Do your work like you eat your vegetables

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Do your work like you eat your vegetables

Let’s be humble. Sometimes we behave like kids. You think you don’t? Let me show you something:

“When a kid gets an unfamiliar kind of food on the plate he/she looks at it and immediately refuses to eat it.”

Would you agree that that describes a common situation? Now replace “kid” with “young researcher”, “unfamiliar kind of food” with “writing task” and “refuse to do it” with either “read an article that actually doesn’t need to be read now or ever” or “watch cat videos”.

“When a young researcher gets a writing task on the plate he/she looks at it and immediately starts reading an article that actually doesn’t need to be read now or ever.”

Sounds famliar? You are not alone. If you happen to be the one that doesn’t do that, congratulations! Still, I recommend you to keep reading because it is practical to understand the majority of your colleagues.

Back to children for a moment, here are possible ways I can come up with to try to get the kid to eat the veggies:

  1. “If you don’t eat it for lunch you will get it for dinner and if not, for breakfast.”
  2. “No vegetables, no desert.”
  3. “If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it up but I want you to at least try, because sometimes things taste better than you think.”
  4. “If you don’t eat the veggies, granny is going to be sad.”
  5. Be a good example and eat the veggies yourself.

Number 1 is the preferred method of most people, also known as “try more”. I bet you have tried this one. In principle it is a good idea, it might solve the problem, and it is also a good way to find out “if it is procrastination”. If you are trying again and again, and again and again it doesn’t work, then you know that it is procrastination… and that you need a new strategy.

Experience shows that pressure, trying more when you know that trying more does not work, has exactly the opposite effect as intended. If anger leads to the dark side, pressure definitely leads to procrastination.

Number 2 is also quite popular. Punishment. Also rewards. Same thing: try it out if you think it helps, but leave it soon if it does not work.

Number 3 goes more to the root of the problem: it is okay to think that you might not like your vegetables. It is okay to dread a task. I mean, the danger can be real. There are overwhelming projects, boring projects, projects that take you in the wrong direction or that cause other kinds of uncomfortable feelings. But, how do you know if this is one of them if you don’t spend even one minute looking at it?

Take a timer, set a short time, say 10 minutes. Commit to dedicate those 10 minutes to the project or task. Maybe you want to write a rough plan? Maybe you can ask for help? Maybe you want to analyze where the problem could be? Maybe you want to journal why you wish you didn’t have to do it?

Two things can happen:

  1. Maybe there is a good reason not to pursue the project. Then you need to make a decision, communicate it, move on. It is easier said than done, I know, so considering getting support for that (by a colleague, a mentor, a friend, a coach if necessary). This could save you time, sweat and suffering in the long run.
  2. The dreading was not justified. It turns out that you like eggplant inspite of its looks. Then: Bon Appétit!

Number 4: this is called manipulation, putting the feelings of others over everything else and especially your own feelings. Not a good idea in the long run.

But what about reminding yourself why you got that project onto your to-do list on the first place? What is your motivation?

You don’t need to manipulate yourself but you can remind yourself of the big picture when the details get rough. Vegetables are good for your health (they say). It is fun to try different things to eat. Etc.

Number 5: not sure how you can do this in the writing example without cloning yourself but maybe you can look for good examples around you and look “behind the curtains”. We are confronted with finished products and don’t hear much (or anything) about the process of getting there. If you have a senior scientist or at least a postdoc around you that you trust, give him/her a beer and ask her: how was it for you to publish your first paper? You might get very interesting stories.

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