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I work on research, trying to get grants and publish papers and the like, I really like my job, could not think about doing anything else. When the weekend comes, or just free time I have the problem that I can not stop thinking on research, it does not matter what. Sometimes it is that I feel so relaxed during the weekend that new ideas come to my mind and then I can not avoid to write them down or think a bit more about them. My wife obviously does not like this, but I try my best.

Do you experience the same and do you know how to avoid this?

  • 29
    I experience the same, and I don't want to avoid it at all, on the contrary! That's one thing I like about research, there is no fixed schedule :) – user102 Apr 7 '13 at 15:03
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    What is free time? – StrongBad Apr 7 '13 at 15:03
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    Please Don't avoid it – seteropere Apr 7 '13 at 16:03
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    It's slightly ironic that this question was posted on a Sunday, and had multiple answers within minutes. – Nate Eldredge Apr 7 '13 at 16:24
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    I'd be more interested in knowing how to avoid thinking about my free time during my research hours. – Federico Poloni Apr 7 '13 at 17:13
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I agree with @PeterJanson's answer, but I'd like to add my 2 cents on it:

Often, I find myself "constantly" thinking about a problem when I'm stuck or I'm not sure how to approach it. Often, it's because I've got tunnel vision on the problem. That is, I'm only thinking about it from a limited number of perspectives and can't think of other possible approaches to the problem. I used to spend long hours thinking about a problem (even outside of normal work hours) without ever really getting anywhere on it.

When that happens, I find it's good to pursue other activities that stimulate my brain to think outside of the box. That could be anything from reading semi-related research papers to playing video games to engaging in stand up comedy! When I challenge my brain to approach other problems from new perspectives, I find those same skills help loosen my brain to engage in research in new ways as well.

While I never really stop thinking about research, I find these other activities help me engage in research with fresh eyes and renewed energy. And ultimately, that has lead me to better research results and liberates me from "overthinking" the problem during my leisure time.

17

I believe it comes with the territory. Since being involved in research means exercising your imagination and intellect, it is hard to stop the stimulation. I personally have no problems relaxing from my research when I do other stimulating activities such as hobbies. I personally do not find thinking about my research much of a problem but I have noticed that I have a tendency to start thinking more about my science when I am in the company of what I might consider dull people. That will probably make me seem dull too!

I try to look at it, and explain it, by comparing with an elite athlete, you need to keep at it constantly to be on top. Many can see and appreciate the (intellectual) similarities.

12

You don't ever stop thinking, much in the way that you shouldn't tell someone to stop feeling sad/angry/upset/whatever. But, if there are actions you're doing that interrupt your relationships with others, you can take steps to try to reduce the effect of these actions.

Instead of trying to not think about research, I would try to curb activities that you may act upon as a result of thinking about research.

  • Keep a notebook on you that you can quickly write your thoughts down in. Dump your brain in about a minute and then move on with whatever you're supposed to be doing. The key word here is quickly - you don't want this to turn into a five minute exercise.

  • Concentrate heavily on what you're currently doing and focus. Easier said than done, but the key is not to let yourself get distracted with your thoughts. Even if you're not fully focused, try your best to appear focused.

  • Limit your discussions about research with others if they're not interested in them.

  • Excuse yourself if you want to think or write more in a way that might appear rude or inappropriate to others. Thus, rather than trying to write things down extensively while in the middle of a nice dinner, excuse yourself, go to the washroom, and write things down there. If you're out walking and get a great idea that you want to think about, ask to stop for a break and think then.

I think the key point here is to differentiate the things that you can control (your actions) compared to things that are much more difficult to control (your thoughts) and to ensure that your behaviors are not disturbing others. Take time for yourself too!

8

A large part of the motivation to be a scientist, or a researcher, is to exercise your curiosity and let it drive you. I find that I very often thing about “research” in daily life, but not necessarily of “my day-job research”. To some extent, it is a way of thinking and approaching daily life. So, there are many non-academic research projects that can occupy one's mind, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Trying to find symmetry patterns in wallpaper or train departure times, doing a side experiment with your curry to see what is the maximal concentration of peppers one can reasonably ingest, whatever.

(A comment more than an answer, but a rather long one. Sorry!)

7

This kind of thinking about your work is typical if a) you like your job, and b) you do work that involves a lot of creativity. Going with the flow of your mood can help greatly in getting work done as doing creative work when you feel inspired goes much much faster. Ofcourse, a big danger is that the lines between personal life and work become vague, and you turn into a work-a-holic (if this is a bad thing entirely depends on you).

It seems that you yourself do not have a problem with this, and that it is mainly the people around you that experience it as a problem. This is imo best dealt with by communication. Setting some ground rules together with your spouse about when you act on your creativity may lessen the irritation she experiences from it.

For example, you could organise it like this: when you feel 'the urge' you can propose to your spouse that you take some time to work out a problem. She than has an opportunity to say no ("we have to go to the store/beach/parents", or "you haven't spent a lot of time with the kids today"). Of course, in a healthy balance she will also sometimes allow you to follow your urges.

4

You will never escape this, and

for the sake of your research, don't.

We need to look at the core of the problem: your brain function. Cindi May, Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston, wrote an article about this in Scientific American:

If your task requires strong focus and careful concentration - like balancing spreadsheets or reading a textbook - you are better off scheduling that task for your peak time of day. However, if you need to open your mind to alternative approaches and consider diverse options, it may be wise to do so when your filter is not so functional.

In short, the best time for your brain to think about the research is your free time!

Remember Archimedes? He solved his problem when he was relaxing during the bath. It's the same as us today. You got the idea when you eat, when you take a shower, when you about to sleep, when you hanging out with your boy/girlfriend. Sure, the Eureka moment only comes when you have arduously been working, but it's not likely to come when you are working.

If you have an Eureka when you are taking a bath, try to calm down a little bit :D

Unfortunately, a research requires both two things at different time: strong focus and careful concentration, and alternative approaches and consider diverse options. So it means you will likely to be a workaholic.

But the Eureka only comes when it's truly your free time, when your, erm, brain is truly relaxed. It is very frustrating for us to halt the power flood of idea that coming to our brains. But it is also hard for us to stop the current activity to rush into the lab. I will call this the Researcher's dilemma.

So, how to solve the dilemma?

I honestly don't have any efficient solution. It just up to you and up to the situation to solve this. But I think taking note is the most efficient one. You see, once you finally have a new approach, you can wait for your next morning to have your peak time of day to have strong focus and careful concentration.


Source: The Inspiration Paradox: Your Best Creative Time Is Not When You Think . Also, to find your peak time of the day, you can take the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. Note that the research about this is pretty old (1976).

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