I’m Brent Roberts, Professor of Psychology, and This is How I Work

Brent Roberts, professor of psychology

Brent Roberts’ Website

Location: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Current Gig: Professor of Psychology; Chair of the Social Behavioral Science Research Initiative

One word/phrase that describes your work style: No one expects the Spanish Inquisition—I have 1 word to describe my work style: Dogged persistence and curious irreverence.  Okay, I have 4 main words to describe my work style….

Current computer/mobile device: I use a Mac Air (older version before the confusing name changes), an iMac, iPhone 7, and a Pixel tablet.  I fail to manage these devices in a coordinated fashion. Nonetheless, things get done.

What apps/tools/software can you not live without?  Dropbox. I like to work anywhere and everywhere.  Having access to my files regardless of my location makes it possible to get work done even when taking trips to odd places.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack? I have two main life hacks. The first is getting rid of all preparatory rituals associated with writing. This was a net positive effect of having kids. When our kids were young, I suddenly found myself with a much more structured schedule and the need for ruthless efficiency.  Like the author of this blog, Jon Elhai, my wife and I split our week such that each of us worked four days and took one day off per week to be with our kids.  Before having kids, I would go through preparative rituals before I could write (coffee, read the NY times, twirl in place four times, fluff the comfy pillow, etc).  I got rid of those rituals.  It’s been great ever since.

The second life hack is to work with really talented people. The advisors, colleagues, collaborators, students, and post docs I’ve worked with have been spectacular.  To a person, they have made me a better scientist, teacher, and writer.  Work with good people and your career will be immensely more pleasurable if not successful.

What’s your workspace set up like? Actually, I consider whatever computer screen I’m in front of to be my work space.  Otherwise, the physical space around the computers are there to hold coffee, discarded paper, knickknacks, and these things called books.  My physical spaces are neither fastidious nor well organized.  My computer spaces are dedicated to writing and running numbers.  I fear what you would say if I posted a picture of my office.  My license for studying conscientiousness might be revoked.

How do you keep track of things you need to do (any to-do-list apps)? I’ve tried many different approaches and have settled on Wunderlist for now.  It works across all of my platforms and is surprisingly easy to use, even on a cell phone.  I try to offload as much of my brain as possible onto this program.

Besides your phone or computer, what gadget can’t you live without, and why? Our Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine. It produces a small cup of joy and motivation each morning.  This machine allows you to make a cup of expresso roughly equivalent to what you get on the trains in Europe.  Mind you, the espresso on the trains in Europe is amazing.

What everyday thing can you do better than most people? What’s your secret?  My secret is that I don’t do anything better than most people and I stopped putting pressure on myself to do so a long time ago. I’m above average on enough things that together they combine to make things go okay. I came to terms with being undistinguished by doing triathlons.  I’m an entirely unremarkable runner, swimmer, and biker.  Yet, by being above average in each, I tend to do well overall. It takes a lot of pressure off when you realize that you don’t need to be great at anything or do better at than others in any one area.  Success by a thousand cuts, so to speak.

What do you listen to while you work? I have had a longstanding fanatical devotion to Pandora. I listen to as many different stations as I can. I often default to the shuffle option, but will tailor my music to my mood, ranging from Fishbone to Matthew Sweet to Birdy. When I write my especially pessimistic blog posts I stew in Nick Cave for a day or so to get in the right mood.

What are you currently reading? Lesa Hoffman’s Longitudinal Analysis: Modeling Within-Person Fluctuation and Change and Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes.  They are wonderful writers.

How do you recharge? I run or workout with friends.  We have a running group that meets daily at noon close to my office (Euphemistically called The 4th and Peabody Track Club. Our motto is “Go 4th and P!”).  The conversation ranges from erudite to adolescent and the workouts can be as easy or hard as you like.  As my primary goal for running is to escape the demons that haunt me, the miles do seem to accumulate quickly.  I also find solace in cooking, especially food that take a long time to do well, like real BBQ or sourdough bread.

How do you balance your work life and your home/family life? I don’t.  Not for a lack of trying mind you. I think work life balance is a nice idea to aspire to.  But, it is kind of like happiness—fleeting and wonderful when it happens, but not something to expect day in and day out.  I’m not saying that I’m a workaholic—my wife is an academic too and we both nerd out hard but also have good friends, wonderful kids, and hobbies.  We aspire to realize some semblance of normalcy in each of these domains.  It’s just that life is often far more complex than our plans allow for. There are too many Black Swans in the risk distribution of family and work life.  I’ve come to terms with this by focusing on being forgiving to myself and my family for the fact that we don’t achieve work/family balance as much as we’d like and being grateful during those fleeting moments when everything is in balance.

What’s your sleep routine like?  I try to get 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep per night.  It happens sometimes.  I used to fret over not getting enough sleep.  Now I don’t fret. I nap.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  It was not advice per se, but more of an insight provided to me—everything is teaching.  This one took me a while to fully appreciate, given the stereotypical idea that research and teaching are in conflict.  When we teach, we decide there is something that an audience could benefit from learning.  Presumably, we know something about the topic that others don’t.  And, we think about how best to communicate that information so others can understand it and learn from what we know.  Research is the same thing.  We discover some bit of information.  We try to tell others about it.  Treating that process as another form of teaching helped me put things in perspective.  I don’t need to pursue every idea, just the ones I want to know about and that others might want to know about. When I write a paper, it is my job to think about how best to communicate my findings so that others can learn from and use the information.  This insight demystified the scientific process for me and re-arranged my scientific goals.  Science isn’t about discovering the next big thing or being the next big thing.  Science is discovering important pieces of information that you and others find useful and teaching about what you found as effectively as possible.


Brent Roberts


One comment

  1. “among my life hacks are more structure and a need for ruthless efficiency”.


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