

    The problem of personal disputes generally falls in the last category of this quote. Helps me at times focusing on what I want

    Comment by Vaibhav Gumashta — 16/8/2010 @ 11:03

  5. Thanks Daniel, excellent post, inspiring and spot on.

    Comment by Philippe Beaudoin — 16/8/2010 @ 11:35

  6. … but does it make sense to publicly fund science as a “spiritual pursuit” for the elite?

    Comment by Marcin Cieslik — 16/8/2010 @ 12:19

  7. @Marcin Cieslik

    Perhaps science should be funded by the laity, as religion is funded by the laity (members of a religious community that do not have the priestly responsibilities of ordained clergy). As examples, we have the contributions to the Perimeter Institute by Mike Lazaridis and the contributions to SpaceShipOne by Paul Allen.

    Comment by Peter Turney — 16/8/2010 @ 15:22

  8. It is hard to be overworked by writing a book, by writing research articles.

    I would respectfully disagree :-) Especially, when people in academia have to publish dozens of papers every year. Otherwise, they may lose their positions.

    Cars pollute and make you fat. Do you need all that junk?

    It is not exactly the truth. It’s mostly calorie overconsumption and the lack of exercise. Cars do add something, but very little. In fact, I think that TV and computer are a much worse evil with respect to weight-gain.

    Comment by Itman — 16/8/2010 @ 15:43

  9. @Marcin Cieslik

    Whether we should have public funding for science will be covered in a future blog post… ;-) Stay tuned.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 16/8/2010 @ 15:53

  10. @Itman

    (…) when people in academia have to publish dozens of papers every year.

    People who publish dozens of bona fide research articles a year do not write them. They sign them. Most probably, they spend half their time managing a research group, and the rest of the time applying for grants to keep the research group going.

    Anyhow, it is very hard to do “true research” (or anything else creative) ten hours a day. You need to get in the “zone” (whatever you call it). This requires your brain to enter a special mode which is very fragile to interruptions.

    I don’t deny that some people can get their brain “in the flow” at will and for extensive periods… but most of us get our best work done in relative short bursts (say 90 minutes) a couple of times per day.

    Cars do add something, but very little.

    Research proves that long commutes in cars are strongly correlated with being overweight. See for example Lindström, Means of transportation to work and overweight and obesity, 2008.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 16/8/2010 @ 16:27

  11. Daniel,
    Dozens was a little bit of an exaggeration. Yet, 5-10 papers a year is pretty standard in CS, I believe. I am not in Academia, but I think that it is hard. Despite you have co-authors and assistants.

    Research proves that long commutes in cars are strongly correlated with being overweight. See for example Lindström, Means of transportation to work and overweight and obesity, 2008.

    Correlation does is not necessary a causation. It may be that lazier people prefer bigger suburban houses and long commutes.

    From my experience, one can easily lose tons of weight and maintain the weight afterwards despite driving. In addition, as I wrote previously. Hight-calorie food, laziness, and TV are obviously the most evil things.

    As to the pollution: cows may be even more dangerous :-)

    Comment by Itman — 16/8/2010 @ 16:42

  12. This post seems to really have hit the mark on something.
    It seems as if part of the problem is a focus on quantity rather than quality. By reducing our focus to few things rather than many, as you suggest, we would end up doing higher quality things and harness more of our best inspiration.
    Social media and the internet, and the newfound ease of access to sources, is probably partly to blame. We were used to being constrained in our interactions and information gathering in the past. Now the constraints have been taken away and we’re forced to artificially constrain ourselves in this new, liberated space in order to return to quality. An unsolved problem.

    Comment by Johan Nystrom — 17/8/2010 @ 0:25

  13. Hi Daniel,
    What an inspiring post!
    “professors spend less and less time on curiosity-driven research” Aha!
    I like to conduct research, purely out of passion, for the past few years. And though it is hard work, I still think it opens up my mind.

    “Anyhow, it is very hard to do “true research” (or anything else creative) ten hours a day. You need to get in the “zone” (whatever you call it). This requires your brain to enter a special mode which is very fragile to interruptions.

    I don’t deny that some people can get their brain “in the flow” at will and for extensive periods… but most of us get our best work done in relative short bursts (say 90 minutes) a couple of times per day.” I couldn’t agree more.
    ” People who publish dozens of bona fide research articles a year do not write them. They sign them. Most probably, they spend half their time managing a research group, and the rest of the time applying for grants to keep the research group going.”
    That still ring true… though I haven’t published much, and our research didn’t use any grants…

    I think the old saying: “Plagiarism is where you copy from one person’s ideas “word by word”, but if we copy many others’ ideas, mix and match and repurpose it, then wouldn’t it be research?” How to do a “true research” from scratch, it is very time consuming, and probably never ending..
    Is it silly to do such kind of research?

    Comment by Sui Fai John Mak — 17/8/2010 @ 10:40

  14. Hello Daniel

    I think you are quite right in most of the things you publish in your post.

    I have yet to start as a professor, but I have had a lot of different experiences, here in Japan, professors are no way concerned with writing articles. (They have their students to do so). While in Mexico, Professors do have a quota they have to meet at the end of the year.

    And i think that any author can at most write 3 or 4 really good papers in the course of a year, even if you had lots of time. Yet at least here that practice of writing the same paper with different parameters is widely done.

    What would you say would be a good number of papers for a PhD student in order to get a good postdoc

    Comment by Leon Palafox — 17/8/2010 @ 23:07

  15. Moreover, working long hours does not scale: you can’t increase your output continuously.
    with no limit

    Comment by Anonymous — 18/8/2010 @ 7:01

  16. @Palafox

    What would you say would be a good number of papers for a PhD student in order to get a good postdoc

    I don’t think a generic answer is possible other than “more than 0″.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 18/8/2010 @ 15:13

  17. totally agree with this! all it comes down to, in my humble opinion, is the ancient maxime: quality rather than quantity..

    Comment by mikele — 27/8/2010 @ 5:44

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