The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Philosophers (Ought Experiment)

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Philosophers (Ought Experiment)


Welcome back to Ought Experiment! This week’s question is from a grad student looking for advice on the habits that make one a better philosopher. After googling “how to be a better philosopher”, I’m prepared to fake my way through a half-decent answer:

Dear Louie,

I’m curious about what habits philosophers have cultivated that are specifically geared at being a better philosopher. For instance, do many in the philosophy profession strive to read a certain number of hours a day, do they exercise in order to help strengthen their ability to focus, do they otherwise hone their ability to focus, do they force themselves to read in sub disciplines they have no interest in just in case there’s something relevant going on there, and so on. I’m about to finish a Master’s and will be moving on to a PhD soon. I’ve figured out certain habits that help me do philosophy better (simple things, like reading the hardest article first, or forcing myself to make formal arguments of others’ positions), but it’d be great to hear from other people.

Best,
Grasshopper

Dear Grasshopper,

One day in grad school, I set a weekly goal to read three research-related articles, five articles in my subfield not directly on my topic, three important-seeming articles from recent journals that I guessed other people would be discussing in the coming months, one article from a different subfield for breadth, and at least one article chosen just for the pleasure of learning something interesting. This was in addition to my proposed Embarrassing Gaps reading group, which would cover one important book a week in order to keep us from being discovered and drummed out of the profession for our stunning and (entirely unique) ignorance.

It went about as well as joining a gym on January 1st.

And that’s probably a good thing. Trying to get ‘caught up’ on the literature is one of those impossible goals that will consume your time but still leave you feeling like a failure anyway. That’s a pretty bad investment. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the job is far too hectic and stressful for lofty aspirations about being the ideal philosopher. The best habits are those that help you bring order to chaos, and keep you churning out new work despite all the challenges and competing incentives. Academia is like showing up late to a marathon because you had to run a few errands first. Oh, and a few miles in, you remember that you signed up for a second marathon heading in the exact opposite direction. So instead of making yourself perfect, make the academic work week survivable and fun. Because somehow you have to keep doing this, week after week, without burning out.

So, which habits have philosophers cultivated to achieve that goal? I can’t tell you what “many in the profession do,” because Justin keeps my vat hidden away from the general population. But I can certainly tell you which habits have worked for me. And hopefully others will add to the list in the comments below.

A quick caveat: there’s two ways to interpret “becoming a better philosopher”: doing this job well, in the sense of doing what it takes to make it over the long haul, and doing this job well, in the sense of being an exemplar with respect to professional standards and academic virtues. I’ve gone the former route, because I think that kind of advice is more immediately relevant to you given your career stage. But the latter would make for a pretty important and interesting list, too. Maybe next week.

  1. Manage the mental

By far, the biggest barrier to productivity I’ve faced is myself. If I’m stuck on a tricky sentence, I’m apparently inclined to try and figure out the proper phrasing by goofing off on Facebook for 15 minutes. If I’m overwhelmed by a daunting task, I frequently allow myself to believe that “I’ll start it tomorrow” won’t be a thing I say tomorrow as well. And unfortunately, distraction and approach-avoidance are just the tip of my iceberg. There are other things my brain does that aren’t altogether compatible with being a self-caring, productive individual. A career in philosophy is hard enough already without your help. So first: work on your self-sabotaging habits. Find things that improve your mood or put you in a state to work, and owe yourself those things. Turn big, daunting tasks into small, doable tasks. Do whatever it takes to get yourself out of the way of your work.

  1. Schedule your week

When you’re living the career minute to minute, it’s easy to let new developments commandeer your schedule. Oh, there’s a colleague in the hallway I want to chat with. Oh, a student just asked for an appointment. Oh, someone needs me to do a quick favor. Oh, I should probably answer that email. Oh, there’s an interesting debate on the internet that won’t be solved unless I chime in. Oh, there’s a neat event in 20 minutes. It’s amazing how many of my days used to simply… evaporate. I’d have a vague plan for how I wanted to spend my day, but somehow I never really spent it that way. Now I try to plot out my week every Sunday. When am I going to write? When am I going to prep? When am I going to meet? When am I going to respond to things? How many new things can I afford to agree to? No more fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants scheduling, because I never make progress that way. I only tread water.

  1. Carve out sacred writing time

This one is kind of deceptive. If you only write during pristinely preserved blocks of time, you won’t get everything done, because there just aren’t enough big blocks of time. You have to learn how to use a spare 10 minutes here and there to add a single paragraph to your paper, rather than waiting for That Perfect Weekend In June when you can serenely write the whole thing while unicorns frolic on rainbows outside your cottage window. That said, you should try to set aside at least one block of time each day that you refuse to surrender to others or to distraction. For me, it’s the few hours immediately after I wake up. Writing in the morning helps me set the tone for the day, and it’s also more realistic than expecting myself to have oodles of leftover energy when I come home in the evenings. Maybe you’re different. Maybe you have childcare obligations or other non-negotiables. Maybe your block can only be an hour, and you have to rely on stolen moments for most of your progress. The important thing is to find at least some time in the day that works for you, and to guard it as dearly as you can.

  1. Say no to all the things!

Something that shocked me about academia is that the amount of work exceeds the available number of hours. I used to rail against this. “How can a job have impossible expectations,” I’d yell at no one in particular. “You can’t expect things that you can’t expect! That’s irrational!” Well, that’s the job, and you have to reconcile yourself to it. Grads often think themselves busier than they actually are, but even so, you’re going to be late on things. Entire tasks might fall through the cracks, forgotten. And there are projects you’d dearly love to spend your time on that prior commitments rule out. So learn two of the most important words a grad can learn: Opportunity Cost. Everything you agree to means less writing time. Sure, that September deadline might seem so far away that agreeing to it is practically free, but come August, it’ll hurt. I once promised my advisor that a summer teaching gig would come out of my free time, not my writing time, and so wouldn’t distract me from my dissertation. He gave me the kind of flat look that I now practice in the mirror. Everything has an opportunity cost. Even good opportunities have an opportunity cost – that’s how they get you! So for each possible use of time x, you have to ask yourself if x is better for your career than doing your own research. And then hold yourself to the answer. Unless your friend asks you to write a couple thousand words for his blog every two weeks. I mean, definitely do that one.

  1. Talk to other philosophers

One skill that we often preach to graduate students is self-reliance. And I see why: you have to learn how to be self-directing and self-motivating, because academics don’t work 9-5, our deadlines are often nebulous and distant, we don’t receive our projects from our bosses, and we also don’t really have bosses. That said, self-reliance is total hooey. I would never make quality progress on my research if I couldn’t share it with colleagues; sometimes all it takes to unlock a creative leap is a single, pointed question. I often learn more from a reading group than I learn from reading a text on my own. (And sometimes I wouldn’t have even known the text existed had a colleague not mentioned it to me.) And I certainly wouldn’t have gotten through grad school, the market, and my early years on the tenure track if I didn’t have people who understood my specific challenges and were willing to listen. Even though my job now includes teaching graduate students how to do this job, I still routinely seek guidance from other academics. Talk to other philosophers to make progress. Talk to other philosophers to cope. Talk to other philosophers to have fun. Do this together.

  1. Find ways to recharge

This is a theme I touch on a lot in my columns – in fact, I already pretty much covered it in Habit #1 above – but you absolutely have to find ways to recharge. Maybe that means vacations or road trips. Maybe that means you follow Sacred Writing Time with Sacred Netflix Time. Maybe it means a coffee nap in the middle of the day. Maybe you run, or do yoga, or hike with your dog, or try to hike with your predictably intransigent cat and fail and really have no one to blame but yourself. The point is, you can’t sustain this pace indefinitely. Heck, a lot of us can’t even sustain this pace for an entire day. You can’t work all the time, and you shouldn’t believe the lie that the best philosophers do work all the time. And it’s not just about burnout, either. There’s a life outside of philosophy, and you owe yourself that, too. Don’t see it as an either/or – a happy, rested philosopher who loves doing philosophy will probably do better work than the philosopher stubbornly chained to their laptop because The Profession demands a sacrifice. If you’re stuck on a tricky sentence, go lay in the grass for twenty minutes and look up at the clouds. In fact, do that anyway. Unless it’s snowing. Or heck, maybe even if it’s snowing.

  1. Follow your curiosity

One of the best ways to stay productive is to choose projects you actually care about. That goes for paper topics, dissertations, research niches, teaching assignments, service obligations, reading groups, colleagues, and the rest. For all our talk of how hard and stressful the job can be, it can also be, well, tremendously fun. You can’t fully control how you spend your time, and you probably need a certain amount of power and privilege to control it even halfway, but you can at least choose the topic or topics that will occupy you. This is an old insight, but a job feels less like work if you love it. Don’t pick a topic just because you think it will impress your advisor. Don’t pick an area just because it has the most posts on PhilJobs. Don’t squander your creative energy on work that you didn’t get into philosophy to do. For me, some of the best moments are when I get a new idea so cool that there’s nothing I’d rather do than chase it. And part of why I love this job is that I’d paid to do precisely that. Above all, do this job for yourself. Because it’s far too easy to slowly slide into doing this job for others.

Okay, that’s my seven. What did I miss, folks? What works for you?

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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Louie Generis
Louie Generis
5 years ago

I should add:

I focused on big, general orientation sorts of habits in this column. But adding fine-grained suggestions would be useful, too. Here’s one from my own life, stemming from my ongoing war with email: find a good clutter work / important work balance. What do I mean? Sometimes you’ll be tempted to clear all the small, clutter-y tasks from your plate first so that you can focus on the important work, like writing, later. Other times you’ll be tempted to ignore all the clutter and just focus on the important work straightaway. Both are emergency measures. Keep putting off the important work, and you’ve got the wrong priorities. Keep letting the clutter pile up, and eventually it’ll bury you. Find a daily (or maybe weekly) clutter balance. And build that into your planned schedule.Report

bemused cat lover
bemused cat lover
5 years ago

“Maybe you run, or do yoga, or hike with your dog, or try to hike with your predictably intransigent cat and fail and really have no one to blame but yourself.”

beautiful. Report

Grad
Grad
5 years ago

Download a note app like evernote or onenote and take notes on ideas that pop up as you contemplate your works-in-progress. This is a way to get tiny bits of writing done in between things.
Also, try not to just read. Read and take notes, read and tag with project-relevant words, read and underline. Try to read with one or three projects in mind. It’s better reading!Report

Alfred H MacDonald
Alfred H MacDonald
Reply to  Grad
5 years ago

I recommend this almost every time a discussion about ideas comes up but buying one of those $50-80 portable voice recorders (mine is by Sony) and frequently treating it as a thing to ramble your ideas into is one of the most useful changes you can make in your life. Alternatively, almost every smartphone now has a voice recorder feature and you can do the same thing with that. You just have to get over the weirdness of listening to yourself talk.

When you write you’re usually self-censoring somewhat prior to putting words down (since there is a lag between actually thinking of what you’e going to say and typing it, and this is doubly true if you default to typing with correct punctuation/capitalization and correcting typos as they come) so you’ll usually get more raw/intuitive ideas as they come out of your mouth. I type between 110 and 140 WPM depending on circumstances and even I have difficulty getting rid of all self-censorship when typing.

I actually think this voice recorder method is most useful for recording ideas that are really funny (e.g. standup comedy), but it’s generally useful for all kinds of idea-recording.Report

Alfred H MacDonald
Alfred H MacDonald
5 years ago

are we writing clickbait now because I can totally do I Talked Philosophy With My Boyfriend And You’ll Never Guess What Happened or The 8 Philosophical Positions That Are Doomsday Signs For Your RelationshipReport

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Alfred H MacDonald
5 years ago

They thought we were writing clickbait. You’ll never believe what we were ACTUALLY up to…Report

Nick Byrd
5 years ago

I’ve found that voice-to-text sometimes helps me (1) focus on what I’m reading, (2) read more, and (3) read faster. I hate to do this, but…I’ve written about this here: http://www.byrdnick.com/archives/8513Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

Correction: text-to-voice.

…but text-to-voice might help with writing. Report

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Nick Byrd
5 years ago

Also, proofread blog comments *before* posting them.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

It;s an interesting response since it does not mention anything about actually doing philosophy, methodology and whatnot, only about organisihg the time and motivation. It even suggests that we should churn out work rather than hope to become an ideal philosopher. An answer that addressed methodology and habits of thinking would make a good read.

Report

alsnotepad
5 years ago

Some stuff I found useful:
(1) Try to keep your inbox pretty empty (i.e. 10 emails at most). If you need to keep something for reference, file it somewhere else or store the information at the appropriate place in your calendar.
(2) If you have a teaching/admin task that you can’t do right away, add it in your calendar for a particular scheduled time. This helps achieve (1) above, keeps your to-do list much shorter and easier to manage, and also helps to schedule your time sensibly. This can include relatively trivial things like “Thank Susan for X”, “Have I received email back from Sarah yet? If not, chase”, as well as larger things like referee reports and teaching prep.
(3) You might sometimes find yourself like Buridan’s ass, struggling to decide which task to start first, and as a result doing none (Facebook time!). Solution: Adopt the policy that whenever you aren’t sure which task to do first, do the first on the list *whatever* it is.
(4) Store your work in a sensible way on your computer. Obviously keep a “To read” folder of articles (and a text file listing books etc.), and a “Work in progress” folder. Within the work in progress folder, find a way to distinguish at a glance those things you are actively working on and those things you aren’t (more subfolders, or a clever naming system).
(5) When you write a paper, write a talk handout at the same time, consisting of no more than 2 sides of sparse text. This helps you keep track of the overall structure and which points are the major ones and what counts as a digression/aside. Make sure the handout provides a valid version of the overall argument with =<4 premises as a well an official one-sentence statement of each of the main theories under discussion.
(6) Know when to call a paper "finished". It's not when you're 100% happy with it, or when it's flawless, but instead when you reasonably think that other people will read it and learn something, so that it moves the literature forward.Report

Suzy Killmister
Suzy Killmister
5 years ago

The single most effective change I’ve made is to put *everything* I hope to achieve in a given week on a to-do list. I used to use such lists exclusively to keep track of things with firm deadlines. This meant that much of the actual work of philosophy – reading papers, working on drafts, trying out new ideas – never got done, because I prioritized the items on my list that would glare at me accusingly if I didn’t complete them. Now I include things like ‘read x paper’, or ‘spend 30 minutes working on y draft’ or ‘work out which of the papers in my ‘to read’ folder I’m actually going to get to this week’. This not only gave me the extra guilt trip I needed to actually do these things; it also helped immensely with learning to say no to opportunities. I can actually see on a given week that if I accept the offer to do z, then that paper won’t get read, or that draft won’t get worked on. I’ve also learned to be much more realistic about what I can actually achieve in a given week, which makes day-to-day life much more pleasant. Report