Using White Noise for Concentration

noiseWhen I really need to concentrate I listen to brown noise. I find that it boosts my productivity and keeps me from getting distracted by sounds around me. This is most useful in coffee shops or noisy offices, but I even do this when it’s quiet.

Brown noise is similar to white noise; it sounds like random static. However, brown noise is at a slightly lower pitch so it’s easier to listen to. That means that I can work for hours without hurting my ears!

You can download some free random noise MP3s to play on your computer or iPod, or listen to some right from your browser. Both work great.

This works better than my previous method (using ear plugs) because the sounds aren’t just blocked, they’re all scrambled up by the static. I get so much input from my ears that my brain ignores sound all together and focuses on work!

Anybody else tried this? How else do you keep focused?

Use that Sweet Spot

With the easy availability of scientific papers through the internet, it is easy to quickly get your hands on tons of pdfs. Then what? I look through the pile very quickly and pick out the one or two papers that look the most relevant. This quick pass consists of glancing at the abstract and the figures.

Knowing that this quick and dirty scan is probably becoming the norm, I’ve started including a telling graphic right in the Sweet Spot. This is a term my colleagues and I have come up with for the top of the right column on the first page. Check it out:

sweet spot papers

Including the Sweet Spot graphic may get your paper read more, it may get your paper read less. Either way, it helps the reader make a snap decision about whether or not your paper is of interest to them. I feel like it makes the paper visually more attractive and inviting, too.

Any other Sweet-Spotters out there?

Formula to Write a Paper

I want to share the lessons I learned recently when writing a paper. These were some revelations that helped me get over the procrastination hump and really set me on the writing fast-track.

  1. Start with a thesis
  2. Do all the experiments next
  3. Recursive outlining
  4. Finish it up

Read on for an explanation of each of these steps:

Start with a thesis

Before you do anything else, write a short, to the point thesis topic. It should be one or two sentences and the entire paper should be written to prove that thesis. I stuck mine to the wall above my desk to help keep me focused. They tell you to do this in grade school, and when you’re all grown up, the same rule applies. This will forever-on be the first thing I do when I sit down to write a paper.

Do all the experiments next

All of your experiments should be designed to support your thesis, and completed before you do anything else (so that you know your thesis is right). If your thesis turns out not to be right, then you have to go back to the beginning and pick a new thesis!

When I say experiments, here I mean the work that you’re writing about. In my case ‘experiments’ are figures showing the results of my computer vision algorithms. For someone else it may be analysis of a client’s financial data or a computer simulations of particle movement through a turbulent fluid field.

In any case, doing these with the thesis in mind, and before writing ensures that the experiments are relevant, and help to prove the thesis.

Recursive Outlining

In recursive outlining I start with an outline of sections: Introduction, Background, Novel Algorithm, Results, Conclusion. This takes no time because its the same for almost every paper. Next, go though and add sub-sections, then sub-sub sections.

At this point, most typical ‘outlining’ stops. However, keep going. Add sentence ideas to each sub-sub section, and start making rough guesses about where graphics will go. Add key words to those sentences ideas. All the time, keep the thesis in mind.

Now your paper has all of the ideas you want to present in a very rough form. Inevitably some sections will be sketchier than others, but now the process of refining the text can become very compartmentalized without sacrificing overall idea of the paper.

Finishing it up

What the process until now has done is to take apart the paper into these little tasks. The final steps are to turn your sketch for each sub-sub section into an concise, eloquent-sounding, finished piece of writing. Once you have done this for all the sections, give it a final read-over and its done.

Keep in mind that some of these steps may take days, but by following this process you always know what your next action is, and you don’t have to waste a lot of time doing pointless things or re-doing things that were directed towards the wrong point.

It’s true that I have precious little paper-writing experience, but these revelations have helped my writing considerably. I plan to post updates to this as my experience grows and my method evolves. If you have any good tips along these lines, please share them in the comments!