Li-Yang Tan: “lock in” seemingly small progress

Continuing with our advice-sharing project, Li-Yang Tan shares with us an excellent research habit. Would you share habits that work for you?

For me, one of the most challenging aspects of research is the fact that progress is hard to quantify.  Regardless of the time scale (a few hours, weeks, months), it can be deflating to look back and feel like you’ve expended a lot of effort without much concrete progress to show for.  

A habit that I’ve found helpful in this regard is to consistently “lock in” seemingly small progress — a technical lemma, a slight simplification of previous work, the sketch of a possible proof structure, etc. — by writing it up carefully.  For me this means switching from scribbling in a notebook to typing in LaTeX, and adding prose talking myself through what I’m typing up.  

While this habit may be hard to keep — typing things up takes time, and it is more fun to continue thinking about the bigger problem — I’ve found that it aids rather than hampers momentum.  First, this process of “vocalizing” my thoughts uncovers subtle errors, and solidifies my understanding.  Having written the details down, I can move on without worrying about whether they’ll remain “in cache”; when revisiting notes I wrote months ago, I’m always thankful that I can quickly pick up where I left off.  As the project meanders, some of these notes grow while others become irrelevant; and if I’m lucky, a few of them come together to form a substantial building block for the overall problem.

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