Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The space between the beats

The truth is that there is lots of time in the day.  It just so happens that I spend most of it thinking about doing things instead of actually doing them.  So it often happens that at the end of the day I look back and think "I haven't done anything!"  although my head is spinning with the minute details and delicate nuances of the seemingly immense tasks that lay before me, in need of completion.  

When I play the cello along with the metronome, at first, it seems that the beats come too fast, my fingers struggle to keep up and my mind can only focus on trying to hit the right notes; dynamics and other musical attributes are ignored.  However, as my fingers gain familiarity with the melody, the mind focuses less on the notes and starts to think about the other stuff that is going on, and then I notice that there actually is a lot of space between the beats, enough time to focus on the sound that I'm making and to remember instructions my teacher has given me "louder here, softer here, away from the finger board, faster bow, less pressure".  I suddenly remember that I'm playing music, I relax and try to see the whole piece as it flows from my bow.  I focus less on each note, but instead on whole phrases; I see the piece as a whole and visualize where it is heading.  I see the big picture, in other words, and that helps me to keep focused and to keep going, even if I make a mistake (or a few) along the way.
I'm starting to realize that in research (perhaps any project) the same principle applies.  I tend to focus on small details of experiments: anticipating things that might go wrong, thinking about the appropriate controls and whether I have access to all the right materials and equipment... soon I am overwhelmed and intimidated by the experiments I'm planning.  For this reason, often my experiments don't make it out of the planning stage; I hesitate to try experiments for fear that they will not work for some reason I haven't anticipated.  I lose sight of the overall goal, which is really just to try things and see what happens, and my research comes to a grinding halt.  I feel lost and it takes me awhile (and usually involves some sort of external stimulus) before I can start gaining momentum again.  Its frustrating, because I know I do this, but I can't help it because thinking seems like a practical thing to do, and it feels so comfortable and familiar that it isn't long before I get lost it it again.  The solution seems simple: less thinking, more doing.  But much like losing weight or quitting a bad habit it is much easier said than done.  When I've been working on a project that hasn't been working for several years, it is very difficult to keep seeing the big picture.  I feel that the beats are racing past me faster than I can count and I'm struggling just to hit any note, to make any progress, to accomplish any small thing. What I need is to instill more discipline in my daily life, one that demands constant productive activity and generates enough momentum that the occasional thinking spell will only slow me down, not totally immobilize me.  How do I achieve such discipline?  I guess I'll go think about that...

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