Distractions in disguise

At the beginning of the year I made a goal to submit 3 manuscripts from our lab in 2019. (Note that the goal reads submission rather than publication, the latter being something we have little control over.) Previously, we have never managed to submit more than one a year😱. My excuse was quality before quantity. But there are several reasons why this goal is both achievable and of singular importance this year. We have several exciting projects that are maturing, a PhD student is due to graduate next year, and our first grants are coming up for renewal. Alas, the act of paper submission suffers from the lack of an absolute deadline. This means that for me, it is easier said than done to stay focused on this goal in a world of distractions.

I’m not just referring to your average source of modern world distractions in the form of social media, Game of Thrones season 8, or podcast binging. I’m talking about the worst kind of guilt inducing distractions disguised as professionally productive activities. The kind with deadlines.

Exhibit A is grant applications. This is a big one for me. In Sweden, it can be a daunting task to navigate the landscape of the state run and numerous private funding agencies and there are a number of smaller grants with reasonably good funding rates. We are fortunate enough as a team to be funded by several major grants currently, which is a huge privilege, and our primary task in 2019 is to carry out the proposed projects to fulfill our obligation to the funding agencies. Nevertheless, it is extremely easy to succumb to the temptation of joining the race and applying for all kinds of grants. Particularly when it seems like everyone else around is doing it. It takes a lot of willpower and mental clarity to strategically say an occasional NO to something as fundamental to the job as a PI as applying for grants. Despite the occasional complaints about grant writing, I am ultimately a person that enjoys both the creative challenge of crafting a grant and the rush of adrenaline from entering a professional competition. But even small grants take time and since the number of work hours is limited, a YES to anything means a NO to something else. Since paper submission lacks externally defined deadlines and is theoretically something that could be done anytime of the year, it so easily ends up relegated to the non-urgent pile. Yes it is vital to get funding, but this year, for us, it is more important to submit manuscripts.

Earlier this year I listened to the audio book ‘Deep Work‘ by Cal Newport which was recommended to me by a colleague. Being an academic associate professor of my generation, Cal Newport’s anecdotes really resonated with me and the message and practical advice in the book has had a lasting impact on how I think about prioritization and focus. I highly recommend you to have a read / listen if you want to delve deeper into the subject of focused work in a world of distractions.

Since reading the book, we have submitted one manuscript and one major grant (this one was non-negotiable). In the aftermath, I found myself once again loosing focus over distractions in disguise. Half the year has nearly gone by and two more manuscripts still need to be put together. Tick tock. Maybe publishing this blog will provide some external accountability? 

Do you have distractions in disguise in your current position?