I Am Thinking, HE/SHE Is Procrastinating, THEY Are Daydreaming

This is a follow-up thought to my recent post on laziness. I spend a lot of time thinking and, sometimes, it would be easy to look at me and think “Wow, he’s not doing anything.” Sometimes, in my office, I stare at a wall, doodle, pace the corridor, sketch on the whiteboard or, if I’m really stuck, go for a walk down by the river. All of this helps me to clear and organise my thoughts. I use tools to manage what I have to do and to get it done in time but the cognitive work of thinking things through sometimes takes time. The less I sleep, the longer it takes. That’s why, while I’m jet lagged, I will do mostly catch-up and organisational work rather than thinking. Right now I can barely do a crossword, which is an excellent indicator that my brain is fried for anything much more complex than blogging. Given that I last slept in a bed over 30 hours ago, this isn’t surprising.

Now it’s easy to accept that I stumble around, somewhat absent-mindedly, because I’m an academic and you can all understand that my job requires me to do a lot of thinking…

But so many jobs require a lot of thinking to be done well – or , at least, the component tasks that go to make up modern jobs.

It’s a shame then that it’s activity that most people focus on rather than quality. If I were to sit in my office and type furiously but randomly, answer mails curtly, and never leave for coffee or cake, have to schedule meetings three weeks in advance – what a powerhouse I would appear! Except, of course, that I wouldn’t really appear to be that to people who knew what I was supposed to do. I don’t do the kind of job where I can move from task to task without, in most cases, detailed research including a search for new material, construction, creation, design, analysis, building, testing and executing. As always, this doesn’t make my job better or worse than anyone else’s, but I don’t carry out the same action repeatedly, an action that can be reduced in cognitive load with familiarity, I tend to do something at least slightly different each time. Boiler plate repetition is more likely to indicate that I am not doing my job correctly, given the roles that I hold.

So, if there are no points in a week where I sit there with books or papers or doodles or sketches of ideas and I think about them – then I’m really running the risk of not doing my job. I need to produce work of high quality and, because there’s a lot of new content creation, there’s creation/editing/testing… load throughout. Some of which, to an external viewer, looks like sitting around throwing paper into the bin while I hunt for solutions.

I think about this a lot for my students. I expect them, in a lecture, to not sit and think so much that they don’t communicate. I will try and bring them back from mental flights of fancy rather than let them fly off because I’ve only got an hour or two with them and need to try to get certain concepts across. And then what? Sometime in 4th year, or PhD, I expect them to flip a switch and realise that the apparent inactivity of quiet, contemplative thought is one of the most productive activities? That a day where you write eight pages, and on review only salvage half of one page, could be the most important and useful day in your PhD?

This is why I tend not to give out marks for ‘just anything’ – two pages of nonsense gets zero, there are no marks for effort because I am rewarding the wrong activity, especially where we haven’t achieved quality. Similarly, I don’t give out marks for attendance but for the collaboration – if you are after an activity, getting the students to do something, I think it’s always best to reward them for doing the activity, not just attending the framing session! But this, of course, comes hand-in hand with the requirement to give them enough timely feedback that they can improve their mark – by improving the quality of what they produce.

Electronic learning systems could be really handy here. Self-paced learning, with controlled remote assessment mechanisms, allows this thinking time and the ability to sit, privately, and mull over the problems. Without anyone harassing them.

Years ago, when I was still in the Army Reserve, we were on exercise for a couple of weeks and my soldiers were getting pretty tired because we’d been running 4 hour shifts to staff the radios. You sat on the radios for 4 hours, you were off for 4. Every so often you might get 6 hours off but it was unlikely. This meant that my soldiers were often sleeping in the middle of the day, desperately trying to make up lost sleep as well as periodically showering, shaving and eating. 4 hours goes really quickly when you’re not on duty. People in our base area who WEREN’T doing these shifts thought that my soldiers were lazy and, on at least two occasions, tried to wake them up to use them on work parties – digging holes, carrying things, doing soldier stuff. My soldiers needed their sleep and I was their commander so I told the other people, politely, to leave them alone. My operators had a job to do and maintained the quality of their work by following a very prescribed activity pattern – but the people around them could only see inactivity because of their perspective.

Maybe it’s time to look at my students again, look at what I’m asking them to do and make sure that what I’m asking and that the environment I’m giving them is the right one. I don’t think we’re doing too badly, because of previous reviews, but it’s probably never too soon to check things out again.

5 Comments on “I Am Thinking, HE/SHE Is Procrastinating, THEY Are Daydreaming”

  1. philosophidian says:

    It’s so hard to get this across to people, especially if they just happen to walk past where you’re sitting in what appears to be idle thought, headphones on, staring at a computer screen, but not typing anything.

    I had a boss once, a few years back, who came to me and pulled me aside during the work day. “I know you’re getting stuff done, but one of the vice presidents just told me he walked past your cube and you weren’t doing anything, and why we’re paying someone to sit and navel-gaze. I know it’s stupid, but…try to look like you’re doing something when you’re thinking.”

    And that’s when I started to write blog posts while I was at work. 🙂 (The distraction from thinking about a problem often leads to the solution just popping into your head while you’re doing something else.)


  2. Peter Evans says:

    This “thinking things through” journey reminds me of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. A book I should put on my “read again” list.


  3. nickfalkner says:

    I should note that I edited this post slightly after a friend told me how badly I’d written it because I was so tired. (Confession over)

    I think there’s almost a fear of people who can sit and achieve things by thinking them through, in some respects. A person who is moving, talking or acting in some way needs the outside world – needs their colleagues, resources or the environment. A person who is achieving by sitting there and just thinking is very self-contained. If you feel even vaguely insecure about your contribution to an endeavour, then seeing that someone else doesn’t (appear to) need you at all could make you worried.

    I note that, of course, these thinking moments don’t comprise the entirety of activity but I always find it curious when people seem to almost scoff at the idea that this kind of concentration could be productive.

    Thanks for your comments!


  4. Alex H says:

    Have you read the book “I want to be a mathematician” by Paul Halmos? He writes quite a bit about his own working habits, in particular his belief that most people (including himself, a very successful researcher) only have four hours a day of real thinking in them. Somehow you have to find tricks to fill up the rest of your working day.


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