Sunday, August 05, 2007

In what season are you most productive?   posted by agnostic @ 8/05/2007 11:34:00 AM

The inescapable lassitude of summers in the DC metro area has gotten me thinking more about climate and civilization. Pursuing a hunch, I looked over the dates for all of my posts here at Gene Expression. While admitting this is a data-set of convenience, and that I'm no Einstein, I think it still suggests something real. The data-set is worth trusting because I don't post a lot, only when a neat idea strikes me and I've given it some thought. Also, as a tutor, my summer-fall schedule is always more free than winter-spring, so I should have lower productivity during winter-spring. And I live in a four-season region, so that the weather varies enough to be a potential source of variance in some outcome. [1]

The results: in total (excluding this accounting post), I've written 58 posts, 50 of which I consider "serious" and 8 of which I consider "diversions." By "serious," I mean anything from mentioning and offering a viewpoint on a new study, even if the post is only a paragraph or two, to long reviews or "think pieces." Then "diversions" are things like poking fun at Finnish video game nerds or linking to videos of Brazilian babes dancing samba. In the Mid-Atlantic, Summer-Fall (SF) runs from June to November, while Winter-Spring (WS) runs from December to May.

It so happens that 7 of the 8 diversions are from SF and 1 of 8 are from WS, but the numbers are too small to be confident about, and anyway I'm more interested in when I get more serious work done. Of the 50 serious posts, 14 are from SF and 36 are from WS. Because I started posting in February of 2006 and have continued through the end of July 2007, that makes 8 SF months and 10 WS months that I've been a poster. Multiplying 50 by 8/18 and 10/18 respectively gives the expected number of serious posts for SF and WS. The observed frequencies deviate from expectation significantly: chi-squared = 5.45, df = 1, p less than 0.03. It may also be worth noting that the Just Science project among science-related blogs to forget the silliness and churn out quality research-related posts took place in February.

Long-time readers will guess that I would attribute some of this to the greater chance in winter-spring of contracting an infection that might make my thinking a little nuttier and "outside the box." That could be, but I think that applies more strongly at the earliest stages of brain development. Now that I'm in my mid-20s, I think this seasonal variation is just due to feeling like my brain is melting under the heat and humidity, my body losing more essential vitamins and minerals due to sweating more, or something else (although I doubt it's a simple nutritional matter).

Like I said, how far this applies outside of my blogging experience is uncertain. Still, even if there is no general pattern, it's worth doing this sort of personal reckoning so that you can plan better for the future -- I will make sure to apportion my tedious and mechanical work to the summer and autumn months as much as possible, and take on more cognitively and creatively demanding projects in the winter and spring.

Notice that that's the opposite of the assumption that schools operate on: i.e., that you will go through the academic motions from autumn to spring, and devote your entire summer to independent, creative projects or internships, now that you're unencumbered by an academic routine. It goes to show that the schedules our institutions run on may match the schedules of the comfort-seeking parts of our brain (getting downtime while there's beach-going weather), but perhaps not matching the schedules of the creative parts of our brain. It's certainly worth looking into, and wouldn't be that hard to study.

[1] I prefer this method to looking at publication dates of peer-reviewed articles since we can't tell when the initial idea and most of the work happened. If individuals kept a diary, that would be more reliable, though, and that's pretty much what my posts are. I don't think over a post for months -- usually not more than a week after the idea hits -- so there's not the lag you'd see between starting an article and having it published.