The 24/7 lab: in praise of time out

By Grant Jacobs 23/09/2011

I’m coming late to a meme that has been circling around, starting from a several articles at Nature:

Some further commentary can be found on blogs (this is only a small sample of what is available):

Just for a contrast, I’ll toss in an example that has it’s origins in industry. I sometimes find it useful to compare practices in academia and industry. The pragmatic approach of industry can be revealing.

Let me reminiscence for a moment to set the scene.

Between my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I worked in a small computing company developing a device from scratch. Engineers worked on the device. I wrote a tiny sort-of operating system. I write ‘sort-of’ as it was little more than a semaphore-type signalling system really. Programming for the device was interesting. It had 4 8-bit CPUs. The RAM of each CPU overlapped with the RAM of the neighbouring CPU so that the high half of the RAM of one CPU was the output of that CPU and also the low half and input for the next CPU. The code was programmed on another machine, a PC, burned into an EPROM and debugged by examining the memory on the board of the device using an oscilloscope.

Anyway, our hours were a set number per month. We could do them when we wished, within a general range of office hours.

The key idea (I suspect) was that if you were ’stuck,’ you’d head out of the office and not fritter it away on their dime. Coming back to the office after a longish break with a fresh mind, you’d be more likely to crack whatever thing was holding up progress.

A point here is that time out can be productive, too.

Battling away at something that is ‘stuck’ isn’t always the best way forward.

It may be for some students or workers that a helpful thing a supervisor or boss can do from time to time is to suggest they take a break away from the thing for bit. Work hard, but know when the more productive thing to do is to walk away from it. (Temporarily.)

In similar fashion I find thinking over ideas, such as those from reading the literature, benefits from being away from the desk. Walking in the countryside just generally mulling over whatever I’ve been reading or thinking about can be productive. (Of course, sometimes all it yields is a walk!) I try carry a notebook with me so that I can jot down them wherever I happen to be.

Other articles on Code for life:

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

When ideas have sex

The best places to read

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure

Describe your fantasy institute