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Recently I read a quote from a working mathematician where he pointed out that professionals have to get used to carrying around several unsolved problems at once.

Can anyone help me with the source of this? It was an interesting approach to doing maths.

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  • $\begingroup$ You probably need to be more specific. I've heard lots of mathematicians say that they have to work on several problems at once. $\endgroup$ – Joe Johnson 126 Jul 22 '14 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is something fairly standard and safe to assume without source. It is my understanding from being in physics that most physicists have 5 - 15 problems/projects in the back of there head. I wouldn't feel like it would unrealistic to assume this is the same for mathematicians. $\endgroup$ – o0BlueBeast0o Jul 22 '14 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ You're bound to get stuck on a problem. Working on something else you might suddenly get an idea for the problem you're stuck on. Just bagging your head into a problem for weeks is not a very useful approach. $\endgroup$ – Edvard Fagerholm Jul 22 '14 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have the source of the quote, but I agree with it. In fact, my advisor in grad school often said that you should have at least two unsolved problems in your head at a time; if you get stuck or frustrated on one, switch to the other. $\endgroup$ – anomaly Jul 22 '14 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ I remember reading this in the writings of some famous mathematician. Probably either Rota or Halmos. $\endgroup$ – Michael Hardy Jul 23 '14 at 0:07
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Could the source be the blog of Terence Tao? Quote:

There will of course be times when one is too frustrated, fatigued, or otherwise not motivated to work on one’s current project. This is perfectly normal, and trying to force oneself to keep at that project can become counterproductive after a while. I find that it helps to have a number of smaller projects (or perhaps some non-mathematical errands) to have at hand when I am unwilling for whatever reason to work on my major projects; conversely, if I get bored with these smaller tasks, I can often convince myself to then tackle one of my bigger ones.

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  • $\begingroup$ All the answers so far have been valuable, and, yes Terence Tao's blog has got the flavour of the original source I can't quite remember. At my advanced age I think I'll just settle for that and abandon my quest for the original source. $\endgroup$ – AppliedImagination Aug 10 '14 at 22:30

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