Tuesday, 23 August 2011

a 'Pool-of-Memes' approach to research

I tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking about how best to go about research. My rationale is that simply working harder isn't scalable - you can't work more than 24 hours a day (and indeed only a lot less than that in a sustainable way). Therefore to be a better scientific researcher, I need to find ways to improve my approach to research.

Study Hack's excellent article on his research system got me thinking about how I'd describe my own system of research. I think the phrase "pool of memes" fits pretty well.

I try to fill my mind with as many interesting/relevant ideas and concepts as possible. This means both being well read in my own subjects, and also hunting out other subject areas that might add something. For example, for the last year or two I've been becoming increasingly interested in computer science. I've found my most productive phases correspond to learning a new set of relevant ideas.

To this pool, I also try to add clear ideas about what questions are important in various areas of research.

Then I just sort of let all these ideas mull. I might think about something in an idle moment at the gym, or I might head to a coffee shop with my log book and tinker with some thoughts.

What I get from this is a list of possible projects on which to work. This list tends to be pretty organic and it evolves over time. I rank the list in terms of how good/important I think they are. And then I try out the top ones.

What I've not had previously, but what I'm just starting to add, is a stage like Study Hack's "small bets". The idea here is to try out the possible good projects for a month or so, with the aim of producing some concrete evidence as to whether or not to take the any further. I'm not very comfortable on a personal level with the idea of discarding projects like this (I don't like the waste), but objectively it makes a great deal of sense, so I may just need to get over myself

As much as anything, this approach works well for me because I really enjoy learning new things, so giving myself the justification for doing that during work time is nice :-)

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