Principles of Effective Research —— My Notes

Hongtao Hao / 2021-06-17


I finished reading Michale Nielsen’s Principles of Effective Research and learned a great deal. The following are my notes.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. – Aristotle.

Underlying all our habits are models (often unconscious) of how the world works.

You also need to have the rest of your life in order to be an effective researcher. Make sure you’re fit. Look after your health. Spend high quality time with your family. Have fun.

I cannot agree more with the above message. I feel that unless you are physically fit, you won’t have enough energy to do anything.

Don’t believe that you can sacrifice your health for the short term to get something done more quickly. That’s a dangerous thought. Always, your productivity boosts when you are fit and have good relationships with people.

The heart of personal effectiveness is not necessarily any special knowledge or secret: it is doing the basics consistently well.

Can’t agree more. For example, everyone knows that (1) sleeping and getting up early, (2) spending quality time with family members, (3) reading books, and (4) exercising, are good for your physical and mental health. But, ask yourself, do you set aside time for these activities each and every day?

1. Fundamental principles #

1.1 Proactivity and personal responsibilities #

1.1.1 Take responsibilities #

Be responsible for everything happening in your life: (1) don’t blame others and realize that you have the power to improve your situation, whatever it is; (2) learn to say no to requests that waste your time and don’t contribute to your growth; (3) when things are not going well in life, acknowledge the difficulties you are facing, write down possible solutions, prioritize them and don’t get caught in worries and anxieties.

Forget about the idea that a problem can resolve by itself. It won’t! If you have a conflict with another person, don’t put off confronting and solving the problem. Talk to the person, arrive at a mutual understanding of both your viewpoints and interests. Then you can solve the problem “on a basis of shared trust”.

1.1.2 Be proactive #

Chances are that you can construct a better life for yourself, at the cost of needing to do some hard work over the short term.

In the context of research, you should be mindful that you are the person who is responsible for your research effectiveness. Not your institution. Not your colleagues. Not your advisor.

1.2 Vision #

But you should occasionally set yourself some big, ambitious goal, a goal that gets you excited, that makes you want to get up in the morning.

The importance of having the vision is that it informs you everyday and every week decisions, giving you a genuinely exciting goal to work towards.

1.3 Self-discipline #

Self-discipline is not simply willpower. There are three factors in achieving self-discipline:

  1. Know what you want to achieve, how you want to achieve it, and how to achieve it. When one or more of these three things are missing, you’ll procrastinate.

  2. A social environment that encourages and supports the development of your professional skills is of paramount importance. “The key is to be accountable to other people.”

Access to a social environment which encourages and supports the development of research skills and research excellence can make an enormous difference to all aspects of one’s research, including self-discipline.

  1. Be honest to and about yourself. Know what you are doing. For example, track your time to see how much time you are spending on research and other important stuff in the midst of checking emails, talking to friends through social media, and aimlessly surfing the internet.

    This is my (Hongtao) personal opinion: when you set a rule, and you break it, be honest to yourself, be accountable, and punish yourself.

2. Self-development and creative process #

2.1 The conflict & balance between self-development and creative research #

If you focus too much on self-development, you end up publishing no papers and finding it impossible to find an academic job.

Other people, on the other hand, focus too much on creative research to the exclusion of their self-development.

Publishing papers is good. It gives you jobs, reputation, awards, and grants. And you are encouraged to publish at least several papers each year, even if they make very small contributions to an unimportant topic.

However, if you become obsessed with publishing papers, there can be a problem. You risk sacrificing self-development. However, to achieve your full potential, you need to focus on self-development: “continuing to develop one’s talents, (and) constantly renewing and replenishing oneself.”

Creative research is better viewed as an extention of self-development.

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of research is new ideas, insights, tools and technologies, and this goal must inform the process of self-development.

2.2 Self-development #

2.2.1 Principles of personal change #

How to build habits that bring research excellence? Be aware of the gap between your actual daily behavior and your ideal daily behavior, and try to narrow the gap by changing your actual behavior. Once the gap is gone, you can set higher goals.

  • Set simple goals.

  • Make changes slowly.

  • Keep track of the changes you make, evaluate them against your goals, and update your goals.

You are your own coach. You need to make difficult decisions to benefit your long-term goals.

Accept that there will be regression when you are forming new habits. You might go back to your old habits after, say, a conference or a holiday.

2.2.2 Developing research strength #

[T]he reason most people fail to do great research is that they are not willing to pay the price in self-development.

It is a misconception that you have to know a lot to really understand a research field. No. You only need to fully understand a tiny number of important papers in that field.

How to keep updated on your fields of interests: First, skimming fast a large number of related works; and Second, deeply reading a select few of these papers.

2.2.3 Developing a high-quality research environment #

You can make positive changes even as a student.

2.3 The creative process #

2.3.1 The skills of the problem-creator #

2.3.1.1 Developing a taste for what’s important #

Set aside time each week to thik, and discuss with others about things you believe are of the highest importance. If you are a researcher, these things might be:

  • What do you think characterizes the important science?
  • What have been the most important developments in your field? Why are they important?
  • What were the seemingly promising ideas that didn’t turn out well? Why did they fail?

Difficult things are not necessarily important ones.

To identify and tackle important things, you need to think about what your work enables, what connections your work makes apparent, what unifying themes your work uncovers, and what new questions your work asks.

2.3.1.2 Internal and external motivators #

Don’t work towards external recognition, such as a Nobel Prize; rather, work in an area you personally find “fun and interesting.” This doesn’t mean that your work should only belong to yourself. The decision of what’s important should be informed by others: talk to your colleagues, read textbooks, and look at what wins prizes.

2.3.1.3 Exploring for problems #

Problem-solvers only work on problems they can publish. Problem-creators, however, spend time exploring problems systematically in a disciplined way. For example, they’ll survey the landscape of a field, and understand the patterns of the questions people in this field ask.

If the important things in a field or subfield are already apparent, and what’s needed is simply time spent and skills mastered, you’d better be careful.

2.3.2 The skills of the problem-solver #

  • Set goals, and set aside time for reflection and reconsideration of your goals.

  • When you are just starting your academic career, you can focus on small and controllable things. Then you continue self-development, and gradually work on important things. Even when you are working on important things, it’s better to keep publishing, even on small things.

Last modified on 2021-10-24