Researcher Life: The Storm

Yes, it’s here. After the long wait, the storm has started. Honestly speaking, I started writing a blog post last week, right before the onset of the Storm, and I could never finish it! So this week, thankfully to the end of my storm, is a new post – all you need to know about The Storm.

What is The Storm?

My earlier post spoke about the WAIT –  The period where the researcher can do nothing. Just wait – for decisions to be made, data to come in and so on. The Storm is what happens at the end of the wait! When all decisions are made. Suddenly, all these issues you were waiting on, have turned into a never ending to-do list!

Instead of turning this post into a rant, I’ll like to point out what makes the storm period, The Storm!

1. Lack of Time
My regular life looks like this – wake up (ideally to a song of your choice), eat, either cycle to work or read some good articles on my way to work, work, take a break, work, message friends and family, work, talk to colleagues, work, occasionally go out with friends or do chores at home, regular yoga and Zumba classes, cook, eat, sleep.

My Storm life looks like this – wake up half asleep to crappy alarm (did I set that myself?), do task A, do task B, do task C, eat something through the day I will later term ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’, ‘dinner’, do task D, E and F, collapse and call it ‘sleep’.

2. Number of Tasks
While regular work days, even the busy ones, may stop at task D, E, or F, The Storm usually uses the whole alphabet. 26 tasks a day sounds about right. Let me give you an example.

My Storm phase happened just before I had to start testing with patients. This meant that every small thing – scripts, experimental set-up, participant organization had to be checked by me, even if the actual task had been delegated. Added to this, was a sudden surge in the amount of analysis I had to do for the previously collected data. We haven’t decided what kind of analysis we want to do, which meant a lot of thinking, discussing (i.e., meetings and brainstorming sessions) and a lot of data exploration to see what we are dealing with.

For most researchers, data collection and analysis goes hand in hand like a routine. Both come together in the storm! In addition to all the regular work, I had a two day workshop to attend. This meant running to my workplace after my workshop (at a different venue), and back home in time to get minimum required sleep for the workshop next day.

3. Diversity of Tasks
Each of the tasks referred to above dealt with a different kind of mental processing. Suppose you have an analysis discussion from 14.00-15.00, and a participant management/recruiting session with your team from 15.00-16.00, it requires you to have a mental switch precisely at 15.00. If your day is packed, this actually means you have just a minute to make this switch. But if you are a nice team member who usually spends a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with other people, you can buy some breathing space here!

4. Unevaluability
(What’s life without some creative word-making!)
Routine in research doesn’t mean that you are doing the same thing over and over again. That’s rarely the case. For me, it means that you know and understand what you are doing, can evaluate the tasks at hand, and therefore know what to expect from the day. When testing becomes routine, you know you need to send your participants some questionnaires, follow up at a certain time, check for x,y,z things before testing. You know how long each of these tasks will take and can plan accordingly. The Storm brings tasks that are new and hence “un-evaluable” in terms of (a) how long they will take, (b) what they will demand of you, (c) what kind of problems they will bring with them and so on. Its like being in a tornado. You are swirling and not aware of what will hit you next, more leaves and twigs or someone’s washing machine.

5. Feels Overwhelming
Maybe you are the kind of person that thrives in a tornado! The swirling and imminent threat of a washing machine makes your mind work as if it was on ecstasy! In this case, I wouldn’t call it being in The Storm.

For me, this is a really demanding, challenging phase which brings with it a lot of (usually good) change, but I’d like to be on the ground again, soon after. So a big defining characteristic of The Storm is that it feels like a Storm.

6. Demands Novel Solutions
Like I said earlier, you’ve not dealt with most of these things before and hence you need to find a novel way to deal with them. Even if you’ve dealt with each of the things individually, you haven’t dealt with them in a combination of different things.

Your regular time management and prioritizing rules may not apply here. Pre-planning can not make it easier, because you don’t know what to expect. Trying to fit it all in one day will lead to either a low quality of work or burnout while still in The Storm. Neither is favorable. You need to quickly evaluate situations and tasks, decide which ones to keep, which ones to postpone and which ones to delegate. More importantly, you need to keep evaluating to see if your tactics are working. If you use an unproductive strategy, you may make the storm bigger. If you ask your untrained intern to keep some basic analysis ready for your meeting, it may not happen in time, or at the level you’d like it to be.

7. Brings Insight
When everything is topsy-turvy and flying all around you, you can get some brilliant insights – what you should work on, best research tactics, good and bad analysis approaches, new management and organization skills.

So make the best of the storm. Its probably storms that ultimately show you what you lack, where to improve and what you need to be a good researcher.

To read about the Wait that precedes The Storm, click here.

To know more about my life as a researcher, check out my previous posts 🙂
“I had Fun” – Why this line is so special to cognitive scientists.
Monday Morning Blues – A researcher’s monday morning blues come on any day! 😉
50 Shades of Research – Everything you will have to do…and more!
I have the…Moves? – Why this blog? 

To hear me rant about what goes on in a researcher’s brain, check out;
Researcher Like Thinking – How this profession has changed my thinking.

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