One of my main problems/strengths in life is that I get obsessed with things.  When I am working on a problem at work, and it is something that I am actually interested in, I end up basically neglecting everything until I get it to work.  This is a problem because I have a huge number of other things that I need to be working on too, but I neglect those things because I want to solve the problem.  It is a strength because I can spend a couple of days on a problem and come up with something very new and original, which many people can’t really do.

I end up paying for neglecting things by having things just pile up and having to deal with the monstrous amount of things that I am not too interested in over the next week or two (or more).  This ends up causing a lot of stress because I have to do the things that I don’t like doing all in a row.  So, 2-3 days of “fun” ends up being followed by 5-6+ days of “not fun”.  If I could somehow spread the 2-3 days of “fun” over a couple of weeks it would be better.  But, that really isn’t possible.  The reason for this is that you really can’t make significant progress on things unless you put a lot of concentrated time into it.  If you spread the problem out over many days, then you have to ramp up to thinking about it for a time, which means that the efficiency is severely diminished.  Working obsessively on a project for a few days in a row is really the way to get things done.

One of the other problems with this is that the 2-3 days often ends up being enough to provide a good proof of concept, but doesn’t get me 100% of the way there – maybe only 80% or so.  And the other 20% ends up either (a) never being done or (b) being done in a half-ass way because I don’t have the time to properly devote to the last little bit.  It is really a question of thresholds – how long can I completely ignore pleas to write letters of support, grade homework, help this person or that person, figure out who is going to work on what project next semester, write a notice of intent, etc etc etc.  As the pleas become louder and louder, and project gets closer and closer to the end, it becomes harder to devote time to it.  Most projects seem to never be really done – there is always something to tweak on them.

(Side note – One thing that I absolutely hate is getting reviews on a paper back.  I find it almost torture to finish a paper, because of the amount of time it takes to polish it.  Then, after spending all of that time “finishing” it, you get reviews back and they want MORE. It is so hard to give more once the thing is supposed to be “done”.)

In many ways, I wish my job were spent actually going from one obsessive task to another obsessive task.  In theory, this is how I could actually work – get rid of all of my students and just lock myself in a room and go to town.  But, this is not really my job. Dealing with other people is what professors are really supposed to do.  Locking my door and obsessing about Python is not really part of my job description, even though it would be a whole lot of fun.

Sort of sadly, I spend a great deal of my time on Saturdays and Sundays doing these obsessive programming things.  Programming is sort of like my hobby now, instead of my job.  Maybe when summer comes back, I will put down my computer and bike or take pictures instead of learning to make a web page that will do balloon flight predictions. 


About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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One Response to Obsession

  1. ljridley says:

    “Locking my door and obsessing about Python is not really part of my job description, even though it would be a whole lot of fun.”

    I am obsessing over Javascript right now. To this I can only say: GAH! We have different brains, though I am equally obsessive (just would rather it not be programming).

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