Tracking progress and learning from top performers

From 2012 to 2014, I wrote a blog called The UnStudent in which I explored issues related to academic life and finding meaning in work. It was an experiment in working through my career anxiety by writing. I’ve now migrated some of those thought pieces and edited them for Medium. This post was originally published April 29, 2013.

In the summer of 2008 I was working in the basement of the Seeley W. Mudd building where Columbia University’s Plasma Physics Lab is located. Our experiment was contained in a large steel vacuum chamber that sat on top of the concrete housing of an never-used Mark III TRIGA nuclear test reactor. Attached to our experiment were cryopumps, high voltage lines, an RF generator, and hundreds of diagnostic sensors. We were studying hydrogen plasmas in a dipole magnetic fields, such as the ones that surround the Earth and are responsible for aurorae.

It was one of my first experiences doing serious research and I was still an undergraduate in Applied Physics at the time. In our group we had this one stellar guy, who really looked like he had it together. He worked more efficiently than any other scientist I’ve spent serious time with. He always seemed like he had a clear idea about what he was doing and kept scrupulous notes as he tracked his progress.

Emulating Top Performers

One of the things I’ve learned is that if you want to improve your own performance, you need to hang around people who are top performers. If you want to be a better student, scholar, scientist, entrepreneur, or whatever, then surround yourself with the best people you can find.

The thing I remember most about this guy was how effectively he kept track of his work through a research notebook. It was all-digital, with a single document for each day. He had the date at the top and then would just drag-and-drop figures, tables, data, and equations into this document while writing down all his thoughts. It was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen.

Since then I’ve tried to replicate his methods, with at least partial success, and it’s served me well. It has made writing papers easier. It helped me write the theory section of my M.Sc. thesis, and it’s helping me share my research with my supervisor and others. Because I work a lot with the LaTeX typesetting language, I created my own research diary system using a collection of bash scripts and LaTeX files.

Through a collaboration with WriteLaTeX, now Overleaf, I’ve been able to share my technology with others. See my guest post on their blog. Now anyone with a little familiarity with LaTeX can create their own online research notebook. Each page compiles into a beautifully typeset document that you can download as a PDF or share with others online. It’s a great way to get involved with Open Science, if that’s your thing. You can go and create a research document for yourself right now, if you like.

Tracking Progress

Early this morning was my annual committee meeting. Once again I found myself in a room with members of the faculty, asking me questions about how my project is going, how feasible various aspects of the project are, and what I needed to consider while moving forward. It’s one of those annual rituals that is very important for keeping a project on track, but never all that pleasant to prepare for and then go through. I was having miniature flashback to the comprehensive exam two months ago. But in preparing for this talk, I was able to refer back to my tracked progress from the last year and was reminded of all the things that I had done. It was both encouraging and helpful in constructing my presentation.

Bearded man, possibly a medieval copyist, works at a writing table.

Writing Daily

Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits), encourages his readers to write daily:

I recommend daily writing for anyone, not just writers. Here’s what I’ve found from my daily habit:
  • Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. This is incredibly valuable, as often we do things without realizing why, or what effects these things are having on us.
  • Writing clarifies your thinking. Thoughts and feelings are nebulous happenings in our mind holes, but writing forces us to crystalize those thoughts and put them in a logical order.
  • Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age.

The habit of writing changes the way you work because you are reflecting on what you are doing well, and what isn’t going so well, and the ideas that are bouncing around your head as you go through your day.

Whatever tools you use (and there are plenty of them), the important thing is to pick something and get started. Leo’s tips apply to more than just your research life, but let’s conquer one mountain at a time.