Sunday, March 18, 2018

Achievement, part 2: Don’t just work harder, work better

I’ve had a great year for running – since last spring, I’ve set a personal record in every race I’ve entered.  Much of that success has come from hard work and strategic training.  But, as I alluded to in my last blog post, while hard work and training are very important, they aren’t everything.  Over the same time period, I’ve also gone swimming often, and despite working hard and finishing every session exhausted, I still garner a look from lifeguards that suggests they’re thinking “Is that woman swimming, or is she drowning? Does she need help?” I’m slow and awkward, making surprisingly little forward progress for all of the effort I seem to be expending. And then there are my kick flips, from which I emerge gasping for breath, often with water up my nose, and sometimes not even in the same lane where I started.

What is the difference between my progress in running and the continued frustration of my swimming?  Form.  It’s not just about working harder, but working better, and the best athletes know that if your technique is not dialed in, much of the effort of training is wasted.  Over the past year, I’ve focused intensely on my running form, constantly adjusting to achieve greater efficiency.  However, I’ve neglected doing this with swimming, and it shows.

So, how does this translate to science?  As researchers, our days are filled with tasks.  If you work in a lab, this could be running reactions, analyzing compounds, passaging cells, etc, mixed in with reading the literature, fixing instruments, and preparing presentations.  As a faculty member, days are no less task oriented – there’s teaching class, going to meetings, editing manuscripts and proposals from your lab, reviewing manuscripts and proposals from other labs, answering emails… It can feel great to schedule out all of the tasks that need to be accomplished in a day, then systematically tick each of them off the to-do list before going home.  However, this can give a false sense of security that you’re doing your job well. In reality, you can complete every task on your list, but not have actually done your job.

Just as with sports, it’s not only about what you do, but how you do it. Form matters.  While the tasks that make up your daily plan will probably change dramatically as you progress in your career, the form required to do your job well can remain surprisingly similar. Among the key elements of this are:

Be strategic – What are the most important things to get done today? Am I doing those as efficiently as possible? Are there things I’m not doing that I should be doing? Are there things I’m doing that I should not be doing?

Be skeptical – What could go wrong with this experiment or project?  Is there a way to avoid that? Is there something making the data look like things are working, even though they’re really not?

Be creative – If this doesn’t work, what else can I try? Is there a better way to do this? Where are the knowledge or technology gaps in my field and can I think of ways to fill them?

Be courageous – Is there something I’m not doing because I’m afraid it might fail? What is the riskiest part of this project, and how can I run at that first? Am I making decisions based on what other people might think of me if I don’t succeed?

Be collegial – Do I care about the people around me? Am I using my expertise to help others with their projects? Am I invested in the success of my lab, my department, my university or company?

As with sports, it’s about the combination of getting out the door and moving, while keeping an eye on form throughout the effort.  As you work through the tasks of your day, be aware of your form and make adjustments when needed.  Ask yourself: Which elements of form am I already executing well, and where do I need to improve? The encouraging news is that the more you practice good form, the more it comes naturally. 

Have other elements of form that you think are essential? I’d love to hear them – please leave a comment!