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Personally, I never feel done with projects, as there are always a few open projects, in which I'm involved in. (And typically 1-2 which "I should have finished year ago or so".)

First, what are good strategies of balancing between finishing past project and working on current ones?

On the one hand, concentrating only on current ones means that there will be a lot of "almost baked" project, in a form of partial results, never published drafts or papers stuck in the revision process. (Assigning second priority to something means that it is never going to be taken seriously.)

On the other hand, focusing only past projects would:

  • look as if I were slacking off (also, as some past projects are from previous afflictions),
  • have me stuck in working on projects, which are going to be "90%" for the eternity.

Second, being put in situation with constant (internal) pressure and no calm sense of finishing things (as even after polishing results, polishing a draft, going through a few rounds of revisions... there are still n-1 open projects), is there a way to feel accomplishment and not blame oneself when resting?

  • Hi Piotr! You might want to either accept of the answers, or leave a comment (or edit your question) to explain what is missing from them (or why you otherwise find them unsatisfactory). – F'x Oct 30 '12 at 9:14
  • Hi @F'x! I like both answers. However, I tend to accept an answer if it's "it solves my problem, I don't expect further answers", which is rarely the case for such general advice questions. – Piotr Migdal Oct 30 '12 at 9:25
  • @F'x We can discuss it on meta, but it's not that I don't know about accepting, but I consider accepting a post counterproductive when it's not "issue solved" and should not be encouraged. And I have some strong, grounded views on it. And for a mostly soft-question site >33% is damn high (on SO I have 75%). – Piotr Migdal Oct 30 '12 at 10:03
  • absolutely no pressure here! you use the “accept” button as you see fit… – F'x Oct 31 '12 at 20:59
11

This is a very broad questions, so I’ll try to chirp in with some of the “tricks” I use to get things done.

  • Find ways to keep track. It can be very easy to feel that you have so many things going that you feel overwhelmed by remembering them or else. There are a number of hardware or software tools to do that. I have a list of ongoing stuff that I keep in the last pages of my notebook, which works pretty well.

  • If something needs to be done, which takes little time, just do it right now. More importantly, the critical amount of time depends on the life of the project: the more advanced the project is, the more you need to finish. This prioritizes finishing older projects.

    For example, if I have a current project with a task that requires half a day of work, I'll try to find a time to do it later. If I have a one day task for a project that's almost done (such as revising a manuscript after reviewer comments), I'll just treat it as high priority to do ASAP.

  • When working on a project with others, be clear to assign someone to monitoring progress (and reminding everyone of their contributions). On some projects, you need to take the back seat, and just let someone more concerned about the outcome drive the project.

  • If some project isn't seeing any progress, try to break it up into smaller work units. Like: I'll write a detailed outline, then circulate it to colleagues or co-authors, then use feedback to write the paper (instead of trying to write the paper in one big piece).

Finally, some advice I have received as a young parent, and that is very applicable to academic life: academic life is a long-term game, you're in it for 40+ years. You being very productive right now, then extenuated for 6 months isn't a net positive. You are a better researcher when you are rested and (relatively) stress-free, so avoiding exhaustion and stress is actually your #1 priority!

  • 4
    Lots of great advice in this answer! One thing I'd add is to look for little bits of current projects (close to completion) that you can fit into the cracks of your day. For example, when I'm writing a paper, I can often draft the next section even when I'm pretty tired. This type of thinking is "easier" for me than doing the research; same for revisions. So after a day of teaching, I usually don't prove any big new theorems, but I can frequently still move my current projects along. The key is that "deep thinking" and "development" don't come from the same pot of energy. – Dan C Oct 23 '12 at 2:15
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Here are a few tips that seem to work for me:

  • You can apply the Google 20% rule and allow yourself 20% of your time to work on projects that have no clear end point, which would include new ideas that you've just had or projects of the sort that you've just had.

  • New projects shouldn't become current projects unless they are close to finished or you make room in the 80% for them by finishing other projects.

  • That said, you need to evaluate the projects that you haven't completed and determine whether it is really worth completing them, apart from the fact that you've invested a lot of time in them. At some point you have to cut and move on.

  • Maybe you can write up the projects that are incomplete and see what you have in the end, and determine whether it goes into the 80%, the 20%, the bottom drawer, or the trash can.

  • Pick a few conference deadlines (or create a deadline for a journal paper) and work towards that to finish the work.

  • Sure, I use Google principle all the time (or maybe even much more). And starting things is usually fun and fruitful. However, the tricky part is when e.g. to which extent should be finishing/revising a paper from 1-2 year old collaboration or working on current stuff, with current people. As I found that selecting only 1 thing would be very bad, but trying to balance makes me constantly thinking that I should be working on the second thing (and give little psychological reward on finishing a project). – Piotr Migdal Oct 30 '12 at 9:28

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