Some of scientists’ most rewarding moments come when we confront a hard problem or a difficult task. Solving a major methodological hurdle, designing an elegant experiment, making sense of a puzzling result, working on a new model or writing a paper or grant proposal are the intellectual challenges that make a career in science so exciting. But doing hard tasks is, in fact, hard. It can frustrate and weigh on us, and cause anxiety and stress. We can struggle to maintain focus on our hard tasks, including the ones we enjoy and eagerly wish to complete. We often postpone work on hard tasks, such as beginning to write a paper or do complex data analysis, in favour of quick wins from easier tasks, like fine-tuning a figure, organizing our calendars or making a dent in our e-mail correspondence.
In late 2020, I published a book, On Task, about the neuroscience of cognitive control: the mental function that allows us to connect our goals and plans with our actions. It is concerned with precisely this problem of how we get things done. It is ironic, therefore, that writing a book about how our brains do tasks was itself a difficult task to do. I enjoyed writing the book, and valued the goal. But there were moments when it was really difficult to find the words to convey a complex idea. And working on the book was never the most immediately urgent task in my day-to-day work, so it was challenging to carve out the time for the writing and thought it required.
You might not be writing a book, but everyone experiences the struggles of difficult tasks. They have been made all the worse with lockdowns, home-schooling and other lifestyle changes due to the pandemic. Everyone experiences bouts of procrastination or work-avoidance, and the guilt that comes with them. There is no avoiding these experiences entirely, but there are some strategies that can help us stay focused.
To solve hard problems, the brain needs ready access to the information, plans, procedures and knowledge it will be using. Cognitive scientists refer to this collective task knowledge as a task set. However, the task set is not always immediately available: we can’t hold it all active in our limited mental workspace, or ‘working memory’, all the time.
For example, when writing a scientific paper, we must bring to mind lots of information related to the background, logic, design and results of a study. If we have just been at a meeting on a different topic, and then sit down to write the paper, the necessary information might not be in the forefront of our minds. It must be mentally retrieved and organized in our working memory before we can start writing.
In practice, returning to a hard task in this way comes with a ‘restart’ cost: we must spend time and mental effort getting back into our task set, rather than making progress. For this reason, it is important to create time and space for hard tasks.
• Set aside large blocks of time. It is all too easy for working scientists to fill our days with meetings and other small tasks that leave only small gaps for the serious work. Long gaps are needed not only because of the intense thought and work required by hard tasks, but also because we need some time to re-establish our task set. Switching frequently between tasks makes producing quality work harder.
• Be consistent. We should try to reserve a consistent time and place for our hard work and be protective of it. Ideally, we should find this time and place every day. Even if we don’t make progress one day, that time should be spent on our hard task rather than other tasks, even if it’s just reviewing our work. Consistency can aid memory: memory retrieval is context dependent, in that it helps to have the same sights and sounds available when we learn something as when we will try to remember it. Thus, working on a task in the same context repeatedly might aid retrieval and help us to re-establish our task set when we restart.
Minimize distraction and never multitask
When we do two or more tasks at once, either at the same time or switching between them, our performance efficiency and quality will suffer. This happens partly because the tasks use shared cognitive resources, such as working memory. As a result, they will compete for that shared resource and interfere with one another. When doing a hard task, it is important to minimize this interference from multi-tasking.
• Remove cues to other tasks. It helps to put away e-mail and social media and their associated cues. Phone notifications or a badge that tells us how many unread messages we have are distractions that pull us to other tasks. These result in multitasking costs, whether we do the other tasks or not. Even cues that we simply associate with other tasks, such as seeing our phones on the table, can distract us. As much as possible, we should keep our space and time for hard work clear of other distracting tasks.
• Beware the allure of easy tasks. When we decide to perform a task, our brains do a cost–benefit analysis on the fly, weighing the value of the outcome against the projected mental investment required to be successful. As a result, we often avoid hard tasks in favour of smaller, easier tasks, particularly if we aren’t making immediate progress. That will affect our motivation. Sending some e-mails or doing administrative work or straightening up the desk might all be worthwhile tasks and feel productive, but they prevent us doing the task we need to do, while adding multitasking costs.
Engage in good problem-solving habits
To find a solution to a hard problem or perform a hard task, we must structure the problem or task in a way that will allow us to succeed.
For example, a hard task such as doing a geometry proof might involve a structured process of retrieving, selecting and checking a set of geometry facts and theorems. The better that the solver knows these facts, and the more effectively they devise an efficient plan to evaluate them, the more readily they will solve the proof. As they do more problems, the facts come to mind more easily, and they follow familiar plans to evaluate each. In general, we can get better at structuring hard problems with experience. This is one reason that practice makes us more efficient and successful at hard tasks, and that experts outperform novices. Finding work habits that encourage this process helps us to stay focused.
• Stay with it. Finding the right structure often takes time. We might not make progress on a hard task every day, but it is important to keep trying. And we must be kind to ourselves when progress isn’t readily made.
• Be open to reconceptualizing problem structure. Often, the structure we invent doesn’t work for our problem and leads to dead ends. When stuck, we must be willing to reconceptualize a problem and look for new ways to address it.
• Take breaks. It’s not helpful to insist on trying to get everything done at once, if it just isn’t working. It is important to take breaks from difficult work. This not only keeps the mental costs low, but might allow new concepts and structures to be considered. There is evidence that incubation of this kind helps problem solving.
• Interact with others. Just like taking a break, interacting with others can help us conceptualize a problem in new ways. Talking to people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints that differ from our own can be a powerful way to break out of a rut and make progress, as well as get some perspective. Moreover, working with others whose company we enjoy makes hard work more fun. This social aspect has been particularly challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic: it has prevented the spontaneous interactions that are often helpful. It might be useful to make time for informal discussion over work, to recapture these interactions with others and avoid isolation.
Hard tasks are an essential part of our work as scientists. There are no simple tricks or get-smart-quick schemes that can make hard tasks suddenly effortless. But, if we are able to make space for our work, avoid multitasking and pursue good problem-solving strategies, we might be more successful at the hard tasks we want achieve.