Why can’t you get anything done? Activation Energy

I was having drinks the other day with an amazing scientist and physician.  She started talking about getting things done and how some people have the “get-it-done” gene and some people don’t.  The people who don’t either don’t ever get things done or work really hard to develop something that looks like the get-it-done gene. I think that whether a scientist or not, this feeling is very familiar.  Like those times when you know that you have to make an important phone call or answer a time-sensitive email and instead you end up doing 15 different work related (or unrelated) tasks instead of what you need to get done.  Or even better, my favorite technique, cleaning your desk instead of starting a new project. My excuse? “Having a clean and organized desk will help me work better when I get started”, but we all know that it’s really just a solid way to procrastinate.

My most recent difficulty on getting something done was starting to write a manuscript that I was invited to write in June and had a very clear mid-September deadline.  Not only did it have a deadline, but there were collaborators that had to contribute to the manuscript, so I had to be on top of things. What was the problem?  I had all the information gathered to start writing. I had ideas in my head of what I wanted to write. I had a motivational deadline. My problem was activating what my colleague called the “get it done” gene, but I call activation energy.

You may recall this term from your high school chemistry class.  The technical definition is that activation energy is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction.  If you think about it another way, it’s the energy barrier standing between chemicals and the chemical reaction that will turn those chemicals into products.  In some cases this activation energy may be really huge and a lot of energy is needed for the chemical reaction to take place.  In other cases, the temperature may change or an enzyme may be present that decreases this amount of energy needed for the reaction to take place.
This is IDENTICAL to those large and small barriers that you face when you are trying to get things done.  Some things, like cleaning your desk (especially while avoiding other tasks) is easy to start.  It takes very little activation energy to go from messy desk to cleaning (your chemical reaction) to the desk being clean (the product of your chemical reaction).  On the other hand, despite all your best efforts, some projects – like starting to write a manuscript –  have a really high activation energy and are really hard to get started.  Whether it’s easy or difficult to start, whether the activation energy is big or small, the end product is the same – a completed project. That’s what makes activation energy so annoying.  You know that you’ll eventually get to the same place whether you struggle at the beginning to get it started or not.

So I’ve tried to trick myself into decreasing the activation energy for the projects I just can’t seem to start.  I’ve “pretended” to get real work done by printing out papers I need to read, writing outlines, or doing online research.  These activities don’t have a high activation for me and therefore seem really easy and unrelated to the larger project.  But the trick is that these activities are actually helping me with the bigger project!  It’s like incrementally decreasing the activation energy through each low activation energy, easy activity.

There are other ways to decrease the activation energy too.  For example, I just read an article in The New Yorker reviewing a book called “SuperBetter” about gamifying your life.  If something difficult comes up, find a way to turn it into a game.  One of the examples was to turn challenges into a “quest” where you challenge yourself to achieve a particular goal as if you were in a game. What a fun way to decrease the activation energy when starting a project.  Make each step part of the massive, exciting, dangerous quest to navigate the twists and turns of writing a manuscript or making a presentation or developing a cool new product.

My other favorite technique to decrease activation energy is similar to the gamification idea, but is completely reward based.  For example, I will challenge myself to write one page or one section and then I will reward myself with a low fat chai tea latte from Starbucks or a few minutes surfing Facebook. It’s amazing what creating these mini-successes does to make overcoming that energy barrier.

And in case you’re wondering, I did finish that manuscript, several weeks early and with great success.  It only took multiple tiny tasks and a half a dozen chai tea lattes.

How do scientific papers get published?

I had a busy week last week.  Besides doing experiments, I was also working on a manuscript about sustainability in biobanking. I’ve talked in other posts about what a scientific paper generally looks like (see here), but not what it takes to get from experiments in the lab to publication.  This is what I’m going to talk about today.

First, you have to know enough of the field to have an understanding of what is known and not known.  Second, you have to identify a hole in that knowledge that you could fill by doing experiments to test hypotheses. Third, you needed to do well-controlled experiments that will hold up to careful analysis.  These will be the basis of your manuscript’s results section.


From the NYT article

Let’s talk about this point a bit more, but first, go to the New York Times and take this little puzzle (it’ll only take a minute or so). This puzzle boils down the essence of doing a good experiment.  You start with a hypothesis (e.g., the numbers are all even). You test that hypothesis and see the result. If you get a negative result, you come up with a new hypothesis and test that.  If it’s a positive result, you can do a few things.  You can decide that your hypothesis is correct and try to guess the answer or, in the case of the laboratory, publish a paper about your new amazing result.  However, it won’t get published because you could be wrong. You will have to find other ways to confirm your hypothesis using different or complimentary experiments.  You should also do your best to disprove your hypothesis. Even in the NYT puzzle, you should try to find negative results. This will help you better understand the limitations of your hypothesis and the results you obtain.  In the lab, it will likely also lead you down roads of abject failure that will never see the light of day, but that’s the reality of science.

Now that you have your experiments completed, your forth step is to actually write the paper.  My undergraduate research adviser always had a draft outline of the paper in process as experiments were being done. That way, he could fill in results as he went along. Most researchers aren’t that organized and they get to writing the paper when their adviser (or the head of the lab) looks at them essentially tells them to “get their butt in gear and write the damn paper, already!” Why is starting a manuscript so difficult? Mostly because it involves synthesizing information. Results on their own are beautiful pieces of success that could go anywhere and do anything.  Synthesizing these into a “story” and discussing the implications of these results on the broader field is hard work. And the wrong analysis can affect the chances of the paper being published or your reputation in the field.

The other challenge when starting to write is figuring out what journal to submit the manuscript to – and keep in mind, there are thousands of possibilities.  Depending on the scientific significance, novelty of the results, and general scientific interest, you may submit your paper to one of the top journals (like Nature, Science or Cell) or you may submit to one that isn’t.  Maybe you’re wondering why this matters?  Each journal has an impact factor, which indicates how often papers published in that journal get cited by other authors.  The more prestigious the journal, the more citations your paper gets, indicating generally, that your research is more influential.  This affects how likely it is for you to (fill in the blank): get a job, get tenure, get invited to give talks at meetings around the world, get a raise, get more grants, get more students, be more successful overall etc. Therefore, the higher the impact factor, the more likely it is for you to become a wildly famous (in the ideal) or successful (in reality) scientist.


The first page of a publication I wrote about the DNASU plasmid repository published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research

Once the journal is decided upon, and the manuscript is reformatted to fit the requirements of that journal (which is a whole other pain in the butt sometimes requiring you to cut the manuscript length by 60%) you submit your manuscript and wait. And you may wait a long time.  I’m not a journal editor so I can’t provide all the insider details, but once at the journal there are  levels of review.  Internal reviews by the journal editors sending the manuscript out for review by other scientists in the field, additional editorial review, etc.  At each stage the manuscript can be rejected and each step takes time.

The manuscript reviewers take on an essential role in the scientific process. They help to ensure that the research is high quality and that the claims made in the paper are valid and supported by evidence. Any scientist can be a reviewers (I’ve reviewed a half a dozen manuscripts), but they should ideally have knowledge of the scientific topic being addressed in the manuscript. Typically each manuscript that is sent out to review to three scientists, and they each anonymously provide their comments back to you and to the editors.  This is where the process can get messy.  The reviewers could just flat out suggest your paper should be rejected or accepted.  Then again (and more likely), they may ask for edits – these can be as simple as fixing typos and adding a few clarifying sentences to doing years worth of additional experiments. And the reviewers may not agree – one reviewer could accept the manuscript, one could reject it and one could ask for edits.  It’s then up to the journal editor to decide what to do. For more about reviewers, check out this Sci Snippet about who these reviewers actually are and the crazy things they sometimes do and say.

When you get the reviews back, if your paper hasn’t been immediately accepted, you can choose to make edits, do the suggested experiments and resubmit to the same journal.  If this is your choice, just by re-submission, you are not guaranteed to have your paper accepted.  You may spend months doing experiments, just to have your manuscript rejected at the end of the day.  If the reviewer comments are too negative or the paper was rejected, you may realize that you set your sights too high and you should submit to a different journal that may have a higher likelihood of acceptance.  At that point, you start the review process all over again.

If this sounds frustrating to you, it is.  I have friends who have had papers in the review, edit, review process for over a year.  I have friends who have submitted papers over and over and haven’t been able to get them published. I also have friends that submit to a high profile journal and get accepted right out of the gate.  However, with the stakes being so high and affecting you scientific career so directly, the publishing process is a necessary frustration and if done correctly, can make your science and your research better.