Friday, May 19, 2017

3 useful habits for your research workflow

I chronically tinker with my research workflow. I try to find better ways to brainstorm, organize my schedule, manage my time, manage my files (e.g., datafiles, R code, manuscripts, etc.), read and synthesize research articles, etc. In some ways, I am always in a state of self-experimentation: I find an idea, make a change, and then reflect on whether that change was helpful. Some of these changes have "stuck" and become part of my research workflow. 

Recently I have been reflecting on which of my research workflow habits have proven useful and stuck with me over the (relatively) long haul. Here are my current top 3.

Habit #1: Making 1 substantive change per day on an active writing project

Researchers are writers and writing takes time. However, academic writing is a marathon, not a sprint, so academic writing takes a lot of time. It is not uncommon for some of my writing projects to be stretched out over the course of months and sometimes years. I don't know if this makes me a slow writer, but this is the pace at which I can write good academic prose. If I was less diligent, this timeline could be stretched out even further.

One habit that keeps me on track is to have an active writing project like a manuscript or a grant and commit to making one substantive change each day until the project is completed. Just one change. Even if you only have 5 minutes on a given day, that is sufficient time to open up your writing project, start reading, and make one substantive change. This could be making a sentence more concise, finding ways to smooth a transition between two related ideas, or replacing an imprecise adjective with a more appropriate one. Typically, when I make my one change for the day I end up writing for a longer period of time. The whole point of this habit is that "one change is more than none change."

Committing to one change per day is helpful because it keeps the project moving forward. It is a horrible feeling when you want to get a manuscript out the door and it has sat idle for 2 months. Where did the time go? Then you think about how much collective time you spent on Twitter and you wish you could have all of that time back in one big chunk. Sigh!

Habit #2: Learn to juggle

There is a saying that goes "being a good juggler is to be a good thrower." As a researcher, I am always handling several projects that are happening in parallel. Each of these projects requires a sequence of actions. Every now and then (like once a week), you need to assess your active projects and think about the current statuses and trajectories of each of these projects. Which balls are suspended in the air? Which balls are falling and require your immediate attention? Which balls can be thrown back up into the air? Are there any balls you can get rid of?

For example, preparing an IRB application requires you to accomplish a few activities (e.g., write the application, gather the stimuli, etc.), but once the IRB application is submitted you are merely waiting for approval; there is nothing that you can actively do with the application after it is submitted. Suppose you are at the beginning stages of a project and you need to do two activities: (a) write an IRB application and (b) program a study. It may make more sense to write the IRB application first and then, while the IRB application is being reviewed, take the time to program the study rather than vice versa. While you are programming the study, the IRB application review is happening in parallel. This is an example of "throwing" the IRB application ball so you can focus on the study programming ball.

This example seems obvious, but the juggling gets more complex as you get more balls in the air. Regularly assess all of your active projects and identify your next throw. Over time you begin to identify which throws are good throws. For me, good throws are either submissions (IRB applications, manuscript submissions, grant submissions, etc.) or getting feedback to co-authors because those projects can move forward at the same time I am focusing on doing other activities. For example, if there is a manuscript that is 95% complete, I focus my energies on the last 5%. Once the manuscript is submitted I can turn my attention to other things while that ball is suspended in air (i.e., the manuscript is being peer-reviewed). The habit that I have developed is nearly-completed manuscripts and providing feedback to co-authors are priorities.

The key to making this habit work is to take the time and strategically choose your next throw. There is a big difference between the rhythm, cadence, and zen of a juggler and the chaos, stress, and frustration of whack-a-mole.

Habit #3: Clear the clutter

At the beginning of this year I wanted to make a small change to reduce the amount of emails I receive. I used to get a lot of mass emails from places such as Twitter notifications, TurboTax, the American Legion, Honeywell thermostats (seriously!), etc. I never read these emails. Never! Now, whenever I get an automated email that I know I will never read, I go to the bottom of the email and find the "unsubscribe" link in the fine print. I take the 5 seconds to unsubscribe because I know that the 5 seconds I spend now will be repaid with minutes of my future time. I probably get 50% fewer emails now. Merely unsubscribing from mass emails has given me enough free time to make my one substantial change per day (Habit #1 above).

Here's how you can immediately incorporate these habits into your research workflow. First, assess your current projects and identify if there are any "good throws" you can make. Is there a manuscript that if you really, really focus on, you could get submitted in the next week? Is there a draft of a manuscript you could get returned to a co-author if you spent the afternoon in focused writing? Commit to executing one good throw. Second, identify a writing project that you will commit to writing on every single day. This can be your "good throw" project from the first step or something else altogether. Try to write on this project every day for a week. What do you have to lose? My prediction is that you will notice the progress and you won't want to stop making your daily substantive change. Finally, commit to unsubscribing from mass/junk emails as they come into your inbox. Just do it. You will notice a steady decrease in the amount of clutter in your inbox (and fewer distractions) as time goes on.

Good luck and have a productive day.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Academic Craftsmanship

Let me share three short stories.

Story 1: Steve Jobs was obsessed with the design of his products. When designing the first Macintosh, Jobs was adamant about the circuit boards being neat and orderly. The circuit boards! The innards of the computer! My guess is that 99% of users never looked inside the computer, and surely several of the 1% who did look inside never noticed the care and skill that went into making the circuit board look nice. Sure, it may have looked like an orderly circuit board, and it may seem like a waste of resources because making the circuit board orderly does not inherently improve the performance of the computer. But it is this concern about excellence and quality being carried throughout all of the product, inside and out, not just the part of the product that most users see, as being essential to what made the Mac the Mac.

Story 2: My nephew loves Legos. At a recent family function, I vividly remember him sitting on the floor methodically assembling his Lego model. His focus was intense. He was in a state of flow. He couldn’t care less about whether anybody was watching him work; he was on a mission to create something awesome. He’d look at the schematic, find the next piece, and put the piece in the right spot. Snap! Repeat! After the last step, looking at what he assembled with his own two hands, he felt like Michelangelo just unveiled the David. He loves building his Legos because the more he does it, the better he gets. 
Story 3: Some graduate student is in a lab somewhere right now tinkering with ggplots on her laptop. She tries out different shapes in her scatter plot. Now different colors. Is the font too big? Too small? Should I use theme_minimal() or theme_bw()? What location of the legend makes it easiest for a reader to intuit the essential information from the figure? After hours of tinkering, honing, polishing, she creates a figure that is just right. When she presents that figure, she glances at the audience’s reaction to her masterpiece.  

What do these three stories have in common? Craftsmanship.

Today I want to give a nod to the often overlooked academic craftsmanship that I see in my colleagues’ work. You know, the little things that researchers do in the process of creating their research products that give them pride. The little things that make a merely publishable manuscript into scientific poetry, an adequate figure into a piece of art, and an ordinary lecture into the academic version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band

Let me first stake a flag in the ground before the rabble gets aroused. When I say academic craftsmanship, I do not mean “flair.” Even the craftiest craftsman who ever crafted a craft is incapable of consistently producing significant results with N = 20. Also, when I say academic craftsmanship, I do not mean having a knack for being able to “tell a good story” to an editor and three anonymous reviewers (although that does seem to be skill that some people have developed). Craftsmanship cannot compensate for vague hypotheses or poor inferences. When I say academic craftsmanship, I simply mean the details that take care, patience, and skill that evoke a sense of pride and satisfaction.

Here is one of my favorite examples of academic craftsmanship.

Check out the correlation graph between the original effect size and the replication effect size for the Reproducibility Project: Psychology ( ). First off, the overall figure is packed with information—there is the scatterplot, the reference line for a replication effect size of zero and a reference line for a slope of 1 (i.e., original effect size = replication effect size), the density plots on the upper and right borders of the scatterplot, rug marks for individual points, the sizes of the points correspond to replication power, the colors of the points correspond the p-values, etc.—but overall the figure amazingly does not seem cluttered. The essential information is intuitive and easily consumable. There are details such as the color of the points that match the color of the density plots that match the color of the rug ticks. Matching colors seems like the obvious choice, yet somebody had to intentionally make these decisions. You can breathe in the overall pattern of results without much effort. Informative, clean-looking, intuitive. This is a hard combination to execute successfully.

After seeing this figure, most people probably think “big deal, how else would you make this figure?” Believe me, I once spent 90 minutes at an SPSP poster session shaking my head at a horrible figure! It was ugly. It was not intuitive. It was my poster.

Now let’s look under the hood. Open up the R-code that accompanies this figure. Notice how there is annotation throughout the code; not too much, but just enough. Notice the subtleties in the code such as the use of white space between lines to avoid looking cluttered. Notice how major sections of the code are marked like this:

# EFFECT SIZE DENSITY PLOTS -------------------------------------------------------------
The series of hashes and the use of CAPS is effective in visually marking this major section. Does this level of care make the R-code run better? Not one bit. However, it is extremely helpful to the reader. This clean R-code is akin to the orderly circuit board in the Mac.

This is just one example. But I see craftsmanship all over the place. A clever metaphor, a nicely worded results section, the satisfaction of listening to the cadence of a well-rehearsed lecture, etc. Perhaps I will share more of these examples in the future. For now I only have one request. If this post is discussed on social media, I would like people to share their favorite examples of academic craftsmanship. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

All aggression is instrumental

Aggression is commonly defined as a behavior done with the intent to harm another individual who is motivated to avoid receiving the behavior. Some researchers go further and try to classify aggression as being either "reactive aggression" or "instrumental aggression." I do not believe this distinction is useful.

Briefly, reactive aggression is supposedly an impulsive aggressive behavior in response to a provocation or instigation and is typically accompanied by feelings of anger or hostility. The supposed goal of reactive aggression is merely to "cause harm" to the recipient of the behavior. Think of snapping at another person in the heat-of-the-moment. Instrumental aggression is supposedly an aggressive behavior that is enacted to achieve a particular goal.  Think of a bank robber who shoots the guard while trying to make a getaway. 

Several researchers have pointed out that this distinction is difficult, if not impossible, to make (e.g., Bushman & Anderson, 2002; Tedeschi & Quigley, 1999). I agree. With a little thought, one can see that "snapping" at another person can be used to achieve several goals such as restoring a perceived slight to one's reputation or exerting social control. Thus, the above example of reactive aggression also can be construed as instrumental. Similarly, one also can see that shooting a bank robber probably was in response to some feature of the situation such as the perception that the guard was impeding the goal of successfully executing the robbery.  Thus, the above example of instrumental aggression can be construed as being in response to something and, thus, reactive.

Wait! Am I saying that snapping at another person is the same as a bank robber shooting the guard? No. These are very different behaviors, but the distinctions is not that one is "reactive" and one is "instrumental."

The argument that the reactive-instrumental distinction is a false distinctions is fairly simple. Aggression is, by definition, a behavior that was done intentionally (i.e., non-accidentally). Intentional behaviors are used to achieve social motives. Thus, aggression is one specific type of intentional behavior that is used to achieve social motives. What are some examples of social motives that can be achieved with aggressive behaviors? Protecting oneself, acquiring resources, restoring one's reputation, enforcing a violated social norm, etc.

Further, the belief that aggression can be done "to cause harm" is logically incorrect. Because the definition of aggression requires the aggressive behaviors to have been done with intent and with the belief the recipient wants to avoid the behavior, some believe this definition implies that “causing harm” can be the end goal of the behavior rather than merely a means to achieving some other ends. Therefore, "causing harm" can seemingly be the goal behind reactive aggression. Although this is a common belief, this conflates the definitional criteria of aggression with the motive for why an individual would use an aggressive behavior. This is an easy conflation to make because “to cause harm” seems like a reasonable and satisfactory answer to the question “why did this person behave aggressively?” However, this only seems like a satisfactory answer, but it's not. One cannot explain the causes of a phenomenon (aggression) merely by referring to a necessary component of the phenomenon (an intentionally-caused harmful behavior): A person who behaves aggressively did so with the intent to harm the recipient by definition.

I sincerely hope that we can move beyond the reactive-instrumental definition because I do not believe it is a scientifically useful distinction. Aggression is one behavior in our repertoire of behaviors we use to navigate our complex social environments. All aggression is instrumental.