Before continuing on working on a specific problem, I do plan on few things which have not been explored in the available literature. However, instead of developing them (in terms of mathematical models), I feel that my ideas are quite simple and not so novel. Sometimes, it also happens to me while I read research papers.

I feel this is one of my weakness which makes me unfocused on a particular problem and makes me switch to various such ideas which are flushed by me.

Is it normal in research? How should I deal with this problem?

  • 2
    I don't know an answer, but you're not alone. That said, there's a chance this question might be too narrow and applicable to your individual situation only. Any chance to generalize the phrasing a bit?
    – henning
    Jul 9 '17 at 19:09
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    The question, although a very reasonable one to ask, has a drawback when asked on this site: you are asking something about yourself to a group of internet academics who don't know you at all. It's pretty much impossible for us to know, isn't it? This is a much better question for someone who has a close intellectual/academic relationship with you: what does your advisor / research mentor / wise senior colleague say? Jul 9 '17 at 19:58
  • 11
    Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome.
    – JeffE
    Jul 9 '17 at 21:11
  • 10
    Well, of course your ideas seem simple and obvious to you... Jul 10 '17 at 2:26
  • 4
    comment from Professor JeffE doesn't apply to me I think -- Your comment "I feel that my ideas are quite simple and not so novel" is textbook Impostor Syndrome, especially the part where you think "simple" is a weakness. Most good ideas are simple; the best ideas are embarrassingly obvious in retrospect. It's what you actually do with your ideas that matters.
    – JeffE
    Jul 11 '17 at 3:08

I hear you. I also know the flip-side of this phenomenon: Reading a paper and thinking: "That's a very simple idea they've published in this decent journal here. I could have come up with this on my way to work while riding the bike, would have written it down in a few weeks". But, alas, I didn't; someone else did.

I suggest the following procedure, although I can't claim that I've tested it:

  • Write down all silly ideas, especially the simple ones, and store them in a file; shortcut to your desktop.
  • Go through the list on a regular basis, every fortnight or so.
    • Move the (still) infeasible ones and the (yet) too silly-sounding into a "discarded idea" file.
    • Pick a quite simple one that you find intriguing and highlight for later use.
  • Reserve an hour in the morning to write down why the simple idea is so simple. This should force you to think clearly about all the implications that you took for granted when you said "oh, that's trivial". Now, is this still a simple idea? Are there any follow-up puzzles and questions that perhaps aren't so simple? I bet one hour is not enough to write down all the stuff that's implied and needs to be explained in order for the problem to appear simple. There, you're drafting your next paper.
  • Downvoter, please explain what's wrong. Maybe I can improve the answer.
    – henning
    Jul 10 '17 at 9:19
  • 1
    Sounds good. Yes, I have not drafted it officially in my computer though I have written those in my diary. Thanks for the advice +1.
    – Coder
    Jul 10 '17 at 11:03

Reiterating briefly some other good points, but, especially, first: probably a reasonable person's criterion for understanding anything (e.g., their own work) is that it seems so reasonable and inevitable that everyone else already knows it, and it is trivial to understand. I do claim that this is a side-effect of pretty-good assimilation of an idea... otherwise it cannot be sublimated adequately to be used efficiently.

The counterpoint to that is that, yeah, maybe one's ideas are just rediscoveries of old, old things, or are indeed already obvious to experts. Hard to know. All the worse when one oneself gets to the point of feeling that things are obvious... because that may or may not be a signal that they are obvious.

My meta-advice would be to try to not think in those terms. That is, if at every moment one is worrying about the novelty or non-triviality or... of one's reflections, one is squandering mental cycles in an essentially hopeless endeavor. That is, to my mind, the only sane enterprise (e.g., for an academic) is to try to further one's own understanding. (This is not a "problem-solving" approach, no, ...) Obviously, one's own understanding tends to lag behind collective understanding, whose advancement is one of the reasons we get paid. But/and, even with computer assists (currently), we cannot pretend to operate with "collective" understanding, but only our own personal understanding.

Yet/and now-and-then while innocently trying to understand what other people have said or written, one accidentally understands a thing which was not well understood before. That is "research", I guess. I really do think that that is the most sensible way to perceive our enterprise...

  • Hilarious/charming: the downvote? Luckily for me, this will not impinge on anything I care about. But, srsly, I'm only recounting observations. I hope I'm not blamed for bad weather or bad politicians, on top of everything else. :) Jul 13 '17 at 23:48

Why do I underestimate my own research ideas?

You nowhere provided sufficient evidence that you do underestimate your own ideas. Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Maybe, the people who published on similar ideas as you have were simply lucky. Or they invested a lot of effort in addition to having these ideas. Or there was some publication bias. Or the people could write like Mark Twain. Or ... . You don't know.

I feel this is one of my weakness which makes me unfocused on a particular problem and makes me switch to various such ideas which are flushed by me.

Is it normal in research?

It happens. The difficulty to concentrate is part of human nature and is not related to particularly research.

How should I deal with this problem?

Consider developing a strategy to concentrate yourself at one problem at a time. Consider not sitting between two chairs. Forget multitasking. This is a general advice, weakly related to research.

Try to take one "simple and not so novel" idea of yours and proceed with it. Speak to the researchers in your field about your idea to find out whether it's really worth being pursued. Invest the remaining 99% of perspiration into it.

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