Experiments in efficiency: cooking while peer-reviewing

In computer science, laziness is a virtue. The term “lazy” is basically used as a shorthand for saying you should strive for efficiency so you don’t spend time writing code you could have avoided writing if you’d been smarter about your coding design. I’ve always generally keep an eye towards efficiency in my work, and never more so since having kids, when efficiency is the only way to be moderately successful in both work and other-than-work life. (By which I mean avoiding inefficiency, not becoming hyper-efficient, which has its own problems.)

I try to do all the standard established work efficiency things – make lists, batch tasks, delegate when I can, turn email off – and household efficiency things – make lists, consolidate shopping trips, have schedules for the kids [1] Schedules are useful for maintaining some semblance of peace and harmony in a household with kids. Or at least as much peace and harmony as you can have when your kid is in the highly-opinionated-and-completely-irrational phase, in which any of the following can produce a complete meltdown: He wants to be both eating and playing in the living room simultaneously and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The red car and the blue car both need be occupying the same volume of space and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The green car needs to be half on the table with the other half hovering in midair and the laws of physics are not cooperating. The socks will not fit over the shoes. The very large ball refuses to roll under the couch unlike its more obedient smaller cousins. The door that was closed this morning is now open. Mommy is wearing a red shirt. Why yes, kiddo #2 is turning TWO this week. How did you know?, and so forth. And I keep an eye out for efficiency tactics that are specific to my life – things that aren’t necessarily applicable to all people and so don’t make the usual Top 10 list. For example, I can write papers blog on my bus commute, whereas many people don’t have bus commutes or else get motion sick and can’t write on their commutes even if they are on a bus.

It’s never clear ahead of time which tricks will work and which will fail, so it’s kinda fun to try them. Example situation: working with a newborn asleep on lab. Trick that didn’t work for me, but may work for you: dictating to software, so that you can write while parenting. My problem: every time I talked, the baby woke up. Trick that did work for me: Getting an iPad that I could perch on the arm of my chair so that I could read and research and do email one-handed.

So last week I was working on a review, and we had a tricky childcare situation, since our usual provider was on vacation. And it was 5:00 and I absolutely positively had to stop working to make dinner so that my family wouldn’t starve [2] or at least get really cranky which sometimes feels almost as bad. But I was in the middle of my first read-through and I really, really wanted to finish, because I hate stopping things in the middle of things. I briefly considered whether I could read and chop vegetables at the same time, but of course, that’s ridiculous. And then it occurred to me that I could try having my computer read to me!

Most (all?) computers have an accessibility feature where the computer will read text. It took me less than five minutes to figure out where mine was and set it up. Still 55 minutes to cook, so I was okay. I told it to start reading in the middle of the paper I was reviewing. And then I had to take a couple minutes to figure out how to slow down – slow way down – the reading speed. Then my computer read to me while I cooked! Overall, I give the trick a lukewarm thumbs up. Here’s what I discovered:

  • I needed more volume. Cooking is loud. There’s water running, and onions sizzling, and the exhaust fan. And moreover, I was moving around the kitchen, so I wasn’t always close to my computer. Next time, I could potentially hook up my Bluetooth speakers to actually get more volume. But probably better are wireless earbuds or headphones, so the sound could stay with me as I moved around.
  • At the end of every page, the computer read me the watermark and the footer and the header of the next page. It was rather annoying, especially since the main text was usually in the middle of a sentence. And then at the beginning of every section, the computer read to me the line numbers. I stood there dumbstruck as it recited, “forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight, … “ So several times, I had to stop cooking, run over to the computer, and move the cursor so it would skip the numbers. I can’t think of any way around these particular annoyances. If you can, let me know!
  • Cooking is a bit messy, and having to interact with my computer was cumbersome, as I had to make sure my fingers were relatively dry and free of food whenever I did so.
  • Listening to the paper slowed down my cooking. It’s true what they say about multitasking: your brain isn’t wired to do two unrelated tasks simultaneously. But it didn’t slow it down by much. Maybe an extra 5 to 10 minutes for an hour of cooking. If it was going to take me 20 minutes to finish reading the paper anyway, that’s still a few minutes saved. More importantly to me, I got to finish the paper, while also getting dinner on the table on time!
  • Relatedly, I had to pause the paper-reading a couple times to read a recipe or search for an ingredient that wasn’t where I thought it was. I definitely couldn’t do anything cooking-wise that required more than minimal attention while also paying attention to the paper.
  • Cooking while listening to the paper meant I didn’t catch all the details of the paper (maybe in part because of the volume issue). And that’s okay for a first read-through of a paper that I’m going to reread in more depth anyway. But the trick might not work for all papers.

I’m probably not going to be listening to papers while cooking very much, but it’s nice to know that I could. I think perhaps it might be a useful trick for a time when I have a lot of repetitive work to do (e.g. mounting insects) that doesn’t involve much thinking. I usually listen to podcasts or streaming radio when I do. Instead, I could listen to some of those papers in my Interesting Papers To Read directory that I never seem to get around to.

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