Exercise Your Mind

By Adam Topaz

As graduate students, we live intellectual lives — coffee, cookies and math papers. Over the couple of years I’ve been in grad school, I’ve tried using some different methods to increase my productivity, some of which have helped me work more efficiently and creatively. Here are some methods which work for me:

Work in bursts
Some people might know this as the Pomodoro technique. This technique relies on the assumption that people work most efficiently in “bursts” of about 25 minutes. You can read all about this technique at this website. It involves a kitchen timer (classically a “Pomodoro”  tomato timer); one is supposed to work continuously with no distractions for 25 minutes (timed, of course), then take a break of 5 minutes, then repeat. You also take a longer break every couple of hours. The actual method involves charts and tables which I don’t use, but I have used the timer and found it very useful.

Work on more than one thing at once
This does NOT mean multitasking (I’m actually quite against multitasking — but that’s another blog post). I find it best to work on more than one project at once — always have more than one thing you can focus on. For example, this might mean doing research towards your thesis while also reading papers unrelated to your work.
Why does this help? I’ve found that ideas from one project can be useful for my other projects. I’ve also found that switching between different projects keeps me motivated and excited about my work. Most importantly, it gives me something productive to work on when I need a distraction.

I personally find this “technique” probably most effective and fun! Some studies have shown that as little as 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day can significantly increase one’s creativity. I find that anything which gets my heart pumping really helps — hiking, running, biking, swimming, etc.. Remember: your brain runs on blood (not caffeine). I know that it’s hard to find time for exercise, but exercising could be as easy as biking to your department in the morning instead of taking the train, or hiking on the weekends.
Another benefit of more monotonous sports like jogging, hiking or swimming, is the time which could be used for thinking about math! I’ve personally done some of my better mathematical thinking while biking or swimming (of course, this shouldn’t be tried while participating in dangerous action sports like mountain biking or rock climbing).

There are many more techniques out there. The three I’ve discussed above work for me; other techniques might work for you. In any case, I hope you find my advice useful, and I would love to see any comments you might have — especially if you share the methods you use, or if you use one I mentioned above.

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