Thoughts on Productivity

24 Nov 2020

I’m around a month and a half into my PhD program, so my thoughts on productivity issues are almost certainly likely to change as I progress. However, having hit a rough patch, I thought I’d reflect on my general strategy towards work, and life in general.

The past 4 years for me have been dominated by seeking a PhD position in a good program, and secure high-quality funding. At the end of my undergrad, having not obtained a first class degree, I thought admission to a world top-ten institution for a computational PhD was out of reach for me, especially as I was a physics student. The (relieved) part of my brain responsible for orchestrating this achievement is also probably the part where I derive motivation for work and learning from, as it’s decided to take a holiday now that I’ve (approximately) settled into my program.

When I was being denied an opportunity that I thought I deserved, I could summon upon seemingly endless reserves of motivation. However, now that it’s happened, I don’t seem to have the same level of access to complete my daily work. Part of it surely comes down to feeling like a fraud, who has somehow gamed the system, however much more qualified people than me judged my application to be suitable for admission, so I’m happy to let this one go. However, the other fact that is hindering me is that doing my work is a grind. The fact that I haven’t studied CS/Mathematics for 4 years as an undergrad still makes it feel like I’m encountering a huge number of concepts for the first time. Research into one topic leads to endless rabbit holes as I attempt to fill in gaps in my knowledge. The perfect example is an `introductory’ class in Measure Theory I took this semester as a part of my training requirement. Despite listing no pre-requisites, functional analysis, abstract algebra and complex analysis to a good level were all assumed. I felt completely out of my depth, and gained little from the class except the familiar feeling of panic I remember from my undergrad days when I knew I was falling behind.

This raised a question in me. Do I want to stick around for another 3-? years? What else would I do, where would I go? A pandemic is still ongoing, and I have no ideas for starting a business right now. Plus, the whole appeal of doing a PhD in the first place - having 3-? years to hone my mind, and pursue a deep technical knowledge of computing - still strikes me as being hugely worthwhile, even if I don’t want to pursue an academic career path. The big questions are: (1) How do I make my procrastination productive? (2) How can I learn new things, even when I don’t want to? (3) How can I value my time right now appropriately, as a 26 year old with no (financial or otherwise) commitments, and a wide open calendar?

My answers to these questions are still a WIP