What are the secrets to getting the most out of your work? How can you spend your time as productively as possible? How can you find solutions to your problems more efficiently? Follow in the footsteps of these great scientists, whose work has helped and is helping unlock the secrets of the universe, and see their advice on getting things done.
Nikola Tesla: Think, then do
Inventor Nikola Tesla, developer of AC electricity among many, many other revolutionary scientific ideas, would carefully think through every last detail of his creations before ever stepping foot into his workshop. His belief was that the typical method of carrying out a series of crude experiments in the process of getting to the final work was a waste of time and effort. He would only start putting an invention together once it was fully developed in his mind. If you’re struggling with all that thinking, take another piece of advice from Tesla: go for a nice long walk - he had some of his best ideas while out for a stroll.
Terence Tao: First, get simple tasks out of the way
Mathematician Terence Tao breaks all working tasks into two piles: high-intensity tasks like problem-solving or writing, and low-intensity tasks like paperwork or answering e-mail. You can then, for example, spend the morning working on routine, low-intensity tasks and leave the afternoon clear of interruptions for more complex, focussed work.
Carl Sagan: Challenge your preconceptions
Astronomer and educator Carl Sagan was an advocate of a rigorous, rational view of the world. When talking to his daughter about the afterlife he advised her that it can be “dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true”. This can apply to far more than just religious issues: it’s always worth stopping for a second to check whether you’re pouring time and energy into things that aren’t working, just because you want them to. However, he also advised that as well as being sceptical of all ideas, old and new, it’s important to be open to them.
Sandra Faber: Divide your attention
Astrophysicist Sandra Faber’s advice goes one step further: she found that being forced to divide her time between work and family made her use her time much more efficiently. Switching attention every few hours actually made her working hours more productive than when her attention was undivided all day.
Richard Dawkins: Look for solutions in plain sight
If you’re struggling with a problem, sometimes the solution can be something you haven’t even considered precisely because it’s too obvious. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins advocates working past this “anaesthetic of familiarity” and looking at the world through fresh eyes, as though the every day and the humdrum are brand new to you. You might find that the answer was in front of you all along: you were just tuning it out as a familiar piece of background noise.
Andrew Wiles: If you get stuck – stop
Mathematician Andrew Wiles knows a thing or two about solving big problems: in 1995 he published a proof of Fermat’s last theorem, something people had been attempting for over 350 years. He has some straightforward advice about what to do when you can’t see a way forward with something you’re working on: stop. Drop it, do something else entirely and try to relax. This lets your subconscious make connections between the things you’re thinking about, and when you come back to the problem might see an answer that wasn’t obvious before.
Stephen Hawking: Don’t work for the sake of working
Even at the height of his physics career, most days Stephen Hawking would down tools and stop working before 6 pm rather than work long into the night. His reasoning: that working just to feel like you’re working doesn’t actually help you solve any of the problems you’re working on. He advised one of his PhD students to spend his time meeting friends or listening to music instead. Until, that is, he was onto something – once you’ve found the beginning of a solution, Hawking advised, work as hard as you need to nail it.
Emily Levesque: Build up a team of advisors
Astronomer Emily Levesque has some advice for scientists that’s just as applicable for anyone else - she tells people to “build up a team of advisers and mentors rather than just relying on a single person”. Sometimes you need to see a problem from a few different perspectives to find the right solution, so it can be helpful to have a varied group of people around you that you can go to for advice when you get stuck.
Benjamin Franklin: Have a system and stick to it
Founding father, inventor and all-round Renaissance man, Ben Franklin credited his success to a plan he’d developed for a moral life, free of bad habits. After much study and though, he identified 13 key human virtues and devised a plan to maximise them in himself. Franklin created a chart, where he would mark off every day that he’d managed to uphold the virtue he was focussing on. Once he’d managed to mark off seven days in turn, he would move on to the next virtue on his list. While the virtues he chose (which included temperance, chastity, and silence) might not be for everyone, there’s definitely something to learn from his methodical approach to achieving his goals.
Thomas Edison - Experiment a lot, document your failures
While his rival Tesla may have been against too much experimentation, inventor Thomas Edison was much in favour: “I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” Sometimes the only way you can move forward is to try a few approaches to solving a problem. Even if none of them work, you might think of a different way of approaching it in the process. Edison also kept detailed notes of everything he did, to ensure he’d never have to solve the same problem twice.
Sources and image credits
Nikola Tesla: Lifehacker.com, Image from Wikimedia Commons
Terence Tao: Tao’s personal blog, Image from National Science Foundation
Carl Sagan: Lifehacker.com, Image from Flickr.com
Sandra Faber: Annualreviews.org, Image from University of California (used with permission)
Richard Dawkins: Patheos.com, Image from Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Wiles: Maths.org, Image from Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Hawking: CalNewport.com, Image from Flickr.com
Emily Levesque: University of Washington, image from EmilyLevesque.com (used with permission)
Benjamin Franklin: Productivityist.com, Image from Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Edison: HoursTimeTracking.com, Image from Wikimedia Commons