Do you want the toy or the bone? Research productivity

Are you fully focused on what you are doing? Are you using your innate ability to the maximum? How can you get the best out of yourself and your time?

Just a few days ago I was working with a student on a very tight deadline. He was obviously extremely stressed out about his progress and ability to complete the work on time. If he misses the deadline he will have to pay £3,000. The imminent  deadline and the prospect of the penalty should focus his mind like a laser and shut out all distractions. However, during our discussions he kept answering the phone, checking for text messages or quickly answering text. This was annoying and made me lose focus several times from important messages I was trying to convey. Despite my commitment to support my desire to help diminished every time there was an interruption.

This reminded me of a time earlier in the year when I visited my best friend Steven and his dog Slim. Steven offered Slim a bone. Slim was highly excited and desperately wanted the bone but did not want to drop the toy he had in his mouth to get the bone.

“Slim you can’t have both the bone and the toy at the same time” Steven said.

We are also like Slim. I am no exception. My desire to check text messages and e-mails is all consuming. I can’t resist the urge. We try to stay on top of e-mails and texts whilst trying to write a research paper or a thesis chapter. We are not willing to let go to focus on the gold. We are crap at communicating because we are talking to a friend and whilst texting. Just like Slim I often sit in front of the TV reading a research paper. When I think about my behaviour it is stupid but I try to be clever and justify it by saying I am spending quality time with my family. My wife is an excellent cook and spends hours preparing meals for us. Like an idiot instead of really enjoying and appreciating the meals I am planning tasks for the next day. Even when I go out for a romantic meal with the most important person in my universe I am thinking about work. How sad is that?

What a tragic life?  I should practice what I preach however just like Slim I want to have two things in my mouth at the same time. In my younger days I used to think  I can hold several things in my mouth. That’s a big fantasy and we all think we can do several things at once. Your mouth might be moving but can you really taste the food. You are switching back and forth from one things to another. If you don’t focus your mental laser how can you burn a hole in the most important task you are trying to do now. You must focus on one thing at a time. We all know that and as kids we used magnifying glass to focus rays of the sun to burn holes in paper. We know the value of focus but don’t practice it.

If you focus on the one most important task now that you love then you’ll be in heaven. If you do that you will be living a full screen 3D multicolour life. Focus on one thing at a time and let it consume 100% of your attention. You will love it and achieve amazing results.  Let everything else fade away.

For example, when I write I go to full screen mode and hide all the editing icons. The only thing I see is the text. This eliminates distractions and lets me focus on writing. I am more productive.  You can do this with anything. If you eat then just eat and enjoy the deliciousness of the food. If you are talking to a friend then really enjoy the company and turn off the phone. If you are surfing the net then just do that and nothing else. If you go to the movies with the love of your life then squeeze as much joy and happiness as you can from your time together.  

For students, if you are in the laboratory doing experiments then give that 100% attention. If you writing your transfer report focus exclusively on that. If you are reading a research paper then only do that. Don’t be like Slim trying to play with the toy and keep the bone in your mouth.  You will do better with only one thing in your mouth. Give 100% of your attention. Put your mind in a full screen mode.  You’ll have more fun and be more productive.  Let everything else fade into the background. This is simple in principle but it is far from easy. You need to develop your concentration muscle. You can only do that progressively. If you set a task to write for 4 hours in one go you’ll be bitterly disappointed. Start small or nano. Begin by doing 15 minutes at a time and then build up slowly. Add only 5 minutes next time and work up to 45 minutes stints. Have a break and repeat. It is much easier to do four 45 minutes sessions than one long writing marathon. Practice will help build your focus muscle. Start now and practice.

I practice meditation and at first even one minute of undivided focus on my breathing was so hard. Try it for yourself. Now after years of daily practice I can manage 30 minutes. If you let go of the toy you’ll really be able to taste the bone. Hopefully we are little smarter  than Slim. Smart thinking is single thinking in full screen mode. 


5 responses

  1. […] the original: Do you want the toy or the bone? Research productivity … Share in social […]

  2. It is true that it is far better to put 100% concentration onto each specific task. I know exactly what you are saying re phone calls and messages however there are one or two ways round this.

    1. Get up an hour plus earlier every morning, once you have checked “URGENT” emails spend some time on your subject.
    (I find I can generally get more done in that extra hour in the morning than I can during two or three hours later in the day).
    2. The majority of people do find it hard to concentrate on anything for long periods so that five minute phone call could take you back to work fresh. Sometimes when we focus too hard we get writer’s block. A walk in the fresh air, a coffee break, or just five minute’s complete relaxation can sometimes help. Empty your mind completely of everything for a few minutes and then go back to your task.
    3. Exercise. You need it every day and it really does help your brain function better.
    4. Food. It can be difficult to maintain good eating habits when you are on a low budget at University. A plate of porridge in the morning just takes a few minutes to make is cheap, healthy and will keep you going till lunch-time. You may think that it is not something to eat in the summer, but there is no harm in it at any time of the year. Don’t skip breakfast whatever you have make sure it is not stodge.
    5. Hobbies. Even when you are working at full throttle it is best to take some time for your hobbies and self development. Half an hour a day can take you back to your tasks feeling fresh with new ideas and you will be amazed how well a hobby can develop with a regular half an hour a day.

    Approaching 50 a few years ago I was awarded a Poet Fellowship, Bronze and Silver Awards in Salsa Dancing and Bronze and Crystal Awards in Photography (these were only part-time hobbies that I decided to make regular that year) on top of that I was running a successful business and teaching myself Film Editing and Music Editing (I am also an advanced pianist).

    Mary J Tait
    Phone: 0845 370 9941

    1. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

      Great advice Mary – I like the idea of getting up an hour earlier. Diet and exercise are vital to maintain health and energy levels needed for success.

  3. Prof Waqar Ahmed | Reply

    Mary, could you want to write a guest post on CV writing? My students and readers will find it useful.

  4. […] here: Do you want the toy or the bone? Research productivity – Blog Share in social […]

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